This Is the Way

I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since its beginning. I’m enough of a fan to know my depth of knowledge, nuanced understanding, and level of involvement are considered casual (at best) in the scheme of things. I’ve never been to a Star Wars Celebration or gone down the rabbit hole of The Clone Wars but I have seen each movie in the theater on its release (yes, I’m old enough!). I have made Star Wars-themed birthday cakes for my nephew Luke (yes, that is his name and his favorite cake was the severed arm of a wampa he could cut with a lightsaber). Though, according to him, I’ve taken my time to finally subscribe to Disney Plus in order to watch The Mandolorian and The Book of Boba Fett.

While my street credentials can be scrutinized by more enraptured enthusiasts, it hasn’t kept me from enjoying the new episodes on the Disney streaming service. Still, I think I am safe to say, Star Wars continues to entertain with its host of new, enigmatic characters, compelling music scores, and high production values we’ve come to expect from Disney and Lucasfilm. And, even within all the escapism that a science fiction space western has to offer, Star Wars manages to explore religious themes that can help us think through aspects of the Christian life.

Religious themes and motifs are not foreign to Star Wars. They’ve been baked into its DNA from the beginning. Probably no line from the movies is more suffused with religious overtones than “May the Force be with you.” The degree to which George Lucas’s Methodist upbringing and familiarity with communion liturgies can only be guessed at. But that it meets beat for beat, the eucharistic greeting “May the Lord be with you” (the dominus vobiscum in Latin) cannot be debated. Both are blessings, though the one intoned by a Jedi-master is more of a benediction and does not require a congregational response. The new series has not dropped the proverbial lightsaber in providing its own contribution of the iconic line, “This is the way.”

On a liturgical level, “This is the way” functions as an “Amen.” It is a statement of affirmation of how things are or are meant to be. But what is the way of the Mandalore? Unsurprisingly, we’ve come to learn there are several sects of Mandalorians. All ascribe to a common creed, but with differing understandings of how to live out their belief—not entirely unlike the various Christian traditions and denominations that make up the whole of the Christian church. Inasmuch as “the Way” echoes early church adherents in the book of Acts, the reality is that there was no single way all Christians live out their faith, except to be faithful disciples of Jesus in their own particular context.

Of course, Christian themes aren’t always center stage in Star Wars mythology. Eastern thought is evident—and prevails—in the Jedi’s need for detachment. Christian teaching on detachment is quite different. Eastern ideas teach that detachment leads to freedom from pain and suffering. In contrast, Christian detachment from the world is meant for attachment to God, which includes the self-sacrificing love of Christ, the suffering servant. Christian wholeness is made possible when we learn to love as Christ loved us—with relationship at its center.

What has me intrigued is whether future storylines will explore what becomes necessary when two, assumed rival philosophies are reconciled. Does strict adherence to orthodoxy prevent Mando from properly wielding the dark saber? How might he continue to learn and grow as a Mandalorian as he pals around the galaxy with his sidekick Grogu? Is it possible to hold onto both the tenets of the Jedi code and the Mandalorian creed? Why are they portrayed as mutually exclusive and where is there a creative, generative middle ground to be lived? To what extent might that way be like a Wesleyan third alternative—a both/and that defies the either/or options that force one to forsake one for the other? How does that way—loving both God and neighbor—allow me to live a fully orbed faith? What kind of life does that look like?

Even if the show does explore these possible storylines, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll get the models of faithful discipleship I’m looking for. It’s okay to be a fan of these shows. Being a fan is fun, but at the end of the day, it is a story meant to entertain. It is Christ who walked the way of the radical center, who offers guidance to navigate the tension to the polarities that seek to divide. This is the way I am interested in living as a faithful Christian.

After (United) Methodism

As of May 1, the largest body of Methodists in the world has split, officially, into The United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Global Methodist Church (GMC), formalizing divisions that had until now been contained, mostly, within United Methodism. What is the ecclesiological significance of this new reality? Answers have varied.

A number of people have argued that this division damages the public witness of the church. Rather than living as an example of living together despite differences, this line of reasoning suggests, United Methodists (and now Global Methodists) have become just another instance of social fragmentation. This position, however, is less about ecclesiology than it is about publicity; the concern is not so much about the coherence of the church as it is about the perception of the church by those outside the church. The same can be said of this position’s mirror: the belief that this breakup will foster a greater witness because each side can take advantage of market segmentation and reach its preferred target audience.

Others have suggested that the split is no big deal. After all, there are dozens of denominations; the creation of one or two more hardly impacts the unity of the church. This is a more ecclesiologically oriented response, but it also begs the question of how large a break needs to be before Christians start worrying about it. (A million members here, a million there, and soon you’re starting to talk about real numbers.)

A third answer, most clearly articulated by J. Warren Smith of Duke Divinity School in the online magazine Firebrand, claims that the breakup represents a failure of The UMC to be the church in the first place. Smith, who counsels patient endurance, does not endorse the conclusion that seems to follow directly from this claim. If The UMC (and now the GMC) does not know how to be the church, then whoever wants to have anything to do with the church should go elsewhere. (As a matter of full disclosure, I agree with Smith, and I also hesitate in the face of this conclusion.)

Notice two characteristics shared among each of these different takes. First is a disregard for what is happening in non-United Methodisms. There are vibrant Methodisms around the world, some that are United Methodist and many that are not. Just as there is more to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church than Methodism, so there is more to Methodism than United Methodism. This parochialism of United Methodists is understandable, but it is also culpable. In ecclesiological terms, it is not enough to hold together the unity of The United Methodist Church (this is something those who claim the split is no big deal get right); we seek, and Christ prays for, a greater unity. Indeed, the ongoing existence of The UMC perpetuates some level of disunity within the church unless there is work toward this greater unity.

The second characteristic these positions share is the avoidance of an essential ecclesiological affirmation: Methodism is provisional, not ultimate. The good things of our heritage and of our way of following Jesus are God’s gifts to the church, given only for a time. This affirmation requires more of us than trotting out John Wesley’s late-life fear, not “that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist … [but] lest they should only exist as a dead sect.” It requires us to adopt an eschatological perspective. Our hope in this regard is not that we will be good Methodists for all eternity but that we will be blessed to see God, that “what we shall be” will be revealed because we will see Jesus Christ as he is, and that we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servants; enter into the joy of your Lord.” The future is not Methodist. The future is Christ.

A world without Methodism, therefore, is not necessarily a world in which Methodism, or Methodist denominations, has failed. It may well be a world in which the prayer for Christian unity is being answered. After all, to truly pray with Jesus that “we may all be one” is to pray for the end of our denominations, at least in the divisive form we now see and experience them.

May 1 is a lamentable day in the history of Methodism and in the life of the church. Nevertheless, this schism presents an opportunity to embrace a holy discontentment with denominational parochialism and to acknowledge our provisionality. It should motivate us who are, or were, United Methodists to seek the greater unity that is found in our true end. We may even find we have something to celebrate: not our sinful failures, of course, to hold together what unity we have had, but the promise of life after (United) Methodism in the only future that is worthy of our hope.

