Maxie Dunnam:  Revival on the Horizon

Maxie Dunnam: Revival on the Horizon

Maxie Dunnam: Revival on the Horizon — 

Several years ago, the Good News Board of Directors met in Memphis, Tennessee, and bestowed the United Methodist Renewal Award on the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam. In the previous issue of Good News, we published the first part of our conversation with him and touched upon his spiritual journey as local pastor, social activist, influential author, seminary president, and former world editor of The Upper Room.

Good News’ award is presented to a person that has demonstrated dedication to the renewal of Methodism. It was named after the late Rev. Edmund W. Robb Jr., an unforgettable evangelist and author who served as chairman of the Good News board of directors.

For the occasion of the award presentation in 2016, friends gathered at a Good News dinner at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis. At the ceremony, the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president and publisher of Good News, accentuated Dunnam’s focus on a Christ-centered ministry, as well as his commitment to civil rights and education for underprivileged children. My colleague also touched upon Dunnam’s winsome disposition.

“When he steps up to a pulpit, within a few words people think to themselves, ‘I like that man. I’d like to be his friend. Or I wish he were my uncle.’ And when people like you, they listen to you and you have a real opportunity to influence them for Christ,” said Renfroe.

“And the reason people like Maxie is because you immediately get the impression that he likes you,” observed Renfroe, a long-time friend. “The reason you love Maxie is because you sense that he loves you.”

Maxie has had a great impact on Methodism because “people know that he cares,” said Renfroe. “So they have listened when he spoke, they have followed when he led, and they have given their time and their talents and their treasure when he has challenged them to a worthy cause.”

The award presentation also celebrated his influence as a faithful delegate to numerous United Methodist General Conferences, as well as his pivotal roles in helping create both the Confessing Movement and the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

“Maxie, by nature, is a lover with a heart of grace. But, there is a commitment to the truth of the gospel that has propelled him into the fray, at times reluctantly,” concluded Renfroe. “And for who he is and for all he has done, we honor him.”

In the previous issue of Good News, we spoke with Maxie about his childhood, call to ministry, his signature on the “Born of Conviction” statement, Bishop Gerald Kennedy, Brother E. Stanley Jones, and the mystery of prayer. What follows is the second-half of our colorful conversation.

– Steve Beard, editor of Good News


Because of the [previously discussed] “Born of Conviction” statement, you moved from Mississippi to California in the 1960s. That was a shift for your family.

I was excited about going to something new and fresh. One of our friends – who was not a signer of the “Born of Conviction” statement – was out in California. He had nurtured me in the ministry. We visited him six months before we went. We saw San Clemente and I said, Wouldn’t it be would it be wonderful to live in a place like this? That’s where I planted the church.

What did you learn spiritually on that journey?

I didn’t know anything about anything. That was another confirmation of God’s guidance in a way that you don’t even recognize it until it’s over.

The district superintendent had given us the name of two couples in San Clemente. That’s all we knew and those two couples just took us in and welcomed us. They were happy because they knew they were getting an evangelical pastor.

What that taught us at a deep level is that it really doesn’t matter where you go, God’s people are there – it’s a matter of getting connected with them. Not all of them are on the same level of the relationship, but they know themselves to be God’s people and that was confirmed.

After 10 years of ministry in Southern California, you moved your family to Nashville to work at The Upper Room. Big shift.

The Upper Room was a huge chapter in my life. That’s really when I became what I call a “world Christian.” How I got there is really a mystery. I had begun to lead some retreats and speaking at conferences.

I received a letter from Wilson O. Weldon, the world editor of The Upper Room, saying that they were starting a new ministry that was going to try to resource and engage the readership of The Upper Room – 4 million back then – as a prayer fellowship and get their energy directed.

I just felt, my Lord, I don’t know anything about that.

What year was this?

That would have been 1974. About the same time, I had been involved with some people in Mississippi who were friends and lay people committed on the racial issue – which was a rare kind of thing – and they had become involved with people in Maryland who had a retreat center. We had been in an interview to become the head of that retreat center. It was so attractive because my wife Jerry and I have had a faint, and sometimes passionate, desire to live in a deliberate Christian community. That’s been a thing that has stirred in me through the years and that would have been it.

That ends up being the most exciting thing that you never ended up doing. [laughter]

We got on the plane headed back to California. We hadn’t been in the air 30 minutes before we looked at each other and said, We can’t do that. We both had the same feeling.

It wasn’t but a couple of months later before we got this word from Wilson Weldon at The Upper Room. I think that I’m honest emotionally – and I always try to be honest with other people if I’m involved relationally – when they began to talk about me leading a prayer movement I just said to him, “Look I am not an expert in prayer and I think you’re talking to the wrong person.”

You felt like this was a mistake? 

I still have a letter that I wrote them on the plane going back to California telling them that I just didn’t think I was the person for that job because of my weakness in prayer.

The long and the short of it is that they called me and offered me the job. It’s one of the two or three times in my life when I accepted a position that I knew I was incapable of really performing. That’s also what I felt about becoming the president of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Every reader can relate to feeling inadequate. All you have to do is see the phrase “Prayer Specialist” and we all feel inadequate. We’re all amateurs, right?

That’s right. Absolutely.

There’s nothing that we are asked to do “spiritually” – and I put that in quotation marks – that we are capable of doing. We are equipped as we move along and as we are obedient. If we are obedient, we are equipped supernaturally.

That’s really what happened at The Upper Room. We need to be humble enough to recognize our deficiency, to confess it to those who are part of the responsible bodies, and trust that God has other instruments that he’s using to accomplish his will. When they invited me, I had to say, Well, they know what they need better than I do. Both Jerry and I felt that we should do it.

How did your name emerge at The Upper Room?

I tried to find out how in the world they had ever chosen to interview me for that job. Ira Galloway had become the General Secretary of the Board of Evangelism. Ira didn’t know me. And I knew Wilson at The Upper Room didn’t know me.

The General Board of Evangelism had a program where it sent young ministers to Mexico to preach revivals. I was one of the ten they sent to Monterrey, Mexico. The visiting preachers and our hosts would get together every morning for prayer and sharing before we started teaching and preaching at 10 o’clock in the morning. One of the guys on the team was from Texas. He is the one who told Ira, “Maxie is the guy you need to look at.”

Earlier, you used the phrase “world Christian.” What do you mean by that term?

Being in that position at The Upper Room, there is lots of travel involved because we had all these editions all over the globe. That was a tough part of the job, but it was a great part of the job. We visited the different editors all over the world and began to share life with them. For a country boy from Mississippi, California was an eye opener, but this was even beyond that.

I also began to see the expression of the gospel and the church in different ways – and how it was effective and not effective.

I met dynamic Christians – some of them world-class. I met Christians who were laboring in very difficult situations but were radiant and faithful. Some of that became clear when I traveled with Dr. Tom Carruth and Brother E. Stanley Jones at Ashram meetings.

[Editor’s note: Carruth taught on prayer at Asbury Theological Seminary and authored 15 books on the subject. He died in 1991. E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), of course, was a historic international Christian leader who developed the Christian Ashram movement.]

I am who I am and I’ve done what I’ve done because there’s been three or four big occasions when I was called and I knew I was incapable – but I thought it was a genuine call and that I would be enabled to do the job. We’re enabled as we move out. The Upper Room was a big example of that.

You began at The Upper Room as the director of Prayer Life and Fellowship. You then became the world editor of The Upper Room daily devotional guide. It had a worldwide circulation in the millions at the time and was printed in 38 different languages.

When I went to The Upper Room I was responsible for the area of work that was related to the fellowship of prayer and developing resources. I wasn’t proficient in prayer or spiritual direction. I began to read everything I could read and talk to everybody I could talk to. As a result, I came in touch with the saints of the ages. I saw people in East Germany that were oppressed, but faithful. I saw the prophetic witness of Dr. Peter Storey and Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. We saw the humble saints that were without fame – as well as those with well-known names. Both had deep commitments. I had a chance to be exposed to all kinds of people.

You once had a meeting with a very consequential man: Pope John Paul II.

I met Pope John Paul while I was the editor of The Upper Room and on the board of the World Methodist Council.

What struck you about him?

His humility. Pope John Paul knew he was under a heavy burden and a heavy responsibility but there was nothing haughty about him. Nothing. In fact, quite the opposite. The only reason my picture was taken with him was really accidental. Wherever the Pope goes, there are photographers. I didn’t even know that picture was taken. These photographers post those pictures on bulletin boards all over the place.

I’ve been thinking about Pope Francis, the current pontiff. He’s rare. I’m not sure he’s going to be as popular as others but sometimes he tickles me. I don’t see how a man could even function there – but they have to know that they’re the spiritual head of millions and millions of people.

Agreed. Switching to a different lane of leadership, let’s talk about how you became president of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Again, it was Tom Carruth. I had been invited to serve on the Asbury Seminary board after having been given an honorary degree. I was at Christ Methodist Church in Memphis and I got to know the Asbury community a little bit after being on the board. I discovered Asbury was a place I wish I had gone to for my own seminary education.

