Rev. Rob Renfroe
By Rob Renfroe-
Facing reality can be painful. Especially when the only choices reality offers us are difficult, unsatisfying, or confusing. At that point there is a tendency to walk away from the problem emotionally and mentally in one of two ways. There’s the Scarlett O’Hara approach: “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Or we tell ourselves everything is going to be ok and make up some reason why we don’t have to act. In other words, we create a comforting myth that helps us sleep at night but that actually does nothing to resolve the issue. Either way, we deny reality and usually end up with a solution far worse than what might have been.
I’m afraid many United Methodists are still denying the reality of how deep our divisions run and how difficult a workable solution to our problems will be. I believe this because of the myths I hear people, many well-intended, clinging to and trying to persuade others to believe.
One long-standing progressive myth, recently restated by a retired bishop, is so obviously false that it’s hard to imagine anyone still holding on to it. It’s the idea that our differences over sexuality can be resolved through “the local option” – that is, allowing individual pastors to determine whether to marry same-gendered couples and permitting each Annual Conference to decide whether to ordain practicing gay persons.
Only persons who have been asleep longer than Rip Van Winkle was could find any solace in this illusion. More benign compromises failed to gain General Conference approval in the past decade. And more recently in Portland last May, after several of our leading pastors and our most influential administrative body, the Connectional Table, used all of their influence to promote such a plan, it was so soundly defeated in committee that it was not even brought to the plenary floor. The local option is dead. I pray that the Bishops’ Commission on A Way Forward will not waste precious time following our own Alices in Wonderland down that rabbit hole.
A conservative myth that needs to be dispelled is “maybe the progressives will leave.” It usually begins with the statement, “If they don’t like the way the church is, they should leave and start their own.” Sorry to burst your bubble, but this is a political battle. And in politics “should” has nothing to do with what people actually do. The progressive goal is to change the whole church, not create a progressive subdivision of the church.
An amicable separation (or as some have begun to call it “a new form of unity”) may be proposed by the Bishops’ Commission, but the progressives are not going to just up and leave on their own. Why would they? They just elected as bishop a married lesbian who has stated that she has performed 50 gay weddings. In the entirety of the Western Jurisdiction, in most of the Northeastern Jurisdiction, and in much of the North Central Jurisdiction pastors may marry gay couples and break the Book of Discipline with no consequences of any kind. A dozen annual conferences are on record that they will ordain practicing gay persons regardless of church law. So, why would progressives leave when they can do what they want to do, have continued access to general church funds, and can keep the name United Methodist?
“Well, we’ll write stricter legislation at General Conference and make it even harder for them to break the rules.” We have good policies now. Our problem has never been bad legislation; it has always been bad actors. You can be sure they will be just as disobedient to stricter rules as they are to the present ones.
“Then, let’s go nuclear. Let’s make the rules so that we can vote out any pastor, bishop, or congregation that breaks church law.” I understand this approach, but I find it less than realistic. Conservatives hold the line against gay marriage and ordination by the slimmest of margins every four years. It is a misguided myth to believe that the General Conference is going to give some governing body the authority to start excommunicating pastors, churches, and bishops. That’s not who United Methodists are. We are nice people, warm-hearted and generous of spirit. General Conference will never pass a proposal for some small group to be authorized to decide who’s a good enough Methodist to stay in the church and who’s not.
“But maybe in 20 years, we can ‘win.’” Faithful United Methodists are leaving our congregations every day because of the continuing battle over sexuality. People are tired of it and they’re walking away. Two large churches in Mississippi – one the 15th largest church in the denomination – have announced they are leaving. That’s in conservative Mississippi where no one is marrying gay couples and where the bishop upholds the Book of Discipline. In the Good News office, we regularly receive calls from pastors who are under pressure by their congregations, especially in liberal areas, to lead them out of the denomination.
If the Bishops’ Commission does not resolve this issue, there will be no “twenty years from now.” People will leave. Pastors will leave. Churches will leave. Conservative people, pastors, and churches. If the Commission does not come up with a solution, the church will be in so much chaos that the slow drip, drip, drip of faithful evangelical members leaving will become a roaring flood.
As evangelicals and traditionalists, we need to do some serious thinking about what it means to “win.” Win what? A church that 20 years from now could be so depleted in numbers that “a faithful remnant” would be a generous euphemism to describe what’s left? Winning is not holding onto a church that is a shadow of what it once was and what it could have been. A win for the Kingdom is coming out of the present mess with as many faithful Methodists as possible connected to each other and working together for the Kingdom.
One final myth is that “what’s at stake is the unity of the church.” We’re way past that. One bishop recently stated to his pastors, “Twelve of our annual conferences are in schism right now. They are unwilling to live by our covenant and that places them in schism.” Twelve annual conferences. That’s over one-fifth of the conferences in the United States and there are others who do not live by the Discipline, they just haven’t stated so publicly.
We are not a united church. Having the same name on our signs and the same logo on our letterhead does not make us a unified church. The bishops had their opportunity to work for the unity of the church by teaching our doctrines and enforcing our covenant for the past 50 years. Instead, many decided to be permissive parents allowing disobedience and rebellion, and others actually promoted such behavior. And sadly, few of our conservative bishops have banded together to speak out or call the rogue bishops to task. And the result, as it is with all families headed by permissive parents, is not unity but dysfunction, self-centeredness, and division.
Over a decade ago I told a group of bishops, tasked with creating unity within the church, “You may wish you had another issue to deal with other than sexuality. But this is the issue of your time that threatens to divide the church. You will either act in a way that holds us together or you will act in a way that guarantees our division. Either way, it will be on you.” Now here we are. And to be told by some of those same bishops that the unity of the church is now at stake – well, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Look, the Commission is the game. Not stricter legislation in 2020. Not a local option. Not hoping or making the progressives leave. Those are myths and nothing more. Please do not be distracted by illusions that may bring comfort the way pleasant dreams do at night but that disappear upon waking. What the Commission recommends will either be based in reality or in wishful thinking.
Let’s make sure its members hear from us that clinging to or promoting myths and illusions – progressive or conservative – will not serve the church or the cause of Christ well. Reality may not be what we wish it was but it is what is. Let’s face it honestly and courageously with our eyes wide open.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.
Worship leader Lauren Smith Perez singing at Central Methodist Church in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Steve Beard.
By Steve Beard-
Within a Caribbean culture marked by Cold War skullduggery, economic scarcity, and vindictive secularism, the Methodist Church in Cuba stands out as a beacon of spiritual freedom, miraculous signs and wonders, unexpected blessings, and salsa infused worship. Not only has vibrant Christianity survived some of the darkest decades of Cuba’s history, it is a thriving testimony to the profound hope found at the roots of the faith.
“Young people in Latin America have spent a long time learning a language that is different than the language of God,” said the Rev. Guillermo Leon Mighthy, illustrating the prevailing way of thinking in Cuba.
“By the age of 18, they have heard more than 80,000 times these five phrases: (1) ‘I don’t know,’ (2) ‘There isn’t any,’ (3) ‘I don’t have any,’ (4) ‘I can’t,’ and (5) ‘It’s not easy.’ Five negative phrases; nothing positive,” said Leon. “This is not the language of the Bible.”
Leon is the 41-year-old lead pastor of the Central Havana Methodist Church in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in the Cuban capital. As a former professional soccer player and past leader of Methodist youth in Cuba, Leon has a spiritual counterattack for each of these phrases.
“First, the Bible never says that we don’t know. We know who we are, we know what we have, and we know the One who is with us. Second, yes there is; in God there is hope. In God there is healing. In God there is blessing,” said Leon, who is also the district superintendent of Havana.
“Third, yes we have. God says he is our shepherd and we will lack nothing. God says that whatever we lack we will receive in riches in his glory,” he continues. “Fourth, yes, we can do it. The apostle Paul says in Philippians that we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us. Lastly, with Christ it is easy, because Christ helps us. Nothing is impossible with God.”