Losing Our Religion—Is That Possible?

A vegan, an atheist, and a cross-fitter walked into a bar. We know this because they each announced it to everyone in the bar within two minutes of entering.

Virtue-signaling, such as we find in this joke, is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it seems to have become more common in recent years. However, this joke may hide a deeper truth. The northern hemisphere, which is supposedly becoming less religious with each generation, may not be as non-religious as we think. Instead, we may be observing the growth of newer secular religions, in which leaving Christianity represents a rejection of one religion in favor of a new one, even if that secular religion doesn’t show up in the index of an introduction to religion textbook. If this is the case, I think it would be wise for those who are preparing for, or are in, Christian ministry (and every Christian for that matter) to condition their calling with the premise that human beings are inherently religious. In other words, is it the case that we can never really abandon religion, but can only change our religion?

A few years ago, I was invited to be a scholar-in-residence at a small Christian college in Kansas. During this time, I met with the entire faculty on several occasions to offer suggestions on how to integrate faith within their academic curriculum. In one of those sessions, I asked them whether they thought college students of our time, the population leaving organized religions at the highest rate, would be willing to offer a public witness to their religious convictions. For example, would they wear distinctive clothing in public that readily identified them as members of a particular religion? Would these college-aged religious adherents devote significant expense and time to make pilgrimages to a centralized place of worship? While at their temple, would they sing and chant collectively with great vigor to give witness to their religious commitment? What is the likelihood that these religious devotees would give a robust public expression of their faith to outsiders?

Most of the faculty, as I expected, thought that this sort of religious expression was highly unlikely among a majority of college students. At that point, I flashed a PowerPoint of the University of Kansas Jayhawk on the screen and told these scholars that I had not simply attended a basketball game the previous night. I had witnessed the fellowship of ecstatic worshippers (they, of course, won) at the high holy place of KU basketball—The Phog. It had many of the trappings of an enthusiastic religious gathering, replete with ritualistic actions and chants known and shared by the insiders and a fervor that crossed all ages in attendance that we often think to be more characteristic of a new convert. My nephew confessed to getting cold chills every time the pre-game video of the Jayhawks’ past glories was shown.

To be clear, I’m not trying to throw a wet blanket on being an avid sports fan. If KU basketball is on TV, I’m watching it. And while atheism is a non-starter for me, I’m not throwing shade on veganism or cross-fit training, though I’m not a practitioner of either. In fact, careful concern about what we eat, a rigorous physical regimen, or ardent sports fandom can be good things. However, that is precisely the problem. The danger of any good thing is that it can become our ultimate thing—a religion that competes with Christianity.

A dozen years ago, a colleague (Mark Sanford) and I wrote a book entitled Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives. We talked about how postmodern tribalism, scientific naturalism, individualism, New Age philosophies, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism, and the therapeutic culture offer metanarratives that govern the lives of many in our world. On occasions when I thumb through the pages of Hidden Worldviews, I’m still pretty happy with what is in the book. However, if I were writing the book today, two things would be tweaked. First, new “isms” have emerged or strengthened to the extent that we would need to find some way to address them. Hyper-partisan politics, environmentalism, and social justice movements, for example, can and have become metanarratives that direct the lives of some people. The second change is that I would put greater stress on the fact that these were not just worldviews. For many, they function as alternative religions to Christianity.

One reason for wanting to stress the religious dimension of these worldviews is that they often do the same things that are features of a religion. Of course, this comes with the usual disclaimer that it is notoriously difficult to come up with a definition of religion. After all, systems that have no God or gods (e.g., Confucianism), are pantheistic (e.g., Hinduism), believe that the natural world is inhabited by divine realities (e.g., animism), or are monotheist (e.g., Judaism) are all usually described as religions. However, the great scholar of religion, Ninian Smart, identifies seven dimensions of religion: ritual, the emotional, narrative, doctrine, the ethical, structural/institutional, and the material. Moreover, he also notes that many secular philosophies also have these elements, and uses nationalism as an example. Rituals such as national anthems, the emotional feelings of patriotism, the narratives of great national heroes, and the doctrines of self-determination and freedom are all elements of nationalism. Following from this, the ethical component might be envisioned in respect for the laws, while the structural/institutional dimension is found in the pomp of the highest offices and confirmed in the material dimension found in magnificent government buildings. Again, the point is not that these elements are bad in themselves, but placing them within the context of the various dimensions of religion illuminates the possibility that they can morph from a healthy form of national pride and commitment into the secular religion of nationalism.

At this point, a couple of observations are in order. First, people rarely “walk the sawdust trail” to consciously convert to a secular religion. Instead, such religious inclinations are absorbed rather than adopted. This leads to the rather odd situation in which one may be an adherent to a religion without even being aware of it. The second observation is that Christians are not immune from these secular religions. They are so omnipresent in modern-day society that they seep under the church doors. Thus, without an awareness of these secular religions, those who are confident in their commitment to the God of the Bible may become practicing polytheists who worship Mammon, Freud, science, the good old USA, ourselves, or any one of the other secular idols.

What is the payoff for those who are looking forward to a life of ministry in viewing secular narratives as religious expressions? The first benefit is that it prompts us to listen in a different way. Before it shut down a couple of years ago, I would often hear the cheers and chants from a cross-fit gym two doors down from the patio of my favorite coffee shop as one of their members would strive for a new personal record. At a distance, the sounds were indistinguishable from a Pentecostal service at full crescendo. When you listen to the urgent fervor of a committed environmentalist, what do you hear? Is it someone whose primary motivation is sparked by a keen awareness of our obligation to a planet created by a loving God? Or does this individual’s impetus arise from worship of Mother Earth, mediated by a teen-aged Scandinavian priestess? Tillich tells us that religion is “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary.” When we listen to those around us, are we properly attuned to discern when people reveal their ultimate concerns?

The second payoff of viewing current worldviews as potential secular religions is that it highlights the problem of reductionism in all of Christianity’s competitors. One thing that makes Christianity so compelling to me is that it is not just about saving our souls, as the phrase is so often understood anyway. It is about the transformation of every dimension of the life that God has bestowed on us. We are indeed spiritual beings, but we are also physical, economic, aesthetic, political, psychological, rational, social, ethical, and sexual beings situated within a cultural context. Our call as Christian believers is to draw each of these dimensions of our existence under the umbrella of God’s salvation.

Christianity’s whole-person perspective of salvation helps us understand where secular religions come up short. In short, they tend to define salvation (by whatever language and vocabulary they may use to speak of a flourishing life) by reducing us to a single dimension of life. Various forms of hedonism, whether the crasser forms of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll lifestyle or the refined tastes of modern epicures, properly acknowledge our identity as material beings who seek pleasure, but leave no room for the spiritual dimension of life. On the other end of the spectrum, New Age types of thought rightly acknowledge that we are spiritual beings, but do so by viewing the body, not as God’s holy temple, but as a hindrance or even an illusion that must be overcome in our quest for salvation.

