Mainline or Methodist (Part 1)

For Christmas I received a copy of Dr. Scott Kisker’s book, Mainline or Methodist: Recovering our Evangelistic Mission.  After a quick read through, I saw that it was worth a second, more thorough read.  I also decided it would be a worthwhile way to start the new year here on the blog. Rather than giving a long review of the book as a whole, I thought I’d work through each chapter and share some of the ideas that really made me think.

First, Kisker acknowledges the systematic “sickness” of United Methodism, even though he refuses to make the numerical decline since 1960 his primary concern.  In Kisker’s argument, United Methodism’s problems started long before the decline beginning in the 60s.  He suggests, “the decline of Methodism began decades before the denomination experienced any numerical losses.”

For us in so-called mainline Methodism, our “mainline” identity is killing us and we must surgically remove it if we are ever to regain our health.  When we became “mainline,” we stopped actually being Methodist in all but name.  Real Methodism declined because we replaced those peculiarities that made us Methodist with a bland, acceptable, almost civil religion, barely distinguishable from other traditions also known as “mainline.”

“Mainline” means little to nothing.  Kisker uses the example of both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush belonging to the UMC as evidence that, “United Methodism has become simply a reflection of the middle and upper middle class world around it,” instead of the amazing movement of God captured when the Wesley brothers were, “an embarrassment to the Anglican communion and mainline society.”

This is easily seen in the 19-20th century practice of Methodists hoping to influence society,

We even began to assume we deserved to determine the shape of American society, not through conversion, a process of repentance and new birth, but through the political process and our own lobby, located in a fine white building across the street from the U.S. Capitol.

Kisker then describes the movement we see in John Wesley’s life from respectable member of the Academy and elite Anglicanism to tireless evangelist to the common people.  This is epitomized by Wesley’s field preaching, taking the gospel outside of his comfort zone into the industrial working class quarters of society.  Wesley previously shared an aversion to this new model for sharing the gospel,

“I left London and in the evening expounded to a small company at Basingstoke, Saturday, 31. In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”

Four days later, John Wesley began sharing the message of Christ in the same way,

At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.

Instead of following Wesley’s lead, Kisker suggests we may well resemble more the Anglicans Wesley hoped to revive than our own Methodist founder,

We are educated well beyond the majority in our society.  We pay our clergy, as distinctly mainline, beyond the majority in our society.  If we are to recover Methodism, freed from its addiction to the American mainstream, it will require the kind of  conversion Wesley experienced that day in Bristol…For such a recovery, we must humble ourselves before almighty God, trust in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and expect a blessing through a miraculous anointing by the Holy Spirit.

Over the next few posts, I’ll look at Kisker’s suggestions about the way forward.