By Kenneth Tanner
Our closest galactic neighbor, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light-years away. She dwarfs our galaxy and contains a trillion stars.
The energy that fuels all those stars and has kept them in a spiral for 13 billion years is measurable, but who has the instruments or the time? The best we can do is make estimates.
Our witness and wisdom say that a first-century baby born to a peasant Jewish teenager, a baby whose stepfather was a carpenter, is the One who spoke this galaxy into fiery substance and perpetual motion from nothing way back when.
And our tradition claims that this human is the One who spoke another hundred billion galaxies into existence from no substance that existed before – ex nihilo in the ancient tongue.
One of the scriptural stories about this human tells us that on the night before he suffered for the cosmos he created – that he loves from eternity before his own life – he took a towel and a basin of water and washed the feet of his friends.
You cannot wash someone’s feet without getting low to the ground, on your knees.
In the world of his time, the host of a meal would not be the one to wash the feet of his guests. This was the task of a servant.
When Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and washes the feet of his disciples he gives us a portrait of the unseen Father, who holds all things together – visible and invisible – as an unassuming, humble servant.
When we dare to mess around with the invisible structures by which God holds the visible universe together – splitting atoms, for instance – we witness the awesome energy generated by the smallest (unwise) manipulation of his handiwork. Yet this incalculable energy – even the smallest fraction of it leaves us in awe – is harnessed to an extreme humility.
This divine humility, incarnate in Jesus Christ, is the source of all the energy in the cosmos.
What this moment at the last supper reveals, what this washing of feet shows us, is that the power of God has its origin not in what fallen human imagination supposes – not in great demonstrations of might, of subatomic or interstellar power – but in innumerable divine acts of indiscriminate, behind-the-scenes, and costly stewardship.
He literally cares for all things, great and small, from what may even seem useless to us – the things we would throw away – to things of such exquisite beauty we are left without words.
As revealed in the human Jesus, God is the one among us who serves, kneeling on the floor of the universe, towel in hand, ready to do the menial work that holds all things together, the work of a love that does not seek attention, does not boast, is not rude or jealous, that keeps no record of wrongs, that does not fail.
What does it mean that the One who creates all stars and fuels their fires is on his knees serving humans as their human brother?
Let me suggest that it means that most human projection of what it means to be a god or the God in the history of humans – and most human imagination of what it means to be powerful – is deeply mistaken.
One makes oneself vulnerable to wash feet in a world without proper sanitation and sewers but this sacred gospel detail about humbly kneeling and scrubbing his friend’s feet is not nearly the lowest place this human (who is somehow also God) goes or will go to love the cosmos.
This human who is God descends further still, down into death, entering by his own terrible death into the death of every human, for every time the one human nature we all share dies in one of our fellow humans we all of us die again, and he dies again with us, and further still: Jesus descends into all our hells.
One of the pastors of the first Christians, Athanasius, says that Jesus keeps falling further than our hells and his descent is not slowed until he is beneath the deepest falling human, down to the edges of non-existence, to rescue us, and to give the one human nature we all share permanence.
He is not stingy with his kind of existence. He wants his fellow humans to participate in his never-ending divine life.
He gives humans not the permanence of Andromeda but his own permanence, and with all humans somehow gives the cosmos the gift of his eternity.
As a fellow human, Jesus is our mediator and advocate, made like his brothers and sisters in every way so that he might be One who rules and judges those whose existence he understands from the inside, because he lived our human story with us in the most vulnerable, authentic, and beautiful way.
In Jesus, God has a mother and a betrayer. In Jesus, God has scars and God has memories: of meals and laughter with his friends and cold nights huddled together against the desert air in cloaks, he recalls storms at sea and a grinding emptiness at the tomb of his friend.
In Jesus, God knows hunger and thirst and loneliness and pain. In Jesus, God knows the human devastation of divorce and disease and death.
In Jesus, the One like a son of man who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth is also one of us. And Jesus discloses a God who rules all things by a humility we cannot even begin to grasp. His power is disclosed in weakness and poverty, by surrender and trust.
