There’s a narrative circulating around United Methodism. It goes something like this: if preachers would just “preach the gospel” and teach the “orthodox” Christian faith, then every church would be booming in attendance. Those who circulate this narrative love to cite John Wesley’s fear that Methodism will become “a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” I share Wesley’s fear, but I have a different understanding of its manifestation. I think that a formulaic understanding of the role of doctrine in spiritual vitality is itself a prime example of “the form of religion without the power.” And I think this narrative is killing United Methodism.
What is doctrine supposed to do? If it’s working properly, it inspires us to fall in love with God. The words of doctrine are only the form of religion; the love they inspire is its power. What doctrine cannot do is earn our favor with God. In fact, Christian doctrine teaches that God’s favor cannot be earned since it’s unconditional grace. The best way to lose the love that’s supposed to be inspired by our doctrine is to use our doctrine to justify ourselves (i.e. as a substitute for God’s grace). And that’s precisely what people are doing who try to make doctrine into a formulaic church growth strategy.
Why is it a toxic narrative to say that churches will grow if their pastors will just preach “orthodoxy”? Because it tells thousands of United Methodist pastors who serve declining congregations that they’re doing it wrong even if they’re doing everything right according to what they learned in seminary and what the Book of Discipline says about what we believe. Even if they have Jesus’ cross and resurrection in every sermon, their “orthodoxy” must not be “robust” enough if their numbers aren’t increasing. They must not be projecting enough earnestness. They must not be weepy enough when they say the words “good news.” They must not be speaking slowly and emphatically enough when they say the communion liturgy.
Church growth is a complex sociological phenomenon. To oversimplify the solution is about as facile and asinine as saying that tax cuts will always grow the economy or spankings will cure childhood temper tantrums. And when pastors are judged for mysterious, complicated social forces that they are only a small part of, they get anxious and resentful. Based on my decades of experience in dying United Methodist churches, I would say that undercurrents of anxiety and resentment are a much greater catalyst of church decline than the “robustness” of the doctrine being preached. And furthermore, confident, charismatic preachers who wave their arms in the air while preaching gibberish can draw a much better crowd than diminutive, doctrinally precise theology nerds.
Some growing churches are filled with people who glow with Christ’s love because they know deeply in their hearts how much God loves them. Some of this learning comes in the form of conceptual knowledge received in the weekly message (that most people forget by Tuesday) but most of it is the result of lived practices, personal mentorship, and seeing Christ in each other. It’s much more heart knowledge than head knowledge. A church that is genuinely bubbling over with Christ’s love has created a space where people have felt safe enough to let their guards down so they can be personally smitten by God’s grace. The preaching can have something to do with that, but it’s not all or even most of creating a grace-filled church culture.
Other growing churches seem to have the same glow on the surface, i.e. “the outward form of godliness” (2 Tim 3:5). Their members are eager to prove how much they love God through their zeal during worship and the pious catchphrases that fill up their Bible studies. But underneath the surface, they are “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, and abusive” (2 Tim 3:2), because they haven’t yet had a personal encounter with God’s grace. They’ve been performing too hard for each other to let God into their hearts. Most churches are a mixed bag between people who have been touched by grace and people who are putting on a performance. But I would venture to hypothesize that a church which is built around a single personality that actively seeks to cultivate conformity to a singular message throughout its culture is going to create an environment of pressurized conformity rather than grace.
Some churches grow because they’re filled with Christ’s love, and individual members have been empowered and equipped to use their gifts and listen to the Holy Spirit’s call for their ministry. Other churches grow because they’re controlled by a manipulative narcissist who has created a powerful, cult-like environment where everyone is nervously trying to prove they’re completely into it. And yes, most fall somewhere in between those two ends of the spectrum.
If we claim that church growth is contingent upon the perfect message of the guy with the lapel mic and the degree to which he has a strategically shaped chain of command of lay leaders who are zealously aligned with his perfect message, then we are subscribing to the narcissist messiah approach to church growth (which has actually proven very effective in evangelical circles, by the way). To say that it’s all about “preaching the gospel” means that it’s all about the guy (it’s almost always a guy) who is preaching the gospel. It’s presuming a hierarchical power structure and minimizing the role of the Holy Spirit in the nooks and crannies of the church community where grace mostly happens.
Having a denomination full of leaders who are looking with wistful envy at the surrounding narcissist-driven evangelical megachurches creates a toxic environment in which to do ministry. It’s anxiety-driven rather than grace-driven. We think the motivation tools of capitalist meritocracy like online dashboards that shame “lazy” pastors for their bad numbers are a better catalyst for spiritual vitality than the grace that is actually the core of our theology. It’s time for United Methodism to stop trying to ape megachurch evangelicalism. If we’re going to have a Wesleyan view of the role of doctrine in spiritual vitality, then it needs to be built upon our understanding of the three really beautiful things we claim God is doing for humanity that we call prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. These three forms of grace are not only the core of our doctrine; they should guide how we understand the role of doctrine in spiritual vitality.
