Fire for a New Generation

By Jeremy Steele –

Chase Stancle (Wesleyan, center in photo) and Matt Hook (United Methodist, right) pray with Denny Nainggolan (Methodist Church of Indonesia, left) after Denny’s testimony about the church in Indonesia. Photo: World Methodist Evangelism.

I’ve never really fit in with Christians. I’m always too much of something. I’m too focused on the Bible as being the foundation for faith and practice. I’m too passionate about social justice. I’m too committed to recovering the sort of unity I see in Acts. I’m too bothered by the lack of diversity in almost every church gathering I ever attend. I’m too committed that love has to be the center of our message. I’m too sure that the Gospel has to be proclaimed in the highways and the byways. I’m too focused on scriptural holiness. I’m too bothered by the lack of young people in leadership.

In order for the church to reach a hurting and broken American culture, we have to find a way to transcend all of this. Our world needs Jesus desperately, but they can’t hear it over our segregation and fighting. They can’t hear it over our dismissive tone towards the next generation. And I’m almost positive they won’t hear it when it’s yelled through a bullhorn by someone they don’t know.

But there is a movement of the Spirit that is calling forth the next generation of Methodist evangelists. It is a movement that that is tunneling under all the walls that become a hinderance to the spread of the gospel. And, it is the very first place in Christianity that I have fit in. It is my ecclesial home.

Every year, an intentionally young and gloriously diverse group of people from across American Methodists gather at Saint Simon’s Island to become part of an order that is committed to being faithful evangelists. This unique movement is flowing out of the whole Methodist body from both the historically African American and the historically Caucasian denominations. Annually, members of the order nominate new young leaders from denominations such as African Methodist Episcopal Zion, The United Methodist Church, The Wesleyan Church, African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and the Evangelical Methodist Church and give them a week away to be filled with the Holy Spirit and equipped in the area of evangelism. They call themselves the Order of the FLAME, and are part of the incredible work of World Methodist Evangelism.

But this is not our grandparents’ evangelism training seminar. This is a new approach that speaks the language of a culture that is a far cry from the crusades of years past. Research from groups like Pew and Barna continue to reveal a cultural change that has crippled the impersonal approach to evangelism that was the default in the twentieth century.

According to Barna, half of practicing Christian Millennials feel that what they know as “evangelism” is wrong. However, 94 percent of them believe that knowing Jesus is the best thing that could every happen to someone. Moreover, a vast majority even feel that they are good at talking about their faith with other people, but when it comes to “evangelism” it’s a hard pass.

This grows from a recognition that a person’s spirituality occupies the deepest parts of who they are. Talking about a person’s soul is the most intimate conversation that can be had, and that is not an area to discuss with a stranger. This is a very Methodist way of thinking. We believe that our world needs social holiness. We believe that real transformation happens in relationship. Indeed, in early American Methodism many people’s conversion experiences happened in small groups called class meetings. (Dr. Kevin Watson’s book, The Class Meeting, is a highly recommended resource.)

The core of this new approach to evangelism is a pioneering model for evangelism created by the Rev. Kim Reisman, executive director of World Methodist Evangelism. Instead of four points and a special prayer, this model centers on the metaphor of an embrace to recast the task of evangelism for the next generation. The EMBRACE teaching focuses on how we open ourselves to others and share the grace and love of Jesus through word, deed, and sign.

The Rev. Dr. Kim Reisman spearheads the direction of the Order of the FLAME for young Wesleyan evangelists.

Dr. Reisman teaches that evangelism begins by opening our arms to the world. Having an open posture to the world is a major part of proclaiming the good news. In order to enter into this embrace we have to be open and aware of those in need of the grace of God in our world. Not only that, opening our arms is a stance of welcome to those around us. Being open and welcoming is the essential first step in being true evangelists. The problem is that our world encourages us to be closed off, unwelcoming, and even suspicious of everyone around us. If we are to offer the loving embrace of God’s grace to our world we must begin by changing our orientation to that world.

At that point Reisman offers a brilliant second step in the metaphor that seems to not be a step at all: waiting. We wait. We don’t coerce or try and do some sort of surprise-hug attack like I was taught at the evangelism seminar in my youth; rather, we wait for someone to open their arms to us and express an openness to receiving this loving embrace of God’s grace. In the waiting, we are asking the Holy Spirit to do the work of wooing the people in our world to the good news of Jesus. We are waiting for the Holy Spirit to open the arms of another so that we can enter into this embrace.

At this point, we enter into the moment where we get to close our arms in embrace and share the love of God in our words, in our deeds, and in signs revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. Each of those three things are important. Proclamation is essential. We indeed have to be ready to give an answer for the hope we have, but that is one of the ways we embrace another in evangelism. There is also deed as we fight against injustice on behalf of another, offer a shoulder to someone who is mourning, and share lunch with someone who is hungry. However, you can’t read about the early Methodist movement without encountering powerful, supernatural movements of the Holy Spirit where the spirit falls in power and manifests in the lives of people through all kinds of signs and wonders. To be an evangelist is to be open to that power and to offer ourselves to God to be used as a conduit of signs in our world.

In this embrace, it is not a one-way thing. Engaging in this intimate process of evangelism warms the heart of the evangelist as it warms the heart of the evangelized. We are both embracing the other person and being embraced in return as we are used by God to communicate his love and grace.

In the final movement of this model, we open our arms again. We all know that a hug can get creepy real quick when we don’t let go. Evangelism requires that we return to our initial posture. In opening our arms we release the other to walk out into the love and grace of God in their world and we open ourself up to embrace another.

The Order of the FLAME is my home because it not only places values on all the things that others see as “too much” in my life, but because it seeks to embody those values in its structure. You won’t find a dark room with rows of chairs for worship. Everything is done around round tables that echo the racial and ideological diversity of the room. Though there is plenty of content offered by experts on Reisman’s teaching team, the teaching is also focused through a relational lens with a consistent pattern of conversation and introspection that allows everyone to practice openness and waiting. Word, deed, and sign are not just a helpful tool to understand the task of evangelism, but are the focus of the break out seminars helping people understand how to tell their own story, engage in community development, and open themselves to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Though the structure is important, the real homecoming moments for me happen when we worship. Our worship calls back to the oldest moments in Methodism. As we speak aloud important quotes of John Wesley who committed to “shake the gates of hell,” and worried about Methodism becoming a “dead sect.” Our theological singing is filled with powerful modern worship flowing out of our diverse cultural backgrounds as we take up music by Hillsong and William Murphy, and it is grounded in our best historical hymns by Charles Wesley and Fannie Crosby. There is powerful preaching from spirit-filled Bishops and passionate pastors. And, there are moments where the Holy Spirit pours out upon these young leaders and sets their hearts on fire.

More than anything else I get to experience, the Order of the FLAME gives me hope for the future. It gives me hope that our churches will not ignore evangelism, hope that our history of racial segregation will not continue to hinder the spread of the gospel, and hope that we will experience another great awakening fueled by a revival of relational evangelism.

Jeremy Steele is a United Methodist clergyperson and the teaching pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama.

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