Jerry and I went to a meeting with the World Methodist Evangelism to England with Eddie Fox [longtime leader of World Methodist Evangelism] to dedicate the statue of John Wesley feeling his heart “strangely warmed.” We knelt at that statue and prayed. Three months later the Asbury presidency opened up. Six months later I was offered the job.

How did that come about?

I had resigned as chair of the presidential search committee. It was a time of obedience because we could not have been happier at Christ Church. It was dynamic. It was growing. Two of the greatest missional expressions that are going on in Memphis were birthed at Christ Church. It was just a great church and it was growing. The person that teetered me in the direction of being interested in the presidency was Jimmy Buskirk.

Dr. Jimmy Buskirk was a precious soul. He was the long time pastor of First United Methodist Church in Tulsa. He served on the Asbury Seminary board with you. He had also been the founding dean of the School of Theology at Oral Roberts University. 

I was happy at Christ Church but Jimmy came to see me and said, “Your ministry, Maxie, at Christ Church is a ministry of addition. If you become the president of Asbury, it’ll be a ministry of multiplication.”

He was right. Pivoting in a different direction, I am going to list some names. Give me your thoughts.

Bishop William R. Cannon (1916-1997).

I have a real love and attraction for people who are themselves – and don’t try to be anything else – but have some uniqueness that just sets them apart. Bishop Cannon was one of those people. When I went to Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, he was the Dean.

He would preach in chapel now and then and I remember two or three occasions when everybody would just remain, just linger – not talking to each other. Our relationship was very loving – it wasn’t formal. When I went to The Upper Room, we had dinner and he said, “Maxie, don’t stay there too long. You need to be preaching.”

Wise advice.

Yeah, beautiful. He didn’t pretend to be anything he wasn’t. But he did emphasize his eccentricities. He was the chair of the General Board of Evangelism. He gave a speech at the Confessing Movement. He was as orthodox as you can get. He was an evangelical – not in the popular sense of the word – but he really wanted people to be won to Christ. There’s a sense in which he really was a lot like Bishop Gerald Kennedy from California. Very different personalities. You never knew how they were going to express their passion.

Dr. William J. Abraham (1947-2021). Our dear Irish friend, Billy, who taught for ages at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.

First, I felt he died too early. He was one of the best theological leaders we had – as smart as any of the theologians I knew, but he did not let that smartness keep him from communicating the gospel in an understandable way. Our friendship was really growing. We had been friends a long time, but I didn’t see him a lot. I’m sure he knew that I had become the president of Asbury Seminary when he was a primary candidate, but we never talked about it. I get the feeling that Billy would have loved to have been the president of Asbury Seminary. I think he was that kind of leader.

One more mutual friend: Dr. Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016) from Drew Theological School.

There’s a sense in which Tom was a little bit more of a churchman. Tom would have never been the communicator that Billy was  – I don’t think he ever was – but their theology is very much the same. They’re both brilliant. Both of them loved the academy – and championed the academy. I don’t think Tom ever wanted to be anything other than what he was.

Tom and Billy rarely faced a battle they weren’t willing to fight.

That’s right. Both of them were fighters but Billy was a feisty fighter. Tom was a conservative fighter.

Let’s talk about the launch of the Global Methodist Church.

I really have come to believe that the Global Methodist Church is an answer to prayer. It isn’t that we’ve been praying for a new denomination – we’ve been praying for revival. I’ve been a Methodist preacher longer than there’s been a United Methodist Church and I have been totally – maybe more than I should have been – committed to the United Methodist Church.

I’ve poured my life into that denomination and the World Methodist Council. I’ve been a part of Methodism and have fought the battles to conserve what the UM Church has always said she was in terms of how we define ourselves. I could have lived basically with the Book of Discipline of the UM Church the rest of my life, except I’d want to change some things about the bishops.

The obvious pattern of the church, it seems to me, developed a strong vocal, very influential liberal presence. That’s not just theological. There was a another group – not evangelical, really – we would really label as “centrist.” I really have been a part of that.

You would consider yourself a centrist?

I have, through the years.

These categories can be confusing, sometimes overlapping.

I’m clearly traditionalist now, but I think it’s because of my pastoral inclination of wanting people to be together. And then I saw the glaring violation of the Book of Discipline with one of our retired bishops performing a same-sex wedding ten years ago in Alabama, and the effort to liberalize the UM Church.

In the southeast, we always seemingly elected bishops that were different than that – we thought. I decided that something needed to happen. I didn’t think about it in terms of division, but I knew it had to be some sort of division and that happened to me at the 2019 special General Conference when the bishops brought the four ways forward.

The bishops themselves didn’t want to consider the traditional one – being what the UM church has said she is, but with more accountability for the episcopacy.

That’s the way I saw it. I left that General Conference just really down.

I had a small group of people scheduled to go to Cuba. There’s been a revival going on in Cuba for a long time. I really needed that and it was terrific. I’d been to Cuba before, but I’d never really experienced the depth of spirituality there.

The 2019 General Conference reaffirmed what we had affirmed the four years preceding but it turned into a shouting match. As you know, the Western Jurisdiction publicly announced that it was not going to abide by what we had decided. The bishops had come to the General Conference divided themselves.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I’m excited about the Global Methodist Church because I believe it is a great expression of revival. I think the structures are too great and the interest groups are too firmly established in the United Methodist Church. It could be a fresh start for everybody. It will give us an opportunity to really be serious about how we, as a body, are going to preach and teach and experience the Holy Spirit.

I believe we’re going to have a demonstrable revival.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. All of us at Good News are grateful for the Christian witness of our friend Maxie Dunnam. Photo: Anthony Thaxton. Used by permission.Maxie Du

Finding Life Between Law & Grace

Finding Life Between Law & Grace

Finding Life Between Law & Grace —

By Carolyn Moore —

Not long ago, I got a text from someone who was a part of our local congregation until she moved to another state. She’d seen something in her devotional guide that sparked memories of things we talked about when she was part of our fellowship. 

“Today’s devo reminded me of our time together in healing prayer when you said to me, ‘You’ve prayed … now WALK IN IT.’ Those three words (‘walk in it’) have resonated with me, over and over, when my mind and emotions overtake my faith. Healing prayer. Imagine! Actual healing. Daily healing. Sanctification. Remember when I thought sanctification was ‘Heyull’?” 

That’s how she spelled it: h-e-y-u-l-l. Heyull.

She was a new Christian (we will call her Janet), or at least, a renewed one. She’d come home to Jesus after years away. It had been a great joy to see Janet find her place in the body of Christ and watching Jesus do some significant healing in her life. I had prayed with her and listened to her complicated story and we’d shed tears together.

Janet was right, of course: sanctification is hard work. By the time someone gets serious about the process of changing spiritually, they’ve usually tried all the other options and have discovered there is no short cut. If change is going to happen, something has to die, and deaths are not easy! Ask anybody who has had to quit smoking or drinking or drugging or who has had to quit any unhealthy habit. The quitting itself is hard work.

Somewhere in the death of that thing, we get a glimpse – if not of where we are, then – of where we’ve been. So sanctification happens while we are doing it, and we feel it when we walk from death to life or from darkness to light. We know from the contrast that hell has been in the equation, and it is only for the promise of what is on the other side that we bother. Or because our hell got bad enough to move us on. All of this is to say, holiness is not for wimps.

Passed on from Wesley. Methodism’s founder John Wesley and his brother Charles lived in the 1700s. They were pastor’s kids, but their mom is the one who really discipled them. John especially seemed to have a strong hunger for a deeper life of faith. His understanding of salvation was broader and deeper than “getting saved.” When he talked about it, he used terms like “Christian perfection” and distinguished between personal and social holiness – think journey inward and journey outward – and over time he developed his understanding of what we call “entire sanctification.”

A few months before he died, Wesley wrote this in a letter to Robert Carr Blackberry: “This doctrine [entire sanctification] is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up” (September 15, 1790).

In his book Perfect Love, Dr. Kevin Watson defines it theologically this way: “Entire sanctification is the doctrine that defines Methodism’s audacious optimism that the grace of God saves us entirely, to the uttermost.”

I love that phrase: audacious optimism. I love thinking of us as the people who carry that kind of spirit, truly the spirit of Jesus. It is the glorious trust in God’s ability to make us better than what we are and then, better and better still. It is the belief that God actually has the capacity to heal me and make me whole and holy.

It goes against the typical narrative surrounding the idea of holiness. The Puritans ruined it for all of us. They made it sound like a list of dry and joyless rules we had to follow in order to keep God happy. As a consequence, we still tend to hear that word and get very serious and wonder what we’ve done wrong. We forget that freedom and lightness and joy are the hallmarks of a holy life.

Holiness is meant to release us into the joys of the Kingdom of God. To operate in holy love – loving God with all my heart and loving my neighbor as myself. That’s how we advance the Kingdom of God. It is not meant to be an unbearable burden. Instead, it is the ultimate form of freedom.

