By Barbara Dunlap-Berg
Evangelical United Methodist groups are teaming up with evangelical groups in other mainline Protestant denominations to share resources. Some of these evangelicals are working toward reform within their denominations. Others are in the process of splitting to form new denominations.
The leaders have covenanted to engage in joint ministries and to explore cooperatively planting churches and sending missionaries, offering incubator facilities to support new church plants, providing theological education and sharing space with dislocated congregations.
“What we hope to learn from each other is the ‘how’ of ministering that message in our 21st century North American culture,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News, an unofficial evangelical caucus of United Methodists. “Through sharing, support and cross-fertilization, we believe we can be more effective in contemporary ministry, building vital congregations to make disciples for the transformation of the world.”
He was part of an ecumenical summit of 32 evangelical leaders from 14 United Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches and organizations who affirmed common theological ground and sought practical ways of working together during a late October conference in Dallas. The unofficial United Methodist caucuses represented included Good News, The Institute on Religion and Democracy, The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church and Lifewatch (Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality).
The ecumenical group’s goal is not to create a new United Methodist or evangelical super-denomination but, rather, a network to address common issues and concerns, Lambrecht said. “We believe in a type of ecumenism that is not institutional, but organic, built on partnerships and networks that can be of mutual benefit,” he said.
However, Lambrecht noted that one challenge he believes the denomination faces is its broad theological spectrum. The United Methodist Church is “the opposite of McDonald’s, where every restaurant offers the same menu and experience,” he said.
That lack of consistency, he continued, contributes to the denomination’s greatest challenge, which is “how to create growing, vital faith communities in a culture that has changed. One of the barriers to our doing that is the lack of a common theological message. Because of our diversity of beliefs, we have many different messages coming out of local churches and pastors.
“The denominational label doesn’t really tell you what you will be getting if you attend one of our churches. With such diversity, it is difficult to come up with a unified strategy to reach our culture for Christ.”
Rather than being in competition with United Methodist boards and agencies, Lambrecht said the ecumenical group envisions participating in experiences that denominational agencies do not offer. The goal, he added, is to share resources and experiences. “We do not anticipate diverting dollars or support from United Methodist programs, but offering additional alternatives.
“It is also true,” he said, “that some of our denominational ‘official’ experiences are not theologically congenial for evangelicals. The ecumenical experiences provide another option that for some might be more in line with their evangelical theology. Where appropriate, we hope to be able to include United Methodist agency staff in these shared ecumenical experiences.”
‘Encouraged’ by the future
Representatives of the Institute of Religion and Democracy, the American Anglican Council, the North American Lutheran Church, and the Presbyterian Lay Committee organized the summit. All have been part of an evangelical ecumenical group called the Association for Church Renewal, which consisted of renewal leaders from several mainline denominations.
Lambrecht said that when Association of Church Renewal formed, all of the renewal groups were still working toward reform within their denominations. Since then, several — namely those in the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — have spawned new, independent denominations.
“It was thought that a new initiative was needed that could take account of that new reality and assist us in working together for spiritual renewal and growing vitality in whatever denominational setting we find ourselves,” he said.
Lambrecht said he does not see evangelicals within The United Methodist Church moving toward a split. “Our U.M. situation, he said, “is much different from most of the others, in that we have not reached a breaking point for evangelicals. In fact, we are quite encouraged about the future we see in our denomination.”
He said recent gatherings of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, have upheld “the authority of Scripture and our moral teachings.” He added church leaders “finally getting serious about addressing our membership decline and wanting to work diligently to turn things around” indicate “a greater openness to what evangelicals have to offer,” he said.
Participants formed working groups, listened to plenary sessions and affirmed an ecumenical statement. While all of the leaders endorsed the statement, some did so as individuals rather than on behalf of their respective churches or organizations, Lambrecht said.
‘Being the church together’
The statement says the new group comes from diverse Christian traditions but is united in the Spirit. While the signatories acknowledge “the imperfections of Christian institutions and the broken nature of our collective witness to the world,” the signers also “commit to strive together for a faithful way of being the Church together. Our hearts are burdened for the millions of our neighbors who are estranged from God and the Church.”