The falling of the fire
Hope and anticipation are common themes in Leon’s preaching, along with spiritual warfare, victory, overcoming, healing, and blessing. These are also the repeated themes in the Cuban Methodist pulpits and the narrative of testimonies delivered during services. The spiritual dynamic behind the growth of Cuban Methodism is the “movement of the Holy Spirit,” said Pastor Aylen Font Marrero, a 29-year-old staff member of the Methodist Cathedral of Holguín, 450 miles east of Havana.
According to the latest information provided by the Methodist Church of Cuba, there are 410 churches and 927 missions (churches in formation). With
Pastor Adria Nuñez Ortiz delivering a message at Central Havana Methodist Church. Photo by Steve Beard.
approximately 46,500 members, there are about twice that number involved in the ministry of the denomination in different ways.
Although the personalities and styles of each congregation may differ, Font believes that Cuban Methodists are unified in “seeking God, the movement of the Holy Spirit, the falling of the fire and anticipating the glory of God to descend.” The primary focus of each congregation is “the love of God for the people of God. This is what we want to really see and experience and see grow,” she said.
The embers of this revival fire have been stoked since the 1970s, reports the Rev. Dr. Rini Hernandez, district superintendent in the Florida Annual Conference. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Methodists all over Cuba were participating in all night prayer vigils, reports Hernandez. The outgrowth of their prayers were miraculous signs and wonders, including speaking in tongues, physical healing, deliverance from spiritual oppression, and being physically overwhelmed by the power and presence of God in their meetings.
“We did not know it was Pentecostal,” Hernandez told Good News. “We were just asking God to fill us with the Holy Spirit.” Along with the outpouring of supernatural occurrences, these Methodists experienced a holy boldness that has characterized their singular focus on sharing their faith. “We lost all fear of repercussions and committed ourselves to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the Cuban people, one life at a time,” he recently wrote in an article for the Florida Annual Conference. “The Holy Spirit’s fire spread out to the local churches, youth camps, and almost every event in the life of the church.”
In an interview with Bishop Ricardo Pereira in conjunction with my first visit to Cuba more than 16 years ago, he told of his special experience with the Holy Spirit on October 18, 1984, many years before he became bishop. “At that time I had two young men in my church —14 and 16 years old. They had read about John Wesley and his ‘heart-warming’ experience,” Pereira said.
“That night, at 8 o’clock they knelt down in the church and said to me, ‘Pastor we are not going to get up from here until we have the same experience that John Wesley had.’” Pereira told them that they were confused. “I don’t think it works that way. I have been told that not everyone receives the same experience.” Nevertheless, these boys were going to pursue a blessing from God. Pereira said that he grabbed one of the boys, but he said, “Pastor I will not get up from here.”
Pereira was angry. “I slammed the door and went home and started watching television,” he admits. “But something was stirring in my heart, telling me, ‘Pastor you are not doing right. How can you allow your members to pray by themselves? Why don’t you go and keep watch with them?’”
He walked back to the sanctuary and said to them, “See, you have not received anything.” The boys continued asking God to give them the power to evangelize. At 11 o’clock he told them, “It is very late. Why don’t you begin again tomorrow?”
“No pastor,” they said, “we are not going to get up from here until we receive the touch of the Spirit.” At 12:04, Pereira reports that the boys had an “explosion of light in their faces and great joy in their heart.” After their experience, Pereira said: “I was so afraid that I knelt next to them and said, ‘Okay, I won’t get up until He fills me up, too.’ I wept and asked God to forgive me. And I said, ‘Lord I want you, too. I have been preaching the gospel, doing the best I could, but if this joy is real, if you can give that explosion in the hearts of my two members, you can give it to me, too.’
“At 3:00 a.m. we were all like mad people, speaking in tongues. I woke up my wife so that I could tell her that I too had this joy in my heart.”
The Rev. Guillermo Leon Mighthy holds the microphone for trumpet player Jorge Lázaro Corrales Estradas. Photo by Steve Beard.
Although both share in an experiential and supernaturalist faith, Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God believe that speaking in tongues is the “initial evidence” of receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. That is not a doctrinal distinctive for Methodists. Nevertheless, Methodist services in Cuba are unapologetically charismatic. The framework for theology and ministry within Cuban Methodism was not imported from other denominations, but is an organic expression of their own unique divine encounter.
The Cuban experience mirrors the religious trend of its neighbors. In the latest study of 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries and one U.S. territory (Puerto Rico), Pew Research found that two-thirds of Protestants (65 percent) identified as Pentecostal Christians either through denominational affiliation or personal self-identity.
Sociologists pair Pentecostals and charismatics into the category of “renewalists” when studying international religious trends. As the fastest growing spiritual movement, renewalists account for one-fourth of all global Christians with upwards of 500 million adherents. According to the World Christian Database of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Brazil has the highest number of renewalists, followed by the United States, China, Nigeria, India, and the Philippines.
As Professor Philip Jenkins points out in his ground-breaking work, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, believers outside the United States take the Bible very seriously. “For Christians of the Southern Hemisphere, and not only for Pentecostals, the apostolic world as described in the New Testament is not just a historical account of the ancient Levant [sections of the Middle East], but an ever-present reality open to any modern believer, and that includes the whole culture of signs and wonders. Passages that seem mildly embarrassing for a Western audience read completely differently, and relevantly, in the new churches of Africa or Latin America.”
At the outset of the Cuban revolution, the late Fidel Castro used to define the boundaries of cultural engagement to the intellectuals and artists: “Inside the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.” Within revival, the Methodist Church has transfixed and transformed – redeemed, perhaps – that kind of singular focus to a pinpoint: Cuba for Christ.
High voltage worship
Even non-church going observers would recognize something combustible and dynamic taking place in a Cuban worship service. This is not the place to be if one has been lulled into expecting a predictable 55-minute morning service with two Victorian-era hymns, a children’s sermonette, a choral anthem, a homily, and tidy benediction.
“We worship God with so much passion,” said Pastor Adria Nuñez Ortiz, “we give him praise with all we have in our hearts. We have so much love for God because we understand that he has done so much for us. Everything we do for him is nothing in comparison to what he has done for us.” Nuñez is associate pastor of Central Havana Methodist Church and married to Pastor Leon. She is also a songwriter, musician, and leader of their high-energy choir.
The worship time is unmistakably Caribbean. “As in biblical times, Cuban Methodists praise the name of the Lord and dance with all kinds of instruments and shouts of joy,” Bishop Pereira told me not long ago. There is a jacked-up salsa beat with a sliver of hip-hop and drums, congas, guitars, bass, trumpets, and trombones. If you solely associate Cuban music with Buena Vista Social Club, there is a brand new galaxy of sound in the church. The worship is frenetic, physical, ecstatic, electrifying, and emotional.
With a smile, one pastor told me that the “jumping does not draw the Holy Spirit, but jumping is the response when the Holy Spirit falls.”
For Nuñez, the pogoing up and down in worship is a simple expression of joy. “We rejoice every time we think about what God has done for us,” she said. “Specifically in our context of central Havana, many people were drug addicts, idol worshippers, prostitutes and God took them out of that way and saved them. The Bible says that the one who is forgiven much, loves much. And when somebody pays a huge debt for you, then expressions of joy and happiness come out of your heart and that’s what’s happening in Cuba.”
New day in Cuba
Needless to say, many things have changed in Cuba since my first visit in 2000. Netflix is streaming (for those with credit cards); the online home rental business Airbnb is now available to foreigners, the black market emporiums are hiding in plain sight, and the Rolling Stones played last year before 500,000 in Havana in a free concert a few days after President Barack Obama’s controversial visit. With the average Cuban making less than $20 a month, there still isn’t expendable income for luxuries such as high-dollar rock concert tickets.
Cell phones are omnipresent (a vibrant black market), but the internet is spotty and frustratingly slow. Private enterprises are still in infancy stages, as one might expect in one of the last remaining Communist countries. There is, understandably, a strand of “forbidden island” allure for Americans to explore Cuba as more avenues open for tourism. Many visitors simply hit the Ernest Hemingway hot spots, buy cigars, rum, and a Che Guevara t-shirt, cruise around in a 1952 pink Cadillac convertible taxi cab, and then drink mojitos on the pristine beaches.