Consumerism properly recognizes that we are inherently economic beings. Our needs for food, clothing, and shelter are legitimate, but the accumulation of material things as an ultimate goal reduces us to the physical and economic dimension of life. Freud, who has one foot in the religion of salvation by therapy and the other in scientific naturalism, is at least honest enough to recognize that “our God Logos (Reason) is not a very almighty one.” Thus, if you seek a message of salvation in his thought, it extends no farther than therapeutic tools that enable someone to function in society, free from the forces that may lead us into neurosis or psychosis. Ironically, however, as a psychotherapist, he denies the existence of a psychē (the Greek word for soul) or anything like the soul that allows us to be attuned to spiritual matters. In short, the gods of secular religions are too small. They lack the power and reach to bring salvation to every facet of our existence. Stated otherwise, secular religions have people who are too small because the scope of the salvation they envision inevitably leaves out some God-given dimension of our existence.

The second reason for highlighting the religious aspect of worldviews is that this offers a glimmer of hope. Those who are created in the divine image may be capable of rejecting the God who brings us into being, but those of us who do will simply seek to fill that void with some other god. As Bob Dylan reminded us a few decades ago, you “gotta serve somebody.” This insight simply restates my thesis that we are inherently religious beings. However, his follow-up line—“it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord”—leaves out some important details. Serving someone or something other than the Lord may manifest itself as the worship of Mammon or Gaia. It may rise to the surface as a form of henotheism in which the God of our nation is viewed as superior to the gods of other nations. Indeed, our racial or sexual identity can be viewed as the ultimate standard of truth and goodness, so we end up serving the “tribe” to which we belong. We will always attempt to fill the “God-shaped hole” in our lives with something. Indeed, the fact that a majority of the religious “nones,” as they are labeled by pollsters, say that they are “spiritual but not religious” attests to this.

Closely related to the problem of reductionism characteristic of secular religions is the fact that they inevitably lack internal cohesion or integrity. Some of the Christians I encounter can ground their interest in social justice in a God who deeply loves those on the margins. However, I also encounter social justice warriors who are absolutely certain they know what constitutes justice. However, these same people are, ironically, often the most adamant in claiming that all moral claims are subjective. Likewise, a vestige of God’s call to us is found in the virtues we find fundamental to a good life. It seems a safe call to say that most people will agree that those who are rightly oriented in their life will exhibit such qualities as humility, love, and gratitude. However, in Hidden Worldviews we ask, “Can you squeeze humility out of individualism, which puts me at the center of the universe? Does postmodern tribalism or nationalism demand that we love those who are not like us? Where would one find room in scientific naturalism or consumerism for gratitude toward God?” The reality is that some who are practitioners of these secular religions often manifest such virtuous qualities, and when they do we benefit from them. The question is whether their core “religious” beliefs provide a solid foundation for the development of these virtues, or do they even view them as integral to their belief system.

Every year, I have the privilege of teaching an ancient philosophy class. The majority of the students enrolled in the course are majors in Christian ministries, theology, or biblical studies. In our first class session, I remind them, as future leaders of the church, that Christianity grew up in a highly diverse marketplace of worldviews, philosophies, and religions, and many of the earliest Christian thinkers were successful in showing how the Christian faith provided the most sufficient response to the religious impulse God has invested in each person. For those today who are preparing for ministry in a world with an increasing number of religions, secular or otherwise, my prayer is that you are also able to communicate the full sufficiency of the Christian faith for the spiritual impulse God has invested in each person.

Reform and Separation from a Wesleyan Perspective

When efforts to reform one’s church fail, is separation a prudent choice? Or is it better to spare the church yet another division and do one’s best to worship and live faithfully as a diehard reformer within a broken or corrupted ecclesiastical organization? In this blog, we will trace Methodist precedents and Wesleyan theological bases that may help respond to this timely question.

As background, Martin Luther’s famous ejection from the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation and the further spread of Christianity through multiple branches of the church. Prior to this, the most ambitious attempts to reform the institutional church ended not in reform or division, but in the violent elimination of those who advocated for change. We think of Jan Hus and Girolamo Savonarola as prime examples. Many reformers intrepidly stayed within the fold and persevered with valiant attempts at reform from within, folks such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, Ignatius of Loyola, and Teresa of Avila.

John and Charles Wesley were loath to separate from the Church of England in the eighteenth century for the main reason that back then, dividing the church, or schism, was still widely viewed as a horrific sin. No one wanted to be associated with what they regarded as dividing the body of Christ. Both Wesleys remained priests in the Anglican Church until their deaths, even though they were deeply dissatisfied with what they viewed as unfaithfulness within the Anglican denomination. During their lifetimes they did their best to reform the church from within before John initiated the new Methodist Episcopal Church in America.

Today in the US and other places with freedom of religious choice and an ever-expanding selection of sects and denominations, the situation is different. On the one hand, denominationalism, the direct result of multiple divisions of the church through the ages, is now widely viewed as acceptable, if not advantageous to the mission of Jesus Christ in the world, at least by folks with an ecumenical bent. Sectarian separatists, on the other hand, tend to view their own religious tribe as inherently superior to the exclusion of others, and to condemn both theological opposition and differences of opinion. Strict sectarians object to both denominationalism and ecumenism and, in doing so, champion this exclusive stance as itself a matter of purity.

American Methodism was born out of division and remains prone to division. The Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1784 after John Wesley himself declared that, as God had set the American people free from England, so the American Methodists were set free from the English Methodist Conference (that still pledged allegiance to the Church of England) as a new denomination in and for North America. In so doing, John Wesley set a precedent for heirs of Methodism in America.

Within the following century the following formal exits occurred, for a variety of stated reasons, from the Methodist Episcopal Church: The Republican Methodist Church (1792), the Reformed Methodist Church (1814), the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1821), the Methodist Protestant Church (1830), the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America (1843), the Methodist Episcopal Church South (1844), the Congregational Methodist Church (1852), and the Free Methodist Church (1860), not to mention a plethora of additional holiness churches that left the Methodists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these “break-offs” in turn experienced “come-outers” from their own organizations.

How does one make sense of this phenomenon theologically? In the sixteenth century, major reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin justified exodus from the Roman Catholic Church because of its failure to maintain the true “marks” of the church. For them, the church of Jesus Christ existed wherever the Word of God was preached, and the sacraments rightly administered. The Roman Catholic Church of their day, they believed, failed on both counts.

Notwithstanding their strong emphasis on discipline, Calvin and his immediate followers resisted the notion of proper discipline becoming a decisive mark of the church on the basis that it would make the existence of the church dependent on human fidelity (the heretical error of the Donatists in the early church) rather than on the grace of Jesus Christ. The separating Puritans, in most other respects adherents of Calvin’s theology, begged to differ. They believed it was the duty of the church to correct and cleanse itself by expelling the wicked for the purpose of faithfully maintaining the church’s covenant with God and church discipline within the congregation. At stake was the very existence of the church.