The statement addresses two issues that have been a source of tension and even schism in their respective denominations — human sexuality and abortion. The statement defines marriage as between one man and one woman and affirms, “Every human life is a gift from God to be cherished and respected from conception to natural death.”
“The church should speak only on the issues that follow directly from core Christian moral convictions,” the statement said. Among the others it identifies are upholding the dignity of each person as created in God’s image, addressing the needs and expanding the opportunities of the poor, strengthening the bonds between parents and children and defending the free exercise of religion in North America and around the world.
Summit participants plan a 2013 summit and hope to piggyback on an Anglican church-planting event in Wheaton, Illinois.
They also want to address the issue of sex trafficking. Lambrecht said, “I personally hope we can involve our United Methodist agency staff in both of those experiences.”
Barbara Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.
By Karen Booth
Over a decade ago the Lord called me out of the local pastorate and into a ministry of sexual redemption, healing, and transformation. God invited and commissioned me to help Him equip local churches to become “cities of refuge” for the sexually confused and broken — communities where the truth about God’s will for human sexuality is taught and modeled and where those who sin and fall short are compassionately restored to righteous, holy life. I have to admit that I’ve sometimes doubted whether or not I heard God accurately. And I get discouraged when I consider the wealth of evangelical talent, treasure, and energy that has had to be devoted to defending a biblically faithful sexual ethic.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not disparaging or discounting our renewal movement’s efforts at General Conference or the intensive planning we’ve done in between. Contending for the faith “once for all delivered to the saints,” which includes right doctrine about sexual morality, has been a critically necessary endeavor — one in which I’ve gladly participated. I’m so very thankful that through these efforts God has preserved The United Methodist Church from the officially endorsed immorality that has infected and splintered many of the other historic mainline denominations. This is nothing short of a miracle!
But I’m also convinced that God has saved us in this way for a particular reason. I believe He wants John Wesley’s sons and daughters in faith to move beyond the legislative battles and engage in hands-on ministry. And I think God is summoning those of us who still trust the Holy Spirit’s power to perfect a holy people to join Him in a mission of sexual sanctification.
First United Methodist Church of Livingston, Tennessee, has already begun to respond to that divine invitation. During the last weekend of October, the congregation held its first “Real Love Heals Conference,” a sexual holiness and healing event that was led by their pastor, the Rev. Dr. Craig Green. It also had the full support of the local Cookeville District.
I was privileged to present the keynote address, and I began by sharing the “good news” that resulted from General Conference this past spring. Because of the God-given addition of more orthodox United Methodists in some parts of the United States and around the world, it’s becoming evident that the denomination has “turned a corner” on its legislative battles over human sexuality. Church demographics do not favor our moral revisionists. And even though they may remain contentious or disobedient for a season, many are beginning to recognize that The United Methodist Church will not be changing its sexual standards in the immediate future. Nonetheless, evangelicals shouldn’t be tempted to gloat over this apparent victory; rather we should humbly begin to discern how we can help the denomination “turn a corner” into effective ministry.
To do that, we need to focus on three R’s: Real, Repentant, and Risk-taking. Before effective ministry can happen, United Methodists need to “get real” about God’s will for human sexuality. It is defined in the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, validated by Jesus in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, and highlighted by Paul in Ephesians 5. If we can’t winsomely explain why sexual intimacy is considered holy only within the bounds of covenantal heterosexual marriage, then we have nothing hopeful to share with our sexually compromised culture and church.
Once we’re clear on that, its’ easier to determine the most loving response to those who struggle with any kind of sexual temptation. As Pastor Craig Green wrote in one of his invitational letters to the Real Love Heals Conference, too often Christians have responded in inappropriate ways, by condemning, condoning or congratulating sexual brokenness and sin. Believers need to repent of these unloving attitudes and actions, and then risk reaching out with both truth and grace, welcoming the sexual sinner and introducing him or her to the One who can make all things new. Several dozen conference breakout sessions offered practical direction for doing so.