Dr. David Watson of United Theological Seminary preaches in Santiago de Las Vegas Methodist Church as Pastor Aylen Font Marrero translates the message. Photo by Steve Beard.
For Professor David Watson, however, the experience is all about plunging his students into the eye of a revivalistic tornado. “A lot of our seminary students have never experienced what spiritual renewal looks like, and when they come here they get to be a part of a very powerful Spirit-filled revival,” said Watson, the academic dean at United Theological Seminary. Watson has brought students to Cuba from the Dayton, Ohio, seminary for the last three years.
“One of the ideas behind our seminary’s emphasis on church renewal is that all renewal – individual, local church, or church universal – is the work of the Holy Spirit. That is certainly the case in the Cuban Methodist revival,” he observed. “We want our students to be exposed to and learn about what it looks like when God shows up in a powerful way in the life of a congregation or denomination.”
Amanda Moseng is one of those seminary students, soon-to-be a provisional elder in the West Ohio Annual Conference. Her trip to Cuba was sparked by a divine healing she experienced at a Holy Spirit conference hosted by United Seminary. While in Cuba, Moseng tirelessly prayed for healing and blessing for those who came forward at the end of each of the services. Not raised as a charismatic, the Cuban scenario was new, but she adapted with deftness and enthusiasm.
Moseng’s own healing encounter is the catalyst behind her faith to confidently pray for “healing in people and to open myself to let the Holy Spirit work in whatever way the Holy Spirit wants to manifest,” she said. Prior to her trip to Havana, she had never prayed for healing for someone else. She now has a “boldness of faith that only God grants, that only comes from the Spirit.” Moseng also had the unique opportunity to preach in the Central Havana church on “holy boldness” to an attentive congregation. “I’m just so humbled that God would choose me to do those things, that God would use me for that. I will be eternally grateful for what I’ve experienced here,” she said. “I’ve been transformed in ways I could never have imagined and I will leave here with a sense of boldness and faith that’s greater than I’ve ever had.”
Finding wealth in Cuba
For the last 28 years, the Rev. Jaime Nolla has made a yearly pilgrimage to Cuba. “When you see people who either walk for miles, travel on the back of a platform truck, or travel in an overloaded, very old bus, standing because of the lack of space, to get to a crowded church anticipating to experience the presence of God, your heart is moved in ways you cannot describe with words,” said Nolla, a retired United Methodist pastor and former district superintendent in the Wisconsin Annual Conference.
Nolla was one of the clergypersons standing in the front of the 500 men and women jammed into the sanctuary of the Vedado Methodist Church in downtown Havana waiting to be anointed with oil. The bustling and energetic congregation worships in a striking art deco church with loud praise music spilling out from the open doors and windows near the University of Havana. The expectancy and desire was palpable as those in seemingly never ending lines waited patiently in an attitude of prayer for this blessing.
Nolla’s numerous visits over such a lengthy period of time have afforded him opportunities to see innumerable Methodist congregations across the length of the island (more than 700 miles long).
“Many of these people come dressed with the one or two outfits they own because of the poverty on the island. However, none of the obstacles that would stop people from coming to church in the United States are big enough to stop them from coming to church,” he told Good News. “We are thankful to God for the commitment and dedication second to none that we have seen and experienced.”
“When you live in a place where there is extreme poverty, the response of the people is to find wealth in other ways,” observed the Rev. Rebekah Clapp, one of my travel mates and translators in Havana. “For Cubans, that spiritual wealth has become a response to that.” Clapp earned her M.Div. at United Theological Seminary after living in Nicaragua, and is currently working on her Ph.D. in intercultural studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.
“Because of the reality of spiritual forces that they interact with, Christians respond with language of victory, language of overcoming,” she continued. “They have victory in their lives in Christ over and against spiritual forces, over and against the powers of the idolatrous religions, over and against the work of the devil, and also over and against the socioeconomic and political reality in which they live. They can respond to it by saying, ‘I have life in Christ, I have power in the Holy Spirit, and I have victory.’ That gives them hope, that gives them purpose.”
It may also go a long way in explaining how the Methodist Church has been a sustained oasis in the spiritual desert of Cuba’s soul for the last 50 years.
Marking his 25th year, Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
Evangelist Ed Robb preached a sermon on seminary education that sparked a controversial debate.
It was the fiery speech about seminary education given by Dr. Ed Robb Jr., an outspoken evangelist from Texas, that caught the attention and ire of Dr. Albert Outler, preeminent Wesleyan scholar at Perkins School of Theology. Through the eventual friendship of these two unique and legendary figures within United Methodism, nearly 150 Wesleyan scholars committed to the historic faith have since earned PhDs or ThDs through A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE).
The foundation affirms the divine inspiration and ultimate authority of the Scriptures in matters of faith and practice; incarnation of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human; necessity of conversion as a result of repentance from sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; the church is of God and is the body of Christ in the world; and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are means of grace.
During the 1970s, Good News focused upon seminary education, launching Catalyst (now published by AFTE), funding worldwide missions, and engaging “theological pluralism” with the “Junaluska Affirmation,” an orthodox statement on Wesleyan theology. Good News requested time before the Association of Deans and Presidents of United Methodist Seminaries to present its concerns in more detail. This request was denied. However, the association did indicate receptivity to visits by seminary students, faculty, and administration.
As a result, representatives from Good News were able to have on-campus discussions with representatives of ten official United Methodist seminaries. Two seminaries turned down the request for dialogue.
As Good News celebrates 50 years of ministry within The United Methodist Church, we share the following report of Ed Robb’s speech and the creation of the Junaluska Affirmation by Dr. Riley B. Case, author of Evangelical & Methodist: A Popular History, as a testimony to the faithfulness of men and women who sacrificially prayed for and contributed to the cause of renewing United Methodism.
By Riley B. Case
The spirit at the 1975 Good News Convocation at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, was exhilarating, but it was intended to be more than just an evangelical family reunion. Good News was in the business of renewal, and The United Methodist Church was experiencing very little renewal. The reports were discouraging:
• In the church’s new structure, power was concentrated in the General Board of Global Ministries, which, under domination of the Women’s Division, had declared itself on behalf of liberation theology. The Commission on Social Concerns in the former Methodist structure, controlled by persons many considered social extremists, had been elevated to the status of a board, while evangelism and education had been diminished by being subsumed as divisions under the Board of Discipleship. Youth ministry was disintegrating; curriculum sales were plummeting.
• The Church’s new doctrinal statement was serving further to undermine the Church’s historic doctrinal heritage. The seminaries were still not open to evangelical presence.
• The former Evangelical United Brethren were finding that the merger was not a marriage of equals, but a corporate takeover. EUB practices and beliefs, such as freedom of conscience in matters of baptism and infant dedication, contrary to reassurances given before merger, were being scuttled by the new Church.
These discouraging developments were being reflected in dramatic reversals in membership, worship attendance, and Sunday school enrollment.
Dr. Ed Robb’s keynote address at the 1975 convocation spoke to the evangelical discontent with the seminaries. The presentation, entitled “The Crisis of Theological Education in The United Methodist Church,” linked the problems of the Church to leadership and the problem of leadership to the seminaries: “The question is, who or what is responsible for this weak leadership. I am convinced that our seminaries bear a major portion of the responsibility. If we have a sick church it is largely because we have sick seminaries.”
Among the litany of failings and shortcomings linked to the seminaries, Robb further charged: “I know of no UM seminary where the historic Wesleyan Biblical perspective is presented seriously, even as an option.”
Robb asked (1) that two seminaries be entrusted to evangelical boards of trustees and continue as United Methodist seminaries; (2) that in the spirit of inclusiveness, every United Methodist seminary invite competent evangelicals to join the faculties; and (3) that greater support be given to established evangelical seminaries, especially those in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition.
