Holiness of Heart and Life: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself – Part 2 of 6

Genuine communication requires self-knowledge

            Genuine communication begins when participants know themselves. Self-knowledge enables people to know their abilities, weaknesses, and limitations. When self-knowledge is lacking self-deception is likely to take over. Any subsequent efforts at communication will then be shaded by pride. Pride leads inevitably to self-righteousness, defensiveness, grandiosity, patronizing, proselytizing, or worse. These behaviors seldom contribute to honest, fruitful dialog. They are much more likely to result in monolog that leaves the participants feeling defensive and angry.

With regard to inter-religious dialog self-knowledge has at least two essential meanings. First, persons must know themselves. “Mindfulness” is a way of describing self-knowledge:

 Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.[1]

Mindfulness enables a person to be present to himself or herself, to others, and to their surroundings. Such persons are comfortable in their own skin. Mindfulness allows persons to listen to others and be open to hearing ideas and beliefs that differ from their own without getting defensive. It also equips persons to honestly share their beliefs with others with humility and grace.

Secondly, within a context of religious and inter-faith dialog, self-knowledge implies participants have working understanding of the essential doctrines, practices, and history of their faith tradition. They are grounded in the Scriptures of their tradition. This is to say that persons need to be practitioners of their own tradition. They also know that theirs is not the only expression of their religion. For example, Christians in the United Methodist tradition understand that Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Pentecostals are other equally valid expressions of Christianity.

John Wesley provides some help in understanding the character of self-knowledge. He equates self-knowledge with repentance:

And first, repent, that is, know yourselves. This is the first repentance, previous to faith, even conviction, or self-knowledge. Awake, then, thou that sleepest. Know thyself to be a sinner, and what manner of sinner thou art. Know that corruption of thy inmost nature, whereby thou are very far gone from original righteousness, whereby ‘the flesh lusteth’ always ‘contrary to the Spirit’, through that ‘carnal mind which is enmity against God’, which ‘is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be’. Know that thou art corrupted in every power, in every faculty of thy soul, that thou art totally corrupted in every one of these, all the foundations being out of course. The eyes of thine understanding are darkened, so that they cannot discern God or the things of God. The clouds of ignorance and error rest upon thee, and cover thee with the shadow of death. Thou knowest nothing yet as thou oughtest to know, neither God, nor the world, nor thyself. Thy will is no longer the will of God, but is utterly perverse and distorted, averse from all good, from all which God loves, and prone to all evil, to every abomination which God hateth. Thy affections are alienated from God, and scattered abroad over the earth. All thy passions, both thy desires and aversions, thy joys and sorrows, thy hopes and fears, are out of frame, are either undue in their degree, or placed on undue objects. So that there is no soundness in thy soul, but ‘from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot’ (to use the strong expression of the prophet) there are only ‘wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores’.[2]

According to Wesley, prior to repentance a person is deluded into believing he or she is something that he or she is not. They are alienated from God and ignorant of the things of God. Their mind and heart are blind to their true condition of ignorance and self-centeredness. Without repentance a person cannot know themselves nor God. Repentance is the beginning of knowing the true self, which is the first step toward holiness. It opens the mind and heart to the light of God that reveals the damage caused by sin. Repentance turns the heart and mind away from the self-deception of sin and towards the truth and life of God. Mindfulness begins when the heart and mind are turned away from self and turned towards God.

Repentance also opens the mind and heart to the truth and life of God revealed in Scripture and tradition. It enables persons to begin to know, understand, and live the doctrine and discipline of Christian faith. As they learn, practice, and grow in faith Christians become confident practitioners who can humbly enter into relationship with their neighbors who practice other religions, or no religion at all.

Persons who lack repentance live in a world of illusion. This world is represented best in contemporary western culture that discounts the very idea of sin. People in the west do not recognize sin in themselves because they are bombarded by messages in media, and the church, that they are okay. If people believe they are okay as they are then acknowledging sin and repentance becomes irrelevant. Faith in Christ is reduced to belief or intellectual assent to a creed or certain doctrines. No change in the heart and behavior of the person is required.

This means many people who regard themselves to be Christian in “Mainline” congregations lack self-knowledge. They misunderstand sin because it is seldom taught or preached. Sin is often equated with mistakes or character flaws. It is rarely acknowledged to be an innate, “inbred” brokenness of the soul that denies God and distorts all of life and human community, including the church. Therefore, they deny the reality of sin and their own sinfulness.