The One who is to be our judge renders his judgment on his human brothers and sisters from the brutal cross to which we nailed him: “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
And he is now and forever there with the Father in the flesh, for us, and we are there close to the heart of the Father in Jesus, as his body. We are mystically one with God in the humanity of Jesus and God is one with us humans in the Son and loves us.
Jesus remains always the servant of his beloved cosmos and of everything and everyone in it and that’s what makes him truly Lord of all.
Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and author of Vulnerable God (forthcoming from Baker Books, Fall 2023). Image: “Christ Ruler of All,” by Lyuba Yaskiv, Iconart Modern Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine.
By Scott McDermott
Learning how to pray when our life is hurting is one of the most important lessons we can ever learn in life, yet so few of us have been taught just how to do it. Personal pain is a part of everyone’s experience. As Jesus teaches, the storms of life happen to all of us (Matthew 7:24-27). At times that pain may stem from some deep personal disappointments while at other times it may come from the loss of a relationship or the loss of a loved one.
It was during a season of personal pain that the Lord taught me a way to pray that has helped me get through some of the darkest seasons of my life. These six steps proved to be transformative, and I pray they will be the same for you as you walk through your own pain. These six steps are not new. Not at all. In fact, these six steps are woven throughout the book of Psalms, one of the powerful books of prayers and songs of worship in the Bible. So, as we pray them, we follow an ancient and Spirit-inspired path to healing and restoration.
1. Choose to lift your eyes to the Lord. Here is how the Psalmist describes this: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1,2).
One can almost imagine the people of the Bible making their way up to Jerusalem for one of three annual feasts singing this Psalm. Their journey would take them along some difficult and treacherous terrain. The terrain they traveled must have reminded them of their very own life experiences. After all, life can be difficult. And yet this Psalm reminds us of something very important. Our help is not found in our own strength, it is only found in the strength that God can give. God is the one who can get us through all that we are experiencing no matter how difficult.
When we go through seasons of personal pain it is all too easy to become overwhelmed by it all. In lifting our hearts to God, however, we learn how to give direction to our pain. In other words, we overcome our problems by learning how to reach above them. And that is what prayer does. It reminds us where our help comes from. Prayer gives us the ability to reach above our problems to the One who gives us the grace to overcome them.
When we focus on God, his love, his faithfulness, and his goodness, we begin to find the hope and strength that cannot be found anywhere else. When I have sought to live into this, my prayers often begin with something like this: “Lord, I am looking to you and not to myself for all I need. You are the one who can help me. You are Lord over all my life and all my circumstances.” In doing so I am directing my life to look to God and not to myself for all I need.
2. Be honest with God. Being open and honest before God is the next step in learning how to work through personal pain. Many want to ignore this step, and simply skip to another theme, but that is not how true restoration comes. We can never overcome our pain by ignoring it. God won’t let us. Restoration only comes by learning how to unburden our hearts before God. Psalm 77 is a great example of this. At times it is filled with mighty declarations about God’s mighty activity, while at other times it is filled with expressions of anguish and distress. Psalm 77:2 says: “When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.” Deep faith is found in learning how to unburden your heart before God. How have I done this?
• I ask the Lord to show me where my heart is for that day. At times, especially during seasons of loss, I find that my heart was filled with sadness, frustration, anger, questions, and sorrow. By asking God to reveal what was deep inside, I permit God to search the depths of my heart (Psalm 139:23,24) so that nothing is hidden from him.
• I have learned that there is power in learning how to give expression to my own pain. By naming it I could better release all that I was experiencing to God (1 Peter 5:7).
• I learned that God welcomed my deep confession. After all, when we make such confessions we can feel embarrassed or ashamed, but the truth is God’s love never fails us. In seasons like this I remember saying to God: “Lord you know I am not proud of how I feel, but I want my life to be right before you.” And then I would make my deep confessions before him. In the lowest moments of life, God’s love and grace still abound to us.
3. Express your complete trust in God. One must be careful to never get stuck in step two. It is always easier to complain than believe. That is what makes this next step so important. Psalm 62:8 reminds us that we are to: “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” I cannot emphasize enough how significant this expression of trust is for moving forward. I have seen it shift the atmosphere of my life and many others I have prayed with.
