Methodist Heritage: Belonging to the Church in Crisis
By Bishop Gerald Kennedy
Good News Convocation
It’s a very great honor and a great delight for me to be here today. I had the privilege of writing an article the first time Good News magazine came out. I have felt that this is one group that ought to have some representation, and probably one group that has been much neglected.
I brought my Bible because I want a text. And it always makes a great impression on the brethren when a fellow has his Bible instead of his date book. From the 11th chapter of St. Matthew, beginning with the 16th verse: “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a demon; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”
Jesus took his sermons and his insights into the meaning of God, God’s Law and God’s will out of the things he observed. You never catch him quoting a theologian. He never goes back to something that he heard in school. He just looks out over the crowd and he uses the experiences they’ve had. And he says you are like children playing.
The youngsters of that time had two favorite games. One was called funerals. They liked to take off on an oriental funeral. Death didn’t mean much to these youngsters. They played weddings too. A different mood – rejoicing.
Jesus, looking upon this changing crowd, realized what they wanted now and he knew they’d want something different tomorrow. So he said, you are like the children playing these games, and their whole attitude toward religion was as a game.
I do not know how to speak of our attitude toward religion, toward the Gospel, toward the Church, in any better way than to say we think of it as a game.
When World War II came along, we suddenly got religious. We had a rebirth of religion, or we thought it was. I can still recall what a great thrill it was to start a new church. We built 10 or 12 a year. We opened them up, people came, and there were crowds.
But the mood has changed. It isn’t so easy now. The theologians are predicting now it’s the end of the Gospel, the end of religion. Oh, we are just like those children – we go by moods. Now everything is all well … now everything is all wrong.
When somebody goes to a new community today, he will join any church that seems to be to his liking. Now the ecumenical boys – the COCU propagandists – are telling us that this is a new ecumenical spirit. It’s nothing of the kind. It just means that we don’t take church very seriously one way or the other. If we are going to any church, it doesn’t matter much which one. Wherever it is a little more convenient, or wherever the preacher is a little more pleasant or where we are likely to hear more of the things we like to hear – we’ll go there. It just shows that we treat the whole business as a game.
In a certain Sunday school class, the teacher wanted to inquire about what the children believed. The minister’s son was in that class, and she said to him, ‘‘tell us why you believe in God.” The boy was a little confused and he said, “Well, I don’t know. Somehow it just runs in our family.” And that’s the attitude we’ve taken toward this church membership, and our relationship to the Gospel. If it runs in our family, we have grown used to it, but there’s nothing very deep in it.
Jesus was talking to us. Like the children of the marketplace, we mourn. We laugh and we expect others to join us. What game can we play that will please you? Tell us and we will choose it.
We think that the only purpose of the Church is to make us feel good. We think that the only purpose of the Gospel is to say the thing that we want to hear.
I don’t know anything about music, and sometimes I’m glad I don’t. I know more preachers who get so upset when the music is a little off but I have not a good enough ear to know it. So I just enjoy it. But I do have a conclusion about the hymns we sing. You may be very sure that a subjective hymn is no good for Christians. The hymn which we ought to sing, the hymn which is real, is the objective hymn. It tells us something about the Laws of God and what it means to be in God’s presence.
We have in Southern California more nuts about religion than anywhere else in the world. If you get a funny idea, come out there and start a new church, and people will come.
A former friend of mine came to Southern California and started a church in a theater. He advertises in the Los Angeles Times every Saturday, and the headline of his ad is, “Let’s Talk About You.”
No talking about Christ, or the will of God. Let’s talk about you! Our approach to our religion and our approach to our Church is this: Does it make me feel good? Does it say the thing I want to hear? Will it please me? Does the preacher reflect my economic and political ideas? If not, I’ll go somewhere else. It’s a game.
This is one of the reasons why our Protestant churches have had such a hard time in integrating. The reason is, we just want everybody to be our kind of folks. We like a church where we’re at home with one another. And even our denominations have come to be marked by economics. If a Methodist becomes too successful, he’ll almost certainly become an Episcopalian.
Social classes who have the same sense of values and the same prejudices we want in our churches.
Now so far as the preacher is concerned, he’s in a bad way. What do they want from preachers? They want something interesting, and I’m in favor of that. (I don’t know how anybody can preach the Gospel without being interesting. But preachers can do it. It almost takes a supernatural power to be dull when you are preaching the Gospel. Preachers need some divine aid. You cannot do it on your own.)
And they want the preacher who has some status in the community. They want somebody who amounts to something, who has some brains, who knows which fork to use and so on. He has to be socially acceptable. They want that kind of a fellow, of course, but they also want the kind of man who says the thing they want to hear. And if they don’t hear it on this corner, they’ll go down to the next corner and try him. It does not make any difference about the denomination. They will shop around. Sermon tasters are no good to the Church. No loyalty to the church. They have not joined anything and they are just playing a game. If the mood changes, they must go elsewhere.