Some years ago I was part of an adult Sunday School class in a typical United Methodist Congregation. During the course of conversation about the Scripture lesson for the day I made what I thought was a simple statement of truth: “We are all sinners.” I did not expect the class to erupt in anger and indignation. Everyone took personal offense at my remark. It did not help when I responded to the angry gazes directed at me by saying, “I’m including myself when I say that we are all sinners. No one is immune from the human condition that alienates us all from God.” Every person in the room agreed the doctrine of original sin was mistaken. They agreed that labeling people as “sinners” demeans them and damages their self-esteem. The consensus of the class was that sin is not really that big of a problem. They believed that sin was nothing more than bad habits that can be changed through a little will power. When I challenged their thinking by asking, “If sin is not really a problem then why did Jesus suffer and die on the cross?” the room was silent.

Reflecting on my experiences as a pastor and, for the past fifteen years, an active member of various United Methodist congregations, I am convinced the vast majority of church members are ill equipped to engage in real dialog with their neighbors, friends, and co-workers who practice other religions, or no religion. Without conviction of sin and earnest repentance they cannot know the God revealed in Scripture, the person and work of Jesus Christ and the witness of the early Church. We should not be surprised, therefore, when Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the dominant theology expressed by the majority of members in mainline denominations, such as The United Methodist Church.

The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is like “a butler or therapist, someone who meets our needs when summoned or who listens non-judgmentally and helps [people] feel good about themselves.”[3] The job of a butler or therapist is to serve, not to be served. They are chosen by us according to our own criteria, which reflect our character. We could say this god is created in the image of the people. Therefore, sin is re-defined as flawed character traits and bad habits that can be overcome by a little self-discipline. The god of MTD does not ask for nor require repentance.

Repentance requires awareness of sin and sinfulness. Persons must first hear the gospel proclaimed and experience Christ in a community in which the gospel is taught and practiced. The Apostle Paul puts it this way:

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ (Romans 10:14-17, NRSV).

This is why the church’s ministry of teaching, preaching, and practicing the gospel of Christ is essential to the formation of a culture of holiness. Christ must be at the center of the congregation. When Christ is the center discipleship follows. When Christ is supplanted by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism holiness is replaced by niceness. Repentance, and subsequent self-knowledge and faith in Christ necessary for Christian witness, are short-circuited.

[1] Psychology Today web site: http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/mindfulness

[2] John Wesley, Sermon 7, “The Way to the Kingdom”, §II.1, in Works, 1:225-226.

[3] Dean, 17.

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself – Part 1 of 6

This is the first of a six-part series of posts based upon a paper I presented at the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies in August 2013. The theme of the Institute was to reflect upon how Christians in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition relate to people and communities of other historic faith traditions, or no faith at all.

The Wesleyan emphasis on doctrine and discipline under the guidance of the Holy Spirit equips Christians for genuine interfaith conversation and witness. The paper argues that when congregations expect, encourage, and equip members to grow in holiness of heart and life they prepare them for Christ-like encounters with their neighbors who practice other religions, or no religion.  

Part 1 of 6:  

        The 21st century is a post-modern, multi-cultural, multi-religious world. It is a world characterized by globalization and diversity. The global economy is a world marked by migration in which people leave home and travel around the world in the hope of making a better life for themselves. This is a world foreign to the one I was born into.

I was born in the middle of the 20th century into an American culture that was assumed to be “Christian.” And to be Christian was essential to being American. The Church held a place of prominence and honor in daily life and popular culture. Everyone spoke English and saw little reason to learn a second language. Born into a Methodist family, I was baptized as an infant. The church I grew up in saw little need for intentional Christian formation because it was assumed the culture in which we lived would work in concert with the church to form good citizens who, as a matter of course, would be Christians.

The world I grew up in was the last gasps of Christendom. While there are vestiges of it today, Christendom is no longer the dominant paradigm of Western culture. The Church continues to have a place in the cultural conversation, but it is no longer a dominant voice. It is one voice among many.[1] This is revealed by the growing number of communities that annually provide public space to display religious and non-religious displays during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.[2] On December 24, 2011 National Public Radio reported a story from Leesburg, Virginia about how each December the local county courthouse traditionally hosted a Nativity scene. Local Christian congregations provided the annual display. However, the practice was challenged in court by local non-Christian residents as being a violation of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court agreed and instructed the county to allow other, non-religious displays alongside the traditional Nativity. The NPR story tells how county officials decided to resolve the issue. They provided ten plots around the courthouse square for holiday displays. Most were claimed by local atheist groups and included a diverse array of displays intended to mock religious symbols.