So, what does this step look like? For me, I have often experienced it like this. After pouring my heart out, I simply say something like this to God: “Lord I do not understand all that is happening or even why it is happening, but I want you to know this, I trust You! I trust even when I don’t understand.”
4. Release everything to God. Remember all those expressions of pain in step two? Now is the time to lift them before God. As Psalm 34:19 reminds us “A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.” Usually, I go back over all the things I have confessed in step two and release them one by one to God. I will say something like: “Lord, I release all of this to you. It is yours. My life and all my days belong to you. Take these areas of my life and use them to accomplish your purposes.”
5. Look for signs of God working. Even when we are in the darkest places of life, God never deserts us. God is always there and God is always working. Psalm 139 declares that God will make himself known even in the most difficult places of our lives. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” God will always be there for me.
When my daughter had cancer, we would sit around the dinner table every night reflecting on where we saw God at work that day. Some of those days were dark and difficult and yet we always found evidence of God working in our lives without fail. One day as we traveled for one of her regular chemotherapy treatments, we were over halfway on our hour drive when my daughter informed us that she had forgotten the favorite teddy bear that she brought with her for each treatment. Due to the scheduling of the treatment, we didn’t have time to turn around and get it. I can still remember how she cried.
When we got to the hospital we made our way to the treatment room and they readied her for the next round of chemo. Some time into the treatment something amazing happened. Two volunteers were working their way around this large treatment ward passing out teddy bears to all the children receiving treatment. I couldn’t believe it. I said to my daughter, “Look Bec. Do you see this! You may have forgotten your teddy bear, but God has not forgotten you!”
God cares about our every need and he will find a way to make himself known to you.
6. Take the time to praise God. When those moments occur, remember to thank God for being so faithful. As Psalm 107:1 reminds us, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Forever is a long time! Most importantly for us, it also means that God’s goodness and love will make itself known in every season of life. Even in the most difficult season. Giving thanks helps us to see the good that God is doing and helps remind us that we are not alone as we travel this road. God is always with us.
Praying this pattern doesn’t mean that restoration will come instantly. The healing of the heart takes time. As we walk this journey with this prayer, learning how to look to God, being honest with him, declaring our trust and unburdening our hearts, looking for the signs of his working, and thanking him, we can rest assured of this, God will one day bring a new day into our lives. God will get each us through our lowest moment. You can count on it! God is faithful!
Scott McDermott has been the lead pastor of The Crossing United Methodist Church in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania since 1993. Dr. McDermott has a BA and an MA in Biblical Studies, an MDiv, and an MPh. He also has a PhD in New Testament Studies from Drew University. Image: Shutterstock.
By David F. Watson
Since the 1700s, it has been commonplace in Western Christianity to question, or even reject, the veracity of claims about miracles, or what theologians refer to as “special divine action.” Sometimes, God acts directly in ways that transcend the normal course of events in nature. When we recognize such divine action, we call it a miracle.
Enlightenment philosophers and the theologians they influenced have at times argued that, if there is a God, this God does not enter directly into the goings-on of creation, exercising agency to change what would otherwise be the natural course of events. In the wake of two World Wars, the Holocaust, the detonation of atomic bombs over Japan, and countless other atrocities throughout the twentieth-century, many theologians simply regarded miracles as a non-starter. No, they said, the unavoidable conclusion is that we can no longer believe in the God of the Bible who so readily enters into the goings-on of our lives.
The problem is, there are so many cases in which Christians actually see miracles happen. They witness them in their own lives and the lives of those they love. There are simply too many accounts of God’s action in the world for us to ignore them. Miracles happen. They are in some senses shrouded in mystery, but the evidence for them is overwhelming.
Nevertheless, there remains much skepticism of miracles throughout the academy and segments of the church. Moreover, in parts of the church where miracles are generally accepted, there can still be considerable misunderstanding and irresponsible teaching. Thus in 2011, Professor Craig S. Keener published a two-volume magisterial work, Miracles: the Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic). At almost 1,200 pages, this work is an indispensable scholarly investigation into claims of special divine action, not only in the New Testament, but today as well. This book may be a bit much for the non-specialist, however. Not everyone has the time or inclination to make his or her way through such a weighty scholarly tome, valuable as it may be. Keener is aware of this, and has therefore provided a much briefer and more accessible volume, Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World (Baker).
