By Cara Nicklas-
I want to see revival in our church. I want to be part of a movement of God. And the church as an institution excites me only in so far as that institution is willing to submit itself to that larger movement of God.
Our church is at a crossroads. Some would even say we are in crisis. And there is plenty of blame to go around. We can blame the bishops, General Conference, and our pastors who have ignored the issues that have resulted in this defining moment for our church.
Speaking as a lay person, however, it is important for laity to share the blame as well. If we earnestly long for a vibrant renewal of the Wesleyan movement, we lay folks must seriously examine ourselves and our personal responsibilities in an honest and fair manner.
As a way of making that examination, I’d like to briefly reconsider why the Wesleyan expression of Christianity inspired so many of us in the first place.
We Methodists have a long rich history of leading people to Christ and then helping them grow as disciples who are passionate about sharing the Gospel with others, in both word and deed. Our roots are grounded in a Wesleyan theology that strikes the perfect balance between truth and grace, head and heart, personal piety and social holiness.
I love the richness that comes from our global denomination, one that is committed to the great teachings of the Christian faith that reach all the way back to the early church. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds remind me that I am joining with that great cloud of witnesses that preceded us, and with brothers and sisters around the world. The church’s historical and global context keeps me from making a mistake we are prone to make: interpreting Scripture and the great confessions of our faith solely within the context of our own culture. Our Wesleyan expression of the faith is truly global in its appeal.
In 2016, I was a delegate to General Conference in Portland, Oregon. Overall, it was a discouraging and frustrating experience. But there was a moment that profoundly moved me. The worldwide nature of our church was evident during the opening worship service when we sang the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” in various languages. I stood in the conference center surrounded by my brothers and sisters from Africa, the Philippines, Russia, and other parts of the world, as we sang this familiar hymn together. We sang each stanza in a different language. The last stanza was in English and the swell of voices unified in our praise to God moved me to tears. One African delegate later commented to me that it was an image of heaven. And it was. We don’t want to lose that connection – we want to restore it and build on it.
But, juxtaposed with the encouragement I felt singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” was the realization that more often than not our church bears the marks of a stagnated, inward looking institution, rather than the marks of a passionate, outward looking movement. Our denomination has increasingly come to depend on professional clergy for the work of the church. We might talk about how we are partners in ministry – clergy and laity – but in practice, we laity are not equipped, empowered, or released to do ministry both within and outside the walls of the church. Sure, we might be asked to round up volunteers for the nursery or head up the local canned food drive. But too often, we lay folks have been content to leave evangelism and discipleship to our pastors. And I think we all know deep down that’s not how Jesus envisioned the Great Commission.
The mission statement for The United Methodist Church is: “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” It’s an admirable and good mission statement. But within our denomination I think there is a philosophical difference about whether transforming the world leads to making disciples of Jesus Christ or whether making disciples of Jesus Christ leads to the transformation of this world.
Some United Methodists emphasize transforming the world first, so they choose to pour significant resources into lobbying efforts for social justice issues. They place a lower emphasis on literally sharing the Gospel story with others. They seem to believe that by demonstrating our passion for a wide array of social justice issues, people will come to know Christ, if not as their Savior, then at least as a historical figure worthy of their emulation. The church, they argue, will attract new adherents by being on the right side of this or that social, economic, or political issue.
I don’t believe the data supports that approach. And even if it did, I’m convinced it’s the wrong way forward.
Please do not misunderstand me; I am not trying to downplay the importance of our social witness. I just don’t believe we will ever be good and discerning advocates of social issues without the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. If we are to become, once again, the movement our founder intended us to be, then lay people must recapture our passion for telling others about Jesus.
Since the creation of The United Methodist Church in 1968, membership has declined every year in the U.S. And over the past 10 years, average worship attendance has fallen dramatically. So at General Conference I found it baffling that we never addressed two critical questions: Why are we not a growing church? And what must we do to become a growing church?