I’ve discovered that you don’t have to understand it to pursue it. You just have to want it – to desire your motives to be more pure, your desires to be more Christ-honoring, your heart to be more open to loving like Jesus.

Far from being restrictive and fun-sapping, holiness calls out the best in us and causes us to glorify God. It is art, not engineering. It is the good life.

“This is Methodism’s big idea: salvation brings not only forgiveness and pardon but also empowerment and freedom to live a faithful and holy life entirely and right now,” writes Watson. “This is our grand deposit – the treasure that God has entrusted to the particular people called Methodists.”

Big questions. Before they were ordained, Wesley would ask Methodist pastors if they intended to be saved entirely – to the uttermost. He had a list of nineteen questions that he asked every pastor. Methodists to this day still use those questions. Three of the first four deal with entire sanctification.

• Have you faith in Christ? In other words, what would it take for you to engage your faith?

• Are you going on to perfection? This question is not about whether we have reached it or even if we can. The question is: are our lives pointed in that direction? Are you heading in the direction of spiritual perfection?

• Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Seriously, are you going someplace spiritually? Do you actually expect to get there? Is your intention to be perfect in love? To be so ruthlessly opposed to stagnation in our life with Christ that we continually press on toward the prize of perfect love? Because holiness or Christian Perfection or entire sanctification is ultimately about love.

• Are you earnestly striving after it? Sounds a little intimidating and pushy, doesn’t it? And not very fun. “Earnestly striving” sounds a lot like legalism or self-effort – everything we are trying to get away from – right?

When discussing holiness, it is easy to get off track. It can be tempting to become more interested in the laws than in the Law-giver. So from our earliest history, our people have mishandled this gift of holiness. We made it more interesting for engineers than artists, carefully carving it into hundreds (or countless) rules to memorize and master. We turned an abstract work of immeasurable beauty into a blueprint.

Hard work. Entire sanctification is hard work. The writer of Hebrews says, “For the joy set before him (Christ) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

So not even Jesus got a pass on that walk through pain to get to the other side where the joy is. The hard work of sanctification is the part of solid, orthodox Christianity we don’t often talk about. It is really about understanding what God wants to do to our lives.

The woman who texted me, Janet, got her first taste of sanctification. “Now I accept the power and pain of it only because I’ve learned I cannot handle the burn of sanctification without Jesus’ constant presence,” she wrote. “Not my actions or feelings but his presence and power.”

I can feel how much she has learned as she has walked out this journey. Sometimes our talk about sanctification can seem a bit abstract. But nothing is more real than this spiritual work of “growing in every way more and more like Christ” (Ephesians 4:15, NLT). That’s how the Apostle Paul put it. Nothing is more real than the power and pain that comes with seeking and developing a tolerance for Jesus’ constant presence. But don’t you want it?

At the same time that I was interacting with Janet about sanctification, I spent the day in a courtroom. I had two recurring thoughts in my mind. One was, I can’t believe we are here. I can’t believe it has come to this. I can’t believe we had to ask a secular court to decide for Christian people what is right. This is exactly why Paul didn’t recommend it. Court and the law causes us to focus on what is wrong, rather than being free to focus on what is right and good and pure and holy. The law will never get us the distance of grace.

Sometimes circumstances will draw us to that legal option when it seems like the only one we have left. But, can the Law ultimately get you where you want to go?

The other thought in that courtroom was, This Sunday, I’m talking about the difference between law and grace and how law and grace interact with the process of sanctification. Yet, here I sit in a courtroom, leaning on the law and wishing for grace.

That was a moment for me. I recognized that no human system can generate grace, because grace is incubated in relationship with God. This is one of the meta-stories of the Bible. We begin in the Old Testament with God bringing his people out of exile into the desert, then handing them the Law as a first primer – think of it like a first coat of paint – on their way to understanding God’s true colors and the vibrant color of sanctification.

In Exodus, we get the Ten Commandments. In Leviticus, God begins to drill down into each of those major themes to teach us that a thousand times a day we are confronted by pockets of death. However, inside this fallen state there is a choice and an invitation to go looking for life.

Leviticus is a hard book. It is where Bible reading plans go to die. Why? Because it is hard to hear the bigger point, which is that holiness really is all about life.

So, ridding your house of yeast, ridding your clothes of mold, ridding your life of sexual activity you weren’t designed for – all those rituals and laws for the Israelite – were little practice sessions on how to go looking for life. At the center of this whole conversation in Leviticus – all of it about what it means to be holy, about what it means to live the good life – sits what they call the Holiness Code. And like a heading over this section, God tells Moses to tell the people: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

The Hebrew word for holy is qodesh. We find that word more than 100 times in the book of Leviticus. Seventeen times in Leviticus chapters 21 and 22, we find either that we are holy or that God is, or that we are to be holy because God is. All the way through the Holiness Code – Leviticus chapters 17 to 26 – God makes it clear that the point is to know God as he is. We do these things so we can identify with God, so we can know him, so we can recognize his voice when we hear it.

We are holy by proximity to God. It is his character and his voice that make us holy.

The writer of Leviticus gives us this whole section of very specific laws about all kinds of things: mold, not putting a curse on someone, not seeking revenge, sexual relationships. It reminds me of those warning labels made by lawyers: “This coffee is hot” or “This plastic bag is not a toy.”

We have to be told because on our own, we are drawn toward death. So the author talks very directly about behavior but he comes back to this refrain over and over again: Be holy because I am. In other words, get close enough to God to hear his voice. 

These laws are highly relational. In fact, it is also in the Holiness Code in Leviticus that we find the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself.

Stop and think about this for a minute. This is the line Jesus plucked from all those laws in the Holiness Code. The one line he pulled into his teaching was this: Love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, take care of each other because this is the filter that every other law has to run through.

Observe the Sabbath … and take care of each other.

Don’t make or worship idols … and take care of each other.

Take care of your body … and take care of each other.

Don’t leave the weak ones behind … take care of each other.

Respect foreigners and elders. Take care of each other.

All of this is to say that we are holy not only by proximity to God, but in proximity to each other. How we live impacts the people around us. This is why Jesus got so frustrated with the Pharisees. Over and over, he watched them become experts in the law while they cared nothing for people.

The law can only take you so far. It can tell you that your actions are right or wrong, but it can’t fix your motives, nor can it repair your heart.

So can we ever be entirely sanctified? Only by the love of God, manifested in the person of Jesus Christ, taking us by the hand and walking us that final stretch from the best we can do into the holiness of God.

Flying in the clouds. Not long ago, I had a prophetic vision in a time of prayer where I saw myself in the cockpit of a plane flying through the clouds. Eventually my plane would break through and I’d be able to see what I was flying toward. My fear while I was in the bank of clouds was that I would fly directly into a building.

That’s a pretty anxious feeling. When the clouds are thick or the weather is particularly bad, they tell me it can be disorienting for your eyes to go back and forth between what you see in the window and the panel in front of you. That’s because the messages aren’t the same. What is out the window tells you that you may be out of control, but the panel tells you the truth. The panel can tell you what true north is and it can show you altitude and terrain. It can communicate directly with air traffic controllers and it even has systems in place to fix itself.

The control panel actually can tell you what is true. And this, maybe, is a little bit like the Law. It can tell us what is true. When things get confusing it is wiser to keep our eyes on the control panel – on the Law – rather than looking out the window on a world that wants to turn it all upside-down.

When an airplane flies into a high-traffic area, there is something better and more accurate than a control panel: the control tower. Those in the control tower see the big picture. They see the buildings, the traffic patterns, the weather – they see it all. The control tower knows where all the other planes are. To find the runway, the pilot has to depend on the voice in the tower.

Perhaps that is what grace is. The Law is rules on a page, but Grace is a voice. If we want to land safely, we need to become intensely interested in that voice – not just to hear it but to trust it, to believe in it. Faith is trusting the Voice, even in the clouds.

“I had to learn my first lesson of the Christian life: how to obey before I understood. My whole life had taught me to master a concept before I could assent to it,” wrote Rachel Gilson in Christianity Today. “How could I possibly agree to something so costly without grasping the reason?”

Gilson was relating how God navigated her through some thick clouds. “In the end, it came down to trust. I knew Jesus was worthy of trust, because he had made a greater sacrifice,” she wrote. “He had left the bliss, the comfort, the joy of loving and being perfectly loved, to live a sorrowful life on earth. He took the pain and shame of a criminal’s death and suffered the Father’s rejection, all so I could be welcomed. Who could be more deserving of trust?”

She passes on a very important truth: “The obedience of faith only works when it’s rooted in a person, not a rule. Imposed on its own, a rule invites us to sit in judgment, weighing its reasonableness. But a rule flowing from relationship smoothes the way for faithful obedience.”

As Rachel makes clear, the difference between law and grace is the difference between rules and relationship. It is the difference between following the panel and following the Voice. It isn’t that one is wrong and the other is right. It is that one can only take you so far.