The book consists of seven parts which are divided into relatively short chapters. Part 1 is called “Perspectives on Miracles” and asks the question, “What is a miracle?” It then provides a few answers, dealing in the process with some skeptical responses to claims of the miraculous, and particularly that of Scottish philosopher David Hume. In Part 2, Keener discusses witnesses to miracles. Are there many of them? Do people other than Christains report them? Is healing a new phenomenon in the history of the church? He then offers a few testimonies of healing. With Part 3, “Videos and Doctor’s Reports,” the book becomes a bit more testimony-heavy. Keener deals with cases in which healings are captured on video and medically-attested healings of such conditions as severe brain injuries and cancer. Part 4 describes healings of conditions such as blindness, deafness, nerve damage, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and leprosy.
Many Christians find faith healing to be plausible, and even pray for it. The next two sections, however, will likely be harder pills to swallow. Part 5 deals with the raising of the dead, and Part 6 with nature miracles. Keener provides documentary evidence that the prayers of the faithful can even raise the dead. In fact, he provides testimony of this phenomenon from within his own family. He then goes on to discuss what are often called “nature miracles,” such as the calming of storms or the multiplication of food through the prayers of the faithful.
Part 7, “Kingdom Mysteries,” takes up more philosophical and theological matters related to healing and deals with some common objections. After discussing some miracles that he himself has witnessed and experienced, Keener addresses some questions that many inquisitive readers will ask. Why don’t we see more miracles in the West? Correlatively, why do these reports seem so commonly to come from the “mission field”? How should we understand occasions when we pray for miracles and they don’t happen? Why do conditions that God heals sometimes return later?
Following this seven-part discussion are three appendices: (A) Did Prayer Make Things Worse? (B) Some of Hume’s Other Arguments, and (C) False Signs.
Even in this briefer volume, Keener’s descriptions and theological account of miracles are substantial and compelling. He marshals considerable evidence in support of his primary claim, which is that God acts in miraculous ways today, just as he did in the time of the Bible. He offers testimony after testimony of miracles of various kinds. These testimonies are drawn from historical and contemporary sources, including people he knows personally. He even offers his own testimony in a few places.
Testimonies can help to build faith, and I found my own faith strengthened as I read. The quality of the research in these testimonies is impressive. These are not the equivalent of Bigfoot sightings. They are the thoroughly researched accounts of a meticulous scholar.
Keener doesn’t dodge difficult questions, either. While most of the book consists of testimonies, particularly in the latter chapters Keener deals with some important objections and problems related to belief in miracles. One objection he addresses, which I often hear as well, is that accounts of miracles seem to come much more often from faraway places than from the United States. Does this not diminish their credibility?
Keener addresses such questions adroitly. First of all, he provides numerous testimonies throughout the book of miracles occurring in the West. Further, he argues, the U.S. contains only about 5 percent of the world’s population. It is only natural that more miracles occur outside of the U.S. than within it.
Additionally, “when miracles happen here, our antisupernatural mindset often renders them invisible to us because we grasp at other explanations,” he writes. “Since miracles are therefore less meaningful to us, they are less likely to happen.”
Keener also suggests that “God usually performs dramatic signs either when people desperately need them or when he is getting people’s attention for the good news of Christ’s love in a special way.” In Africa, for example, which is the world’s second most populous continent, there is only one doctor for every ten thousand people. There are also many people in Africa who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. God wishes for these people to have the opportunity to know and love him. In this context, miracles are more prevalent.
Dr. Randy Clark, founder of Global Awakening, has seen miracles firsthand all over the world. He once told me, “The way of healing is the way of the cross.” What he meant was that a healing ministry can be a painful one because people are not always healed. The compassion that motivates one to engage in a ministry of healing necessarily leads to heartache over those who are not healed.
