Can Methodists learn anything about effective Christian evangelism from their denomination’s founding period 250 years ago?
“Yes,” says a Duke University professor, who told 600 church developers how the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, gave rise to a movement that swept the young United States of America.
“Early Methodism was evangelistic,” the Rev. Laceye Warner (pictured right) explained to the 2009 United Methodist School of Congregational Development in July. “When the Wesleys talked about spreading ‘Scriptural holiness,’ they meant evangelism.” She defined evangelism as preaching the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ and “living it out.”
One of the recurring themes at successive annual Schools of Congregational Development, which are sponsored by the United Methodist Boards of Discipleship and Global Ministries, is the decline in Methodist membership in the United States (and also in Britain, where it originated). Mission-founded expressions of the denomination found elsewhere are growing.
Reclaiming strengths. Numbers alone are not all that matters, said Warner, who holds a chair of evangelism at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.
Among the qualities of early Methodism that could help the contemporary church reclaim its earlier strengths is the idea that growth in grace is as important as growth in numbers. Other relevant qualities are the beliefs that theological reflection is essential, sustained Christian practices maintain the community of faith, and wealth and material goods are meant to be shared.
The building blocks for the early Methodist movement included “classes” and “bands” that developed after people responded to Methodist preaching, often set in open fields and other public spaces, rather than in church buildings.
Classes were groups of 10 to 12 people organized by geographic location—neighborhoods—while bands were 6 to 8 people who voluntarily came together for spiritual nurture. There were two kinds of bands: “select” and “penitential” or “over-achievers” and “backsliders.” But, when the lists of band members are examined, those who show up on the “select” list were once themselves among the “penitential,” Warner said.
“The experience of sanctification was expected to take place in small groups,” she continued, “but it didn’t happen for all at the same pace. We have one record of it taking someone 48 years to experience sanctification.” Growth in grace, Warner said, was as important to the Wesleys as expanding membership rolls. The growth was steady but gradual.
People fed one another spiritually in the early Methodist movement; they kept personal journals that were shared. Not everyone stayed with the spiritual and social “discipline” that the Wesleys taught and practiced. Scriptural and “social holiness” were partners in the Wesleyan movement. Warner indicated that membership loss started at the very beginning among those who did not share the vision.
By Elliot Wright, information officer of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. This article was distributed by United Methodist News Service.
By James V. Heidinger II
This spring at our annual conference sessions, pastors and lay delegates will open with a Memorial Service honoring members and spouses who have died during the past year. At this always-touching service, we will lift our voices, singing triumphantly, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed…” (Hymnal, No. 711).
Two of those to be remembered this spring will be pastors who have been especially important to Good News’ ministry, to the evangelical witness of the United Methodist Church, and to countless numbers of young clergy they inspired toward ministry.
Just how does one get a handle on the scope of the ministries of the Rev. W. A. Amerson, who died last September at 92 years of age, and the Rev. Mr. Edgar Nelson, who died in January 2010, at the age of 95? I knew both of these pastors and was touched by their friendship and their ministries. They both incarnated what Eugene Peterson wrote about in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. They were, indeed, “faithful unto death.”
What strikes me about these two statesmen are the similarities of their ministries. Both W.A. and Edgar were graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary and members of the Good News board of directors in its early, formative years. Both had lengthy pastorates at large, flagship evangelical UM Churches—W.A. seventeen years at the Dueber United Methodist Church in Canton, Ohio (East Ohio Conference) and Edgar twenty-five years at the Yuba City United Methodist Church in Yuba City, California (Cal-Nevada Conference). They both had a lifelong passion for missions and thus, both of the above churches developed strong missions programs which continue to this day. In good Wesleyan fashion, the world became part of their parish.
One other similarity fascinates me. Both pastors were passionately committed to calling on their members in their homes. It was nothing for W.A. to have 70-80 calls in a week’s time—not a long visit, obviously, but enough to learn whether there were any needs the family had; if so, he could stay to address those and offer encouragement. For Edgar, I learned recently from the Rev. Al Vom Steeg (for whom Edgar was a long-time mentor in the conference) that “he made it his goal to be in each member’s home at least twice in a year. And sometimes he would be at the home of church visitors nearly before they got home from church.”