And that, I believe, is Paul’s point when he talks about law and grace in his letter to the Romans. He teaches that the Law has done its job when it tells us that what we are doing when we sin is wrong. When the Law does that, it is doing its job. It is telling us while we’re in the clouds that we are heading toward a brick wall. Paul even says that we make it worse on ourselves when we trust our own brain by watching out the window instead of looking at the panel.

“I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22-25).

That’s it! We cannot be perfected outside of an intimate and growing relationship – friendship – with Jesus, until we learn not only his Law but his voice. We cannot be perfected in love until we surrender to him when we can’t see two feet in front of us in the clouds. That’s where the real perfecting happens because that’s where faith clicks in. To be made perfect in love, to be perfected in love toward our neighbor, to land on that runway – we have to learn how to listen for the tiniest, thinnest whisper of God even in the thickest cloud.

Carolyn Moore is the founding pastor of Mosaic Church in Augusta, Georgia. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, When Women Lead (Seedbed). Photo: Shutterstock.

Estonian Churches Withdraw

Estonian Churches Withdraw

Estonian Churches Withdraw —

By Heather Hahn (UM News) —

The 23 United Methodist churches in the Baltic nation of Estonia are leaving the denomination to form the independent Estonia Methodist Church.

By a 97 percent majority vote on June 16, the Estonia District affirmed the churches’ decisions to disaffiliate. The district’s voters then directed that church property and assets be transferred to the autonomous Estonia Methodist Church as of July 1. 

Among the assets going with the newly created Estonia Methodist Church are several diaconal institutions and the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.

United Methodist Bishop Christian Alsted, who leads the Nordic-Baltic-Ukraine Episcopal Conference, described the district conference as solemn and prayerful but also very emotional.

“Personally, the disaffiliation grieves my heart – I find it unnecessary, and I believe it is a loss to the Methodists in Estonia as well as to the entire UMC,” he said in a press statement.

“Nevertheless, I respect and honor the decision made by the Estonia Methodist Church, and I stand with my commitment to help all annual conferences, districts and local churches in the Nordic, Baltic and Ukraine episcopal area to live into a future, where they believe they can serve with integrity.”

The district, which has about 1,500 members, is part of the larger Baltic Annual Conference that includes United Methodist churches in Lithuania and Latvia. Remaining in the conference are 18 churches with about 870 members total. Annual conferences are The United Methodist Church’s basic organizing units around the globe. 

In 2019, General Conference – the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly – approved a policy that allows churches to leave with property “for reasons of conscience” related to homosexuality if they meet certain procedural and financial obligations.

Since the church law took effect, [more than] 6,000 United Methodist churches in the United States, about 20 percent of U.S. churches, have received the required approvals to disaffiliate. But that policy – the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2553 – only applies in the U.S. and is set to expire at the end of the year.

Under Estonian civil law, the church in Estonia could simply leave with property, Alsted said. But Estonian church members wanted to leave “in a peaceful and respectful manner,” the bishop added.

To accommodate that goal, the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference held a special session online in March to vote on a process that would allow for Estonian churches to exit in an orderly way this year.

The central conference approved a process that required each Estonian congregation support disaffiliation by at least a two-thirds vote. At least 30 percent of a church’s professing members needed to be present when the vote took place. Most votes were unanimous for withdrawal, Alsted said. The district then confirmed the separation when it met in June.

The disaffiliation process also requires the exiting Estonian United Methodist churches to be up-to-date in paying their apportionments – shares of church giving that support ministry beyond the local church. Beyond that, the Estonia Methodist Church does not have to pay any additional compensation.

At the district conference in Tallinn that marked the Estonian churches’ disaffiliation, Alsted and the Rev. Robert Tserenkov, Estonia’s district superintendent, signed an agreement of mutual recognition between United Methodists and Estonian Methodists.

“Each recognizes in one another that they are constituent members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church as expressed in the Scriptures, confessed in the Church’s historic creeds, and attested to in our common doctrinal standards,” the agreement said.

The agreement also commits the central conference and new independent church to collaborate wherever possible in mission and ministry and to welcome each other’s members.

Tserenkov, who will lead the new denomination alongside an elected council until it elects a bishop, expressed his hope for the future. “May God bless and guide the Estonian Methodist Church forward, as he has done by his grace for 116 years!”   

During the district’s ordination service, Alsted offered his hope that the two churches will be like Paul and Barnabas in the Book of Acts after they went in different directions.

“Despite their sharp disagreement and their decision to part ways, God continued to bless them and make their separate ministries fruitful,” Alsted said. “I pray that the decisions made this weekend, as difficult as they were, will lead to fruitfulness.”

Heather Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. This article was distributed by UM News. Photo: Nordic-Baltic-Ukraine Area Bishop Christian Alsted, left, and the Rev. Robert Tserenkov, Estonia District superintendent, sign an agreement of mutual recognition between the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference and the Estonia Methodist Church. The 23 United Methodist churches in Estonia are leaving to form the Estonia Methodist Church, which Tserenkov will lead alongside an elected council until the new denomination elects a bishop. Photo courtesy of Bishop Christian Alsted via UM News.

45 years of vision for United Methodist renewal and reform

45 years of vision for United Methodist renewal and reform

By James V. Heidinger II

The first issue of Good News magazine was published in 1967. Charles W. Keysor, a Methodist pastor in Elgin, Illinois, published the first issue of the digest-size magazine for Methodist evangelicals out of the basement of his parsonage. At the suggestion of his wife, Marge, he called it Good News.

It had all begun a year earlier when James Wall, then editor of the Methodist minister’s magazine New Christian Advocate, asked Chuck, “Why don’t you write an article for us describing the central beliefs and convictions of this part [evangelical wing] of our church?”

Chuck’s article, “Methodism’s Silent Minority” was published in the July 14, 1966 issue of the New Christian Advocate, where he identified the major evangelical convictions (see original article on p. 14).

To his amazement Keysor received over 200 letters and phone calls in response to his article, most of them coming from Methodist pastors! Two themes surfaced in the responses: first, “I thought I was the only one left in the church who believes these things,” and second, “I feel so alone—so cut off from the leadership of my church.”

As he prayed about the letters and phone calls, Chuck felt he must do something. Having been a journalist prior to entering the ministry, he decided to launch a magazine which affirmed the evangelical message of the Wesleys and Francis Asbury. Good News magazine was born.

Responses to the first issue were much like today. One disgruntled Methodist in Alabama wrote, “Your magazine is JUNK!” But Carl F. H. Henry, then editor of the new evangelical journal Christianity Today, wrote, “A mighty fine beginning—congratulations!”

Rallying renewal groups: Seeing the immediate surge of interest in his magazine, Keysor chose 12 Methodists to serve as board members, and the Good News effort became incorporated as “A Forum for Scriptural Christianity.” The board’s first meeting was in May of 1967, only two months after the appearance of the first issue of the magazine.

Good News was a breath of fresh air for Methodists seeking spiritual renewal, quickly becoming their rallying point. Pastors and laity began organizing clusters of like-minded Methodists who came out of a felt need for fellowship, support, encouragement, and prayer. Soon, they began to map strategies for increasing evangelicalism within their annual conferences.

Today renewal groups exist in more than 40 of our United Methodist annual conferences, forming an extensive grassroots network for evangelical advocacy, fellowship, and prayer support. In my annual conference, the East Ohio Evangelical Fellowship—just one of such renewal groups—began in 1969 and has made an invaluable contribution in strengthening the evangelical witness in the conference, especially in youth camping programs and ministries.

Convo fellowship: The Good News board soon felt a need to sponsor some kind of national gathering to help unify Methodist evangelicals. Texas pastor Mike Walker, the youngest member of the fledgling board, headed up plans for the first national convocation held in Dallas in August of 1970. To everyone’s amazement, a whopping 1,600 United Methodists registered, coming from coast to coast! The Holy Spirit drew people together in a remarkable way.

Emotion and excitement filled the air as participants discovered other like-minded Methodists. Tears streamed down the faces of worshippers as they saw the evening crowds swell to nearly 3,000 persons jammed into the Adolphus Hotel ballroom. Folks heard luminaries such as missionary statesman E. Stanley Jones, Bishop Gerald Kennedy, Frank B. Stanger, Dennis F. Kinlaw, K. Morgan Edwards, Claude Thompson, evangelist Tom Skinner, Howard Ball, Billy Graham Association evangelist Akbar Abdul-Haqq, Ira Gallaway, C. Philip Hinerman, and Les Woodson.

In bringing greetings to the assembly, a message from evangelist Billy Graham stated: “Wish I could be with you for this momentous and historic conference. Methodism was born and it grew through revival and evangelism. It is my prayer that the United Methodist Church will have a spiritual renewal and help lead our nation in the spiritual revival that we do desperately need. May God bless you all.”

Twentieth century United Methodism was marked for renewal. Discouraged United Methodists received hope that they weren’t alone in their evangelical concerns. And most importantly, they began to dream of a new day of revival and renewal in their church.