At General Conference, we spent an inordinate amount of time debating social and political issues: divestment from Israel, climate change, a single payer healthcare system, and so on. But little or no time was given to how we might more effectively share the Gospel with the lost and hurting in our societies who are in need of a saving relationship with our risen Lord. We spent more time attending to the institution’s needs and what the institution should say about this or that issue, rather than how the institution can become a growing movement committed to making disciples for Jesus Christ.
To my fellow lay persons, it is up to us to have that discussion even if our leadership fails to have it. It is time for us to initiate that discussion in our local church.
And if we are going to do that we have to ask ourselves some challenging questions:
• Am I becoming a spiritually mature Christian?
• Am I intentional about cultivating those disciplines that lead to a life that honors God?
• Am I regularly reading Scripture with others?
• Earnestly praying with others?
• Confessing my sins to close friends in the faith so they might challenge me and help me to grow?
• Am I joining with them to tell others about Jesus?
• Am I serving people who are lost and lonely and need to hear the Good News?
• In short, am I living the Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith?
I know many of us readily volunteer to fill various roles in the church. We sing in the choir, serve as ushers, chair a committee, or even lead a local mission project. Those roles are needed. But those are not substitutes for participation in small groups where we read and study God’s word together, where we are willing to humble ourselves for our own good, and where we challenge one another to grow deeper in our faith in Christ.
We need ushers, and we need someone to chair the finance committee, but more than anything, we need people fully invested in becoming mature Christians who know how to, and passionately want to, share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others.
What I am describing here is in large part the genius of the Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith: the emphasis John Wesley gave to small, accountability groups. If we are to grow again as a church, we laity will have to rededicate ourselves to becoming mature Christians who are equipped to share the Good News. (See The Band Meeting: Rediscovering Relationship Discipleship in Transformational Community (Seedbed) by Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson.)
That means we need more laity to claim ownership of a small group. Pastors cannot do everything in our churches. They, of course, have an important role to play in equipping lay leaders so they can effectively lead small groups with sound teaching and a good understanding of the Wesleyan approach to Scripture.
At the same time, laity must step up and ensure that our congregations have small groups where men and women read Scripture together and so are challenged and transformed by it.
I have been in plenty of small groups where leaders use curriculum that references Scripture in passing. Teachers show up with a short list of questions to toss out to the group for discussion without the group having studied or prepared in advance. I mean no offense, but too often this results in a group of nice people sitting around sharing their feelings. And this frequently includes misguided theology that goes unchallenged. Someone says something like, “I think as long as a person is sincere in what he or she believes about God, that’s good enough.” Or they say, “Everyone’s interpretation of Scripture is equally valid.” And the rest of us politely nod our heads in agreement.
There must be someone in every small group who gently pushes back on such statements. Spiritual maturity only occurs when we dig deeper into what Scripture and our timeless confessions of faith have to teach us about spiritual maturity.
I know what some of you are thinking. We know from Scripture that God gives each of us certain gifts. And you are thinking, I’m not really a teacher. I don’t have the spiritual gifts of evangelism or shepherding. We have a tendency to claim not to be gifted in an area that is hard – that stretches us – that is time consuming, or that we just don’t want to do.
Friends, God is forever asking us to do things outside our comfort zones. The Bible is filled with leaders who tried to tell God they could not do this or that, or that he’d be better off choosing someone else. God wasn’t interested in their excuses, and I doubt he’s interested in ours.
I have two sons, Connor, my older son, and Evan, my younger one. When they were growing up, we’d be at McDonald’s and I’d instruct Evan to go ask one of the employees for some ketchup. He’d immediately turn to Connor and beg him to go instead. The thought of actually talking to a stranger made him genuinely anxious. Connor didn’t know a stranger, so he’d happily oblige. And at church youth group meetings, Evan rarely if ever shared his thoughts or contributed to the discussion. He did not feel equipped or knowledgeable enough to speak up.
So, you can imagine my husband’s and my surprise when during his freshman year of college, Evan was asked to teach and lead the youth group for our church’s new satellite campus. Admittedly, my first thought was, “That’s not his gift? Why would our pastors ask Evan to teach when they must know how uncomfortable he is speaking to others?”