My ministry began as W. A. Amerson’s associate pastor in 1967 at the Dueber Church in Canton. I learned so much about ministry (administration, calling, funerals, weddings, etc.) by simply being there and watching him in action. He allowed me to preach and share in the administrative load. I consider those four years (1967-1971) a time of invaluable learning.
What impressed me about W.A. was how this pastor, coming from such humble beginnings, made himself and his talents totally available to God. He knew the difficulties of the Great Depression and how to live with little. W. A. put himself through college at Texas Tech and then earned graduate degrees from Asbury Seminary and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary while working every kind of job imaginable to acquire tuition money.
The people W.A. served loved him because they knew he loved them. He visited them, cared for them, prayed for and with them, and he remembered their names. His great memory was one of his special gifts and he amazed people at his ability to remember their names. Because of the love they felt from him, countless hundreds were moved to accept the Savior he served and about whom he preached. And no one knows just how many young men and women W.A. and his wife Virginia (who died in 2004) encouraged and directed into Christian ministry. He was a father in the ministry to scores of persons, including the young and not so young.
I’m not sure it fully struck me until his death just how much this dear pastor had meant to me—how he had touched my life personally. In addition to all I learned from him about pastoral ministry, W.A. served on the Good News board and nominated me to be on that board in 1974. That introduced me to a wonderful family of renewal-oriented United Methodists. Then, as a member of the Asbury College board of trustees, he nominated me to be on that board in 1979, where I was privileged to serve for 28 years.
As best as I can determine, taken together, W.A. and Edgar’s lives account for more than 130 years of ministry and service within our denomination. W.A. lived 92 years. Edgar lived to be 95.
Edgar Nelson was a giant, both spiritually and physically. At six-foot-eight, when he entered a room, he commanded your attention immediately. And his heart was as big and loving as his physical frame. There was about him a charming warmth and contagious smile that made you love him from the start.
Edgar served the First United Methodist Church in Yuba City, California, from 1960 until his retirement in 1985. During those 25 years, the church flourished and with his passion for missions, the church developed a strong, dynamic missions program that continues yet today.
While serving as a pastor, Edgar was also one of the founders, along with the equally legendary Dr. J. C. McPheeters, of Redwood Christian Park near Santa Cruz. (Some may recall that in the 1950s, McPheeters served as senior minister of Glide Memorial Methodist Church while also serving as President of Asbury Theological Seminary, commuting cross country on a regular basis.) Edgar remained active in leadership at Redwood Christian Park as long as he was physically able.
I have been to Redwood Christian Park a number of times. Nestled in the breathtakingly beautiful setting of the Santa Cruz Mountains, it is a magnificent venue for Christian camping and conferences. With lovely, modern facilities, it has been for 60 years a wonderful evangelical center for summer camps, weekend retreats, ministerial gatherings, family camps, and other professional group meetings. And in many respects, it is an abiding testament to Edgar Nelson’s (and McPheeters’) passion for both evangelism and missions.
Edgar remained concerned about denominational renewal right up until the end of his life. It was not unusual for this dear friend to call me just to chat and catch up with what hopeful signs might be seen across his church. He was faithful and regular in his support of Good News.
Edgar Nelson’s lovely wife and lifetime partner in ministry, Marian Barber Nelson, still lives at the home they enjoyed for 51 years. The two would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this coming August.
By every measure, the lives and ministries of W.A. Amerson and Edgar Nelson are worth celebrating, perhaps on our knees before God. And as you sing that great memorial hymn the next time, maybe this spring at annual conference, note carefully verse 3: “O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,/ fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,/ and win with them the victor’s crown of gold./ Alleluia, Alleluia.”
W.A. and Edgar fought nobly and boldly—and they did so for several decades before any organized renewal efforts emerged in the church to give encouragement. They were faithful unto death. They have surely won the “victor’s crown of gold.”