John Wesley also emphasized discipline or accountable discipleship. He maintained for the Methodists that “the visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [sic] in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance” (Article XIII—Of the Church, “Articles of Religion,” emphasis added). The matter of church purity was important to Wesley, but he framed it in the language of faithfulness, holiness, sanctification, love of God and neighbor. He upheld the established means of God’s grace through the church—even an imperfect church, and the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying grace—that had the power to cultivate holiness in any believer, and even in an errant ecclesiastical body.

In the history of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement, one can trace the Wesleys’ and early Methodists’ tireless efforts to reform the Church of England—efforts that were not always appreciated by those who held its institutional power, and for which they suffered unwelcome consequences. Yet they worked tirelessly for this purpose: “to reform the nation, particularly the church, and spread scriptural holiness over the land.”

John Wesley, in the end, set precedents for both reformers and separatists. He remained a reformer within the denomination, but finally “set free” a whole continent of Methodists from association with the Church of England.

Both Methodist history and Wesleyan theology teach us that to fill the role of either reformer or separatist does not necessarily solve anything with finality because we live in an economy of human free will. The choice of either direction carries with it specific challenges. For those who separate, there is a burden to do so with humility rather than self-righteousness, and to keep a heart and mind of love toward God and the community of faith from which one has chosen to exit. There is a burden to demonstrate in both the near and long term the faithfulness and integrity ostensibly found lacking in the previous association. This is a tall order given the facts of history and the propensity of human nature toward sin and of power to corrupt persons, institutions, and mission.

The challenges facing reformers from within are similarly steep. It is the lot of the reformer to maintain a prophetic voice toward those in places of power while also cultivating holiness and a faithful witness to God with a heart and mind of love toward those in charge and those who have exited. In making the choice to remain within an errant institution, reformers carry the dangerous burden of possibly crossing the line over to complicity with the corruption or evil they disdain.

As everyone knows, The United Methodist Church (UMC) is on the brink of yet another Methodist division. Some argue the impending split is over sexuality and others contend it is about how to interpret Scripture. While these are important theological considerations that certainly need attention, the past half-century of UMC history demonstrates this is fundamentally another division over discipline. Failure to cultivate or at least maintain institutional discipline makes it impossible for a denomination to address successfully the ongoing theological task (related to scriptural interpretation or human relationship, for example) or to communicate the spiritual outcomes of this process within the larger community of faith. Lack of discipline inevitably leads to confusion and loss of trust. In extreme cases, it leads to dissolution.

Centuries of Methodist history and Wesleyan theology have demonstrated a sturdy capacity by those in this tradition, God helping us, to weather differences of opinion over things not necessary to salvation. This has been the case so much so that, in the past several centuries, this heritage has been able to play an important, if imperfect, role in spreading the gospel and scriptural holiness across the globe. Even though we have not always been faithful, I trust and pray God will remain faithful and graceful toward us, and not forsake us now for either our lack of discipline or our divisiveness.

Reform and Separation from a Wesleyan Perspective

When efforts to reform one’s church fail, is separation a prudent choice? Or is it better to spare the church yet another division and do one’s best to worship and live faithfully as a diehard reformer within a broken or corrupted ecclesiastical organization? In this blog, we will trace Methodist precedents and Wesleyan theological bases that may help respond to this timely question.

As background, Martin Luther’s famous ejection from the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation and the further spread of Christianity through multiple branches of the church. Prior to this, the most ambitious attempts to reform the institutional church ended not in reform or division, but in the violent elimination of those who advocated for change. We think of Jan Hus and Girolamo Savonarola as prime examples. Many reformers intrepidly stayed within the fold and persevered with valiant attempts at reform from within, folks such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, Ignatius of Loyola, and Teresa of Avila.

John and Charles Wesley were loath to separate from the Church of England in the eighteenth century for the main reason that back then, dividing the church, or schism, was still widely viewed as a horrific sin. No one wanted to be associated with what they regarded as dividing the body of Christ. Both Wesleys remained priests in the Anglican Church until their deaths, even though they were deeply dissatisfied with what they viewed as unfaithfulness within the Anglican denomination. During their lifetimes they did their best to reform the church from within before John initiated the new Methodist Episcopal Church in America.

Today in the US and other places with freedom of religious choice and an ever-expanding selection of sects and denominations, the situation is different. On the one hand, denominationalism, the direct result of multiple divisions of the church through the ages, is now widely viewed as acceptable, if not advantageous to the mission of Jesus Christ in the world, at least by folks with an ecumenical bent. Sectarian separatists, on the other hand, tend to view their own religious tribe as inherently superior to the exclusion of others, and to condemn both theological opposition and differences of opinion. Strict sectarians object to both denominationalism and ecumenism and, in doing so, champion this exclusive stance as itself a matter of purity.

American Methodism was born out of division and remains prone to division. The Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1784 after John Wesley himself declared that, as God had set the American people free from England, so the American Methodists were set free from the English Methodist Conference (that still pledged allegiance to the Church of England) as a new denomination in and for North America. In so doing, John Wesley set a precedent for heirs of Methodism in America.

Within the following century the following formal exits occurred, for a variety of stated reasons, from the Methodist Episcopal Church: The Republican Methodist Church (1792), the Reformed Methodist Church (1814), the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1821), the Methodist Protestant Church (1830), the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America (1843), the Methodist Episcopal Church South (1844), the Congregational Methodist Church (1852), and the Free Methodist Church (1860), not to mention a plethora of additional holiness churches that left the Methodists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of these “break-offs” in turn experienced “come-outers” from their own organizations.

How does one make sense of this phenomenon theologically? In the sixteenth century, major reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin justified exodus from the Roman Catholic Church because of its failure to maintain the true “marks” of the church. For them, the church of Jesus Christ existed wherever the Word of God was preached, and the sacraments rightly administered. The Roman Catholic Church of their day, they believed, failed on both counts.

Notwithstanding their strong emphasis on discipline, Calvin and his immediate followers resisted the notion of proper discipline becoming a decisive mark of the church on the basis that it would make the existence of the church dependent on human fidelity (the heretical error of the Donatists in the early church) rather than on the grace of Jesus Christ. The separating Puritans, in most other respects adherents of Calvin’s theology, begged to differ. They believed it was the duty of the church to correct and cleanse itself by expelling the wicked for the purpose of faithfully maintaining the church’s covenant with God and church discipline within the congregation. At stake was the very existence of the church.

John Wesley also emphasized discipline or accountable discipleship. He maintained for the Methodists that “the visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [sic] in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance” (Article XIII—Of the Church, “Articles of Religion,” emphasis added). The matter of church purity was important to Wesley, but he framed it in the language of faithfulness, holiness, sanctification, love of God and neighbor. He upheld the established means of God’s grace through the church—even an imperfect church, and the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying grace—that had the power to cultivate holiness in any believer, and even in an errant ecclesiastical body.

