The Once and Future Wesleyan Movement

August 15th, 2016
This article is featured in the Does Preaching Matter? (Aug/Sep/Oct 2016) issue of Circuit Rider

God has great things in store for the Wesleyan movement in the United States.

In the past we have been alive, vital, and growing. We still are in many places today. But with the world changing so quickly, all of us need to relearn lessons from our past and remember who we truly are. If we do, we can once again be the vibrant, faithful Christian community that God intends for the Wesleyan movement.

Four key challenges face Christianity in the United States. For each of them the Wesleyan movement holds the best answer.

Competing religions—gospel proclamation

Christianity has been disestablished in American culture; we are now in a marketplace of competing religions, philosophies, and ideologies. Government, schools, television, movies, and businesses can no longer be counted on to support Christian values and practices. Christianity no longer holds a dominant or privileged position in American culture. Being a committed Christian is harder than it used to be.

At the same time, other religions are growing. Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are all forming communities. New religions are being invented. People with no religious commitments—the “nones”—are one of the fastest growing demographic groups. There is a deep spiritual hunger in the lives of many. At General Conference, Bishop Christian Alsted quoted scientist James Gustave Speth as saying that environmental problems require “a cultural and spiritual transformation.” He knows science doesn’t have all the answers.

Wesleyan Christians have the answer if we will only proclaim it. We are now competing for the hearts and minds of the American people in a free market of ideas and ways of life. We bear witness to the truth: God’s gracious love for all humanity, the saving work of Jesus Christ, and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s purposes for the world. We must preach and live it!

Jones' forthcoming book The Once and Future Wesleyan Movement will be published by Abingdon Press in November 2016.

Fragmented lives—means of grace and justice action

With changing technology—smart phones, hundreds of TV channels, and greatly expanded opportunities—people today feel pulled in many different directions. Many experience life as fragmented and incoherent.

In Wesleyan small groups we experience the means of grace that make life whole and meaningful. At our best we offer a way of salvation that encompasses an entire life and provides meaning and purpose for each person’s entire life on earth. Experiencing God’s grace gives patterns of both being and doing that shape one’s values, relationships, and activities. A ninety-year-old can look back at decades of worship, small group meetings, service, giving, and engagement with important issues to say that her life has been worthwhile. True Wesleyans know how to live life well.

Diversity—united community across normal lines

The world has grown smaller. Technology and the ease of international travel have brought people in diverse countries closer together. Migration has changed the ethnic makeup of our communities. By 2060 there will be no racial majority in the United States. Whereas a hundred years ago immigrants carried identities, family ties, and cultures from Ireland, Sweden, Germany, and other European countries, today many now have relationships with Mexico, Vietnam, Syria, and Africa. Such diversity of cultures poses challenges in language, food, calendars, and other aspects of community life.

The worldwide nature of the Wesleyan movement offers a way to bridge such cultural divides. When we are united in Christ, we have an overarching unity. We are brought together in meetings where we must listen to each other and make decisions together. We are given opportunities to address problems like malaria and police killings of innocent young people. Wesleyans live in a unity that values diversity.

Changing world—flexible structures serving mission and unity

At our best, we are prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish our mission. Gregory Jones in his book Christian Social Innovation makes the crucial point that Wesleyans used to found universities, hospitals, and social service organization to address crucial societal problems. He calls us to become innovators again. We have become too rule-bound and have abandoned the flexibility of a disciplined movement. The crucial clarity of the 1996 General Conference to adopt a clear mission statement was the most important step forward we have taken. We need now to live into it more fully. Wesleyans know how to adapt, and we must do so again.

Movementing The UMC

How does one describe taking an institution that minimizes its purpose and helping it recapture the original reasons for its founding? Our task is to focus on “movementing” The United Methodist Church.

Institutions are necessary and important. But when they minimize their purpose and maximize their policies and procedures, something vital is lost. We need to deepen our commitment to Wesleyan doctrine, mission, and discipline. General Conference helped by lifting up four goals:

  1. 3 million difference-makers
  2. 1 million new disciples
  3. 400 faith-filled communities addressing poverty
  4. 1 million children receiving life-saving health interventions

Will The United Methodist Church be the best vehicle for a movemental Wesleyan form of Christianity? I hope and pray so. Our extreme-center churches have bright futures. Our dead-center churches will not survive long. Our churches that do only evangelism or only social justice have short futures. God’s plan for the holistic Wesleyan movement is full of potential.

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