As the #andcanitbe conversation has developed over the past few weeks, I have sensed two underlying questions. The first question is, “Is doctrinal clarity an essential part of the renewal of the United Methodist Church?” Kevin Watson helpfully dealt with the details of this question from an academic perspective in his post, What We Are FOR Isn’t Good Enough. I want to add my voice to his by responding with a resounding, “Yes!”
The second question is one I have dealt as a United Methodist Elder who has been working in the Church and teaching on a weekly basis since I was first commissioned for ministry in 2005. That question is, “Is teaching and preaching with doctrinal clarity even possible in a world that struggles with the most basic biblical literacy?” One might even go on to ask the pragmatic question, “…and does it bear any fruit in the lives of the men and women who hear it?” To both of these questions I would add, “Absolutely, yes!” (I realize that I’m not touching on an extended set of questions about biblical interpretation, epistemology, and post-modern ways of engaging the faith. This post isn’t intended to examine every aspect of this conversation, and I would simply say my assumptions about common shared doctrinal convictions aligns closely with the work done by Dr. Thomas C. Oden in his abbreviated systematic theology, Classic Christianity.)
While I could start by talking about my early experiences in ministry, I want instead to talk about my most recent experiences. Since August 2011, I have preached on a weekly basis as an Associate Minister at Church of the Servant United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. On one hand, I lead worship and preach in our Chapel Community which is our most traditional worship service, and on the other hand, since December 2011, I have helped launch and lead the Servant 923 community, our attempt at reaching people who are drawn to more modern worship styles.
Each week, I preach nearly identical messages in each service. I lean heavily on sermons that are shaped by walking through individual books of the bible, including an eleven part series on Colossians in Summer 2011 (we’re going to be in Revelation this Summer). We have spent time with the Parables of Jesus. We have walked through the earliest vision of the Church in the book of Acts. We’ve explored marriage using resources shaped by Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC, but with a Wesleyan accent.
In addition, I teach two large group bible studies where we walk through books of the Bible verse by verse by verse. In recent weeks, we have covered topics like universalism, exclusivity, and inclusivity. We talk about the realities of eternity. We wrestle with doctrinal concepts like grace, justification and sanctification.
In each of these settings, we wrestle with Scripture on its own terms as the inspired, never-failing (infallible) Word of God and do our best to let Scripture guide our understanding of who God is and how we should interpret our personal experiences and life stories.
As a result, I believe both of the following ideas are false:
- Laity, especially young adults, don’t want to hear, or are unable to process, clear scripturally grounded doctrine.
- We have to be embarrassed by classic orthodox Christian teaching, because it fails to appreciate modern realities.
Instead, what I see is an incredible hunger for an authority beyond my own teaching, or my own personal experience, and beyond the latest fads or cultural movements. And I see it in people in middle school as well as in 90+ year old widows. One of my favorite aspects of my job is getting texts from high school and college students asking how to wrestle with a particular theological problem using the best of biblical scholarship and theological understanding.
I see men and women committed to submitting to the Gospel, even if it’s not completely intuitive, and even when it is counter cultural. I see people putting their trust in the Gospel for the very first time and experiencing Christian baptism as a powerful life-giving transformative moment.
One reason I’ve started to write again on this blog is because I believe the way forward in United Methodism is nothing less than a wholesale commitment to the things that make us most unified as Christians. John Wesley in a letter to the “Rev. Mr. D_______” expressed his desire for all clergy to express,
three grand Christian doctrines – original sin, justification by faith, and holiness consequent theron…
We should expect no less than a common core commitments to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as expressed in concepts like these “grand Christian doctrines” to lead us forward in renewal and revitalization.
One couple recently shared their story with several of us on staff, and I believe their words will give you a sense of how God has used and worked in this kind of enviroment,
God began his hard work in both of us. We had our revelations and grew so much in our faith. [My spouse], a self-proclaimed, Sunday christian, began going to small groups, and getting even more involved… We began praying as a family. We began to see God, feel God, and be the hands and feet of God.
In this beautiful testimony (which I wish I could share in its entirety), there are countless examples of being engaged in relational ministry through both mission outside the walls of our building as well as opportunities to serve in the church. In other words, I’m not talking about doctrinal orthodoxy that just engages our brains, but a full-bodied understanding of the Gospel that results in practical acts of faith. I believe that Methodism at its best is a passionate expression of classic Christian faith, with a Wesleyan accent, that finds its expression in practical engagement in God’s work in the world!
Preaching and teaching doesn’t have to be “dumbed-down” or soft-played to make a difference. In fact, my experience leads me to believe it is even more transformative when shared as clearly and honestly as we know how.