The seminaries, and the Church’s Board of Higher Education and Ministry, if they even were aware of the Good News critique, were not inclined to treat the Robb challenge with any seriousness. No established “leaders” in the Church would ever even consider allowing evangelicals to operate a United Methodist-related seminary, and no seminary would allow such a radical shift in focus. And, these “leaders” would argue, the seminaries were already inclusive and diverse. Furthermore, there was absolutely no interest in supporting non-United Methodist schools, especially evangelical schools.
From the perspective of the institutional church and the seminaries, Good News was a reactionary throwback to a dead past. Though the convocation and Robb’s address were well reported, especially by The United Methodist Reporter, there was little denominational response to the events of the convocation – with the exception of Albert Outler, professor of Historical Theology at Perkins School of Theology. Dr. Outler did note the address and was offended by the Robb charges, especially the accusation that there was no seminary where the Wesleyan biblical perspective was treated seriously, even as an option.
Outler, too, was longing for United Methodist renewal. In many respects, Outler was “Mr. United Methodist” of the 1970s. He had chaired the Study Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards for The United Methodist Church. He had lectured bishops and represented the Church in ecumenical councils. In his lectures at the Congress on Evangelism in New Orleans in 1971, Outler recognized a growing evangelical renaissance, the sterility of liberalism, and sought to call the Church to an authentic Wesleyan theology.
In the lectures, however, Outler was not pleased with much of evangelicalism, especially with that offered by Good News: “[T]hese fine old words [‘evangelical,’ ‘evangel’] have … generated many a distorted image in many modern minds – abrasive zealots flinging their Bibles about like missiles, men (and sometimes women!) with a flat-earth theology, a monophysite Christology, a montanist ecclesiology and a psychological profile suggestive of hysteria.”
It is no wonder Outler reacted strongly to Robb’s address. In a letter to The United Methodist Reporter, Outler expressed his unhappiness: “I was … downright shocked by one of the quotations. It is sad that a well-meaning man should lodge a blanket indictment against the entire lot of United Methodist theological schools in terms so unjust that they are bound to wreck incalculable damage to the cause of theological education in the UMC – which is, as we all know, in grave enough peril already ….
“What shocked me, though, was Dr. Robb’s reported declaration: ‘I know of no United Methodist seminary where the historic Wesleyan biblical perspective is presented seriously, even as an option.’ The point, of course, is that, since Dr. Robb knows of Perkins, he has said, by strict logical entail, that the historic Wesleyan biblical perspective is not presented seriously at Perkins, ‘even as an option.’
“Now, either the phrase ‘historic Wesleyan biblical perspective’ means something that neither I nor other Wesley scholars – here and elsewhere – understand or else this accusation is simply false …. I can think of many ways in which a much needed, candid debate about Methodist theological education could have been stimulated and helped ahead; Mr. Robb’s way resembles none of them.”
Even Spurgeon Dunnam, editor of The United Methodist Reporter, was taken aback by the forcefulness of the Outler letter and contacted Robb for a response. Robb wrote a response but believed more was needed. Robb called Outler and asked if he might come to see him. Outler, according to Robb, had to think about that request for awhile before he gave grudging consent. And so it was that Ed Robb and Paul Morrell, Good News board member and pastor of Tyler Street Church in Dallas, made their call on Outler at Perkins School of Theology.
Dr. Albert Outler of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.
Outler gave his version of the visit in an article printed in The Christian Century: “It was … downright disconcerting to have Dr. Robb and some of his friends show up in my study one day with an openhearted challenge to help them do something more constructive than cry havoc. Needless to say, I’ve always believed in the surprises of the Spirit; it’s just that they continue to surprise me whenever they occur!
“Here, obviously, was a heaven-sent opportunity not only for a reconciliation but also for a productive alliance in place of what had been an unproductive joust. Moreover, as we explored our problems, some unexpected items of agreement began to emerge.”
Thus began an unlikely friendship and alliance that would eventually lead to the establishment of A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE). Outler’s friends in the academic world were willing to trust Robb because of Outler. Robb’s friends in the evangelical world were willing to trust Outler because of Robb.
Outler would later comment that AFTE was the most satisfying achievement of his life. In his own affirmation of Outler, Robb and the AFTE board, and not Perkins or Southern Methodist University, initiated the campaign to raise $1 million to endow the Albert Outler Chair of Wesley Studies at the seminary. The money was raised and the chair established.
Albert Outler, however, was not universally appreciated by Good News, primarily because of the 1972 doctrinal statement affirming “theological pluralism.” In some circles it was also known as the “Outler Statement.”
Good News had, from its inception, believed that the recovery of classical Wesleyan doctrine was the key to denominational renewal. Charles Keysor charged that the feature of “doctrinal pluralism” meant that “anybody was free to believe anything – with no negative limits.”
The great Methodist middle, however, was at best ambivalent, and in some cases downright hostile, to the suggestion that renewal in the Church was directly linked with a recommitment to historic doctrine. The arguments depreciating doctrine took several forms:
• Methodism was never a confessional church;
• Wesley had said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand,” suggesting that Methodism was primarily a religion of experience;
• the way a Christian lives is more important than what a Christian believes;
• doctrine divides; and
• the emphasis on correct belief is judgmental and unloving.
A time of turmoil in politics, moral traditions, and social customs, the 1960s also brought with it a time of theological confusion: existentialism, personalism, fundamentalism, Death of God theology, process theology, and liberation theologies.
With the merger of The Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church in 1968, the matter of stated doctrine had to be faced. Whether or not anybody believed in them – or even knew they existed – doctrinal statements had been carried in every Discipline of all the predecessor denominations from the first Methodist conference in 1784. What was now to be done with these statements, specifically the Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church and the Confession of Faith of the EUB Church?
The task was handed to a commission headed by Outler and board and agency representatives, several prominent pastors and laypersons, and a heavy preponderance of seminary professors, including outspoken liberals.
Good News, though still a fledgling movement when the commission was established, asked to participate in the discussions. There was not even a response to the letters that asked for Good News involvement. For his part, Outler was devoted to the commission and its task. He was also, perhaps more than any other person, aware of the problems the commission faced:
• Both churches, the Methodist and the EUB, had stated doctrinal standards, even though there was some discussion as to what precisely the standards were. For Methodists, the standards started with the Articles of Religion. But did they include Wesley’s sermons and his Notes Upon the New Testament?
• The doctrinal standards had been widely ignored, and even scorned, for a number of years. They were almost never referred to in Methodist seminaries.
• The scuttling of the EUB and Methodist statements, or the combining of the two, even if desirable, would probably not be possible, because of the restrictive clause in the constitution of the Methodist Discipline that stated: “The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”
The Outler solution was ingenious. Do not tamper with the restrictive clause (this would be a long, complicated, unproductive, and probably unsuccessful constitutional engagement), but write an additional statement that would interpret the doctrinal standards, placing them in historical perspective, and letting them inform the present task of theologizing even as they did not inhibit that task. Then call the Church to a new challenge to theologize and, in the process, to restate the doctrinal tradition while all the time making doctrine relevant for the present time.
The emphasis of the new statement would not be on content, that is, on the actual teachings of Methodism and Christian faith, but on process, that is, how the Church went about determining what it believed: “In this task of reappraising and applying the gospel, theological pluralism should be recognized as a principle.”
The 1972 General Conference approved the report of the Doctrinal Commission 925-17 without amendment and without discussion. No Good News voice, nor any evangelical voice for that matter, nor any voice from any perspective, even raised a question about the report or the ideas therein. After accepting the report that asserted that The United Methodist Church was not a creedal or confessional church and that pluralism was the guiding principle that would inform future doctrinal discussions, the conference moved immediately to “the social creed,” and social principles in an extended floor debate that lasted six hours. During that time, the thought that diversity or pluralism might also apply to the Church’s social stances was not expressed even once.
The Good News board was devastated by the lopsided approval of the doctrinal commission’s report and the fact that it was received so nonchalantly.
The summer 1972 issue of Good News carried a twelve-page report on General Conference written by Chuck Keysor. Five of the pages were devoted to the doctrinal statement. Quoting reports in Engage magazine and the Texas Methodist, he also argued that the statement was a revocation and alteration of the present doctrinal standards and was thus in violation of the restrictive rule in the Discipline.