Keener discusses cases where a person is healed for a time, but then the same condition returns and takes his or her life. He also discusses cases in which people are not healed. A particularly moving account involves the death of his friend Nabeel Qureshi. Nabeel had a prominent ministry, and thousands of people were praying for his healing of stage-four stomach cancer. Keener even prayed that he himself might die in Nabeel’s place. “I felt that I had already accomplished enough for one life, if need be, whereas Nabeel had many years of fruitful ministry ahead of him.” God did not heal Nabeel in this life, though. “Toward the end of his mortal life,” Keener writes, “Nabeel suffered terribly.”
Many Christians know the pain of praying fervently for someone who nevertheless dies. Many know the pain of being with the sick through their last days of life. These can be a gut-wrenching, traumatic experiences, and we may understandably wonder why God did not heal in these cases. It may make no sense to us. Keener remarks, “After Nabeel’s death, I felt that God was saying we would understand this matter someday. It is beyond me to understand now, but I trust that God does know and understands much more than I do.”
Miracles Today is a sensitive, well-researched, theologically sophisticated work. I have seen miracles in my life. In fact, I have prayed for people who subsequently received healing. Yet reading through page after page of these testimonies of God’s goodness was a great encouragement to me, particularly after these two very difficult years of dealing with a global pandemic. I also learned a great deal from reading this work. Keener is one of the finest scholars working today. He is both a faithful Christian and a first-rate intellect. I give this book my strongest recommendation. It is a treasure.
One final note: in many ways, the postmodern West is returning to the kind of pluralistic environment in which the first Christians found themselves. Their milieu was permeated by all manner of religions and philosophy. To those early Christians amid the religiously chaotic world of ancient Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).
Paul knew that it would be the visible power of the Holy Spirit that would bring that generation to faith. In our day, so very chaotic in its own ways, it can be hard to get a hearing for the faith, regardless of how wise or persuasive one’s words may be. We are once again going to have to rely upon the power of the living God and believe he will reveal himself through miracles of various kinds for his name’s sake and for the salvation of the lost. In recovering this kind of faith, we will need guides along the way. Professor Keener is one we can trust.
David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of several books, including Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed), and lead editor of Firebrand (firebrandmag.com).
By B.J. Funk –
Maybe some of you remember the Andy Griffith show, and if so, you likely remember Otis. Otis had a drinking problem, and whenever he had too much, he came to the Sheriff’s office, went into one of the two cells and slept it off. In fact, he came so often that he knew where the key was. Andy allowed Otis to unlock one of the cells anytime he needed and go on in, even if Andy wasn’t there.
One day, a letter came to the sheriff’s office addressed to Otis. Barney was incredulous! “Andy, why is Otis’ sister-in-law writing him here? This is not Otis’ address!” The two officers woke Otis and questioned him. The letter stated that she and his brother were coming to Mayberry to visit Otis and his wife – that very day!
Otis confessed. One time, when Andy and Barney were out of the office, Otis took a sheet of paper from Andy’s desk and wrote his brother. In the letter, Otis led his brother to think that Otis was now a deputy, working for Sheriff Taylor. Barney was furious! But Andy listened as Otis explained his reasoning.
Otis answered sheepishly, “I know it wasn’t right for me to do that, Andy, but I don’t know, I’ve always been the black sheep of the family, and it just felt good to change colors.” Otis’ answer seemed to melt the heart of the kind-hearted sheriff.
Maybe you’ve felt like the black sheep before. At home. At your work or place of business. Everyone else seems to have their act altogether, with their bright, happy colors dancing a joyous jig of self-confidence. Being known as the black sheep places a barbed wire fence around your every effort, immediately canceling any good in you as its piercingly sharp edges cut into your skin.
It’s no fun to live under the heavy dark cloak of sin. Or rejection. Or hidden pain. Or low self-confidence. But, how do we change our colors?
Andy decided to make Otis a deputy for the day – for just one day – the day Otis’ brother would be there. Barney didn’t think Otis should be a deputy, and he came right back at Andy with his strong words of judgment. “Now Andy, you shouldn’t do that!” Barney gave his reasons why Otis should not be made a deputy. He said, “Otis is careless, unreliable, and irresponsible!” To which Andy smiles and responds, “I’m gonna make him a deputy.”
Hear the whine in Barney’s voice. “You’re making the town drunk into a deputy!” In this particular episode, Barney represents the law and Andy represents grace.