What happened in Leesburg, Virginia is repeated across the country. While Christianity remains the majority religion in the United States, it is no longer the dominant influence in popular culture or thinking it once was. Christianity in North America is living on the fumes of a Christendom that ran out of fuel decades ago. Many Christian leaders understand this new reality. They tend to lead independent, non-denominational churches. Unfortunately, the so-called “Mainline”[3] denominations continue to operate out of a Christendom paradigm. They do so at their peril. To do so leaves the church ill equipped to communicate and live the gospel of Jesus Christ in today’s post-Christendom, post-modern, multi-religious culture.

Typical United Methodist congregations leave their members ill equipped to communicate and live the gospel of Jesus Christ in contemporary culture because they discount the importance of holiness of heart and life. Christendom thinking assumes that Christianity continues to be the dominant voice and influence in the world. It even goes so far as to claim the United States is a “Christian” nation. It logically follows that holiness is equated with good citizenship. Being a good, loyal citizen of the nation is the definition of a Christian; Church, State, and Culture are all partners in forming the character of the people.[4]

The problem with such Christendom thinking is that it denies the significant cultural shifts that have occurred and will continue. It is also contrary to the nature of holiness found in Scripture that John Wesley and the early Methodists understood very well. Wesley defined holiness as being cleansed from sin, ‘from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit’, and by consequence the being endued with those virtues which were also in Christ Jesus, the being so ‘renewed in the image of our mind’ as to be ‘perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect’.[5] To be “holy” is to be set apart, to be different. Striving to “have the mind of Christ” sets Christians apart from the world. More specifically, holiness is marked by who and how Christians love.

Wesley believed holiness is a life-long journey. It is a process of intentional growth that involves the formation of “holy tempers:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see Galatians 5:22-23). The eventual outcome of striving toward holiness is becoming fully the person God created you to be, in the image of Christ. Christians who intentionally and persistently practice and pursue holiness become more and more like Jesus.

Wesley anticipated the state in which The United Methodist Church finds itself today in the opening paragraph of his “Thoughts Upon Methodism” written in 1786:

 I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.[6]

In its pursuit of cultural relevance the denomination has intentionally set aside “the doctrine, spirit, and discipline” Wesley regarded as essential to Methodist identity and mission. The importance of doctrine, spirit, and discipline are downplayed for fear that United Methodists may be perceived as being exclusive.

United Methodist congregations, with their emphasis on inclusiveness and openness, tend to conflate holiness with citizenship.[7] This means the body politic is the primary subject of Christian love rather than the triune God. God remains an important presence, but is secondary to “open doors, open hearts, and open minds.” An important virtue fostered by United Methodist congregations, therefore, is a virtue they frequently name “social holiness.”[8] At the heart of this virtue is inclusiveness of all people at all levels of the church and society. It also includes the struggle for social and economic justice. Much emphasis is placed on the importance of human agency in “building the kingdom of God.” The church is understood to be God’s agent given the task and responsibility for building the kingdom of God. The end result of equating holiness with citizenship is a people whose lives reflect the very best values of the surrounding culture.

This leads to a culture of self-preoccupation. David Lowes Watson astutely describes the North American church:

 Instead of places where people come to be formed as Christian disciples, congregations then become places where people are primarily concerned with being helped and blessed. Instead of finding how they can serve the risen Christ in the world, proclaiming and living out the coming reign of God, they begin to look for ways in which they themselves can be enriched by God’s love and peace and justice. And even when they do make a serious attempt to form themselves into Christian disciples, they will tend to focus on the development of personal spiritual growth to the neglect of helping Jesus Christ with the unfinished task of preparing the world for God’s coming shalom.[9]

Watson argues that The United Methodist Church is thoroughly enculturated. By this he means the church is a reflection of the culture in which it resides. “Instead of presenting the world with the gospel, the church adjusts the gospel to whatever the world finds important.”[10] Hence, marketing and consumerism are dominant influences both inside and outside the church. Church pastors and staff are regarded as providers of religious goods and services. Church members are the chief consumers who go to the church expecting to be served.

Congregational leaders are guided by what Juan Luis Segundo calls the General Rule of Pastoral Prudence, “The absolute minimum in obligations in order to keep the maximum number of people.”[11] Pastors who are now required to report attendance and membership figures every Monday morning are unlikely to challenge this market-driven, consumer culture.