Dr. Outler was scandalized by the Good News evaluation. In true Outler-style, he wrote Keysor: “Your surprisingly harsh and reckless comments on the new UMC Doctrinal Statement … have left me utterly appalled. I had not, of course, ever hoped for your positive approval, but I really had thought you might have been willing to recognize our positive efforts to make room for both conservative and liberal theological perspectives in the United Methodist Church. … There is, therefore, something tragic in your reckless and total rejection of us, since it forecloses any possibility of further meaningful dialogue. This, in turn, can only result in mutual loss, to all of us and to the church as well.”
Keysor responded in true Keysor style: “We find it ironic to hear you saying that our editorial shuts the door to dialogue. As I have already named, there was no dialogue from you until after the editorial, so it seems that publishing more editorials is the way to increase dialogue.”
Good News was not opposed to pluralism or diversity as such, but insisted that pluralism needed to operate within carefully defined limits, or an essential core of truth. Otherwise, nothing would be unacceptable as United Methodist teaching. Outler and the commission insisted that there was an essential core but never defined what it was. To Good News and others, this was like the proverbial emperor’s new clothes; one might claim to see them, but they weren’t really there.
Outside observers as diverse as Christianity Today and Time magazine understood this quite well. The Time magazine report of the General Conference noted: “The Outler commission’s solution qualifies the traditional creeds – Wesley’s Articles and the E.U.B. Confession of Faith – with explanatory statements warning that they should be interpreted within their historical context. The statements maintain that Wesley and the E.U.B. patriarchs made “doctrinal pluralism” a major tenet and held to only a basic core of Christian truth – but the statements stop short of specifying what that core was.”
With its stand clearly taken, Good News was willing to stay the battle. As Keysor editorialized in the summer issue of Good News in 1972: “What are evangelicals to do, in the aftermath of Atlanta? Many are quitting, feeling that the United Methodist Church has abandoned and betrayed Christ, the Gospel and its members.
By Charles W. Keysor, Founding editor of Good News
“Good News feels deep sorrow and pain at the exodus of these brothers and sisters in Christ. We do not condemn any person for following God’s leading, but we feel strongly that God calls us to remain. This has been our motive from the start…. To separate or not to separate, that is the basic issue. And so we feel it desirable to share with readers why we believe the most important place for evangelicals is inside the United Methodist Church.”
Keysor’s reasons for staying reflected a remnant kind of thinking: “In the past (God) has worked miracles through tiny remnant groups which fear only displeasing the One who has called them – the One whom they know as Father. Who cares if we are a small minority? Numbers and success are pagan preoccupations. To gain control of the denominations means nothing; to be faithful to Jesus Christ means everything.”
Chuck Keysor and Albert Outler had an intensive two-hour conversation when Outler came to Asbury Seminary in March 1974 to deliver a series of lectures on Wesleyan theology. In a detailed account of the conversation shared with a few members of the board, Keysor offered his impressions of Outler reacting to Good News concerns: Though Outler strongly believed in a core of irreducible doctrinal truth, he also believed that attempts at doctrinal definition “always result in inadequate conceptions of ultimate realities” (propositional statements demanding allegiance smacked of fundamentalism). He admitted, basically, that he was not interested in a specific of “core” essential doctrine, even though he believed the Church could refer to such a core.
Outler, however, was at least pleased that someone was willing to discuss doctrine and offered his own suggestions as to the sorts of actions Good News might pursue.
l. Good News could test the seminaries’ resistance to pluralism by underwriting the education of several outstanding young scholars who would take degrees at such institutions as Yale, Chicago, or Oxford in such areas as patristics, historical theology, and New Testament and, then backed by impeccable credentials, go to the Board of Higher Education and ask if there is any discrimination because of their conservatism (this would soon become the strategy of A Fund for Theological Education [AFTE]).
2. If the Church really wanted a descriptive statement of the “core” of essential United Methodist doctrine, it could do so by amending or altering the present statement with a 51 percent vote of the General Conference (this, in fact, would soon become the Good News legislative strategy in coming General Conferences).
3. Outler’s intent in the 1972 statement was to sketch broad theological generalities and encourage “theologizing,” in which identifiable groups in the Church would delineate their own essential core – what they would be willing to die for.
It was this third suggestion that gave additional impetus to a Good News effort, already being discussed and planned, to offer a contemporary evangelical statement of the essential core of Wesleyan doctrine for United Methodism. To do this, Good News called upon Paul Mickey, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the divinity school at Duke, to lead a committee to draft a statement. Good News leaders such as Chuck Keysor, James V. Heidinger II, myself, and Lawrence Souder were joined by Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, president of Asbury College and Dr. Frank Stanger, president of Asbury Seminary, to draw up the statement.
The Junaluska Affirmation would be an evangelical response to the 1972 doctrinal statement’s invitation for groups to engage in theological discussion and affirmation, seek to identify the “core of doctrine” that the 1972 statement alluded to but never defined, and serve as a rallying point for evangelicals in the Church.
Before the final draft, the statement was shared with Albert Outler. He was obviously pleased that at least one group was taking the 1972 statement seriously enough to draw up a doctrinal statement. In response, Outler wrote: “Thanks for that copy of the ‘draft statement’ of ‘Scriptural Christianity for United Methodists.’ I’ve read it with care and real appreciation. This is an important response to that invitation … I welcome the venture, even as I have found it interesting and edifying. Power to the project – especially in its tone and temper!”
Outler continued with an eight-page critique of the statement. His critique perhaps said more about his own theology than the work of the committee. Outler argued that the approach of the statement, that is, the organizing of essential doctrines around themes of systematic theology (sin, God, atonement, Jesus Christ) was not Wesley’s approach, who rather located the “essentials” in the proclaiming of the holy story.
The statement was made available at the 1975 Good News Convocation at Lake Junaluska, where it was discussed in small groups, adopted by the assembly gathered, and became known as the Junaluska Affirmation.
The United Methodist Reporter editorialized positively on the Junaluska Affirmation and printed it in full. UMCom, the official United Methodist news service, commented briefly that the “affirmation” had been adopted and added remarks from Paul Mickey about the need for ‘theological clarity in a time of theological confusion” and from Good News referring to the doctrinal standards and the ancient creeds as the “foundation for historic faith.”
There was some disappointment on the part of Good News that the affirmation failed to stir up either reaction or critique or comment from the larger Church. It was pointed out, however, that except for the bishops – given the charge in the Discipline “to guard … the apostolic faith” – no board or agency or group in the Church felt ownership or responsibility for doctrine. It was not so much that the general Church agreed or disagreed or affirmed or denied the Good News doctrinal effort. It was rather that it just did not care that much.
Later, the September 1975 issue of Interpreter magazine carried an editorial by Roger Burgess entitled “Has Good News Become Bad News?” Burgess did not critique the Junaluska Affirmation but was uneasy that Good News should draw up a statement in the first place. He concluded: “I find it hard to discover much that is constructive or loyal in these actions and proposals.”
As far as Good News was concerned, the Burgess comments were a misreading of the intent of the Junaluska Affirmation and of the purpose of Good News. But for once, Good News was secure enough it did not need to be defensive about the accusations of the editorial. It would direct its energies from this time forth not needing to define who it was, but in understanding and seeking to bring renewal to The United Methodist Church.
And the task, at least as it related to doctrine, was formidable. The general Church, already in a state of doctrinal confusion, seemed to be able to make no sense out of the 1972 statement. The attempts to clarify seemed only further to obfuscate. In 1976, the General Board of Discipleship published the pamphlet “Essential Beliefs for United Methodists.” It was to be an attempt to interpret to local churches and individuals the 1972 doctrinal statement.
The pamphlet managed to feature “essential beliefs” without the first mention of doctrinal standards or of the Articles of Religion or the Confession of Faith or of the sermons of Wesley. The one belief that seemed more essential than all others was the belief that “our strength comes through unity in diversity rather than through rigid uniformity.”