In the history of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement, one can trace the Wesleys’ and early Methodists’ tireless efforts to reform the Church of England—efforts that were not always appreciated by those who held its institutional power, and for which they suffered unwelcome consequences. Yet they worked tirelessly for this purpose: “to reform the nation, particularly the church, and spread scriptural holiness over the land.”

John Wesley, in the end, set precedents for both reformers and separatists. He remained a reformer within the denomination, but finally “set free” a whole continent of Methodists from association with the Church of England.

Both Methodist history and Wesleyan theology teach us that to fill the role of either reformer or separatist does not necessarily solve anything with finality because we live in an economy of human free will. The choice of either direction carries with it specific challenges. For those who separate, there is a burden to do so with humility rather than self-righteousness, and to keep a heart and mind of love toward God and the community of faith from which one has chosen to exit. There is a burden to demonstrate in both the near and long term the faithfulness and integrity ostensibly found lacking in the previous association. This is a tall order given the facts of history and the propensity of human nature toward sin and of power to corrupt persons, institutions, and mission.

The challenges facing reformers from within are similarly steep. It is the lot of the reformer to maintain a prophetic voice toward those in places of power while also cultivating holiness and a faithful witness to God with a heart and mind of love toward those in charge and those who have exited. In making the choice to remain within an errant institution, reformers carry the dangerous burden of possibly crossing the line over to complicity with the corruption or evil they disdain.

As everyone knows, The United Methodist Church (UMC) is on the brink of yet another Methodist division. Some argue the impending split is over sexuality and others contend it is about how to interpret Scripture. While these are important theological considerations that certainly need attention, the past half-century of UMC history demonstrates this is fundamentally another division over discipline. Failure to cultivate or at least maintain institutional discipline makes it impossible for a denomination to address successfully the ongoing theological task (related to scriptural interpretation or human relationship, for example) or to communicate the spiritual outcomes of this process within the larger community of faith. Lack of discipline inevitably leads to confusion and loss of trust. In extreme cases, it leads to dissolution.

Centuries of Methodist history and Wesleyan theology have demonstrated a sturdy capacity by those in this tradition, God helping us, to weather differences of opinion over things not necessary to salvation. This has been the case so much so that, in the past several centuries, this heritage has been able to play an important, if imperfect, role in spreading the gospel and scriptural holiness across the globe. Even though we have not always been faithful, I trust and pray God will remain faithful and graceful toward us, and not forsake us now for either our lack of discipline or our divisiveness.

Reading Romans with a Master Guide

Years ago, in the New Testament postgraduate seminar at the University of Aberdeen, we took a break from our usual diet of engaging each other’s papers and guest presentations in order to read through Romans together. The late I. Howard Marshall, a British Methodist, led the seminar. His procedure was to call on one of us to translate a section of Paul’s letter, then he would lead a discussion of that passage. My chief memory from that term was the impromptu gathering of students after our meetings to lament the persistently strange (and obviously flawed) readings Howard would offer. Most of my peers leaned into their understanding of John Calvin, and they were put off by Howard’s repeated interpretive moves—which, admittedly, were more at home in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition than in Reformed circles. As a participant-observer in those dueling conversations, I learned early on that, often, what separates this and that reading of a letter like Romans might not be philology or exegetical technique, but one’s theological formation.

I was thrilled, then, to hold in my hands the new commentary on Romans by Michael J. Gorman: Romans: A Theological and Pastoral Commentary (Eerdmans, 2022). On the one hand, I have long appreciated Gorman’s work on Paul. Indeed, his perspectives on Paul, available in a range of significant publications (for a partial list, see here), are widely celebrated, and justly so. On the other hand, Gorman’s faith and life are rooted in the Wesleyan tradition and seasoned through his years of teaching in an ecumenical context. How might this shape his reading of Paul’s most theologically formidable work, the Letter to the Romans?

As soon as Gorman’s Romans arrived on my doorstep, I set aside some time to do something I have never before attempted: Carving out some space that very afternoon, I read Gorman’s commentary from cover to cover. With nary a hint of exaggeration or mockery, I can report that I found my heart strangely warmed as I came face-to-face again and again with the good news about which Paul writes, and which Gorman illumines so well.

Those familiar with Gorman’s earlier work on Paul will recognize some of the practical and theological motifs this study emphasizes: mission, participation, cruciformity, and (trans)formation. This pastoral letter-essay is also political, he urges. “The power, peace, and justice of Rome have met their match in the power, peace, and justice of God” (31; italics original). In his analysis, these motifs—along with each of Paul’s moves in this letter—parade under the banner of “life,” since Romans is the “epistle of life.”

Students and pastors will be drawn to this commentary. The entire book centers on Gorman’s sustained interpretation of the book—that is, it is a commentary on Romans, not a commentary on the scholarly discussion of Romans. Of course, Gorman is conversant with the panoply of scholarly debate on this letter, but his engagement with that debate lies beneath the surface of his commentary. (We get the tip of the iceberg, but there is no doubt that, just out of sight, the bulk of the iceberg rumbles.) Although this work does not shy away from difficult exegetical questions, its focus is on the theological and pastoral significance of the letter.

The bulk of the commentary is given over to Gorman’s discussion of each thought unit comprising the letter. Additionally, his pages are dotted with tables that help to clarify Paul’s argument; section summaries; spiritual, personal, and theological reflections; questions for those who read, teach, and preach; and suggestions for further reading. Throughout, Gorman keeps his eyes resolutely on the life, faith, and mission of the church. And to all of this, we must add Gorman’s rare gift for interlacing profound theological insight with down-to-earth prose.

I can imagine groups of Christian leaders gathering around Romans for a season—Paul’s letter in one hand, this faithful interpretation of Paul’s letter in the other. It is the sort of book I would put in the hands of those in the classroom, whether in a seminary or undergraduate context or in an adult education class at a local church. Of course, you know already my report that Gorman’s commentary makes for good reading in the afternoon sun!

Challenges and Opportunities for Evangelism Today

“What if evangelism is one of the things that our world needs most?” Brian McLaren’s penetrating question offers an apt avenue to launch this essay. His question takes us on a different tack from most essays and books on evangelism, particularly those written by mainline Protestant types like me, who hand-wring over the dismal disregard today for evangelism.

The word itself appears frequently in this discouraging abbreviation: the e-word. While McLaren admits that evangelism, the e-word, evokes the image of selling God like vinyl siding, he still recognizes the value, even the necessity, of this sharing the good news practice because it pursues critical, life-changing conversations offering “a taste of grace, a ‘rumor of glory,’ as songwriter Bruce Cockburn says” (More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix [Zondervan, 2002], 13–14). McLaren believes that good evangelism and good evangelists can make a world of difference, literally! I concur. However, it isn’t easy to be enthusiastic about evangelism today, given the wide range of challenges mitigating against it. At the same time, golden opportunities exist as well. So let’s look at several, two-sided realities in the twenty-first century that serve up both challenge and opportunity simultaneously. Then it’s up to each one of us and the churches we’re engaged in to turn each challenge into an opportunity.