Therefore, United Methodist congregations are filled by people John Wesley regarded to be “almost Christian.”[12] They are outwardly Christian, participating in worship, church programs and activities, doing good works in community, and are generally good, decent, responsible citizens. However, their Christianity is often only skin deep. Their religious beliefs are more akin to what Kenda Creasy Dean calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) than historic Christianity.

The guiding beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are:

  • A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.[13]

MTD is the result of decades of downplaying what Wesley regarded as essential Christian doctrine and discipline. Congregations de-emphasize doctrine in order to present themselves as being inclusive, open to all, and welcoming to people of no faith and non-Christian religions.

The United Methodist Church’s recent marketing tag line, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: the People of The United Methodist Church” is a prime example. It implies that United Methodist congregations are open to all expressions of faith, all ideas, and all people. The slogan intentionally downplays the denomination’s historic identity in Jesus Christ and his mission. It deliberately sets Jesus aside in order to convince the world that openness and inclusiveness are the denomination’s most important values.

Every church should have open hearts, minds, and doors. Inclusiveness is an important attribute of the church. The doors of the church must be open to everyone. The hearts and minds of the people should be open to accept and love all people as they are. We need also to understand that true, universal inclusiveness and openness are possible only when Jesus Christ is Lord of the church. Such virtue is possible only when hearts are open to his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to work through each life to make open hearts, minds, and doors a genuine reality. This means that the church must understand that true inclusiveness and openness are the fruit of a people who pursue holiness of heart and life.

As admirable as inclusiveness is, when it replaces holiness as the telos of the church we end up with a people who possess little or no understanding of basic Christian doctrine or discipline. This renders them to be poor conversation partners with their Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Unitarian, or atheist co-workers, neighbors, and friends.

To illustrate my point, I share an encounter I had in an adult Sunday School class in a United Methodist congregation in Nashville, Tennessee. During the course of the class’ conversation Jim told everyone about a new friend he met at his place of work. His new friend is Muslim. Jim told us about how his co-worker told him about his Islamic beliefs and practices. Jim spoke about how inspired he was with his new friend’s deeply held faith. He is particularly drawn to his friend’s discipline of prayer five times a day. Jim concluded by wistfully telling the class that he wished Christians had such a discipline that he could practice.

I took the opportunity to tell Jim, and the class, that Christians have an ancient tradition of daily prayer know as the Daily Office. John and Charles Wesley practiced a discipline of prayer at least three times a day: morning, evening, and night. They encouraged Methodists to join them in the same practice. In addition, Methodists had the tradition of weekly small group (classes) and society meetings that included prayer, praise, Scripture reading, teaching, and accountability for discipleship. All of this was new to Jim and everyone else in the class.

Jim was baptized into The United Methodist Church as an infant and confirmed as a youth. He was active in his UMYF group during high school and graduated from a United Methodist affiliated college. Today he is an active member, and leader, in the same congregation in which he grew up. Jim had no knowledge or experience of Wesleyan discipleship, in spite of his life-long affiliation with The United Methodist Church.

I am highlighting his story because, in my experience working with numerous United Methodist congregations, districts, and annual conferences in my work as Director of Wesleyan Leadership for the General Board of Discipleship, Jim is a typical church member. He is a good man who does his best to make a positive contribution to his church and community. Jim is highly intelligent and articulate when talking about his work, hobbies, sports that interest him, and politics. But when asked to discuss his faith or to explain basic Christian doctrine, he is speechless. Jim knows he believes in God and Jesus is his personal Savior. But he is not able to go much further. Jim has been taught that being a Christian means being a good citizen, being nice to others, and going to heaven when you die. Holiness is not part of his vocabulary. In fact, he is repelled by the word because he associates it with fundamentalism and people he perceives to be judgmental and “holier-than-thou.”

In the next five posts I intend to argue that a life steeped in Christian faith and the practices that lead to holiness of heart and life is a pre-requisite for honest, faithful dialog and relationship with people of non-Christian religious traditions and who profess no faith. I am part of a denomination that publically declares itself to be a people of “Open hearts, Open doors, Open minds.” At the same time it has forsaken its historic pursuit of holiness of heart and life, the very same holiness that enables hearts, doors, and minds to be truly open to others. For interfaith dialog to be a conversation participants must be deeply rooted in their respective traditions. Otherwise, the dialog becomes a monologue. When people like Jim, whose faith has been formed much more by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism than historic, Scriptural Christianity, encounter a co-worker who is a practicing, devout Muslim, Jim is not equipped to engage in genuine interfaith dialogue. He is very proud of having an open heart and open mind, but he has very little to offer his Muslim friend who may have questions about Christian faith and practices.