If there were “essential beliefs,” they were what we were to formulate for ourselves (the opening sentence was, “Our beliefs grow out of our experiences”), based on the quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. These core beliefs evidently had nothing to do with Christ’s death on the cross for our sin or, for that matter, Christ’s death on the cross for any reason. Nor did it refer to the Resurrection, to salvation, justification, sanctification, heaven or hell, or to the New Birth. At least none of these were even mentioned.
The pamphlet was obsessed with the importance of the quadrilateral, and that discussion took twelve of the sixteen pages. It spent time with sacraments and mentioned creeds, but only with the discounting qualification that “the living God cannot be reduced to or contained in any creed.”
But, according to the pamphlet, the Church was not without stated beliefs. United Methodists did have agreement, if not about doctrinal beliefs, then on the social principles. “Essential Beliefs for United Methodists” closed with the Social Creed prefaced with the words: “Our Social Creed provides a summary of our beliefs as United Methodists.”
Good News had a long and laborious task ahead of it.
Riley B. Case is the author of Evangelical & Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon). He is a retired United Methodist clergy person from the Indiana Annual Conference, the associate director of the Confessing Movement, and a lifetime member of the Good News Board of Directors. This essay is adapted with permission from Evangelical & Methodist.
On July 20, 1975, the statement, “An Affirmation of Scriptural Christianity for United Methodists” was adopted by the Board of Directors of Good News during the 1975 Convocation of United Methodists for Evangelical Christianity meeting at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina; hence, the title, “The Junaluska Affirmation.”
Preamble: In a time of theological pluralism, Good News and other evangelicals within United Methodism have thought it necessary to reaffirm the historic faith of the Church. Our theological understanding of this faith has been expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and in John Wesley’s standard Sermons and the Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament. We affirm in their entirety the validity and integrity of these expressions of Scriptural truth, and recognize them as the doctrinal standards of our denomination.
We also recognize that our situation calls for a contemporary restatement of these truths. The merging of two great traditions, the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist, with their two authentic witnesses to the historic faith, The Confession of Faith and The Articles of Religion, gives further occasion for such a statement. Moreover, we recognize the mandate which the doctrinal statement of the 1972 General Conference has placed upon “all its members to accept the challenge of responsible theological reflection.”
Consequently, we offer to the United Methodist Church this theological affirmation of Scriptural Christianity.
The Holy Trinity: Scriptural Christianity affirms the existence of the one Eternal God who has revealed Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three equal but distinct Persons, mysteriously united in the Godhead which the Church historically has described as the Holy Trinity.
God the Father: Scriptural Christianity affirms that the first Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Father, is the Eternal One and reigns supremely. He has provided a covenant through which His creatures can be redeemed and through which His creation will be liberated from all evil and brought to final righteousness at the end of the age.
God the Son: Scriptural Christianity affirms that the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Eternal Son, became incarnate as Mary’s virgin∕born Child, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. In His unique Person, He revealed to us both the fullness of deity and the fullness of humanity. By His life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension He provided the only way of salvation. His sacrifice on the cross once and for all was to reconcile the Holy God and sinners, thus providing the only way of access to the Father. Now He intercedes as High Priest before the Father, awaiting the day when He will return to judge every person, living and dead, and to consummate His Kingdom.
God the Holy Spirit: Scriptural Christianity affirms that the third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, was active from the beginning in creation, revelation and redemption. It was through His anointing that prophets received the Word of God, priests became intermediaries between God and His people, and kings were given ruling authority. The Spirit’s presence and power, measured in the Old Testament, were found without measure in Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed. The Spirit convicts and woos the lost, gives new birth to the penitent, and abides in the believer, perfecting holiness and empowering the Church to carry out Christ’s mission in the world. He came to indwell His Church at Pentecost, enabling believers to yield fruit and endowing them with spiritual gifts according to His will. He bears witness to Christ and guides God’s people into His truth. He inspired the Holy Scriptures, God’s written Word, and continues to illuminate His people concerning His will and truth. His guidance is always in harmony with Christ and the truth as given in the Holy Scriptures.
Humanity: Scriptural Christianity affirms that man and woman are fashioned in the image of God and are different from all of God’s other creatures. God intends that we should glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. Since the Fall of Adam the corruption of sin has pervaded every person and extended into social relationships, societal systems, and all creation. This corruption is so pervasive that we are not capable of positive responses to God’s offer of Redemption, except by the prevenient, or preparing, grace of God. Only through the justifying, regenerating and sanctifying work of the Triune God can we be saved from the corruption of sin, become increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, and restored to the relationships which God has intended for us.
The Holy Scriptures: Scriptural Christianity affirm as the only written Word of God the Old and New Testaments. These Holy Scriptures contain all that is necessary for our knowledge of God’s holy and sovereign will, of Jesus Christ the only Redeemer, of our salvation, and of our growth in grace. They are to be received through the Holy Spirit as the guide and final authority for the faith and conduct of individuals and the doctrines and life of the church. Whatever is not clearly revealed in, or plainly established as truth by, the Holy Scriptures cannot be required as an article of faith nor be taught as essential to salvation. Anything contrary to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures is contrary to the purposes of God and must, therefore, be opposed. The authority of Scripture derives from the fact that God, through His Spirit, inspired the authors, causing them to perceive God’s truth and record it with accuracy. It is evident that the Holy Scriptures have been preserved during the long process of transmission through copyists and translators, and we attribute such accurate preservation to the work of the Holy Spirit. These Scriptures are supremely authoritative for the Church’s teaching, preaching, witness, identifying error, collecting the erring, and training believers for ministry in and through the Church.
Salvation: Scriptural Christianity affirms that God offers salvation to a sinful humanity and a lost world through Jesus Christ. By His death on the cross the sinless Son propitiated the holy wrath of the Father, a righteous anger occasioned by sin. By His resurrection from the dead, the glorified Son raises us to newness of life. When we appropriate by faith God’s atoning work in Jesus Christ we are forgiven, justified, regenerated by His Holy Spirit, and adopted into the family of God. By His grace He sanctifies His children, purifying their hearts by faith, renewing them in the image of God, and enabling them to love God and neighbor with whole heart. The fullness of God’s great salvation will come with the return of Christ. This cosmic event will signal the resurrection of the saved to eternal life and the lost to eternal damnation, the liberation of creation from the Adamic curse, God’s final victory over every power and dominion, and the establishment of the new heaven and the new earth.
The Church: Scriptural Christianity affirms that the Church of Jesus Christ is the community of all true believers under His sovereign Lordship. This Church, the Body of Christ, is one because it shares one Lord, one faith, one baptism. It is holy because it belongs to God and is set apart for His purposes in the world. It is apostolic because it partakes of the authority granted to the apostles by Christ Himself. It is universal because it includes all believers, both living and dead, in every nation, regardless of denominational affiliation. Its authenticity is to be found wherever the pure Word of God is preached and taught; wherever the Sacrament of Baptism and Holy Communion are celebrated in obedience to Christ’s command; wherever the gifts of the Holy Spirit upbuild the body and bring spiritual growth; wherever the Spirit of God creates a loving, caring fellowship, and a faithfulness in witness and service to the world; and wherever discipline is administered with love under the guidance of the Word of God. The Church, as the Bride of Christ, will ultimately be joined with her Lord in triumphant glory.
Ethics: Scriptural Christianity affirms that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. These works are the loving expressions of gratitude by the believer for the new life received in Christ. They do not earn one’s salvation nor are they a substitute for God’s work of redemption. Rather, they are the result of regeneration and are manifest in the believer as evidence of a living faith.
God has called us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Him. In the Scriptures are found the standards and principles that guide the believer in this walk. These ethical imperatives, willingly accepted by the believer, enable us to be a part of God’s purposes in the world. Moreover, in this we are called to an obedience that does not stop short of our willingness to suffer for righteousness’ sake, even unto death.
