Tuesday, November 08, 2005

False Alternatives

I am perplexed by the fact that we United Methodists seem unable to “hold the bridge” between the various diads of our tradition. In both cathedral and campmeeting our faithfulness was once characterized by rationality and piety, the Sacraments and preaching, liturgy and revival (by heart-religion and works, too). John Wesley himself both preached and incarnated these multiple dimensions of the catholic, orthodox, and reformed faith to which he was heir. Somehow, though, his spiritual descendants have, in a word, bisected that comprehensive message. These days we seem to strive to be rational or pious, sacramental or evangelical, revivalistic or liturgical (even lay-led or sacerdotal).
In sum, I fear that on the one hand we are more Anglican than Wesleyan, and on the other more “baptist” than Methodist. That is not to say there is anything inherently wrong with either Anglicans or Baptists; only that our tradition is distinctive. Moreover, there seems to exist on the part of some of our preachers (and members and teachers, too) a willingness to embrace and advance a particular aspect of our catholic heritage at the expense of the other(s), and in a way which Mr. Wesley himself would have been unwilling to do.
That to say, when in the crossfire of competing allegiances congregations have felt forced to “market” themselves to consumerist seekers, in many cases they have done so by means of a partitive representation of our tradition. The net result is the emergence of incomplete images, false alternatives, of what it means to be United Methodist.
Still there must be a way to reclaim the synthesis advocated by the early Methodist movement and in doing-so reinvigorate our congregations and denomination, and at the same time also lead unchurched seekers to the abundant life of faith in Jesus Christ in its communal fullness. Qualified observers tell us that postmoderns eagerly seek historic spiritual traditions while at the same time rejecting merely denominational paradigms. It would seem to me that an authentic Wesleyan model of corporate life and ministry might be just the kind of balanced diet this starving generation needs. That is, our historic emphasis on both faith and works, prayer and study, Sacrament and sermon, the form of religion and its power—as well as our emphasis on the worth of laity and clergy—might prove most fulfilling.
Relatedly, there is emerging in our day a new model of ministry, cooperative and complementary, which honors both the priesthood (or ministry) of all Christians as well as the particular representative ministries of Word, Sacrament and Order. This model is called “equipping ministries” and its goal is to help the laity discover and put to powerful use their Spirit-giftedness. At base this new paradigm is merely the reclaiming of the New Testament pattern of pneumatic rather than institutional credentialing and suggests the kind of “interactive” ministry which would be attractive to postmodern sensibilities. “Equipping ministries is an exciting form of evangelism and discipling which both reclaims the Wesleyan synthesis and at the same time rejects, or at least corrects, the popular and false alternatives.

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