Wesleyan theology of evangelism

November 21st, 2014

Is there anything new to say about a Wesleyan evangelistic perspective? If by “new,” one means an idea just discovered, then no. If by “new,” one means a way of framing the conversation around a theology of evangelism differently, then possibly. It is my hope in this article to frame the conversation for a Wesleyan theology of evangelism differently, but doing so using familiar language. My framing of the conversation focuses on three terms: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. 

One way of defining orthodoxy is “right belief.” While United Methodists are all over the place theologically, we do have a theological grounding called the Articles of Religion, from the Methodist Episcopal tradition, and the Confession of Faith, from the Evangelical United Brethren tradition (both found in the Discipline). The Articles and Confession provide a framework for what we believe and how we understand ideas like salvation, Christology, and so on. Historically, this framework shaped the way John and Charles thought about the renewal movement they led in England. John’s expectation was that the Articles of Religion, an abridged version of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles, would give his followers in America what they should believe concerning important tenets of the faith.

Orthodoxy can never stand alone. Orthopraxy is necessary for shaping how we practice what we believe. One way of understanding orthopraxy is “right practice.” We have to do more than believe; we have to practice what we believe. For example, feeding the hungry or clothing the naked are two common Christian practices many congregations engage in as a means of living out their faith. The Wesleys, of course, strongly encouraged “the people called Methodists” to visit the incarcerated, to collect a penny for those in need, and so on.

For the Wesleys, orthopraxy was just as important as orthodoxy. The idea of having one without the other would be nonsensical because each requires the other. Unfortunately, too many congregations get trapped focusing on doing one and not the two together. In terms of evangelism, some congregations focus on developing the right things to believe so they can share it with others and invite them to become followers of Christ. Other congregations focus on doing outreach in the community but never share what they believe. This is a problematic dichotomy that continues to plague many congregations today.

Many of us are familiar with the dichotomy between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But even congregations seeking to do both still miss an essential component of Wesleyan evangelism. In addition to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, congregations must engage in orthopathy, or “right experience.” Orthopathy is not just any experience, but an experience of God that is mediated by our beliefs and practices. By mediated, I mean the way in which we experience God is in and through scripture, prayer, worship, sacraments, and service to others. These enable us to experience God’s love for us in Christ again and again, bringing us in closer relationship to God, which in turn brings us in closer relationship to others. Including orthopathy as a part of how we think about evangelism means what we know and do cannot be separated from our experience of God.

What difference will orthopathy make for evangelism? I believe one of the reasons congregations tend to live out a dichotomy between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is that they are not creating spaces for mediated experiences of knowing God in ways that draw them closer to others. If congregations are creating these spaces, it should be clear that one should not be drawing closer to God without drawing closer to their neighbor in concrete ways. A Wesleyan understanding of orthopathy encourages us to experience God in a manner where we are sharing with others out of the love we receive as we deepen our relationship with the Holy. Love becomes our motivation for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others.

Therefore, orthopathy is necessary for a theology of evangelism because it puts us in spaces where we are developing experiences that form us in love, so that our sharing and doing for others is grounded in love. Think about it. How many congregations have created spaces where parishioners are formed in love so that sharing about God is as natural as talking about one’s own family? The heart of evangelism is about building relationships with others in love so that they can also experience God. Congregations need spaces where we experience God in a loving way as we move toward a Wesleyan understanding of perfection, which is the fullness of love.

I believe this trinitarian understanding of evangelism will shift the focus from finding the latest and best technique to reclaiming a way of forming evangelists. There is no magic formula for stopping the decline many congregations are experiencing. I do believe that creating spaces for individuals to be consciously shaped in the faith is at the heart of discipleship. Discipleship is tough work that requires one to be open to God and others. Evangelism at its best never loses sight of discipleship. If our UMC mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” then we need to be more intentional about how we are making disciples. A trinitarian (orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy) way of understanding evangelism moves the conversation from emphasizing different techniques to one of formation for evangelism.

comments powered by Disqus