For 30 years following the Dallas Convocation, Good News sponsored a national convocation nearly every summer. United Methodists came for fellowship, inspiration, and instruction. One couple remarked at our Washington, D.C. convo in the early 1990s, “Jim, when we came here we were so discouraged, we were considering leaving the church. But our hearts have been renewed, and we’re going back to our home church with new hope.” And return they have, by the hundreds, with programs and ideas for their local churches like Marriage Enrichment, Trinity Bible Studies, Faith Promise missions giving, Disciple Bible Study, Discover God’s Call, and Walk to Emmaus.

Improving Sunday school literature: One of the earliest concerns of the fledgling Good News movement was the need to improve dismal denominational Sunday school literature. Evangelicals were frustrated, but hardly knew where to begin to bring about change.

In 1968 Good News carried a stinging evaluation of Methodism’s new adult curriculum. One reviewer wrote, “What is missing here…is a particular and sustained biblical theology.” This reviewer looked in vain for any word about “salvation, any good news about the atonement of Jesus Christ, or any hint about the possibility of spiritual new birth….”

The next year a Good News team met for the first of many dialogues with the church’s curriculum editors and officials. The denominational leaders responded with obvious impatience and condescension toward evangelical concerns. One bishop informed the Good News delegation that they must realize that all contemporary scholars supported the Bultmannian notion that much of the Bible is myth. That was indicative of the gulf that existed between grassroots members and many in positions of national leadership.

Nevertheless, dialogue had begun. The United Methodist Publishing House gradually became more aware of its responsibility to serve the whole church, including the evangelicals. In 1975, Good News published its first edition of We Believe, a confirmation series for junior high youth. Pastors dissatisfied with United Methodist materials received it enthusiastically. It remains a widely-used confirmation curriculum yet today.

A 1985 evaluation of denominational curriculum revealed improvement in our church school literature. In addition, the Disciple Bible Study program has found a warm welcome in the church, as has more recently Christian Believer, a similarly-packaged in-depth study of Christian doctrine, a resource from the United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH) which is doctrinally sound.

The problem evangelicals have now with church school curriculum is its lack of consistency. For adults especially, one quarter’s materials might be sound while the next are disappointingly weak, which is the problem with materials that are published for a broad sweep of theological positions. This inconsistency, among other things, was the impetus that led Good News to begin publishing its  Wesleyan and evangelical Bristol Bible Curriculum.

Both the We Believe confirmation materials and the Bristol Bible Curriculum are published today by the independent, for-profit publisher, Bristol House, Ltd., headquartered in Anderson, Indiana. (Good News had begun publishing books and study materials in 1989, but sold its publishing ministry in 1991 to a small group of Good News supporters who formed Bristol House, Ltd.)

In what was viewed as a sign of increasing openness to the evangelical constituency in the denomination, a few years ago the United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH) and Bristol House, Ltd. joined in a cooperative project to produce Sunday school and small group curriculum for children and adults. This joint venture was welcomed by evangelicals as a new sign of openness on the part of the UMPH.

Doctrinal doldrums: From the start, Good News’ primary concern has been theological. Born in an era when church radicals were demanding “Let the world set the agenda for the church,” we were convinced that the biblical agenda was languishing from both neglect and from theological revisionism.

Adding to United Methodism’s already-existing theological malaise, the 1972 General Conference adopted a new doctrinal statement of “theological pluralism.” While pluralism may have been included to express some of the legitimate diversity found within the parameters of historic Christianity, it was interpreted by many to mean United Methodism offered members a proliferation of theological views, many of which far exceeded the boundaries of sound biblical doctrine. I remember a young pastor friend who was distressed because a United Methodist seminary professor had denied the bodily resurrection of our Lord. He expressed his concern about the matter in his church newsletter. His district superintendent admonished him, saying, “Ed, you must remember that you are in a church that embraces theological pluralism.” For that superintendent, theological pluralism meant that some may affirm the bodily resurrection of Christ and some may not.

In 1974, Good News authorized a “Theology and Doctrine Task Force,” headed by Paul Mickey, associate professor of pastoral theology at Duke University’s Divinity School. The task force was charged with preparing a fresh, new statement of “Scriptural Christianity” which would remain faithful to both the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren traditions. In addition to Mickey, the committee included Charles Keysor, Frank B. Stanger, Dennis F. Kinlaw, Robert Stamps, Lawrence Souder, and this writer.

In 1975, the Task Force presented its statement to the Good News board and it was adopted at its summer meeting at Lake Junaluska. It thus became known as “The Junaluska Affirmation.” Albert Outler praised Good News at the time for being perhaps the only group within the church to respond to his challenge for United Methodists to “do theology.”

Theological issues were always top drawer for Good News. Our questions and frequent criticism of theological pluralism played a major role in the 1984 General Conference decision to develop a new doctrinal statement for the church. The theological commission, authorized by that General Conference and chaired by Bishop Earl G. Hunt Jr., brought a new and much improved theological statement which was adopted overwhelmingly by the 1988 General Conference. It cited “the primacy of Scripture” as the new guiding principle for doing theology. The term “theological pluralism” was purposefully and conspicuously omitted from the new statement. Some today still try to resuscitate “theological pluralism” under the guise of diversity. However, United Methodism has its clearly articulated doctrinal standards which are protected by Restrictive Rule in the Book of Discipline (Par. 17. Article I).

The seminary challenge: Good News has long been troubled over the liberal domination of theological education. Across the years, evangelicals at our United Methodist seminaries have consistently reported unfair caricaturing, ridicule, and intolerance toward their orthodox, biblical beliefs. They also have cited a troubling dearth of evangelical faculty at our seminaries.

In 1975, United Methodist evangelist Ed Robb Jr., in a fiery address at Good News’ summer convocation, called upon the church to restore Wesleyan doctrine to our United Methodist seminaries. Institutional leaders fumed and seminary professors fussed about his challenge. One could hear the murmurs echoing from their hallowed halls: “How dare he be so critical!”

However, Robb’s hard-hitting address led to a new friendship with Albert C. Outler, United Methodism’s eminent Wesleyan scholar, who taught at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. Together, with help from others, they formed A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE). To date, more than 110 evangelical scholars, called John Wesley Fellows, have participated in the scholarship program, receiving grants to seek their PhDs with plans to return to teach at our United Methodist colleges and seminaries.

In 1976, Good News also began publishing Catalyst, the newsletter sent free to all United Methodist seminarians, with the goal of making them aware of evangelical scholarly resources which they did not always have in their liberal seminary setting. The Rev. Mike Walker, the board member who organized the first Good News convocation, has coordinated the editing and mailing of Catalyst from its inception. (It continues today under the auspices of AFTE, which is now chaired by Dr. Ed Robb III, senior minister at The Woodlands UM Church in Texas.)

In 1977, Good News sent teams to nearly all United Methodist-related seminaries, engaging them in dialogue and urging them toward greater openness to evangelical faculty, course materials, and library resources.

Missions derailed: In 1974, United Methodist evangelicals from 23 states gathered in Dallas to discuss their concerns with the church’s world missions program. Those gathered criticized the declining number of overseas missionaries, the mission board’s preoccupation with social and political matters, and its lack of concern for matters of faith—including conversion and the planting of new churches.

The group formed the Evangelical Missions Council (EMC) which several years later would become an arm of Good News. David A. Seamands, Good News board member and former missionary to India, was named EMC’s first chairman. Conversations with the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) continued. However, after no less than 22 “dialogues” over an 11-year period between Good News and GBGM, Seamands and others learned that “the unfortunate gulf separating us from the GBGM policymakers was wide and deep.”

For eight years, the Rev. Virgil Maybray, a highly-respected clergy member of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference, served as full-time executive secretary of Good News’ EMC effort, spending most of his time speaking in, and consulting with, local churches about expanding their missions programs. During that time, Virgil ministered in more than 350 UM churches in 35 states, raising millions of dollars for missions, with more than $1 million channeled directly through GBGM’s Advance Special Programs.

In 1983, when evangelical discontent peaked upon learning about the proposed new leadership of the World Division of GBGM, 29 large-church pastors and 4 missions professors (all United Methodist) met in St. Louis to form a “supplemental” missions sending agency. It was to be called The Mission Society for United Methodists. It opened its doors for ministry in February of 1984 and began helping United Methodists get to the mission field. Today, with headquarters in Norcross, Georgia, and now known as simply The Mission Society, the young sending agency now has 224 persons in ministry (full-time, standard support) in 31 countries. (This compares, interestingly, with recent numbers from GBGM which report just 247 full-time, standard support missionaries.)

Legislative landmarks: United Methodist evangelicals and traditionalists have struggled with how to respond to the church’s liberal theologies and programs. They could ignore them, find another church, or use their influence for positive change. Good News opted for the latter.