Negative Perception of Evangelism

Evangelism has a huge PR problem to overcome right off the bat. The Elmer Gantry evangelistic hucksters who preached one thing and lived another have embedded in many people the equation that evangelism equals hypocrisy. Even if the Elmer Gantry title from Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 classic doesn’t ring a bell, everyone recognizes the caricature of the sweaty-browed, striped-tie, used-car salesman evangelist, replete with a neon-bright, white-toothed smile, whose sleazy, heavy-handed appeal turns our stomach. The female evangelist in Elmer Gantry was based on Aimee Semple McPherson, whose nationally covered kidnapping saga—was it fact or a malevolent fictitious ruse?—occurred the year before Lewis published the novel. This caricature of the evangelist-minus-integrity reemerged in the 1980s with the downfall of prominent televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Their financial and sexual shenanigans justifiably prompted many people, Christians among them, to recoil at the mere mention of the e-word.

More recently, televangelists are buying airplanes – plural! Kenneth Copeland owns at least three private aircraft. The Texas-based preacher claimed he would be surrounded by demonic forces if he were forced to travel on commercial planes. Another evangelist, Jesse Duplantis, quipped that if Jesus descended from heaven and physically set foot on earth today, he wouldn’t ride on a donkey; instead, “he’d be on an airplane preaching the gospel all over the world.” Duplantis asked his followers to pay for a $54 million plane, even though he already owned three. Unfortunately, these evangelists, whose antics flood the news cycle, fuel an even greater sense in our time of evangelism as extreme. According to a recent Barna Group study, “a startling six in 10 Americans believe that any ‘attempt to convert others’ to one’s own faith is ‘extreme.’ More than eight out of 10 ‘nones’ say so! To be clear: A majority of U.S. adults, and the vast majority of non-religious adults (83%), believe that evangelism is religiously extreme” (Barna Group, Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age: How Christians’ Approach to Sharing Their Faith Has Changed in 25 Years [Barna Group, 2018], 23).

On the flip side–and here’s the opportunity–the number one reason cited by people who gravitated to Christianity is their relationship with a believer. In other words, they became a Christian because of a personal connection. Nearly three-quarters of respondents to a recent survey identify a spouse or partner, a congregation, a minister, a parent or other family member, a friend or someone they have a relationship with as the influencer in their decision. If children are added to the mix, then the number increases to 86% (Brian P. Stone, Finding Faith Today [Wipf & Stock, 2018], 48–49). Even in a 100-page document explaining how to utilize social media in evangelism, the authors reiterate the centrality of relationships. “Human relationships are precious, whether face-to-face or virtual ones that take place on social media platforms. They require time, prayer, and personal investment. While we applaud your interest in pursuing social media as a ministry platform, we want to impress upon you that the creation and building of relationships … is both a magnificent opportunity as well as a heavy responsibility that should not be taken lightly” (Mobile Ministry Forum, Social Media for Missions 23).

Developing relationships is even more significant today in evangelism because most Christians come to faith gradually rather than instantaneously; it’s a journey, not a jog. Whereas a century ago, revivals in America, full of urgency to decide now—tonight!—held prominence as evangelism’s top billing, their impact has since waned dramatically. “The stereotype of a person becoming a Christian in a moment of awakening or conversion is for the most part false. … The preoccupation with getting quick results, moreover, may even be unhealthy considering the kinds of changes in life patterns, practices, commitments, beliefs and purpose that often end up accompanying conversion” (Stone, Finding Faith Today, 17).

What these statistics and comments from recent studies add up to is that evangelism requires time and attention for the development and preservation of relationships. Evangelism is for the long haul. “[T]hose who want to aid others in coming to faith need to take seriously how they might come alongside those who are on a journey of faith, nourishing and nurturing them by understanding faith as a process of cultivating habits, practices, convictions, and dispositions of character over time” (Stone, Finding Faith Today, 17–18). All this is to say that negative stereotypes of evangelists dissipate in the midst of personal or small group evangelism, where conversation flows in a context of hospitality, grace, and love.

Decline in Spiritual Conversations

For decades, spiritual conversations have been on the decline, according to the Barna Group, which tracked this trend over a twenty-five-year period. An overwhelming majority of American Christians find spiritual conversations downright embarrassing (Barna Group, Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age, 23). A UMC pastor in Arkansas corroborated these statistics when he told me that he did not learn to talk about his faith at church: “Growing up in the UMC, I was not taught that I had a story to tell. I was taught the Methodist story really well, but I was not encouraged to consider my own faith story and how it might impact someone else.” The same impulse to clamp down on speaking about God shows up in the subtitle, Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing, of Jonathan Merritt’s recent book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch. Merritt describes the spiritual language barrier he encountered when he moved to New York City. “I never anticipated, upon arriving, that I’d run into a crippling language barrier. Sure, I could order a late-night kabob from a halal street cart or relay an address to a taxicab driver. I spoke English as well as I always had. My problem was that I could no longer ‘speak God’” (Jonathan Merritt, Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—And How We Can Revive Them [Convergent Books, 2018], 3). Merritt insists he is not alone. Nor is this a phenomenon limited to New York City. Even heartland Christians experience the same language barrier and proclivity to deflect spiritual conversations. Statistically, according to Merritt, only 13% of American Christians speak about God on a weekly basis.

During the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, religious leaders observed their people hungering in unprecedented ways to hear stories of where God is at work in the world despite unemployment, grief, despair, anxiety, loss, uncertainty, and isolation. To address this hunger, a Dallas church began to include testimonies during the Sunday online worship service. One young nurse working in a tactical COVID-19 unit at Parkland Hospital testified to the intersection between her faith and her work. “At work, I am more than just a nurse. I am the hands and feet of God. … I am trying to be family to them. Faith is giving me strength to do that.” The congregational response to her testimony was overwhelming. When I asked the senior pastor about the decision to incorporate testimonies, he responded, “We decided that we would do everything we could to involve the congregation creatively during this COVID period. Testimonies and other kinds of video events were one way to do that.” This is just one example of the shift to integrating testimony, the practice of Christians telling stories about how and where they experience God’s activity in their life. These stories are “life-giving,” wrote Brian McLaren in an email to the author. “When people see how others are discerning the presence of God in their lives, they are inspired to do the same.”

Lest testimony be understood as all talk but no action, consider the Greek word for testimony, martyria. Testimony as martyria means a word spoken for which one is ready to be martyred. Consider Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who testified to the risen Christ in the midst of a murderous mob. “Stephen is not called a martyr because he dies, he dies because he is a witness of Christ” (quoted in Amanda Drury, Saying Is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Development [InterVarsity Press, 2015], 118). Martyrs, like Stephen, who held more tightly to their testimony than their own life, have profoundly shaped the Christian church through the ages. A contemporary example—and there are many—is Dorothy Day (1897–1980), founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. While not persecuted for her faith to the point of martyrdom, nonetheless she faced relentless criticism for bringing her testimony into the political and economic arenas. “If I have achieved anything in my life,” declared Day, “it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God” (Jim Forest, “Dorothy Day,” in The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History ed. Michael Glazier and Thomas J. Shelley [Liturgical Press, 1991], 414). An evangelism professor, Jack Jackson, wrote in a Catalyst article outlining the central importance of testimony, “There has never been a better time to make Christian testimony, once again, a central act of the Methodist community.”