Real Love Heals wouldn’t have happened without many, many months of constant and fervent prayer. So it was no surprise that Spirit-filled praise and intercession was the chief undergirding of the entire conference. The local praise team did an awesome job leading the general worship, and special musical guest Dennis Jernigan captivated the congregation with his songs and his personal testimony of overcoming same-sex attraction. Workshop leaders built times of prayer into their teachings, and specially trained intercessors knelt with the scores of attendees who came to the altar for healing or to recommit their faith.
And God blessed First Church’s faithfulness and hard work with one miracle after another. A man who struggled with life-long addiction to pornography was supernaturally freed. A grieving Mom found comfort and peace after publicly sharing the story of her family’s struggle with sexual abuse. And a young Dad left the gathering “energized and fortified,” committed to protecting the sexual purity of his children and family in a dark and decadent culture. As Dennis Jernigan commented during the closing worship service: all of us were “messed with in a good way” by our good and gracious God.
And how did the Real Love Heals Conference affect First Church, Livingston? “This experience has changed me forever,” reported Pastor Green after the event. “I am the pastor of a church in true renewal – one that flows in ‘Real Love!’”
I’m praying that he and his parishioners are just the first of many.
Karen Booth is the executive director of Transforming Congregations and the author of Forgetting How To Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution (Bristol House, Ltd., 2012). Many of the Real Love Heals messages are on the First Church website (http://livingstonfirstchurch.com).
By Elizabeth Glass Turner
Over the past 20 years – and that covers a host of Incredible Hulk and Spiderman movies – many evangelicals have reexamined how we approach popular culture as individuals and as a church. Not that long ago, innumerable conservative ministries held prominent sway in the way we evangelicals thought of modern North American culture (think “Murphy Brown”), issuing tallies of the number of curse words used in certain sitcoms in their household newsletters.
Mid-nineties, along came Bob Briner, author of Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change Your World, with his challenge to North American evangelicals: don’t shrink from the age in which you find yourself living. Rather, pursue avenues of transformation. As an Emmy award-winning television producer, he lived his message.
Shortly after that, a similar idea was advanced by a very different source. Philosopher Bill Irwin, PhD, initiated the “Pop Culture and Philosophy” series of books, which popped up on bookstore shelves across the nation. Most shoppers have now seen titles like Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing, Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box, or, for the gamers among us, World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King.
Irwin’s goal was simple: “Get philosophy out of the ivory tower by publishing books about smart popular culture for serious fans. With each volume in this series we seek to teach philosophy using the themes, characters, and ideas from your favorite TV shows, comic books, movies, music, games, and more.”
This integration of critical thinking with sources of daily entertainment dovetails nicely with Briner’s intentions to engage rather than to withdraw. Engaging popular culture is not a new concept for Christians, as those who consider the Apostle Paul’s methods on Mars Hill are quick to cite. It’s a familiar practice for missiologists, who constantly ask, “what is something pre-existing in this culture that connects to conversations about big ideas – truth, existence, ritual, purpose?”
Since this fundamental shift in evangelical perspective, books that address cultural interests and philosophy or theology abound from a variety of publishers. A few recent titles illustrate the appeal to very distinct demographics.
For instance, for anyone who has ever purchased Nintendo boxers at Wal-Mart for a son or nephew, The Legend of Zelda and Theology, edited by Asbury University alumnus Jonathan L. Walls, appeals to lovers of the classic video game who note startlingly familiar themes common both to the game and Sunday morning worship. Essays like “The Birth of Gaming from the Spirit of Fantasy: Video Games as Secondary Worlds with Special Reference to The Legend of Zelda and J.R.R Tolkien,” and “On Hylian Virtues: Aristotle, Aquinas and the Hylian Cosmogenesis” drive video game fans to engage their entertainment with critical thinking.