At the 1972 General Conference in Atlanta, Good News launched its first involvement in the legislative process. Board members Bob Sprinkle and Helen Rhea Stumbo prepared and distributed ten petitions and four resolutions. They also cranked out occasional newsletters. Although the 1972 conference was a disaster, approving abortion and adopting the statement on theological pluralism, Good News had thrown its hat in the ring.

The 1976 General Conference brought a stronger Good News showing with the additional help of Robert Snyder and John Grenfell. By 1980, Good News had launched its first full-orbed effort, led by Don and Virginia Shell. They continued leading Good News’ legislative strategy program until 1992, when they turned the leadership over to Lynda and Scott Field, a former Good News board chair and senior pastor of the Wheatland-Salem United Methodist Church in Naperville, Illinois. They gave extraordinary leadership to the Good News General Conference effort from 1996 through 2004.

Whether Indianapolis in 1980, St. Louis in 1988, or Pittsburgh in 2004, the Good News effort has worked behind the scenes in annual conferences to get evangelical and traditional delegates elected, well-crafted petitions channeled properly, and a series of position papers published which articulate our stand on major issues.

The nearly two weeks we spend on site at General Conference with our 40-person team is the culmination of more than two years of careful preparation. As a result of Good News’ field work and legislative training efforts, more United Methodist evangelicals have decided to get involved in the legislative process. Good News, along with other members of the 2008 Evangelical Renewal and Reform Coalition, will once again have a team on site at the 2008 General Conference in Ft. Worth, Texas.

United Methodist evangelicals were encouraged by the efforts of concerned denominational leaders to formulate pre-General Conference activity such as the 1988 “Houston Declaration” and the 1992 “Memphis Declaration.” Both of these initiatives were spearheaded by the leadership of what is now known as the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church—which includes prominent leaders such as James B. Buskirk, Maxie D. Dunnam, Ira Gallaway, John Ed Mathison, William Bouknight, and the late William H. Hinson. The grassroots efforts noted above reflected the growing conviction that evangelicals must engage in the legislative process to make their voices heard if the church is ever to experience renewal and reform.

Proliferation of evangelical voices: I am still amazed to think that at one time there were no groups or publications that spoke on behalf of United Methodism’s evangelical or conservative constituency. That, no doubt, helps explain the immediate flood of responses to Chuck Keysor’s inaugural article, “Methodism’s Silent Minority.”

It’s a different world today and the United Methodist Church is not the same church. Think of the organizations that didn’t exist 40 years ago: Good News, The Institute on Religion and Democracy, United Methodist Action, A Foundation for Theological Education, The Mission Society, Transforming Congregations, Lifewatch (the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality), the Renew Network, Concerned Methodists, the American Family Association, and the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church.

We should also note the important contribution of several groups affiliated with the General Board of Discipleship, including the Council on Evangelism, the Foundation for Evangelism, the National Association of United Methodist Evangelists, and Aldersgate Renewal Ministries. The above groups have been faithful voices on behalf of our Wesleyan theological heritage.

All of these groups, of course, have their own histories and purposes. They do not walk in lockstep, to be sure. But let’s not miss the significance of their existence. The voices of United Methodist evangelicals and traditionalists are finally being heard. Channels now exist to guarantee this will happen. Thousands of United Methodists have found avenues for evangelical ministry as well as ways to address effectively the spiritual, moral, theological, and social issues that exist in our church.

Emerging new spirit: The various evangelical groups noted above are a part of something new that is emerging within the United Methodist Church. I would call this new surge a growing expectation that the church be faithful to its historic message. I was visiting an annual conference last June and a clergy member, noting the large number of evangelicals elected to his General Conference delegation, said to me almost matter-of-factly, “We expect our delegates in this conference to affirm the evangelical faith.” I was encouraged to hear that. It was another sign that more and more United Methodists have grown weary of theological revisionism and doctrinal fads; weary of those who would use the church in order to advance an ideological agenda. It is time for all of our United Methodist leaders to embrace, believe, and teach the historic doctrines of our Wesleyan tradition.

Many of us have been encouraged by Tom Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, published in 2003. After observing the evangelical gains at the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland, Oden says those gains are an indication that the United Methodist Church is re-centering itself around the Apostolic Faith. He wrote, “These gains came largely as a result of a preceding and continuing network of prayer, a coalition of numerous renewing and confessing movements working closely together, and widespread demoralization among the old-guard liberals.”

The 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh saw further gains that would indicate that the evangelical presence at United Methodist General Conferences continues to grow with each quadrennial gathering. On some 15 votes on issues of human sexuality, delegates affirmed more strongly than ever the church’s long-standing, scriptural position. A motion to allow homosexual unions or marriages was defeated by an 83 percent vote. Surprisingly, delegates by a 77 percent vote went on record to “support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” We are the first and only mainline denomination to be on record on this issue.

As we move toward the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Good News will enthusiastically support the four emphases coming from the Council of Bishops. We are especially excited about the proposal for starting new congregations all across the country. Evangelism has always been a passion for the Good News constituency. For seven years, we have been a promotional partner with The Alpha Course through Good News magazine. By their account, this has been a major factor in the Alpha Course being used in more United Methodist churches than any other denomination in America.

The story of the past decade of Good News’ ministry cannot be told without mentioning the unusual advocacy ministry of the Rev. John Grenfell, a retired member of the Detroit Annual Conference. A former district superintendent, John was tutored well by the late Bishop Dwight Loder that the administration of the church should be done justly and with integrity. John has participated in more than 50 supervisory response sessions, helping pastors who are in need of good and godly counsel, and who often need the help of an advocate. John brings to these sessions a profound understanding of the Book of Discipline and our administrative processes, always urging pastors and laity to be sure they understand due process and the rights provided them in the Discipline.

Even though Good News has sold Bristol House, we continue to publish books for our constituency on themes such as prayer, evangelism, and renewal. One of our newest is Beyond the Badge, by our board member, the Rev. Dr. Chuck Ferrara, a clergy member of the New York Annual Conference. This outstanding book, aimed at bringing police officers to faith in Christ, is already in its 6th printing, even though it has been out less than two years. Churches have been buying the book in quantities to give as a ministry outreach to local law enforcement personnel. The book has great credibility because Chuck, himself, served for 16 years as a member of the New York Police Department (NYPD). Now a pastor, he also ministers as a police chaplain in New Fairfield, Connecticut.

Cry for leadership: When United Methodists feel compelled to form alternative groups within the church and gather at their own expense to issue declarations to the church, as they did at Houston and Memphis, what you have is a plea for godly leadership. We look hopefully to our bishops who are charged with the teaching and overseeing function in the church. Our bishops, according to Paul, “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught,” so they can “encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9).

It is easy for evangelicals to grow weary in the struggle for renewal. Some who do will often say, “Jim, the struggle is a distraction from the real ministry of the church.” But Presbyterian clergywoman, the Rev. Sue Cyre, editor of the journal Theology Matters, has written an apt reply to that sentiment, saying that this is not a distraction from real ministry. She writes, “The battle over truth and falsehood is the real ministry of the church. Everywhere the church goes, it is to proclaim the truth of the Gospel, but it is always against a backdrop of some false beliefs.” What a timely word. And those who hold false beliefs do not let go of them easily—Scripture attests to that. So, “Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest, if we don’t give up” (Galatians 6:9).

New day for United Methodism? So perhaps a new atmosphere is emerging within the church. Granted, we still face serious problems, but there is much reason for hope.

At an earlier anniversary observance, I wrote words that I believe are still relevant today. I will close with them. “Evangelicals today believe the church has been entrusted with a divinely-revealed plan of redemption. This message is set forth clearly in the Word of God. This fact automatically establishes the relevance of the Christian message. We must resist attempts to impose other standards of relevance upon it. And even the slightest mishandling of that biblical message must be ruled out of order. The biblical message, proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit, will still bear fruit today. This trustworthy message will revitalize and renew United Methodism and enable us to share in the evangelical awakening that already is moving across our land and world. When our pulpits are alive again with the faithful proclamation of the Word of God, we can be sure the Lord will once again add daily to the United Methodist Church ‘those who are being saved.’”

James V. Heidinger II is the president emeritus of Good News.

45 years of vision for United Methodist renewal and reform

The Legacy of Theological Liberalism

By James V. Heidinger II

Recently a pastor wrote in a conference paper a defense of United Methodism’s being a “liberal” denomination. He insisted the “L-word” was not bad. For support he cited Webster’s Dictionary which defined liberal as “generous, openhanded, broad-minded, etc.”

Such shallow thinking compels us to look again at theological liberalism to see where it came from, what it affirms and what it does not affirm. Most certainly, the presuppositions and principles of liberalism are still present in United Methodism.

Most lay people have little interest in liberal theology. When they hear modern brands of liberalism preached they are likely to respond kindly, “That sermon was profound. I’m not sure I understood it though. It was over my head.”

But if the last three decades have shown the mainline churches anything, it is the bankruptcy of theological liberalism. Realizing this will be an important key to mainline church renewal.