Our life in Christ includes an unstinting devotion to deeds of kindness and mercy and a wholehearted participation in collective efforts to alleviate need and suffering. The believer will work for honesty, justice and equity in human affairs; all of which witness to inherent rights and a basic dignity common to all persons created in the image of God. Such contemporary issues as racism, housing, welfare, education, Marxism, Capitalism, hunger, crime, sexism, family relationships, aging, sexuality, drugs and alcohol, abortion, leisure, pornography, and related issues call for prayerful consideration, thoughtful analysis, and appropriate action from Christians, and must always be a matter of concern to the Church. Thus, we remember that faith without works is dead.
Postscript: In April, 1974 the Good News Board of Directors appointed a Theology and Doctrine Task Force to prepare an affirmative statement of Scriptural Christianity for Good News.
The task force was chaired by the Rev. Dr. Paul A. Mickey, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology, Divinity School, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Additional task force members included: the Rev. Riley Case, Pastor, Wesley UM Church, Union City, Indiana; the Rev. Dr. James V. Heidinger, Pastor, The UM Church, Cadiz, Ohio; the Rev. Dr. Charles V. Keysor, Editor, Good News, Wilmore, Kentucky; the Rev. Dr. Dennis F. Kinlaw, President, Asbury College, Wilmore, Kentucky; Mr. Lawrence Souder, layman, Centerville, Ohio; the Rev. Dr. Frank B. Stanger, President, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky; and initially, the Rev. Bob Stamps, Chaplain, Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
© 1975 Forum for Scriptural Christianity Within The United Methodist Church (Good News).
Directors of New Hope ministries: (from left) Rev. Cali Depue Eck, Kristy Goff, and Luisa Medina. Photo by Boyce Bowdon.
By Boyce A. Bowdon-
It was November 8 – Election Day 2016. I didn’t have to go far to my polling place. New Hope United Methodist Church is only a few blocks from my home in northwest Oklahoma City.
The church parking lot was nearly full so it took me a while to park. The minute I stepped inside, a New Hope member welcomed me and directed me to The Gathering Area, where voters were lined up. About 75 people were in front of me. As I looked around, I saw the church’s mission statement in bold letters high on the wall near the ceiling. It read: “Building loving relationships with God and others through the hope that is in Jesus Christ.”
Near the front of the room, a video was running on a big TV. It told about the church’s upcoming events and invited everyone to attend. Several credenzas lined up on one wall were filled with platters of refreshments, a large coffee pot, and pitchers of water. People obviously were enjoying them. I heard a man ask, “Are we suppose to pay for these?” A New Hope member standing nearby told him the church had given the treats. “We want you to be wide awake when you vote,” he quipped. After I finished voting, a member from New Hope greeted me and said. “Come back anytime. God bless you.”
Impressed by the hospitality at New Hope, I went back the next day to express my appreciation. Greg Wells, a volunteer in the office who helps with administration, told me more than 1000 people voted. They drank 19 gallons of coffee and ate 28 dozen donuts, granola bars, cupcakes, and cookies. Many people came, he said, who had never been in New Hope before.
Gary told me voting is one of many community activities New Hope hosts, and he explained why the church considers participation in these events to be a part of its mission. He referred to the mission statement I had seen in the Gathering Area. “Everything that brings people in gives us a chance to let them see we respect and value them and maybe to build a relationship with them that might help them feel God’s love,” he said.
Greg described what he and his wife, Rosanne, experienced when they came to New Hope for the first time. “The church where we were members had been declining for years and finally closed, so we started looking for a new church home,” he explained. “The minute we stepped inside New Hope, people welcomed us warmly. Children were running around and young couples were everywhere. The worship service was alive. Music was great. The pastor preached with conviction. He was down-to-earth and he lifted us up. So Rosanne and I knew that first Sunday that we had found our church home.”
When visiting with New Hope’s pastor – the Rev. Dr. J. D. Ward – I told him I was impressed by how the church had gone all out to welcome voters. He gave all the credit to others. “Gary Graham and Greg Wells and their team started setting up the Gathering Area the day before the election and they were back the next morning at 5:30 to finish up,” he reported. “All I did was pick up the donuts.”
Dr. Ward is deeply committed to “Building loving relationships with God and others through the hope that is in Jesus Christ,” the church’s mission statement. “To me, being in mission is a lot of what it means to be the Church,” he said. “We reach out to people on more than one level and try to build relationships with them. We share our concern, and through sharing our concern we share God’s love.”
He read me a thank-you card he had received a few days before from a couple who had had received help several times from New Hope’s food pantry, which serves about 200 people a month. On the card, the couple expressed gratitude for the food and kindness they received. “You helped us survive a ‘rough patch’ we had been going through,” they wrote.
Ward says New Hope’s pantry workers “treat people who come for help like the true human beings they are, with respect and care and concern. We share the love of Christ with them and try to help meet their spiritual and emotional needs along with the food that meets their physical needs.”
Building loving relationships with God and others through the hope that is in Jesus Christ is also at the heart of what Ward seeks to accomplish through his sermons. “The name of our church is New Hope and I think we spread the hope of Christ through preaching the word and that allows people to be inspired and to be hopeful and more positive with other people,” said Ward, who earned his doctorate in church history.
“My thought is that preaching needs to be positive, affirming, and uplifting,” he said. “People are beaten down enough by life. When they come to church, they need a message that deepens their trust in God – that helps them feel loved and cared for and filled with hope. That’s what the gospel does for us.”
When Ward came to New Hope seven years ago, Sunday morning worship attendance was 167. Now it’s 298. New Hope’s mission statement started taking shape during the 1990s, when the congregation was meeting in a strip mall and dreaming about who God was calling them to be and to do, says the Rev. Cali Depue Eck, associate pastor and director of discipleship.
Even during those days New Hope’s people felt God calling them to reach out and build relationships that would help people experience God’s life-changing love. In 1998, the congregation moved about a mile north to their new home on 12 acres in a growing neighborhood, and they took their mission statement with them.
Focusing on the mission statement shapes New Hope’s ministries. “We try to help every member be familiar with the church’s mission statement and understand what it means,” Rev. Eck says. “That’s why we have it in our Gathering Area and in other parts of our building and on our church letterhead, newsletter, website, and everywhere else we can think of.”
She said keeping the mission statement before everyone serves two purposes. “It tells visitors who we are and why we are here. It also reminds all of us who we are and why we are here – that’s just as important!”
Eck says leaders use the mission statement to evaluate existing ministries and proposed ministries. “We expect ourselves to be Christ to the world – that’s who we believe God is calling us to be. And nothing we do matters if it doesn’t contribute toward what Jesus calls us to do.”
Members are encouraged to suggest ministries that can help New Hope fulfill its mission. The idea for a ministry to low-income people in downtown Oklahoma City came from the young adult college age class.
“Years ago, New Hope started making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and taking them to people in a poverty-stricken area downtown,” Eck said. “The ministry grew quickly. Now our congregation donates sleeping bags, blankets, toiletries, coats, socks, and other items. The people know we are coming every second Saturday, so they are there waiting for our bus to arrive.”
New Hope not only ministers to people nearby, it ministers to people far away. Several years ago, after an earthquake in Nicaragua, New Hope’s mission team helped build a Methodist Church in a village near a dump, where thousands of people gathered after their homes were destroyed. “The church we helped build serves food twice a day to children, and we provide money to sustain their ministry,” Eck says.
Striving to minister to physical needs of people in crisis, New Hope also ministers to a variety of educational, mental health, and spiritual needs:
• At the invitation of a neighborhood elementary school, several New Hope members tutor students under the guidance of teachers.
• The church partners with a mental health agency and a drug court to help people with addiction issues rebuild their lives. In addition to providing a place for meetings, the church serves a meal. Several New Hope people attend meetings, Rev. Eck says. “We celebrate their victories and share their grief.”
Luisa Medina – who now directs children’s ministries – has been part of New Hope since she was a child. “I started coming here when I was 12 and even then New Hope was sharing God’s love with people through its ministries,” Luisa recalls. “My love for our church’s mission was fostered back then. As I grew older, being in mission became a vital part of me.”