Fans of Robert Downey, Jr., or the explosively brilliant BBC series named simply “Sherlock” will enjoy The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Asbury Theological Seminary alumnus Philip Tallon, PhD. The volume includes essays that go beyond “elementary” deduction, such as “Eliminating the Impossible: Sherlock Holmes and the Supernatural,” as well as a selection from famed Christian author (and mystery writer) Dorothy Sayers.
Moving from deer stalker hats to werewolves, do you (embarrassingly) know the lyrics to your love-struck tween’s favorite Justin Bieber song? You might want to check out Belieber: Faith, Fame and the Heart of Justin Bieber written by religion journalist Cathleen Falsani. Maybe it will help youth pastors and parents to engage with popular culture with an eye on a more informed way of discussing pop culture and the issues that matter most.
Do you know Robert Pattinson’s favorite color and dream date? Some parents may require their teen to read a chapter from Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality for every Meyers chapter they devour. “Twilight and Philosophy” asks questions like, “what can vampires tell us about the meaning of life? Is Bella a feminist? How does Stephenie Meyer’s Mormonism fit into the fantastical world of Twilight?”
Only time will reveal the long-term impact of the 20th century evangelical Protestant shift from cultural withdrawal to cultural engagement. Only time will tell what cultural contributions last – such as those of Sir Arthur Conan Coyle – and which will fade (Gangnam Style?). What outlasts TV series, or New York Times bestsellers, or even theological trends, is the pursuit of truth. May we continue to find – and embed – truth in our culture.
Elizabeth Glass Turner is the pastor of Kemp United Methodist Church in Kemp, Texas.
By Thomas A. Lambrecht
Would you pay $149,000 for one seminary graduate?
That is what The United Methodist Church did in 2011. According to statistics released in April by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the 13 official United Methodist seminaries received a total of $14,461,705 in Ministerial Education Fund money from our apportionments in 2011 and graduated 337 persons into ordained ministry. That averages out to $42,900 per ordinand.
Four of the seminaries, however, received well over $100,000 per ordinand. These same four seminaries graduated only 6 or 7 ordinands each.
• Gammon Theological Seminary – $124,333 per ordinand
• Iliff School of Theology – $128,054
• Claremont School of Theology – $143,840
• Boston School of Theology – $148,839
The amount received in one year by each of these four seminaries would undoubtedly be enough to pay for the entire three-year seminary education of each ordinand. However, money given to the seminary is not credited directly to students who are ordained. They would receive some of that money indirectly as scholarships and through reduced tuition, but they would typically pay their own tuition (minus scholarships and aid) and usually graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of educational debt.
It is a serious question whether the current or foreseeable enrollment at our seminaries is enough to justify 13 schools supported by the church. It appears that a certain critical mass of students is necessary to sustain both quality and efficiency in our theological education process. Schools with enrollments yielding more than 40 graduating ordinands per year (Duke, Candler, Perkins, and Garrett-Evangelical) provided that education for less than $30,000 in 2011 for each ordinand. Schools with enrollments yielding 20-40 graduating ordinands per year (Wesley, St. Paul, and United) provided that education for less than $50,000. Schools with enrollments yielding 10-20 graduating ordinands per year (Drew and Methesco) provided that education for under $63,000 for each ordinand. But the four schools with the smallest enrollment yielding fewer than 10 graduating ordinands per year (Iliff, Boston, Gammon, and Claremont) cost the church over $124,000 last year per ordinand.
When the enrollment drops and there are fewer than 10 graduating ordinands per year, the cost more than doubles. This is an issue of stewardship and wise investment that needs to be looked at.
A change in the formula
Because of the concerns that have been raised in the past about this discrepancy in financial support between different seminaries, the University Senate has changed the formula for allocating aid, beginning in 2012. Under the new formula, 65 percent of the seminary support money is to be allocated based on how many United Methodist candidates for ministry are enrolled and how many are ordained.
The new formula definitely results in more equitable distribution of church funds to the seminaries. Among the nine largest seminaries, the difference between highest and lowest cost under the old formula was $36,000. Under the new formula, the difference is only $22,000.