[1] Bryan Stone, Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 10-11

[2] See http://www.npr.org/2011/12/24/144151483/secular-opponents-of-holiday-displays-get-creative

[3] These are historically American Protestant denominations that were dominant players in US culture and politics during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Denominations typically identified as “Mainline” are The United Methodist Church, The Episcopal Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), The Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and Reformed Church in America.

[4] Stone, 118-119.

[5] John Wesley, Sermon 17, “The Circumcision of the Heart,” § I.1, in Sermons I, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 1 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976– ), 402-403.

[6] John Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodism (1786), ¶ 1, in The Methodist Societies: History, Nature, and Design, ed. Rupert Davies, vol. 9 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976—), 527.

[7] The denominational marketing campaign known for the catch phrase, “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds: The People of The United Methodist Church” is a prime example of equating inclusiveness with holiness. The United Methodist Church, therefore, is no different than an any public institution (school, library, or civic organization).

[8] Wesley’s use of the phrase, “social holiness”, is broader than the way it is commonly used today. For Wesley social holiness means both that Christianity is necessarily a relational religion requiring participation in Christian community. Secondly, social holiness expands the relational nature of Christian faith beyond the Christian community and into the world. He describes his meaning in the preface to a Collection of Psalms and Hymns published in 1739: “Holy solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. “Faith working by love” is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. “This commandment have we from Christ, that he who loves God, love his brother also;” and that we manifest our love “by doing good unto all men; especially to them that are of the household of faith.” And in truth, whosoever loveth his brethren, not in word only, but as Christ loved him, cannot but be “zealous of good works.” He feels in his soul a burning, restless desire of spending and being spent for them. “My Father,” will he say, “worketh hitherto, and I work.” And at all possible opportunities he is, like his Master, “going about doing good.”

[9] David Lowes Watson, Forming Christian Disciples: The Role of Covenant Discipleship and Class Leaders in the Congregation (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1991), 26.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 28.

[12] This is a reference to Sermon 2: “The Almost Christian”, in which Wesley asserts the difference between an “almost Christian” and an “altogether Christian” is whole-hearted faith in Christ crucified and risen. This faith compels the altogether Christian to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and to love those whom God loves, even their enemies and the enemies of God. Such faith is described by Charles Wesley as “Active faith that lives within, Conquers earth, and hell, and sin, Sanctifies, and makes us whole, Forms the Savior in the soul.”

[13] Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What The Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 14.

Thoughts on Wesleyan Leadership

“By Methodists I mean, a people who profess to pursue (in whatsoever measure they have attained) holiness of heart and life, inward and outward conformity in all things to the revealed will of God; who place religion in an uniform resemblance of the great object of it; in a steady imitation of Him they worship, in all his imitable perfections; more particularly, in justice, mercy, and truth, or universal love filling the heart, and governing the life.

“You, to whom I now speak, believe this love of human kind cannot spring but from the love of God. You think there can be no instance of one whose tender affection embraces every child of man, (though not endeared to him either by ties of blood, or by any natural or civil relation,) unless that affection flow from a grateful, filial love to the common Father of all; to God, considered not only as his Father, but as “the Father of the spirits of all flesh;” yea, as the general Parent and Friend of all the families both of heaven and earth”

(John Wesley, “Advice to the People Called Methodists (1745),”¶ 2 & 3, in The Methodist Societies: History, Nature, and Design, Vol. 9 of The Bicentennial Works of John Wesley, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 123-124).

This quotation reveals John Wesley’s thoughts on the essence of what it means to live as a Christian committed to the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of the Methodist movement. He was convinced that the goal of Christian discipleship is holiness of heart and life. By “holiness” he means active love—of God (‘inward holiness) and of those whom God loves (‘outward holiness’). Charles Wesley describes this holiness of heart and life as:

Active faith that lives within,
Conquers earth, and hell, and sin,
Sanctifies, and makes us whole,
Forms the Savior in the soul.