Now in her 20s, Luisa says she is grateful for the opportunity to pass on what she received as a child to children with whom she ministers. “My hope is that when my kids leave children’s ministry and go to youth, they will have a solid biblical foundation,” she says. “Our goal is for them to know the stories of our faith and to be aware of who we are as United Methodists. With that foundation, when they get to youth ministry they can start digging a little deeper and growing as disciples.”
Luisa says she frequently sees encouraging signs of growth in her children. “Recently, one of our boys received quite a bit of money for his birthday. He wanted to spend most of it helping the homeless – a concern he had developed at church.” With his parents’ permission, Luisa took the boy on a shopping trip. She says he bought household items as well as treats. “We took what he bought to Skyline, our United Methodist urban ministry that helps people who need it. Skyline staff gave us a tour of the center. When we got back to the church, the boy told other kids what he had learned.”
Kristy Goff, director of New Hope’s preschool ministries, says she and her staff are committed to being faithful to New Hope’s mission statement. “We want to be a welcoming and caring community and create an environment that nurtures faith in our children,” she says. “We try to help them know we love them and care for them and that they are precious in our eyes and in the eyes of God. Some of our children are not in a church setting except for when they are with us. We want to make our time a positive experience and help them build loving relationships with God and others.”
Election day is not the only day when the parking places are hard to find at New Hope United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. Spaces are scarce most Sunday mornings when the 550-member congregation gathers for worship.
After visiting with Dr. Ward, his staff and several members, I know why New Hope is a busy place. It’s not because an entertaining show or sensational spectacle is packing folks in. Why people come is simple. It’s the same reason crowds came to hear Jesus – it’s why the Church is still alive after twenty centuries.
When people come to New Hope, they find what they were looking for, even if they didn’t know it. They experience God’s love giving them new hope and new life. And soon they are part of a community committed to “Building loving relationships with God and others through the hope that is in Jesus Christ.”
New Hope’s pastor, staff, and people know their mission. And their mission motivates their ministry.
Boyce A. Bowdon was a United Methodist pastor for 20 years and director of communication for the Oklahoma Annual Conference for 24 years.
Judy Graham, director of Celebration Women’s Ministries. Photo courtesy of Houston Baptist University.
“The Lord gives the word of power; the women who bear and publish the news are a great host.” – Psalms 68:11
The 2016 General Conference was good news indeed for women’s ministry in The United Methodist Church. Legislation developed by the Renew Network, the women’s arm of Good News, was adopted to allow ministries to women and men in addition to UMW and UMM.
For some, the addition to paragraph 256.7 opens the door for churches to welcome women’s ministry that meets the unique needs and gifts of their particular congregation and conference. No longer is women’s ministry “one size fits all,” nor is the United Methodist Women under the leadership of the New York office the only official women’s ministry outlet.
For others, the Book of Discipline now officially recognizes and encourages the vibrant work of women that has been taking place for decades. One such women’s ministry is Celebration Women’s Ministry, which began in the Texas Annual Conference and dates back to 1997.
Katy Kiser, team leader of the Renew Network, recently sat down and spoke with Judy Graham, president and co-founder of Celebration Women’s Ministry.
Judy, why did you and others feel there was a need for a women’s ministry like Celebration?
There were three founders of Celebration who saw women hungering for spiritual growth. We recognized everyone needs to experience the power of God; that was simply not happening in some of our ministries. We knew that the church cannot transform the world unless we individually have been healed and transformed.
Some needed the basic step of accepting salvation and the life that God intended through Jesus Christ. Others were seeking opportunities for spiritual growth and discipleship. Many women needed the healing touch that only Jesus can provide. And all women needed the sweet fellowship of one another and the power of each other’s prayers.
Many of our churches needed to develop women’s ministry that met these needs. But let me be clear, the founders, including myself, simply recognized a work that God was already doing and joined it. He led us to work within the UM Church and develop a structure by which women could connect to each other and reach out.
How did the Lord lead you to meet these needs?
In 1997, we approached Bishop Woodrow Hearn who gave us his support, as did our annual conference. At our first event, 65 women leaders from 22 churches in our conference committed to pray on a monthly basis for Celebration. We held a meeting at St. Luke’s UM Church in Houston where over 500 women attended. Not long after this, another 55 women from 16 churches met in East Texas and enthusiastically embraced our vision. Subsequently, at the invitation of pastors and lay women, Celebration was started.
Over the next year and a half, Celebration became a foundation and a covering for women’s ministries in which the focus was on salvation, healing, and equipping based on Luke 4:18-19. By providing speakers and studies in these three areas, Celebration met and continues to meet a full range of women’s needs including praise, worship, prayer, personal witness, Bible study, and fellowship. Today in the Texas Conference we have 21 chapters and new chapters are still being added.
You mention that prayer played a role very early on in starting this ministry. Does that continue to be the case for the organization?
We believe that all beginnings should be birthed in prayer. In fact, we ask women interested in having Celebration at their church to pray for several months and receive God’s vision before becoming a chapter. We also ask that each chapter keep their church, its leadership, and their pastor in prayer as well as our ministry.
The National Board has developed “Guidelines for Intercessory Prayer.” Praying key scriptures is just one tool we encourage along with prayer for renewal, revival, and unity. We also pray for one another. We want women to expect God to answer their prayers: for the church, this ministry, and their personal needs. Prayer teams that meet regularly and email prayer teams operate between chapter meetings. We also maintain a prayer room at the Texas Annual Conference each year. Bishop Janice Huie wrote to us, “Thank you for the beautiful prayer chapel your team provides during the Texas Annual Conference. Your oasis helps us strengthen ourselves for ministry decisions.”
Has Celebration been limited to the Texas Conference or the UM Church for that matter?
2017 marks eighteen years of service for Celebration Women’s Ministry. In that time we have begun chapters in Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. Celebration is seeing walls come down when women come together to worship Jesus. In our meetings are women of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds.
This ministry is not limited to the UM Church; we work across denominational lines, because regardless of denominational affiliations, women need Jesus and women need each other. The Celebration chapter in Appomattox, Virginia, is one example.
Our National Board is particularly excited about the adoption of Renew Network’s legislation by the 2016 General Conference that gives denominational approval to women’s ministries like ours. While we have always had official approval from our conference and local churches, we expect this action will have a big effect on the expansion of Celebration in other UM conferences not to mention other vital ministries.
Of course, expansion is meaningless unless the lives of women are being freed to heal from sin, grow in Christ, and become equipped to share what God is doing in their personal lives and the life of the church.
Can you share one of those testimonies?
Over the years, we have received thousands of testimonies of lives that were changed by our ministry. One of our members wrote after a Celebration National Conference: “I was a broken child of God. The conference was such a blessing. The main message couldn’t have been more relevant to what I needed. 2 Timothy 1:7: ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power, love, and self-control.’ I am now, finally, living for God and it feels so great.”
What would be your advice to women who want to begin alternative ministries in their church?
Prayer should be first; it is essential, as well as working with your pastor and church leaders. If your ministry grows beyond your local church, I also would advise working with your bishop and conference leaders. For those who wish to begin a Celebration chapter, all the principles, steps, and requirements are on our website. We have a leadership team that personally guides new chapters and trains their leaders.
Judy, what are your general thoughts about the UM Church and the state of women’s ministry?
Like Renew and Good News, I realize our church is in a crisis over human sexuality, and I would not want to discount that in any way. But at the same time, I see God moving in a mighty way. For years, many of us have been praying and working for renewal. Much of what happened at General Conference indicates that is happening. I contacted Renew when I heard that the GC had adopted legislation officially recognizing a variety of women’s ministries. I felt this was monumental. We need to move where God is moving. Praise God that is happening. In my mind, another huge indicator is the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA).
Since 2017 marks eighteen years of ministry to women, what will Celebration do to celebrate?
Our celebration begins at our National Conference – the theme is “Covered” – and will continue in our chapter meetings throughout the year. Our theme is taken from Psalms 91:4: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”
We are praying that the Holy Spirit will join us and stir our hearts and minds to heed His word.
If you would like to learn more about Celebration Women’s Ministries or Renew Network, please visit their websites: http://celebrationministries.org and http://renewnetwork.