What we see, however, is that once there are under 10 ordinands, under either formula the cost nearly doubles.
Candler School of Theology (Atlanta) and Duke Divinity School (Durham, NC) both average more than 50 ordinands per year. Perkins School of Theology (Dallas) averages more than 40. Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evanston, IL) and Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, DC) both average more than 30. St. Paul School of Theology (Kansas City) averages more than 20. All six of these schools under the new formula will receive between $30,761 and $36,315 per ordinand, a very equitable distribution of apportionment money. (The lone exception is Wesley, which is receiving over $43,000 per ordinand, probably based on some other factor in the formula.)
Methodist Theological School (Delaware, OH), Drew University Theological School (Madison, NJ), and United Theological Seminary (Dayton, OH) all average between 14 and 19 ordinands per year. The money they receive is substantially higher than the first group under the new formula—$43,389 to $59,819 per ordinand.
The third group of seminaries all average fewer than 10 ordinands per year. They are Iliff School of Theology (Denver, CO), Boston School of Theology, Gammon Theological Seminary (Atlanta), and Claremont School of Theology (Claremont, CA). Under the new formula, they will receive between $80,613 and $102,903. (Claremont is a special case. In 2011 it received $143,840 per ordinand. But they had only six ordinands in 2011, compared to their four-year average of nine. In addition, they received the largest cut in apportionment money for 2012 at 39 percent, which brings their share more in line at $58,262 per ordinand.)
The Seminaries Respond
Ultimately, the seminaries realize that in order to survive and thrive in today’s educational climate, they need to attract more students. Several of the schools are going about this in novel ways. (These are just the examples I am aware of.)
United Theological Seminary is reemphasizing its Evangelical United Brethren roots and just launched a joint program with Aldersgate Renewal Ministries exploring the “Foundations for Methodist Supernatural Ministry.” This was preceded by a move to a new, larger campus. Over the past four years, enrollment has reportedly increased from a low of 50 students to now 600. The increased enrollment will undoubtedly show up in an increase in ordinands. (The 20 ordained in 2011 was already higher than their four-year average of 14.)
St. Paul School of Theology has recently taken the decision to sell their campus and move to a facility at nearby Church of the Resurrection, the largest UM congregation in the country. By downsizing their facility, they hope to free up more money for instructional programs. By relocating to the campus of the largest congregation, one of Methodism’s fastest-growing, they hope to make use of strategic partnerships with the congregation and staff that will enhance the value of the education they offer. Ultimately, of course, they hope these steps will increase enrollment.
Claremont School of Theology recently received a gift of $50 million to set up an interfaith university (now called Claremont Lincoln University) to train clerics from the Christian faith, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, and others all under one institutional roof. Their approach is based on the premise that “students gain a deeper understanding of their own faith when educated in the presence of religious diversity.” Based on statements by the school’s president, Rev. Dr. Jerry Campbell, it is easy to construe that Claremont’s underlying philosophy is that, while Christianity may be the best road for some, all faiths are equal and all faiths equally lead to God. It remains to be seen whether the seminary can preserve the integrity of United Methodist principles and doctrine under this new approach.
The changing economical and educational climate is prompting creative thinking and innovation that could bring about a better approach to theological education within The United Methodist Church. There are similar developments taking place in Europe and Africa to expand the options available for training pastors to serve the churches there. Seminaries in Europe are experimenting with night classes for students working during the day. On both continents, seminaries are developing short-term intensive courses that allow students to attend classes in concentrated blocks of a week or two and then spend the rest of their time in work or ministry, similar to the approach taken toward local pastors in the U.S. in the Course of Study program. Seminaries on both continents face the challenge of adapting seminary-level education to multiple languages and wide differences in terms of how prepared students are for graduate-level education. Amid all these challenges and experiments, it is true that our dollars go a lot farther in providing theological education in less-developed countries. We get more “bang for our buck” there.