Evangelism in a COVID World

Along with the unimaginable destruction of life, health, employment, housing, travel, and so much else wracked up during the global pandemic, the North American church has also experienced a devastating impact. Participation in worship services and other church activities currently falls 30–50% below the pre-pandemic average, according to a recent Barna Group study. The toll on pastors and worship leaders has been exceedingly heavy. During an evangelism webinar I taught last month for the Presbyterian Church in Canada, one pastor declared that she never wanted to hear the word pivot again! Not surprisingly, nearly 40% of pastors have seriously considered quitting full-time ministry, and half of those experiencing a heightened sense of burnout serve churches in mainline denominations. “The year 2020—and now 2021—are arguably the two hardest years to ever be a pastor in the United States … I’ve never seen more people ready to check out,” stated William Vanderbloemen, head of a Houston-based church consultancy group (Robert Downen, “Nearly 40 percent of pastors ‘seriously’ considered exiting ministry,” Houston Chronicle (16 November 2021), web edition).

At the same time, according to a recent Harris poll, a majority of American adults—two-thirds—state that the pandemic has had a positive influence on their faith. These statistics are borne out anecdotally by the emergence of testimony during the outbreak of COVID-19, as described above. “Members of all groups—by gender, age, income, education, household makeup, race, and region—also report feeling a personal spiritual awakening.” An unexpected group leading the percentage is men between the age of 35 and 44, who are “the most likely to feel more spiritual and religious today than before the pandemic.” For Americans not affiliated with a religion, 13% state that they have become more spiritual on account of the pandemic (Will Johnson, “Pandemic side effect: Many are returning to their faith,” Houston Chronicle (25 November 2020): 15).

To return to McLaren’s question, “What if evangelism is one of the things that our world needs most?” Now is always the time to engage in evangelism, and this is true now more than ever. Even with masking and social distancing requirements in place, each of the eight models presented in my book, Models of Evangelism (Baker Academic, 2020), can be practiced robustly and effectively. However, for brevity’s sake, I will mention here only four of the models that I consider particularly apt for evangelism in a COVID world:

Personal evangelism: begin to pray for one person you cross paths with, either in-person or online, and find opportunities to initiate gospel-related conversations

Small group evangelism: launch a short-term group for the purpose of evangelizing 6–8 folks whose interest in religion has been piqued during the pandemic

Church Growth evangelism: every church can begin now a new port of entry for like-minded people to gather around a topic or activity related to the Christian faith

Media evangelism: this model is 100% geared to evangelism during the pandemic. Religious conversations via social or other media can feel less threatening for a religious seeker. When possible and with safety measures in place, an online conversation can continue offline and incorporate strategies from the personal evangelism model.

Now is always the time to engage in evangelism, and this is true now more than ever.

Challenges and Opportunities for Evangelism Today

“What if evangelism is one of the things that our world needs most?” Brian McLaren’s penetrating question offers an apt avenue to launch this essay. His question takes us on a different tack from most essays and books on evangelism, particularly those written by mainline Protestant types like me, who hand-wring over the dismal disregard today for evangelism.

The word itself appears frequently in this discouraging abbreviation: the e-word. While McLaren admits that evangelism, the e-word, evokes the image of selling God like vinyl siding, he still recognizes the value, even the necessity, of this sharing the good news practice because it pursues critical, life-changing conversations offering “a taste of grace, a ‘rumor of glory,’ as songwriter Bruce Cockburn says” (More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix [Zondervan, 2002], 13–14). McLaren believes that good evangelism and good evangelists can make a world of difference, literally! I concur. However, it isn’t easy to be enthusiastic about evangelism today, given the wide range of challenges mitigating against it. At the same time, golden opportunities exist as well. So let’s look at several, two-sided realities in the twenty-first century that serve up both challenge and opportunity simultaneously. Then it’s up to each one of us and the churches we’re engaged in to turn each challenge into an opportunity.

Negative Perception of Evangelism

Evangelism has a huge PR problem to overcome right off the bat. The Elmer Gantry evangelistic hucksters who preached one thing and lived another have embedded in many people the equation that evangelism equals hypocrisy. Even if the Elmer Gantry title from Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 classic doesn’t ring a bell, everyone recognizes the caricature of the sweaty-browed, striped-tie, used-car salesman evangelist, replete with a neon-bright, white-toothed smile, whose sleazy, heavy-handed appeal turns our stomach. The female evangelist in Elmer Gantry was based on Aimee Semple McPherson, whose nationally covered kidnapping saga—was it fact or a malevolent fictitious ruse?—occurred the year before Lewis published the novel. This caricature of the evangelist-minus-integrity reemerged in the 1980s with the downfall of prominent televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Their financial and sexual shenanigans justifiably prompted many people, Christians among them, to recoil at the mere mention of the e-word.

More recently, televangelists are buying airplanes – plural! Kenneth Copeland owns at least three private aircraft. The Texas-based preacher claimed he would be surrounded by demonic forces if he were forced to travel on commercial planes. Another evangelist, Jesse Duplantis, quipped that if Jesus descended from heaven and physically set foot on earth today, he wouldn’t ride on a donkey; instead, “he’d be on an airplane preaching the gospel all over the world.” Duplantis asked his followers to pay for a $54 million plane, even though he already owned three. Unfortunately, these evangelists, whose antics flood the news cycle, fuel an even greater sense in our time of evangelism as extreme. According to a recent Barna Group study, “a startling six in 10 Americans believe that any ‘attempt to convert others’ to one’s own faith is ‘extreme.’ More than eight out of 10 ‘nones’ say so! To be clear: A majority of U.S. adults, and the vast majority of non-religious adults (83%), believe that evangelism is religiously extreme” (Barna Group, Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age: How Christians’ Approach to Sharing Their Faith Has Changed in 25 Years [Barna Group, 2018], 23).

On the flip side–and here’s the opportunity–the number one reason cited by people who gravitated to Christianity is their relationship with a believer. In other words, they became a Christian because of a personal connection. Nearly three-quarters of respondents to a recent survey identify a spouse or partner, a congregation, a minister, a parent or other family member, a friend or someone they have a relationship with as the influencer in their decision. If children are added to the mix, then the number increases to 86% (Brian P. Stone, Finding Faith Today [Wipf & Stock, 2018], 48–49). Even in a 100-page document explaining how to utilize social media in evangelism, the authors reiterate the centrality of relationships. “Human relationships are precious, whether face-to-face or virtual ones that take place on social media platforms. They require time, prayer, and personal investment. While we applaud your interest in pursuing social media as a ministry platform, we want to impress upon you that the creation and building of relationships … is both a magnificent opportunity as well as a heavy responsibility that should not be taken lightly” (Mobile Ministry Forum, Social Media for Missions 23).