Holiness of heart and life is the way of life that is dedicated to witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world by obeying his teachings. For Methodists doctrine, spirit, and discipline are focused on forming people who reflect the love of Christ in the world. We can, therefore, say that a Methodist is a person who is training to love God with all his or her heart, soul, and mind and to love those whom God loves.

Wesleyan Leadership strives to a missional culture that supplies the doctrine, discipline, and spirit people need to grow in holiness of heart (loving God) and life (loving those whom God loves). It fosters a culture of holiness that equips Christians to join Jesus Christ and his mission for the world.

Wesleyan Leadership is missional. It is centered in the life and mission of Jesus Christ who is working to redeem the world and prepare it for the coming reign of God. Wesleyan leadership keeps the church centered upon Christ and God’s mission in the world.

Wesleyan Leadership is relational. Disciples are made when Christians care enough about their neighbors to introduce them to Jesus Christ and model his way of life that leads to holiness of heart and life. Relationships centered in Jesus Christ are best formed in small groups whose life is shaped by obedience to Jesus’ teachings summarized by him in Matthew 22:37-40 and John 13:34-35. Their life is shaped by a rule of life. The General Rules are the Wesleyan rule of life:

… to evidence their desire of salvation by…

Doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced …

Doing good; by being in every way merciful as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all people. …

Practicing the spiritual disciplines that open our hearts to God:

  • The public worship of God
  • The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded
  • The Lord’s Supper
  • Family and private prayer
  • Searching the Scriptures
  • Fasting or abstinence

Wesleyan Leadership is incarnational. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). Wesleyan leadership forms a culture in the church that is centered in Jesus Christ who loves all people. Christians are baptized and called to serve as Christ’s representatives in the world. This means we are to be agents of Christ’s love for all people, their bodies and their souls. Jesus teaches his followers that the physical needs of people must be the concern of his followers (see Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 4:18-19; 10:25-37). As members grow in holiness of heart and life they live as witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world and follow his teachings through acts of compassion and justice.

Wesleyan leadership operates out of obedience to Jesus’ commission to:

Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20, The Message).

Jesus’s commission to  the church and its leaders is that they are to focus on the work of disciple formation. He is equally clear that he will build the church:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18, NRSV).

Jesus builds the church on the foundation (rock) of disciples and discipleship. When the focus of leadership is the church, its growth and success, we end up emulated consumerist standards. If we look to Scripture and tradition we see that leadership is centered on Christ and his mission in the world. One of the essential roles of leadership is to keep the church’s focus where it belongs: Jesus Christ and the mission of God. When we focus on what God loves (people, justice, righteousness, and the world) then church growth will take care of itself.

The Wesleyan tradition of leadership (missional, relational, and incarnational) gives us a healthy compass heading for these times of change and uncertainty for the church. We need to stop focusing so much on the church and turn our attention back to what Scripture and tradition tell us really matter: Jesus Christ crucified and risen and his mission to prepare this world for the reign of God that is coming.

Witness to Jesus Christ in the World

In the history of Christianity, being a witness has carried a heavy cost. You see, Martyrs-projectthe Latin word for witness is “martyr.” Given the modern usage of that word, one can understand why many Christians today get nervous whenever the topic of “witnessing” comes up. The early witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world paid for their witness with their lives; often in gruesome and terrifying ways. When given the choice between worshipping Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives and risking imprisonment and death or renouncing Jesus, worshiping the Roman gods, and living, many chose the former. They would rather die than deny Jesus. They paid for their faith with their lives.

It is no wonder, then, that Christians today are squeamish about witnessing. To many, faith is a personal matter that is not discussed in public. It is between them and God. To others, it is wrong to try to impose their beliefs on another. And for others, they are simply too uncertain of their own beliefs to be willing to share them with anyone. There are, no doubt many other reasons most Christians are uneasy with the idea of witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world.

So then, why do we have a general rule of discipleship whose purpose is to lead people to witness to Jesus Christ in the world? When you are baptized God, through Jesus Christ, promises to always love, forgive, and surround you with his grace. In response, you “confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races. You accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, and you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins.” In other words, with the churches help, you make a covenant with Christ to be a witness to him in the world. And, being a witness to Jesus Christ in the world is a remarkable privilege. It is a gift from Jesus to you. He gave his life for you so that you may receive this gift; so that you may live in his amazing grace and offer that gift to others.

We witness to a particular person. God loved us so much that he sent a love letter in the form of a man, a Jew from Nazareth named Jesus. In Jesus, God lived among us as a common carpenter; a man who earned his living with his hands.