If I were a layman, and I went to a church Sunday after Sunday, and heard exactly the thing that I expected to hear, I think I would go to the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, and say, “See the superintendent, and if necessary see the bishop, but in God’s name, let us have somebody here that will confront us with God’s Law.”
I could not stand the constant hearing of the kind of thing that I want to hear. The Gospel, to me, is that thing which probes down into my life. It becomes as a bright light down in the darkness. Sometimes I feel so ashamed of myself I cannot stand it. And sometimes I feel so guilty I cannot escape. Now the Gospel is not just sweetness and light.
At the root of the whole thing, we have misunderstood what church membership means. We join a church; we really ought to enlist in a cause. When a man joins a church he ought not to be saying by his action I’m going to be here as long as I am happy, and as long as I agree.
“I’m here for the duration!” is what church membership ought to mean.
I went to Russia a few years ago, and I was never received with such cordiality and friendship in my life. Those fellows took me in like I was one of them. They were so desperately anxious to meet somebody from outside. They took me out to the seminary. I met some of the young men who were training for the ministry. Think of that! In Russia!
And I shall never forget a Communion service. I watched those people come down to take Communion, older people some of them, most of them, I suppose. Toil was written on their faces and suffering. And I thought to myself that they’re not here because this is the thing to do. This is a great handicap for them to come here and they know it. One of the greatest spiritual experiences I’ve had was in that church that day.
I got away from my guide one afternoon during the week and went over to the Baptist Church in Moscow. The church was packed. I could not understand a word and I did not understand the hymns. I did not understand what the preacher was saying. But there was something in the atmosphere that I have not felt in an American church in a long, long time. People were there and they hung on those words. This was life and death to them.
I went to Poland. Those folks had been under persecution for years. They were under the Catholics for a long time. (That was before they ever heard of the Vatican Council.) Life was not easy for the Methodists. Then came the communists. And all their lifetime, their Methodist witness has been in the midst of suffering and pain and danger. But you ought to be with one of those Methodist congregations when they worship! Something happens!
Now I have to say this to you and to myself. We are not going to have the same kind of preacher for all the churches. We have to know that there are going to be very many different interpretations. And this we must welcome. Our unity is not going to be found in an orthodoxy of theology. It is going to be found in a loyalty to Christ through the Church of Christ, which is, in our case, The United Methodist Church. We are enlisted in The United Methodist Church and we are there for the duration whether everything pleases us or not.
This Convocation represents to me great hope, and great danger. If it becomes merely another negative group attacking this or that. I’m up to here in caucuses already. The Church doesn’t need us if that is all we are.
But if we can hold up this witness of evangelical preaching and living without narrowing it down too much, and rejoicing in evangelical Christianity The Church has been waiting for this and needs it.
It is a thin line we walk. O God, help us to walk it properly and not go over one way too far or the other.
I have been reading a book about the Queen of England. She is quite a gal. She has dignity, and she’s brought up her family pretty well And she has courage. A few years ago she was going to Ghana, and the communists started stirring things up over there. The government got a little worried and did not think she ought to go. They tried to tell her but she didn’t pay any attention. Finally the prime minister said, to her, “You better not go. It’s too dangerous.”
She said, “Danger is a part of the job,” and she went.
Danger is a part of the job of church membership. It is not going to be a safe time, in these days ahead. I think we are in for tough times.
The first great conference of the Methodist Church in America was the Christmas Conference of 1784. The question was asked of those brethren, ‘‘What is God’s design in raising up the people called Methodist?” The answer they gave was the same answer which John Wesley gave in 1744: “To reform the continent and spread scriptural holiness across the land.”
Now if they’d been modern fellows they’d just sat down and talked about all their problems and how tough it was.
But not being modern, they just said, “What does God want us to do?” Reform the continent! That is a big enough idea for you. And spread scriptural holiness across the land. That’s a pretty good answer. For us too.
I went to Africa a few years ago and saw Albert Schweitzer. I spent two or three days with him. Now he was a tough old boy. Before I left he gave me his picture and autograph. That is one of my most precious possessions.
The other day, when I was thinking about this speech, I glanced up at that picture. And underneath it there is written a wonderful thing Schweitzer said about Jesus: “He comes to us as One unknown. Without a name. As of old by the lakeside He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words, ‘follow thou me.’ And sets us to the task which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship. And as an ineffable mystery they shall learn in their own experience who he is.”
And I said to myself, that’s it! That is Church membership in a time of crisis. That is what I’m groping for and what I have been trying to say. We find him, and he reveals himself to us, in the task he has given to us to perform and in the sufferings. And that, my brothers and sisters, seems to me to be the very heart of what it means to belong to a church in crisis. To be enlisted in his cause, and to follow him in that spirit. Let us pray.
Our Father, we love The United Methodist Church. Because we love it we know there are times we must be critical of it. And we thank thee that those of us who believe this, also believe that we must not divide ourselves. We pray that out of this great meeting here thou wouldst be pleased to put a new Spirit in our Church, and redeem us from playing with the faith. Through this meeting may there come into all our churches and our lives, great rebirth of power. Amen.
This sermon appeared in the October-December 1970 issue of Good News.