Lord, for the lives and faithful witness of these two saints, we thank you. May those of us who follow after be found faithful. And Lord, as we are moved by their memory, help us “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2 NRSV). Amen.
James V. Heidinger II is the president and publisher emeritus of Good News.
By Frank Decker
We were nearing the conclusion of a training session in which I was teaching about the Kingdom of God when the hand of a South American pastor shot up. “So, does someone have to be a Protestant to be saved?” he asked. His question was obviously born from uneasiness that had been building in him throughout the day. We had been discussing the importance of enabling people to meet Jesus within their own denominational context—as Jesus’ disciples demonstrated. And we had re-examined the meaning of the word “church” (or ecclesia), defining it as simply a gathering of believers in Jesus Christ, regardless of their denominational affiliation. This pastor’s frame of reference, however, was that Catholics needed to be extracted out of their own background and into his own context (in this case Methodism) as a prerequisite for them to really meet Jesus.
When this type of thinking is the default setting in our cranial software, we are likely to find ourselves spending far more energy proliferating our own denominational organizations or traditions rather than simply sharing Jesus. The distinction may seem rudimentary, but it is crucial. Sometimes the religious lenses we wear cloud our ability to see God’s work in the hearts of the people around us. However, if we are willing to look at those lenses rather than through them, we are likely to position ourselves to more fully experience reformation and renewal. In fact, after my response to the pastor’s query, which was the simple question, “Are you saved by being a Protestant, or are you saved by the blood of Jesus?” it seemed as though a light had come on in the room.
I am encouraged by evidence that this light seems to be coming on in many places. Vincent Donovan, an American Roman Catholic priest, served as a missionary to the Masai of Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s. During his first year of cross-cultural ministry he wrote a letter to his bishop questioning the missionary approach that had preceded him for 100 years in that location. The schools, chapel, and hospital that marked the presence of that mission consumed countless hours of energy, and in Donovan’s assessment produced little spiritual fruit.
In other words, as helpful as these ministries had been to meet specific needs, sustaining them had eventually begun to interfere with—rather than enable—the essential work of pointing people to Jesus. So, instead of resigning himself to spend his time and energy only maintaining these mission mechanisms, this novice missionary decided to invest himself by “simply getting to know the Masai and telling them about God.” His book Christianity Rediscovered bears witness to the result that he became a successful disciple-maker in a locale where previously, in his estimation, not one local Masai had come to faith in Jesus.
Picture a scene with burned-out automobiles and buildings, the result of recent clashes between Muslims and Christians in central Nigeria that have left about 400 people dead. It was in this environment that Mission Society staff members Dick McClain and Darrell Whiteman, cross-cultural worker Kirk Sims, and African leaders recently facilitated a Global Engagement Training event attended by 100 pastors and bishops representing seven denominations. As the teaching progressed, it was evident to the Christians present that they needed to think not in terms of spiritually conquering their Muslim adversaries, but loving them into the Kingdom.
A watershed incident took place when one woman stood up and testified, “Because of the conflict, whenever I see a Muslim, I just become angry in my heart. I don’t even want to look at them. But now I see that I need to love them.” She continued, “If we cannot deal with Muslims right here, how are we going to be able to reach them in Senegal or wherever else God sends us?” She went on to say that she intended to begin to pray for her Muslim neighbors and to reach out to them. A spirit of revival broke out during the event that led to the final two evenings being consumed with times of crying out to God for Muslims to meet Jesus. In Sims’ words, “it was almost like scales falling off the eyes of people.”
As I think about the increase of light, I also am aware of the opposition from the forces of darkness. In fact, if I were the devil, I think I would attempt to reduce the biblical message of Jesus and his Kingdom so that it would popularly be understood in a weak and diminished form—as mere adherence to a religion, void of the essentiality of actually knowing the King. Then that perspective, not the perspective of the Kingdom, would become the lens through which devotees would view everything else. Yeah, if I were the devil I think I would try that.
Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society and a long-time columnist for Good News.
By Steve Beard
The symbolism was profoundly countercultural. When Sergei Rybko lumbered onto the stage in between rock bands at a dingy nightclub in Moscow, his appearance was sure to provoke a whiplashed double-take. Draped in a flowing black cassock and adorned with a massive gold cross, 49-year-old Rybko sports a shiny bald head and burly beard that would make the guys in ZZ Top jealous.
As he looked across the faces of the teens and twentysomethings, he flashed the peace sign—thawing the ice with the nostalgic hand gesture popularized by the disillusioned bohemians of a different era.
The heart of his message to the understandably perplexed audience was eloquent and simple. As Rybko looked around the club, he told them that they had come together on that night because, in one way or another, they were a club of lonely-hearts—similar to the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” made famous by the Beatles. Under the roof of the club, their hearts are united by the music; but once they leave the range of the deafening decibels, they will be all alone.
“You don’t have to be alone,” he reminds them. “If you reach out to God, you will never be alone.” With a slight bow and another flash of the peace sign, Rybko leaves the stage to the applause of the crowd.
As you might have surmised, Rybko is a Russian Orthodox priest and his unique ministry was recently profiled on ABC News.
Rybko tends to the normal priestly duties of his parish by day, and ventures into the underbelly of Moscow’s rock subculture at night—a mission that was given to him by the late Patriarch Aleksei II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church who died last December.
Back at the club, a young rocker makes his way over to Rybko. “I wanted to say a big thank you for coming and for his support,” he told ABC correspondent Alexander Marquardt. “I had some questions I didn’t know who to talk to about, so I asked him and explained everything to me.”
Rybko’s expectations are modest. “At least they didn’t throw anything,” he says afterwards. “My job is to sow, it is up to God to cultivate,” he says. “If what I say changes someone, if it makes someone purer, closer to God, then that’s a successful evening.” Quite simply he believes that if the punkers and metalheads won’t come to church, the church should go to them.
In many ways, Rybko is the perfect candidate to reach out to a wayward flock. Before becoming a wandering hippy when he was young, he played in a rock band and led a small group of anarchists in rebellion against oppressive and rigid Soviet communism. “I used to be a rocker and I will always be one,” he reports. “For the average person behind the Iron Curtain, it represented the only truth that you could listen to.”
Those outside the walls of the sanctuary may not be interested in our internal church battles, but they are intrigued by truth—eternal truth that speaks to the heart, mind, and soul.
When Rybko first got involved in the church, he was a bell ringer. He took the opportunity to mix Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin songs along with the traditional Orthodox bell ringing. According to Rybko, the old ladies in the congregation actually liked the convergence of rock and ritual.
Twenty-one years ago, Rybko was ordained as a priest. Today, he attempts to live out his faith before those inside the sanctuary and those moshing at the rock clubs. “My job as a priest is to bring the life of Christ to the darkest basements,” he says. “In the club, I talk to people who are far away from God…. If I open the Bible [in the clubs] and start to talk like a priest, they will all run away. So I have to use their language but make sure they understand that a priest is speaking to them and that Christianity will solve their problems.”
I have a soft spot in my heart for Rybko’s outreach. When I was a teenager, I used to hang out at a notorious punk rock club called the Cuckoo’s Nest in Orange County, California. Despite having grown up in the church, it ended up being a group of mohawked and tattooed rockers that helped me to embrace my faith.
What really stuck out in the Rybko story was that in addition to hanging out at the clubs, he also opens up a small building behind the sanctuary to bands that need a place to rehearse. Amongst the instruments, amps, and graffiti, there is a large cross on the ceiling and icons of Jesus and the saints displayed on the walls.
As he is getting older, Rybko admits that he usually feels more comfortable preaching in church than hanging out at concerts and clubs. “Thirty years ago that would have been my home,” he says. “Now I feel more at home in church, that is closer to me. But it is my duty to go to the clubs. If I don’t, who will?”
Great question. God bless Sergei Rybko.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.