First, prevenient grace teaches us that God is constantly and relentlessly reaching out to all people with his love. This doctrine has powerful implications. If God’s posture towards humanity is unconditional, proactive love, that means God is not waiting for us to say or believe the right things before he will give us the time of day. God always meets us where we are and works with what we’ve got before we even know what’s going on.
If we really believe this, then people with bad doctrine should be loved into better doctrine. It’s obviously different when someone in a teaching role is doing spiritual harm. But any correction needs to be very sensitive and prayerful. If I presume that God is working with another person where they are, then I should work with what they have and build off of what God has already built (1 Cor 3:6) rather than tell them they’re completely wrong if I don’t hear the catchphrases I’m listening for.
A pastor who lives out the doctrine of prevenient grace will have a congregation full of people with varied articulations of Christian doctrine according to where they are in their spiritual journeys. If doctrinal uniformity is the measure of a congregation’s spiritual vitality, then prevenient grace is effectively not a part of that doctrine.
Justifying grace is the liberating centerpiece of the Christian gospel. When we accept Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins, we stop justifying ourselves and gain the freedom to be wrong. That freedom is the source of all other spiritual freedom, because until we are okay with being wrong, we will resist God’s spiritual transformation.
Now here’s the problem. If we try to justify ourselves with our doctrine instead of accepting Jesus’ justification on our behalf, then we’ve paradoxically sabotaged the cornerstone of our doctrine. The reason it’s so important to get justification right is so that we stop trying to prove our loyalty to God by having the right answers (and arguing incessantly with everyone around us who is wrong). As long as we’re trying to prove ourselves right, we will resist God’s grace as an embarrassing, unnecessary imposition. We may talk about God’s grace all day along as a means of having the right answers, but we will not actually receive it. Only when we embrace our wrongness as sinners who need to be justified can our hearts be opened for God’s grace to do its transformative work.
Sanctifying grace is what happens to us when we’ve embraced Jesus’ sacrifice and opened our hearts to the Holy Spirit. Sanctification has little to do with the head and mostly to do with the heart. Whatever doctrine we study is only as good as the love it inspires in our hearts. Mostly we need to engage in the spiritual habits necessary to practice the presence of God. These definitely include meditating on scripture, which is one of the most powerful resources we have for seeking our perfection in love. But the goal is not conceptual knowledge. Knowledge is penultimate to love (1 Cor 8:1).
Sanctification is measured by the transformation of our character. People who are being filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are being sanctified, whether they can explain Jesus’ cross and resurrection or not. It’s more important to be crucified and resurrected with Jesus than to have perfect theology. A church that overemphasizes conceptual knowledge is focused on the outward form of religion at the expense of its power.
When doctrine is being used in the right way, the measure of its fruitfulness is the love that it inspires. The way you can tell it’s being used in the wrong way is when people are grasping for litmus tests to measure themselves against “fake” Christians. Churches grow and shrink for a variety of factors. Any formula that claims to be universally applicable without consideration of a church’s missional context is a form of religion without its power. Any pastor who says that his church is growing because he “preaches orthodoxy” is displaying the self-justification that makes him unorthodox.
The current obsession with “tightening up” United Methodist doctrine so that we can grow like the evangelical megachurches is paradoxically a presenting symptom of the abandonment of Wesleyan doctrine. A church that is immersed in prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace will necessarily be a theologically diverse space for the reasons I outlined above. While neo-Calvinist-like doctrinal precision does dovetail nicely well with the hierarchical cult of personality approach to megachurch growth that has worked very well in white suburbia for the past three decades, that’s not who United Methodists are. We are the people who say “both/and” about everything (probably too much). We are the people who itinerate our pastors so that our congregations can be lay-led. We are the people who don’t necessarily have doctrinally pristine testimonies but have grace oozing all over them.
United Methodists who are trying to mimic megachurch evangelicalism naturally look for litmus tests where they can draw lines in the sand between real Christians and fake Christians. This obsession with litmus tests are again a presenting symptom that we have lost the actual orthodoxy we have been taught. The problem with trying to emulate anxiety-driven, performance-based evangelical subculture is that its glory days are behind it. I am part of an exodus of millions of ex-evangelicals in my generation and younger who are starving for churches that actually live out the grace that they preach. Many ex-evangelicals like me have landed in United Methodism. I really think that Wesleyan Christianity is uniquely positioned to lead the American church in the 21st century after decades of wearying toxic evangelicalism. But I fear this opportunity will be squandered by United Methodists with megachurch envy who are trying to be something we’ve never been.
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