In this country, an increasing percentage of pastoral leaders are not seminary-trained, ordained clergy, but local pastors who attend the Course of Study over a period of five to eight years. The National Hispanic Plan relies on lay “missioners” who remain laity while serving the church.These persons are closest to the “lay pastors” and circuit riders whom Wesley and Asbury assigned to provide pastoral leadership in the congregations of the 18th century. Wesley gave them a reading list and even a published library to further their studies, while giving them 44 Standard Sermons to inform and undergird their preaching. What we do today is more sophisticated, but it follows the same model. It is also much less expensive than a full-blown seminary degree. Local pastors in our churches today provide pastoral leadership that in many cases is as effective as that provided by ordained elders. How does this development inform our understanding of theological education?
In the midst of all the innovation and creativity, there are many complex questions to ask:
1. Are the innovations leading United Methodist seminaries to adhere more closely to the basic doctrines and practices of historic Methodism, or are they moving the schools more in the direction of a multi-denominational or even interfaith approach that leaves behind Methodism’s distinctives?
2. Are the changes producing pastors who are more effective in ministering in the current cultural climate and in leading churches to real disciple-making?
3. What is the best use of declining denominational funds to provide effective leadership for a global church? Is there a point at which we say that The United Methodist Church cannot afford to support 13 denominational seminaries? Should we use more of our resources to support theological education and leadership training in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines, where the church is actually growing and the need for trained leaders is more acute?
4. Since hundreds of United Methodist students are choosing to attend non-United Methodist seminaries, what can be learned from those schools that can help make UM schools more attractive to our students? Or should the University Senate continue to take non-United Methodist seminaries off of the “approved” list, reducing student choice and forcing more UM students to attend UM seminaries?
5. Should more denominational funds be given to support the students and reduce their debt, regardless of which seminary they attend, or should those funds continue to be used to support mainly United Methodist institutions to keep them alive?
There is a case to be made for heavily subsidizing Gammon Theological Seminary as a unique African-American institution that contributes something to theological education that no other institution in our church can. At the same time, Gammon students already have access to Candler School of Theology courses, professors and resources through a consortium. Allowing for the complexities of the situation, aren’t there better ways for Candler and Gammon – institutions only seven miles apart – to work together for the educational needs of United Methodist seminarians?
There is a case to be made for heavily subsidizing Claremont and/or Iliff as the only UM seminaries in the Western Jurisdiction. However, it appears that most Western ministerial students elect to attend a school other than Claremont or Iliff. What could be learned to help those schools become better able to meet the educational needs of students from the West? Is the potential ministerial student population from the West so small that we cannot afford to maintain two or even one dedicated UM seminary in that jurisdiction? Would our denominational resources be better spent to establish United Methodist departments in a number of compatible theological seminaries throughout the Western Jurisdiction?
We have approached the question of the future of our United Methodist seminaries initially through the framework of money. Diminishing financial resources or lack of money has a way of focusing the debate over priorities and strategies—in a denomination no less than in a household budget. But as one can see from the questions above, the issues go far deeper than money.
Our basic question is: How can we provide the best education for effective pastoral leadership for our church in the 21st century? If only 15 percent of our congregations are “highly vital,” it follows that as many as 85 percent of our clergy are currently less than highly effective. How can we upgrade the skills and effectiveness of our current clergy and assure a steady supply of highly effective leaders for the future? The seminaries will play a large part in the answer to that question. We should all be engaged partners in the discussion to design a new framework for theological education. The future of our church depends on it!
Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.
By Timothy C. Tennent
Demographics don’t lie, you just have to be willing to listen to them. For example, if China has 90 million believers, but the vast majority of those believers are under 30 years old and the United States has 90 million evangelicals and the majority of those are over 50, then there is a demographic story which is gradually unfolding which is not “heard” when one is simply looking at raw statistics of Christian affiliation.
The United States is one of the fastest emerging mission fields in the world, but it will take about 20 more years before Christians fully “feel” it. The younger the Anglo demographic in the US, the more likely one will question the knowability of truth. This means a likely rejection of anything that might be described as divine, objective revelation. The loss of confidence in human reason is almost palatable. The language of “I think” has moved to the language of “I feel” which is quickly moving to the language of “whatever.”