Roots of liberal faith 

Liberalism began to move upon the American church scene around 1880. It brought sweeping changes to Christian churches in America during the first third of the 20th century—a period when a tide of secular thought was flooding in upon traditional American ideas.

Theological liberalism was the religious system that blended with the late 19th century, new scientific worldview. The new science claimed all events could be explained by universal laws of cause and effect leaving no place for unique events or divine revelation. All data should be subjected to empirical tests for verification, it insisted. Liberalism was essentially, then, the movement which accommodated the Christian faith to anti-supernatural axioms.

The first step in accommodation was to qualify certain doctrines. Harvard dean Willard Sperry characterized liberalism as the “Yes, but” religion. It would say, “Yes, I believe in the deity of Christ, but the language of Chalcedon has become meaningless. We must redefine the doctrine so as to make it intelligible to us who live in the 20th century. Yes, I believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ, but by that I mean….” And on it would go.

While denying tenets basic to historic Christianity, liberalism believed itself to be helping preserve traditional Christianity by making it relevant for modern man. Kenneth Kantzer said religious liberalism was an attempt to update “an old and beloved religion so it could survive in the modern world.”

 Tenets of theological liberalism

During the first third of this century, liberalism clashed head-on with evangelicalism. We see why when we consider the basic tenets of liberal faith:

1. God’s character is one of pure benevolence—without wrath. All persons are his children, and sin separates no one from his love.

2. There is a divine spark in every man and woman. All persons, therefore, are good at heart and need only encouragement and nurture to allow their natural goodness to express itself.

3. Jesus Christ is Savior only in the sense that he is our perfect teacher and example. He was not divine in any unique sense. He was not born of a virgin, did not work miracles, and did not rise from the dead.

4. Just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively, not absolutely, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. It is just most prevalent among the world religions, all of which stem from the same basic source. Thus, missions should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual enrichment.

5. The Bible is not a divine record of revelation, but a human record of the religious experiences of a nation. Thus few doctrinal statements or creeds are essential to Christianity. The only things unchanging about the Christian message are its moral and ethical teachings.

 Negation of orthodoxy

An important characteristic of liberalism’s tenets has been that they are primarily negations—that is, statements of what liberalism disbelieves about traditional orthodoxy. Liberalism almost always defined itself over against historic Christianity.

Consider the points cited above as negations for a moment. All persons belong to God, with none to be lost. Thus, universalism is affirmed, the need for salvation denied. Men and women are basically good, not sinful (original sin denied). Jesus was only a man like other men and did not atone for our sins (Christ’s Virgin Birth, atonement, deity, and Resurrection denied). Christianity is not unique, but just a bit more developed than other religions (church’s missionary mandate denied). And the Bible is only a human record, not the revealed Word of God (authority of Scripture denied).

Impact on American Christianity

Theological liberalism was euphoric early in this century, for it believed it was riding the new intellectual wave of the future—and it was. It believed it could rid the Christian Church of its restrictive, outdated worldview and help prepare it for a new, golden era.

So as a strategy by well-meaning churchmen, liberalism set out to attract people to Christianity by accommodating the Gospel to the wisdom and worldview of secular, scientific “modern man.” It was determined to preserve and strengthen Christianity. Unfortunately, the impact was just the opposite as liberalism devastated the vitality of the Christian Church in America.

J.I. Packer, contemporary Anglican theologian and author, summarized liberalism’s disastrous impact upon evangelical faith, saying “Liberalism swept away entirely the gospel of the supernatural redemption of sinners… It reduced grace to nature, divine revelation to human reflection, faith in Christ to following his example, and receiving new life to turning over a new leaf.”

Liberalism was determined to rid Christianity of its supernatural elements (miracles, the Resurrection, etc.) which just might cause a thoughtful enquirer embarrassment. And it succeeded.

What concerns me about all this is how much it sounds like modern day theology. Students at our denominational colleges and seminaries often report encountering these same negations in their classes. And several years ago our denominational journal ran an article in which the author/theologian recommended we forget the troublesome aspects of Christianity such as Jesus’ miracles, deity and resurrection. The author suggested we focus only on the ethical teachings of Christianity, for they are what is most important. Alas, the present generation stands on the shoulders of the previous one.

Continued benevolence 

I am sometimes amazed at how patient the Church has been toward liberalism and its subsequent offspring. (I realize there have been times of hostility, such as during the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the 1920s and 1930s.) Of late, however, we seem to have become theological pacifists, no longer shocked or offended by theological distortions regardless of how bizarre they might be. We calmly, benevolently discuss liberalism or its latter-day derivatives as we would the Sermon on the Mount, not realizing that in liberalism, historic Christianity has been gutted.

And while they mean well, those who reduce the faith to make it more acceptable to the modern mind do the Church no service. Liberalism in its various shades is still a shrunken Christianity—the pathetic result of sinful men and women who, in their quests for intellectual autonomy, would make man the measure of all things. It is a halfway house from faith to unbelief, from Christianity to secularism.

One hears Dorothy Sayers imploring, “You do Christ no honor ‘by watering down his personality’ so he will not offend. If the mystery of the ‘divine drama’ of God enfleshed in Christ shocks and offends believers, ‘let them be offended.’”

As long as our society is free, we will have those who wish to improve upon Christianity by restructuring it. But let’s be sure we know when this is happening.

In the meantime, let us boldly and unapologetically commend God’s revealed Word to our unbelieving world. Let’s not cower from the scorn of intellectual sophisticates for whom the word of the cross is still a rebuke. Let’s be workers “who need not be ashamed,” proclaiming the Gospel with no disguises, revisions, or scholarly addendums. And let us have the witness of his Spirit so we may, indeed, be preaching “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Cor. 2:4).

 James V. Heidinger II is president and publisher emeritus of Good News. This article originally appeared in the November/December 1990 issue of Good News.

45 years of vision for United Methodist renewal and reform

Your Life, God’s Gift

By Rob Renfroe

We Christians believe the most remarkable things. Incredible things, really.

We believe that God exists. That’s our most important belief. But it’s not the most surprising or incredible.

We believe that God came to earth. We believe that he came to earth as a human being. We believe that as a human being he died on a cross.

All of those beliefs are incredible.

But most incredible of all is that God came to earth, took on human flesh inside a woman’s womb, experienced hunger and thirst and pain, grew to be a man, and finally died on a cross because we matter to him.

You matter to him.

I matter to him.

Of everything we believe about God, that is certainly the most incredible.

“If the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup,” writes Philip Yancey in his book, Prayer: Does It Make A Difference. “Even now two Voyager spacecrafts are hurtling toward the edge of the solar system at a rate of 100,000 miles per hour. For almost three decades they have been speeding away from earth, approaching a distance of nine billion miles. When engineers beam a command to the spacecraft at the speed of light, it takes 13 hours to arrive. Yet this vast neighbor of our sun—in truth the size of a coffee cup—fits along with several hundred billion other stars and their minions in the Milky Way, one of perhaps 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take 15 billion years.”

What did the Psalmist say? “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3-4).

The great Christian mind of G. K. Chesterton put it this way: “All men matter. You matter. I matter. It’s the hardest thing in theology to believe.”

The God who created just the part of the universe that we’re aware of must be incredible. His power, his wisdom, his imagination? This God must be absolutely, incredibly beyond our understanding.

And that God—the God who is big enough to speak all of that into existence and hold it in the palm of his hand—says you matter to him. He says I matter to him.

1. Your life matters.
That is a foundational Christian belief. In the person of Jesus Christ, God became an infant, was born in a Bethlehem stable, walked among us, went to a cross, and died the most painful and shameful death the Roman Empire could devise because my life matters to God, because your life matters to God.

If it weren’t true, it would be the height of human arrogance to make such a claim: that a God like the one who created the universe cares about creatures like us. But we believe that we matter to God because that’s what Christmas tells us.
Every one of us wants to believe that we matter.

In the movie Shall We Dance?, one of the characters, Beverly, wrongly believes that her husband is having an affair and she hires a private detective.

In one scene, she says, “All these promises that we make and we break, why is it that you think people get married?”

The detective responds, “Passion.”

Beverly shakes her head: “No.”

“Why, then?” the detective asks.

Beverly responds: “Because we need a witness to our lives. There are a billion people on this planet. I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything: the good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all the time, every day. You’re saying your life will not go unnoticed, because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed, because I will be your witness.”

Every one of us wants to live a life that matters. And every one of us wants to share our life with someone who matters to us.
And here’s the good news. Married or single, young or old, successful in the eyes of the world or not, your life has not gone unnoticed. It has not gone, and it will not go, unwitnessed.

There is one who has promised to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things. All of it, all the time. Because you matter to him.

He is the God of the universe who has made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ. And because he cares for you, because he loves you, your life matters.

2. It matters what you do with your life.
How you think about life makes a difference. And people view their lives in very different ways.

For some, life is a game to win. For others it’s a challenge to overcome. For others it’s a riddle to solve. I’ve known men and women who see life as a sentence to bear, or a struggle to survive.