In a stern warning about the dangerous way they are currently living, James makes this curious, seemingly out-of-place statement about God: “He gives more grace” (James 4:6). Romans puts an exclamation mark on this thought with “… but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).
That’s such a strong statement that we want to question if those lines even belong in the Bible. Could it really be true that the God who created you, loved you, and redeemed you will actually measure out his grace gifts to you in proportion to your sins? The more you sin, the more grace he gives? Unbelievable. Only a God like ours.
Listen to Satan’s strong words about your life and mine: He is self-centered, pleasure-seeking, self-indulgent, quarrelsome, spiritually unfaithful, and worldly. You can’t make him a Deputy! That’s us in our dark colors.
Then hear the voice of grace, softly whispering his belief in you: He may be all that, but I’m gonna make him a deputy anyway.
Climb into Otis’ jail cell with him. Wash his feet. Give him clean clothes. Paint his cell in stripes of soothing green and vibrant yellow. Trickle unconditional love in every empty space. Examine Chrysalis Otis as he pushes out the old, spreads his wings, and flies, brilliant splashes of red and purple dancing on his wings.
Watch the Barneys of our world standing on an exalted platform, looking down their noses with disbelief that anything so tainted could become anything so beautiful. But it can. It does. It did. Otis changed colors. You can too.
BJ. Funk is Good News’ long-time devotional columnist and author of It’s A Good Day for Grace.
By Max Wilkins –
As The United Methodist Church moves ever closer to the seemingly inevitable adoption of the Protocol for separation and the establishment of the Global Methodist Church (GMC), those of us who remain committed to traditional understandings and expressions of Methodism owe a huge debt of gratitude to the international members of United Methodism outside the United States, particularly in Africa and Asia.
Indeed, were it not for the faithful witness of United Methodist General Conference delegates from what some analysts refer to as the Global South, the UM Church would have long since slid deeper into decline. Yet these vital, traditional, biblically sound Methodist communities did not emerge spontaneously. They are the fruit of thousands of faithful Methodist missionaries of the last 150 years who diligently labored to bring the Christian faith and a Wesleyan witness to their lands.
The missionary movement in Africa has been the focus of great criticism over the last several decades. And much of that criticism is well deserved. The deep ties to colonialism and colonialist practices were both regrettable and deplorable. The melding of the Golden Rule into the reality that “the one who owns the gold makes the rules” was always a perversion of the gospel message and an abuse of power. And many mistakes were made with the best of intentions by men and women who were ill-trained and ill-equipped for cross-cultural work, and often left to their own devices to figure it all out.
While it is important to acknowledge this situation, and to recognize that most of these issues have been successfully addressed in positive ways in the last several decades, it would be an injustice to the sacrifice and dedication of thousands of hard-working sincere missionaries to overlook the value of the work and the fruit of their labors.
The growth of the Christian faith in Africa since 1900 has been nothing short of miraculous. Never before in the 2000-year history of the Church have we witnessed an expansion of this magnitude. In 1900 there were fewer than 9 million Christians on the entire continent of Africa. Methodists on the continent numbered in the thousands. In 2020 the numbers are astounding.
The most recent statistics of the World Methodist Council report the number of Africans professing membership in Methodist movements to be approaching 15 million. Much of that growth is in independent Methodist churches on the continent. For instance, the Methodist Church of Ghana has grown between 40,000 and 50,000 new believers every year for the last decade. Ghana has a population almost equivalent to that of Texas. While it is often said that everything is bigger in Texas, when it comes to explosive church growth, Ghana outshines the Lone Star State.
The growth of United Methodist movements on the continent has been equally impressive. Official statistics show the UM Church in Africa is 5.7 million believers. That amazing growth has taken place alongside the decades long decline in UM Church membership in the United States. Most importantly these UM Church members in continental Africa are almost entirely traditionalist, orthodox, and biblically based in their theology and practice. And much of the leadership of these churches will readily acknowledge that both the growth and the theological integrity of the church in Africa is directly related to the witness and the legacy of those early Methodist missionaries.
Having acknowledged all of that, it is also important to understand that the world has changed dramatically, and the mission has changed along with it. We have moved inexorably over the last three or four decades from a “west to the rest” concept of missions to a “from everywhere to everywhere” practice.
