By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
I had the privilege to attend the second New Room Conference last week in Nashville. What a joy it was to be among 700 clergy and other leaders committed to the renewal of Methodism and Wesleyanism, both in The United Methodist Church and in some of our sister denominations. The fact that this year’s conference doubled the attendance at last year’s initial conference revealed the deep hunger of many leaders to be encouraged and equipped with a vital Wesleyan Christianity. J. D. Walt and the Seedbed team did an excellent job satisfying that hunger.
Here are a few things that I learned or that were reinforced for me.
Delivery or Development: Worship Vs. Discipleship
Mike Breen is an Anglican pastor and leader of 3D Movements, an “organic movement of biblical discipleship and missional church” helping established churches and church planters move into a discipling and missional way of being church. He reminded that church is not just the delivery of an excellent worship experience, but also the development of disciples of Jesus Christ. The Acts 2 model of meeting in the Temple and in the home needs to be replicated in today’s church for it to regain its power. Breen maintained that the church of the past several decades had neglected the “home” dimension, with the result that many of our church members are disciples in name only.
Breen quoted research by sociologist Rodney Stark, who maintained that the strength of the early church was the “family” dimension of the faith, since the public spaces for large gatherings of Christians were often unsafe or closed to them. Early Christians engaged the discipleship process as extended families, including multiple generations, extended relatives, friends, and even house servants in a common body. Breen believes that young people today are re-creating these extended families by continuing to live in their parents’ homes into young adulthood. Christians ought to take advantage of the extended family to help people grow in discipleship as the family of God, creating family-like groups to fill the void.
When we try to disciple people in the public space (Sunday morning worship) it doesn’t make a lasting change in their lives. The formation of small groups and family-like groupings are designed to be a place of healing and transformation in discipleship. In a hostile culture, these small groupings will be the glue that holds the church together.
Breen was not disparaging excellent worship in the public space, only stating that it is not enough. Both worship and discipleship are necessary for a vital Christian faith.
Andrew Thompson, formerly a professor at Memphis Theological Seminary and now pastor at a large church in Arkansas, focused on who we are, referring to John Wesley’s pamphlet, The Character of a Methodist. Thompson boldly stated that “there is no Methodist identity today. There is no positive characteristic that distinguishes Methodists.” He then expanded the question to: What is the character of a Wesleyan, in order to separate the question from denominational identities.
Thompson claimed that Wesleyans are evangelical in the classical sense, focused on four characteristics identified by historian David Bebbington:
- Conversionism – the need for a transformed life
- Activism – the need for effort in pursuing Christian discipleship (it doesn’t just drop on us out of the sky)
- Biblicism – the need for submission to Scriptural authority in all that we do
- Crucicentrism – a focus on Christ’s death on the cross as an atonement for sins
But Thompson maintained that these aspects of doctrine are not enough to distinguish Wesleyans. He believes that Wesley’s full order of salvation by grace through faith needs to be included. Particularly, he focused on these points:
- The universal need of every human for salvation from sin and death
- The universal offer of prevenient grace to every human being, the free gift of God offered to all (as opposed to just the elect few)
- The need for ongoing sanctification, both as a process and marked by occasional deep spiritual experiences, leading us to become more and more like Jesus in our everyday lives
- The possibility and calling to become complete in Christ in this life – the goal of “going on to perfection”
It is these characteristics that distinguish us Wesleyans from other evangelicals and from persons with other theological perspectives (such as Calvinists and Universalists). The power of the Gospel is found in all of these characteristics, and the fact that many United Methodists have abandoned them explains the meager results and ongoing decline of our ministry. We therefore need to recapture and reconstitute our Wesleyan identity, which will not only empower our ministry, but unite our conflicted body.
Needing the Holy Spirit
Jo Ann Lyon, general superintendent (presiding bishop) of The Wesleyan Church, shared devotionally about the need for us to rely on the Holy Spirit. She reminded us that developing Christ-likeness requires the infusion of the Holy Spirit into our lives. God’s infused love expels sin and transforms both individuals and society. We cannot manufacture transformation through programs or rules. Instead, we are to seek and welcome the presence and power of the Holy Spirit into our daily lives and experience his transformation in us.
Back to Egypt?
Lisa Yebuah, a United Methodist planting a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, spoke powerfully from Exodus 16 about resisting the temptation to go back to the familiarity of “Egypt” when change becomes too difficult. In the hunger and uncertainty of transition to the new thing God is calling us to do in ministry, we forget about the problems of the past and romanticize our “Egypt.” Instead of going back, Yebuah called us to turn toward the wilderness journey God has for us, for there we will see the glory of the Lord. It is in the wilderness, Yebuah reminded us, where God provides holy food in difficult places (the manna and the quail). Our problem is that often fail to see God’s provision for what it is and instead long for the food of captivity to our past.
This great conference was encouraging and uplifting for the many attendees. Four United Methodist bishops were there attending—the first time I have seen bishops up close in this kind of learning role! Many young clergy were present and many pastors went home encouraged and inspired to carry on in Christ’s ministry with renewed vigor. The next New Room Conference will take place September 21-23, 2016, in Franklin, Tennessee. I would highly recommend it for clergy and lay leaders alike.