We witness to him in many ways; ways. Some witness to personal experience of Jesus. These are the people who have had a sudden, life changing event in which they experienced the transforming power and presence of Christ. In that experience they received unequivocal assurance of their salvation and Christ’s presence in their lives. Others testify to what the Bible says about Jesus. They may or may not have had a conversion experience, but they have come to know Jesus through the witness of Scripture. Still others simply witness to Jesus Christ in the world through the way they live their lives every day. Every time you attend public worship on Sunday morning, you witness to Jesus Christ in the world. Every time you give compassion to someone who is hungry, sick, in prison, mourning, or lonely, you witness to Jesus Christ in the world. Every time you pray in public or private, you witness to Jesus Christ in the world. Every time you speak out against or resist injustice and oppression you witness to Jesus Christ in the world.

Christian discipleship is an ongoing process. It is a life-time project. Discipleship is living out the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is how you:

 …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

You work out your salvation by witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world and following his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the church promises to equip and support us in the living the way of Jesus. We stand on the shoulders of the witnesses, martyrs, and saints who have gone before us. The writer of Hebrews encourages us when he writes,

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith
(Hebrews 12:1-2a).

Michael Glen Bell and Duane Arnold give us a brilliant collection of prayers of some of that “great cloud of witnesses” to inspire and encourage us as we strive to live as faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world today. These martyr’s prayers are set to music by Mr. Bell. He performs the words of witnesses such as Thomas Becket, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero. The words and music of this record will stay with you. They will be a source of encouragement, inspiration, and challenge as you do your best to follow the way of Jesus in the footsteps of the saints and martyrs.

Click here to visit the Martyrs Project web site. Be sure to watch the two videos: Becket and Romero.

Ebola and Wesley

Ebola is causing much suffering and anxiety across the world. More than 8000JWmonogram people have been diagnosed with the virus in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. It has killed over 3,800 people. The global community has deployed personnel and supplies to assist the affected nations in their efforts to fight the spread of the virus. President Obama recently deployed 3,000 soldiers from the US Army to assist in the struggle to contain the outbreak.

Earlier this month Thomas Duncan travelled from his home in Liberia to Dallas. He developed Ebola symptoms shortly after his arrival and went to a hospital for help. Mr. Duncan was eventually diagnosed with the Ebola virus and admitted to the hospital where he was treated in isolation. Mr. Duncan died this week. Everyone with whom he came into contact is being monitored to see if they develop symptoms of the disease.

Media reports about Ebola and Mr. Duncan have both informed and incited much fear in the USA. While public health and medical experts have tried to inform the public about how difficult it is for Ebola to be passed from one person to another, others in the media have stoked unfounded fear and anxiety in many people.

The Wesleyan tradition gives us a Christ-shaped response to Ebola. First, John Wesley was a man of God who took science and medicine seriously. He read and studied the scientific and medical journals of his time. Wesley believed God gave us minds for thinking and solving problems. He saw science as God’s gift to humankind. It is a means to understanding how the systems of the world work, including those of the human body.

Wesley published his most popular book, A Primitive Physick, as an attempt to give regular people access to the latest medical advice for the treatment of common ailments. He wrote the book out of the conviction that Christians have an obligation to treat and heal illness. Followers of Jesus have a responsibility to alleviate physical and spiritual suffering. Healing and wholeness are an essential part of Jesus’ good news for the world. They are signs of God’s kingdom breaking into the world.

Christians in the Wesleyan tradition are people who familiarize themselves with and learn from science. Regarding Ebola, Wesleyans study the information available to them about the virus, how it is transmitted from one person to another, and what we can do to protect ourselves and others from the virus. We will not give in to irrational fear mongering.

Wesleyans will also be Christians who will work to develop a vaccine that will prevent the Ebola and medicines to treat. They will also do all in their power to help prevent the virus from spreading.

Secondly, John Wesley believed Jesus expected his followers to visit and care for the sick (see Matthew 25:36). Visiting and care for the sick is not an optional activity for people who call themselves Christian. In his sermon, “On Visiting the Sick” (#98), Wesley explains how visiting the sick is just as much a means of grace as prayer or the Lord’s Supper. He believed that both the person visited and the visitor benefit. The person visited receives relief from suffering while the visitor’s heart is opened more to Christ and his grace at work in the world. Visiting the sick is a way of growing closer to Christ. Wesley goes on to explain how to and who should visit the sick. He explains that much of visiting is asking questions and listening to the person’s needs, then doing all in your power to care for the needs. Who should visit? Everyone who claims to be a Christian needs to make time to visit. Wesley believed men and women, laity and clergy are responsible for visitation and care for the sick.