The younger the Anglo demographic in the United States, the more likely you are to discover a distrust of authority, institutions and, indeed, of all hierarchies. This includes a deep distrust in government, in churches and in church structures, including clergy. It also includes a rejection of any kind of metaphysical hierarchy which posits God as the sovereign Lord over His created order. The younger the person, especially if they are white, the more likely one will find a growing skepticism about the reliability and trustworthiness of historical narratives.
History is viewed as hopelessly mired in flawed and biased, agenda pushing perspectives which cloud any possibility of objectivity. Thus, all historical accounts – whether the iconic account of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, or St. Luke writing his gospel – now lay beneath a new layer of skepticism and historical cynicism.
According to quite a few Millennials, Bart Erhman and Dan Brown may have as much a bead on historicity as St. Luke and St. Paul. On top of all this, we should not forget the gnawing loss of confidence in the inevitability of human progress, a belief cherished since the Enlightenment. The generation now in their twenties is the first in the modern period to not end their careers “better off” than their parents. They will have less purchasing power, less post-retirement security and a shorter life expectancy (by as much as five years) than their parents. This is the first backwards shift in life expectancy in the modern period.
If you are under 25 years old you will almost surely live to see the day when the most Christian countries in the world will be China and India, whereas it will be quite difficult to find Anglo Christians in the Pacific Northwest. By 2050 the United States will probably have 329 million Christians (more than any country on earth) but the demographic of that Christian will be increasingly hispanic, Korean, Chinese or India, and far less white Anglos of European descent.
These demographic facts are not easy to accept. It is much easier to turn up the volume on our latest Christian CD, point to the hundreds of cars in mega-church parking lots, or pick up the latest Christian romance novel, rather than soberly face the fact that we are not passing the faith down to the next generation. What should we do?
First, your church should plant at least two ethnic, non-Anglo churches in the next decade. If you are in a major urban center, you will need to plant four. This does not necessarily imply purchasing land and building buildings. It may be as simple as starting a new service at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday focused on a nearby Korean or Hispanic population.
Second, you must introduce rigorous catechesis for all members, young and old, enquiring and established. We must re-teach the historic faith to this generation with a special eye to interacting with key objections and misunderstandings which are prevalent in our society. Every pastor should insist on a course no less than six weeks long which introduces the candidate to the faith (historically, doctrinally and experientially). After baptism, even more instruction, discipleship, and mentoring should follow, which brings people more fully into what it means to be a member of the church. Incorporating members into small group discipleship settings must be the norm, not the exception.
Third, evangelism must be at the heart of the church’s life. The church must regain confidence in the gospel and the clarity of the good news. In the United Methodist context we must regain our confidence in the centrality of Jesus Christ, the power of the preached gospel, the authority of Scripture, and the privilege to serve the poor. Instead, enormous energy is being spent just trying to remember or recapture the gospel and fighting heresies at every turn. In the process, tens of thousands go unevangelized. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble and important struggle and every soldier in this struggle deserves our support and prayers. But, I do long for the day when United Methodism gets refocused on our historic message and witness. I see signs this is happening, but we’ve got at least another generation before we see the tide turned.
Like the famous frog in the pot of water slowly coming to a boil, the church has slowly taken on the skepticism and doubts of the world regarding the power of Scripture, the centrality of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation. But the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation.
Let me say it as clear as I can: There are not multiple paths to salvation. Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ really and truly and bodily and historically rose from the dead. This good news is for the world. Jesus Christ is building the community of the redeemed, which is His body, the church.
We are called to live out all the realities of the coming New Creation in the present age. The Lord will, once again, raise up better hearers of the gospel and more faithful readers of his Scripture. In the meantime, we have a great deal of work to do. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, shall we?
Timothy C. Tennent is the president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of several books, including Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology, and Invitation to World Missions: A Missiology for the 21st Century.