Evan could have replied, “Teaching and leading are not my gifts.” Or, as a busy biology major with a rigorous course load, he could have said, “I don’t have the time.” But to my surprise he said, “Yes.” Evan demonstrated a sense of spiritual maturity I admire, and over the last few years, I can see incredible growth in his life because he had the courage to say, “Yes.” True, it takes him twice as long as it would take his brother to prepare a lesson because he feels the need to over prepare. But he willingly does it because he wants these kids to know Jesus.
Are you doing something in the way of discipleship or evangelism that is outside your comfort zone? Maybe you really don’t have a gift of teaching or even talking in a group of people. You might ask yourself what you can do to help someone who has agreed to lead a small group. And you might figure out how you can help lead at least one person in your church who needs their heart strangely warmed or who needs nudged to grow deeper in the faith. If you are in a small group, do you study and prepare before you gather so that you are a contributor to the discussion? Bible study is meant to be done in community. If you aren’t leading, are you at least preparing so you can genuinely participate?
And pastors, I assure you Evan would not have emerged as a leader and used his gifts if a pastor had not reached out to him and made the ask. A pastor saw something in Evan that his parents and he himself didn’t see. Please don’t overlook the quiet person, the introvert in your church, who might be willing to step outside his or her comfort zone. Instead, help that lay person hear God’s call. Equip that person and give that person authority to be a minister of the Good News of Jesus in the world.
Recently I was reading the familiar story in the Gospel of John of the Samaritan woman at the well. You know the story. Jesus is in Samaria and stops at Jacob’s well in the heat of the day. The Samaritan woman comes to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink; she is shocked. He’s a Jew; she’s a Samaritan. He’s a man, she’s a woman. Jesus reveals he knows her, warts and all. And yet he offers the woman living water and declares he is the Messiah. That’s the most familiar part of the story.
But I want to focus on the rest of the story, on that Samaritan woman. She leaves her water jar, goes back to town and tells the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” And Scripture says, many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.
Many Samaritans believed! Why? Because a woman who was an outcast in that town experienced the love of Christ in such a profound way that she couldn’t keep the news to herself.
• The Samaritan woman didn’t return to town and think to herself, “I must find the religious leader in my community and ask him to tell the people in town about the Messiah.”
• She didn’t return to town and think, “I must organize a food bank because if I make sure the poor are fed, then people will figure out by my example of generosity that this man Jesus is the Savior of the world.”
• The Samaritan woman didn’t think to herself after meeting Jesus that she wished she had the gift of evangelism or apostleship, because if she did, she’d be able tell others about Jesus.
No. The Samaritan woman, the outcast, the sinner, the woman who came to draw water from the well at high noon to avoid socializing with others – she told the whole town about Jesus!
Friends, I know the excuses for not telling others about Christ because I’ve used them myself. I don’t want to offend someone by imposing my beliefs on them. So, I’ll just be nice to them and hope they become a believer based on my kindness. We Methodists even boast about how we don’t try to impose our faith on others.
If I think someone might be open to coming to church or hearing about Jesus, I much prefer telling my pastor, “Hey, I know this person you should talk to who needs to know Jesus.”
Or, I will pour all my energy into a worthy ministry: the after school program at my church, helping build homes for the poor, or organizing others to buy Christmas gifts for needy children. These are wonderful things to do, but when I’m honest with myself, I have to admit I sometimes do them to justify not actually using words to tell others about Jesus. Ironically, my good deeds in Jesus’ name are actually my cover for not telling people about Jesus.
The Samaritan woman shows us these excuses don’t exempt us from proclaiming the Good News. If we have a deep relationship with Christ that causes us to marvel every day at how God’s grace is even sufficient for us, how can we not share our story with others?
My hope for the next Methodism does not lie with the Commission on a Way Forward, our Council of Bishops, or even our General Conference. My hope lies with my fellow lay persons. Or to put it more correctly, my hope is in Christ working through laity who long to become spiritually mature Christians, and so in turn feel a burning desire to tell others about the overwhelming joy of knowing Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
Cara Nicklas is an attorney in Oklahoma City, a General Conference delegate from the Oklahoma Annual Conference, and a council member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This essay is adapted from her October 2017 address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Houston.