I am not saying that we all should fly off to west Africa to care for the thousands of people suffering because of the Ebola virus. But we can pray for them and for the people who are trained to provide medical treatment and to help prevent the spread of the virus. Prayer is a good beginning to fulfilling our responsibility to Christ and our west African sisters and brothers. Lift up the people who have been diagnosed with Ebola to the Great Physician. Pray for the women and men who are working to treat and comfort the sick and dying. Pray for the people working to educate their neighbors about how to protect themselves from infection. Pray for those who must collect the dead and carefully dispose of the remains. Pray for the US soldiers who will be working with the people to build clinics and caring for the sick.

In addition to prayer, you can give to support the work of United Methodist missionaries and pastors in west Africa through the work of Global Ministries and the Advance for Christ response to Ebola.

Wesleyan Leadership Conference to Reconnect Leaders with Baptismal Living

WLC2014_FB_Cover

NASHVILLE, Tennessee /GBOD/ – Lay and clergy leaders will explore baptismal living and disciple-making in the Wesleyan tradition through prayer, scripture, worship and interactive experiences at the 2014 Wesleyan Leadership Conference in October.

The conference, entitled Leaders Living (and Dying) Baptismally, is scheduled for Oct. 23-25 at the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) in Nashville.

“One of the major goals is to reconnect people with the baptismal covenant,” said Steve Manskar, Director of Wesleyan Leadership at GBOD and one of the conference leaders. “We’re going to explore the promises we make when people are baptized and confirmed and are received as members of the church – what they mean and what their implications are for discipleship and disciple-making.

“Baptism marks the beginning of life in Christ and his Church. We regularly need to revisit the promises that God, the church and we make when we are baptized.” Manskar said.

Conference participants will have numerous opportunities for prayer and worship during the event. In small interactive groups, they will discuss ways to apply what they are learning to their own lives and as leaders in their local contexts.

“The goal is not just to give people good information, but rather to help them experience something that contributes to their formation as followers of Jesus Christ, and in particularly, to their ministry as leaders who disciple others,” Manskar said.

During a pre-conference morning session on Oct. 23, Manskar will lead a workshop about how Covenant Discipleship groups form disciples of Jesus Christ who are equipped to disciple others. Participants will explore the General Rule of Discipleship, the group covenant, group dynamics and how to introduce Covenant Discipleship to a congregation.

Other conference leaders include:

  • Melanie Gordon, Director of Ministries with Children, GBOD
  • Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship Resources, GBOD
  • Jodi Cataldo, Director of Laity in Leadership, GBOD
  • Tom Albin, Dean of The Upper Room Chapel, GBOD
  • Tim Bias, General Secretary, GBOD
  • Michael Bell, composer and musician, and co-creator of The Martyrs Project: Martyrs Prayers 
  • Dean McIntyre, Director of Music Resources, GBOD

The individual registration fee for the three-day conference is $95, and for groups of three or more from the same organization, the fee is $85 per person. The pre-conference fee is $25. For more information and to register, click here.

Discipleship & Disciple-making in the Wesleyan Tradition

Who is a disciple of Jesus Christ? How are disciples made?rembrandt emmaus

The answers to these questions are found in Scripture, the Baptismal Covenant, and the General Rules.

Jesus describes the nature of discipleship in all the synoptic gospels by saying:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

John Wesley preferred Luke’s version, I suspect because he is the only writer who has Jesus insisting that discipleship is a daily endeavor. It is a way of life. Discipleship requires daily practice of self-denial, cross-bearing, imitation of Jesus. He summarized the cross-bearing life in Matthew 22:37-40,

‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

How are disciples made? The Baptismal Covenant and the General Rules provide the road map for the congregation’s mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Baptismal Covenant describes what it means to be a Christian. The General Rules provide guidance for living as a Christian in the world. There is direct correlation between each of the three baptismal questions and the three General Rules.

I’ve written about how they work together in a series of posts on Alan Bevere’s blog:

The General Rules and the Baptismal Covenant: Part 1 of 3

The General Rules and the Baptismal Covenant: Part 2 of 3

The General Rules and the Baptismal Covenant: Part 3 of 3