Some are more positive. They see life as an adventure to enjoy.

And what you think about life will determine what you do with the life you have.

Here’s what I’ve concluded. Life is a trust. Life is a gift that God places in our care. We have been entrusted with this most precious thing called a human life. And like any gift, it can be wasted or squandered. Or it can be used for the purpose it was intended.

And whatever we choose to do with our lives, it matters. It really does matter.

Why? Because we matter to God. Your life is God’s gift to you. And all that you have and all that you are is part of the gift.

Your time, your education, your wealth, your influence, your mind, your creativity. It’s all a trust. And it matters what you do with all of that because your life matters to God.

It matters enough that when we made a mess of things, when we were unfaithful with the trust we had been given—the Bible calls it sin—God thought we mattered enough that he sent his son Jesus in the vulnerable form of a baby, knowing that he’d have to die to be our savior, so we could begin life over, forgiven and clean.

When it hits home that your life is a trust from God, that he sent his son to die on a Roman cross, to pay the debt you owed but couldn’t pay, so you could live an abundant life in this world and eternal life in the world to come; when that becomes real to you, you get it. You get the fact that your life matters and it matters what you do with your life.

When you stand in front of a cross and you realize that, as Jesus said about himself, he had come to seek and to save the lost—when you realize that you were the lost he came for, and that he came, knowing it would take his life, it hits home: my life matters. The choices I make. How I spend my time. What I do with my energy and my influence and my finances. What I put into my mind. Whether or not I live for self or for something greater. It really matters.

Your life matters because it matters to God. And because your life matters to God, it matters what you do with your life.

3. Every life matters.
All that I’ve said about you thus far is true of every other person who has lived or will ever live.

For example, one of the amazing facets of the birth of Christ is the wide range of persons it involves. It involves a Jewish priest named Zachariah, who was told that his son, John the Baptist, would prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming.

It involves wise men from the East. Though we don’t know much about them, they were wealthy intellectuals, and certainly not Jewish.

Of course it involves Joseph and Mary, part of what today we would call the working class.

And it also involved the shepherds. We think of shepherds and we think of salt of the earth types, caring and strong, close to the earth and probably close to God. But in the time of Jesus, that’s not how people thought of shepherds, and that’s not how they thought of themselves—just the opposite, in fact. Shepherds were assumed to be dishonest and immoral.

In the whole world, you would find no occupation more despised than that of the shepherd. To the list of those who could not give testimony in court, add robbers, extortionists, shepherds, and all who are suspect in money matters. Their testimony was invalid under all circumstances.

For shepherds, tax collectors, and revenue farmers, it was difficult to make repentance. Why? Because shepherds routinely led their flocks across land that belonged to others, eating grass and drinking water along the way.

In the arid climate of the Middle East, nothing was more precious. Whatever was eaten or drunk by the shepherd’s flock was considered stolen. And even if a shepherd wanted to make things right, he would find it practically impossible to remember everyone he had defrauded, much less make restitution.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were held in contempt and despised as roving, unscrupulous gypsies and thieves. And often that’s exactly what they were.

Why were these undeserving, marginalized shepherds pivotal characters in the birth of Christ? Why were they given an angelic invitation while the world slept to be the first to visit the newborn Christ? Because Christ came for everyone. And the Christian message is that everyone matters to God.

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people’” (Luke 2:10).

All the people. Jews and Gentiles. The intellectual and the uneducated. The religious and the irreligious. The wealthy, the working class, and the poor. Those who have done everything right and those who have done everything wrong.

Christmas is for everyone because everyone matters to God. If that’s true, it leads to something else.

A. It matters how we treat others. 

“Remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory. “All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities…that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.…No flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love….”

I love the line: “There are no ‘ordinary’ people.”

Everyone has a soul. Everyone is eternal. Everyone is on a journey that will lead them to God and to a destiny of beauty and splendor—or they’re on a journey that will lead them away from God and to a destiny that is hideous and dark.

And regardless of where they are or where they are heading at the moment, everyone matters to God. That means it matters how we treat others.

God loves everyone, none more than the other. But if you read the Bible and if you look at the life of Jesus, you will find that God has a special concern for those like the shepherds—the lost, the least, the looked-over, and the left out.

One of my favorite artists is Darden Smith. He wrote a song called “Broken Branches.” He lives in Austin, Texas, and was downtown near the bus station watching the street people who hung out there. One couple in particular got his attention. He wrote about them: “Two people stand on the corner / Counting up some bus fare change / Boy and a girl 26 or 7 / Clothes are all in disarray.”

He describes their appearance and the kind of life they must have lived to end up the way they are: “Back alleys, back seats / Park bench beds / Careless love.”

And then he asks: “Which way does the wind blow? / How blue is the sky? / Can you count the teardrops / Falling from a mother’s eyes? / Hey, that’s somebody’s daughter / That’s somebody’s son. / Somebody’s pride and joy / Turned out to be / A broken branch off the family tree.”

Remember, Darden tells us, before you dismiss a person, or judge them too harshly, or walk past them and pretend not to notice, that’s somebody’s daughter, that’s somebody’s son. Tears have been shed for him or her. Long ago there were hopes and dreams, pride and joy. Once they mattered to someone.

They still matter. Because they matter to God. And because they matter to God, they have to matter to us.

Not just street people and the homeless—that would be a good start—but everyone. Before we dismiss them, before we give up on them, before we decide they’re not worth what it takes to love them, before we walk past them and pretend not to see, remember: They matter to God.

There were once hopes and dreams, and maybe it’s not too late. Maybe we’re part of God’s dream for that person, and maybe he wants to use us to help them come to know his love and step into the beauty and splendor for which he created them.
People matter to God. And so it matters how we treat people.

B. Jesus Christ taught us how to live a life that matters.

There are many ways we can live, but I want to point out a few specific ways.

• We can live life without God. Many people do just this—even many of us in the church.

We may believe in God, but that’s as far as it goes. We live the same way we would if we didn’t believe in him. We run after the same things the world runs after: possessions, position, power, and pleasure.

We think we’re unique. We think we’ll do something that makes us stand out. We’re writing our own story. But it’s the same story that most men and women write for themselves, a self-centered story of a life that is as hollow as it is shallow.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) wrote about such lives in his poem There Breathes The Man. “High though his titles, proud his name / Boundless his wealth as wish can claim / Despite those titles, power, and pelf / The wretch, concentrated all in self / Living, shall forfeit fair renown / And, doubly dying, shall go down / To the vile dust, from whence he sprung / Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.”

There’s no honor in this kind of life. In fact there’s no life in this kind of life, certainly not the kind of life that matters.

• We can live with God as a part of our story. That’s the way most church folks live.

We live our lives and then somehow we figure out that there is a God and that we need God. And we ask God into our lives, accept Christ, trust him as Savior, go to church, give some money, and ask God to give us strength to live a better life.

But if we’re not careful, it’s still primarily our story. We write the script, we determine our goals, we stay in charge of the storyline of our lives. We’ve written God into the story. And God is there to give us advice and direction and strength. But our lives are still about our stories.

However, there is a better way.

• We can become a part of God’s story.

Some folks get it. They understand that true meaning comes when we become more concerned about God’s story than we are about our stories.

God’s story is a story of redemption. It’s a story that began when the first human beings broke fellowship with God. And God decided that he would make a way for us to come back to him.

It’s the great storyline of the universe. Since it began, kingdoms have come and gone. Empires have risen and fallen. And all of them claimed to be the story. They would last forever, they would bring hope and peace and life to humankind.

But they’re gone, and God’s story goes on.

It’s the story of God weeping over the broken branches that were once his family tree. And it’s the story of God acting in history to bring his children back to him through miracles, signs, and wonders, through priests and prophets and shepherds.

It’s Mary saying, “Yes, Lord, I’ll join your story. May it be to me as you have said.”

It’s Joseph saying, “Yes, Lord, I’ll be a part of your story, and take Mary as my wife.”

It’s the story of a baby in a manger.

It’s the story of a sacrifice on a cross.

It’s the story of a tomb that’s empty and a Savior that’s risen.

It’s the story of faithful men and women who, for 20 centuries, have determined that they exist to tell the story with the words they speak and, even more, through the lives they live.

It’s the men and women who have realized that life is about more than their little stories with or without God in them. It’s about joining God in the ongoing story of his redemptive work that brings life to wise men and shepherds and tax collectors and Jews and Gentiles and geologists and engineers and bankers and moms on welfare and deadbeat dads and people on the corner counting up bus fare change.

There are a hundred ways to be a part of God’s story. You’ll do it in different ways than I do it. You’ll do it in ways that I can’t.
What’s important is that we do it. Whether it’s teaching a Bible study or leading a small group, sharing cookies—and Christ—with your neighbors, or shoveling snow with an outreach ministry, building churches in South America or loving orphans or some other way, what’s important is that our lives join in God’s story, the big story of redemption.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.