Increasingly the Global South is becoming the heartbeat of mission sending. “The West” has become one of the largest missionary receiving areas of the world. This much-needed change has not been enthusiastically embraced by all corners of the church, however. From the insulting and dismissive comments directed at African General Conference delegates by North American leaders, to the continuing efforts to minimize Global South theological and ecclesiastical voices, and even the growing manipulation of the financial advantages of the U.S. and European churches as a means of coercing cooperation with progressive agendas, there continue to be challenges for some corners of our church to take these Global South leaders seriously. Some correctives are needed. Thankfully, I believe the emerging Global Methodist Church will provide a couple of these correctives.
First, the new denomination will be, from day one, a majority world dominated denomination. And that is by design. It is a near certainty that a substantial percentage of the Global South churches that make up the UM Church currently will ultimately unite with the new Methodist denomination. There are also a number of independent Methodist movements in Latin America and Africa who have begun conversation about aligning with the GMC.
From the moment of its founding conference, the GMC may have far more members from the Global South than from the U.S. And even though I fully expect the GMC to grow rapidly in the U.S. once it is launched, there is no reason to assume that the geometric growth of the church in the Global South will slow any time soon. Thus, it is both inevitable and exciting to consider that the strong voices of teaching and leadership that are helping the church to grow faithfully in the Global South will become leading and respected voices in the new denomination. That will be a huge treasure to the GMC.
Second, I have believed for some time that the time has come for those of us who are leaders in the North American church to lower our voices, at least a bit, and to begin to elevate and promote the voices of Global South church leaders. It is important for books and resources from these women and men to be available throughout the church. Our conferences should regularly feature preaching, teaching, and leadership from these women and men.
I remain grateful that leadership from both the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the emerging GMC have been intentional about seeking and giving voice and decision-making power to many of these very voices. In much the same way that the leadership of African bishops was critical to those who fled the Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Church in North America and other Anglican expressions, it will be essential to those forming the GMC to look to our Global South sisters and brothers for wisdom, counsel, and leadership.
For years, Good News magazine has utilized TMS Global to write its missions column in each issue. We are grateful to have had this opportunity to share our witness and our voice. But we are also extremely excited to announce that with the full enthusiastic blessings of Good News’ editorial leadership we will be using our column in each issue for the foreseeable future to platform some important voices from the Global South.
As we race toward a new day for Methodism, both in the U.S. and globally, we believe that we will all be blessed by the individual and collective wisdom they will bring. I hope you will all look forward to these contributions. May the Lord continue to bless the growth of the Church in Africa, in Latin America, and in Asia. And may that sweet revival spirit make its way back here to the U.S. Lord, hear our prayer.
Max Wilkins is the president and CEO of TMS Global. He is the author of Focusing My Gaze: Beholding the Upward, Inward, Outward Mission of Jesus. To learn more, visit seedbed.com/focusingmygaze and TMS-global.com.
The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News
By Rob Renfroe –
Not long ago I spoke via Zoom to the Zimbabwe General Conference delegation. They have asked several persons representing all theological views to talk to them about the future of the United Methodist Church. The man who spoke before I did would classify himself as a “centrist” with progressive leanings. He’s a genuinely good man and has been a good-faith partner in working for the separation that we desperately need. I respect him, his thinking, and his sincerity.
He was asked by one delegate, “What position will traditionalists hold if they do not join the Global Methodist Church but remain in the Post-Separation United Methodist Church (PSUMC)? How will they be treated?”
His answer was, “I cannot imagine a United Methodist Church without traditionalists being respected and put in places of leadership.”
That has been the line we’ve heard from most centrists and many progressives. Nothing will really change. There’s room in the big tent that is the United Methodist Church for all people and all opinions. There’s no real reason for people of good will to separate. And once the hard-core Bible traditionalists (the people that Good News represents) leave, the beliefs of reasonable traditionalists will be honored; and the PSUMC will be one happy, live-and-let-live family.
Again, I believe the man I described above and some others like him are sincere in their views. And I believe they are absolutely mistaken.
We have recently seen a rash of pastors removed from their pulpits by centrist/progressive bishops without consulting with the pastor or their churches – even though the Book of Discipline says they must consult. This has occurred in three different jurisdictions with three different bishops. Why? Because these pastors have made it clear they are traditionalists who support the coming Global Methodist Church.
Already, there have been several annual conferences where “centrist” and “progressive” bishops have removed traditionalist district superintendents and replaced them with others who share the bishop’s nontraditional beliefs. There is now no one close to these bishops who understands or represents traditionalists.
Many annual conferences have gone on record that they will disregard the Book of Discipline’s prohibitions of same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing gay persons. They are presently ordaining practicing gay persons. Just recently a district in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference certified an openly gay person who performs in drag, Isaac Simmons, as a candidate for ministry. (Certification is the first step in a years-long process toward ordination.) Simmons recently preached at the church where he serves in Bloomington in his drag persona “Miss Penny Cost.” On a YouTube video Miss Penny Cost prays to Mary and refers to God as “Our Lover who art in heaven.” Drag Queen persona aside, a district committee in Illinois Great Rivers felt comfortable recommending for UM ministry a person whose theology cannot possibly be reconciled with authentic Wesleyanism.
Near the time of his crucifixion, Jesus said, “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31). It’s not an easy passage to understand, but the general meaning is that if people will do wrong when there is some kind of restraining influence present, what will they do when that presence is gone?
Up until this time, we traditionalists have been the restraint that has kept progressives from doing all they desire in remaking the UM Church. And still they have mistreated pastors and churches who hold traditional beliefs, embraced a progressive sexual ethic, and walked away from Wesleyan theology. When many of us, if not most of us leave, what will they do and how far will they go in the future?
It’s not hard to imagine because we have worked against their agenda at every General Conference since 1972. Once we leave, UM boards and agencies will likely again become partner organizations with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which supports any abortion at any point for any reason. The church is likely to vote to condemn and divest from Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, as has been proposed time and time again at recent General Conferences. When we are gone, every annual conference will celebrate same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination. In fact, there may come an immediate push to redefine marriage, so that it includes more than two persons. In a recent sermon a “centrist” leader said that the vision for the PSUMC will include the affirmation of “trans folks, bi folks, kink folks, poly folk, gender fluid folk and others.” Just to be clear, “poly folk” is a reference to persons who are simultaneously in relationships with several sexual partners. At General Conference 2019, nearly 40 percent of the delegates voted for the Simple Plan, which removed the prohibition against clergy being unfaithful in marriage as a chargeable offense. When traditionalists leave, that 40 percent will probably be at least 60 percent of the PSUMC.
Pastors who do not want to disrupt their churches will tell their people that nothing much will change after the separation. With traditionalists out of the picture, they envision a golden age of peace and understanding will break out within the PSUMC and everyone will be welcome.
But if centrists and progressives do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry? Embracing the LGBTQ agenda is a justice issue for them. As we have seen in The Episcopal Church, what starts out as permitted soon becomes encouraged and eventually becomes mandatory. “Centrist” pastors will tell their congregations that nothing will change. They may even believe that. But everything will change. There is no energy behind the centrist movement any longer. Those who now dominate meetings held by those with nontraditional beliefs are not the centrists but the progressives. Progressive, woke young clergy do not look up to, and will not be deterred by, middle-aged, primarily white centrists who believe in justice by half-measures. And the progressives will win the day.
Eventually, one can foresee the PSUMC becoming a thoroughly progressive denomination that will not allow for freedom of conscience or practice. And the old centrist guard will not be able to stop the march towards a church that is devoid of traditional beliefs and practices.
It is not surprising that centrist leaders cannot see where the PSUMC is headed. They haven’t wanted to see where the church has been headed for the past 20 years – even though we told them that separation was coming. Consequently, we had to go through several destructive General Conferences and many people have been deeply and unnecessarily hurt, waiting for these leaders to grasp the inevitable. If some in the church now want to trust what these same leaders say they see for the future of the PSUMC after we’re gone – mutual respect, traditionalists being placed in positions of influence and authority, local churches enjoying a real measure of autonomy – they are free to do so. They are also free to take the words of Jesus seriously. “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”