Developing relationships is even more significant today in evangelism because most Christians come to faith gradually rather than instantaneously; it’s a journey, not a jog. Whereas a century ago, revivals in America, full of urgency to decide now—tonight!—held prominence as evangelism’s top billing, their impact has since waned dramatically. “The stereotype of a person becoming a Christian in a moment of awakening or conversion is for the most part false. … The preoccupation with getting quick results, moreover, may even be unhealthy considering the kinds of changes in life patterns, practices, commitments, beliefs and purpose that often end up accompanying conversion” (Stone, Finding Faith Today, 17).

What these statistics and comments from recent studies add up to is that evangelism requires time and attention for the development and preservation of relationships. Evangelism is for the long haul. “[T]hose who want to aid others in coming to faith need to take seriously how they might come alongside those who are on a journey of faith, nourishing and nurturing them by understanding faith as a process of cultivating habits, practices, convictions, and dispositions of character over time” (Stone, Finding Faith Today, 17–18). All this is to say that negative stereotypes of evangelists dissipate in the midst of personal or small group evangelism, where conversation flows in a context of hospitality, grace, and love.

Decline in Spiritual Conversations

For decades, spiritual conversations have been on the decline, according to the Barna Group, which tracked this trend over a twenty-five-year period. An overwhelming majority of American Christians find spiritual conversations downright embarrassing (Barna Group, Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age, 23). A UMC pastor in Arkansas corroborated these statistics when he told me that he did not learn to talk about his faith at church: “Growing up in the UMC, I was not taught that I had a story to tell. I was taught the Methodist story really well, but I was not encouraged to consider my own faith story and how it might impact someone else.” The same impulse to clamp down on speaking about God shows up in the subtitle, Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing, of Jonathan Merritt’s recent book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch. Merritt describes the spiritual language barrier he encountered when he moved to New York City. “I never anticipated, upon arriving, that I’d run into a crippling language barrier. Sure, I could order a late-night kabob from a halal street cart or relay an address to a taxicab driver. I spoke English as well as I always had. My problem was that I could no longer ‘speak God’” (Jonathan Merritt, Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—And How We Can Revive Them [Convergent Books, 2018], 3). Merritt insists he is not alone. Nor is this a phenomenon limited to New York City. Even heartland Christians experience the same language barrier and proclivity to deflect spiritual conversations. Statistically, according to Merritt, only 13% of American Christians speak about God on a weekly basis.

During the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, religious leaders observed their people hungering in unprecedented ways to hear stories of where God is at work in the world despite unemployment, grief, despair, anxiety, loss, uncertainty, and isolation. To address this hunger, a Dallas church began to include testimonies during the Sunday online worship service. One young nurse working in a tactical COVID-19 unit at Parkland Hospital testified to the intersection between her faith and her work. “At work, I am more than just a nurse. I am the hands and feet of God. … I am trying to be family to them. Faith is giving me strength to do that.” The congregational response to her testimony was overwhelming. When I asked the senior pastor about the decision to incorporate testimonies, he responded, “We decided that we would do everything we could to involve the congregation creatively during this COVID period. Testimonies and other kinds of video events were one way to do that.” This is just one example of the shift to integrating testimony, the practice of Christians telling stories about how and where they experience God’s activity in their life. These stories are “life-giving,” wrote Brian McLaren in an email to the author. “When people see how others are discerning the presence of God in their lives, they are inspired to do the same.”

Lest testimony be understood as all talk but no action, consider the Greek word for testimony, martyria. Testimony as martyria means a word spoken for which one is ready to be martyred. Consider Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who testified to the risen Christ in the midst of a murderous mob. “Stephen is not called a martyr because he dies, he dies because he is a witness of Christ” (quoted in Amanda Drury, Saying Is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Development [InterVarsity Press, 2015], 118). Martyrs, like Stephen, who held more tightly to their testimony than their own life, have profoundly shaped the Christian church through the ages. A contemporary example—and there are many—is Dorothy Day (1897–1980), founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. While not persecuted for her faith to the point of martyrdom, nonetheless she faced relentless criticism for bringing her testimony into the political and economic arenas. “If I have achieved anything in my life,” declared Day, “it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God” (Jim Forest, “Dorothy Day,” in The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History ed. Michael Glazier and Thomas J. Shelley [Liturgical Press, 1991], 414). An evangelism professor, Jack Jackson, wrote in a Catalyst article outlining the central importance of testimony, “There has never been a better time to make Christian testimony, once again, a central act of the Methodist community.”

Evangelism in a COVID World

Along with the unimaginable destruction of life, health, employment, housing, travel, and so much else wracked up during the global pandemic, the North American church has also experienced a devastating impact. Participation in worship services and other church activities currently falls 30–50% below the pre-pandemic average, according to a recent Barna Group study. The toll on pastors and worship leaders has been exceedingly heavy. During an evangelism webinar I taught last month for the Presbyterian Church in Canada, one pastor declared that she never wanted to hear the word pivot again! Not surprisingly, nearly 40% of pastors have seriously considered quitting full-time ministry, and half of those experiencing a heightened sense of burnout serve churches in mainline denominations. “The year 2020—and now 2021—are arguably the two hardest years to ever be a pastor in the United States … I’ve never seen more people ready to check out,” stated William Vanderbloemen, head of a Houston-based church consultancy group (Robert Downen, “Nearly 40 percent of pastors ‘seriously’ considered exiting ministry,” Houston Chronicle (16 November 2021), web edition).

At the same time, according to a recent Harris poll, a majority of American adults—two-thirds—state that the pandemic has had a positive influence on their faith. These statistics are borne out anecdotally by the emergence of testimony during the outbreak of COVID-19, as described above. “Members of all groups—by gender, age, income, education, household makeup, race, and region—also report feeling a personal spiritual awakening.” An unexpected group leading the percentage is men between the age of 35 and 44, who are “the most likely to feel more spiritual and religious today than before the pandemic.” For Americans not affiliated with a religion, 13% state that they have become more spiritual on account of the pandemic (Will Johnson, “Pandemic side effect: Many are returning to their faith,” Houston Chronicle (25 November 2020): 15).

To return to McLaren’s question, “What if evangelism is one of the things that our world needs most?” Now is always the time to engage in evangelism, and this is true now more than ever. Even with masking and social distancing requirements in place, each of the eight models presented in my book, Models of Evangelism (Baker Academic, 2020), can be practiced robustly and effectively. However, for brevity’s sake, I will mention here only four of the models that I consider particularly apt for evangelism in a COVID world:

Personal evangelism: begin to pray for one person you cross paths with, either in-person or online, and find opportunities to initiate gospel-related conversations

Small group evangelism: launch a short-term group for the purpose of evangelizing 6–8 folks whose interest in religion has been piqued during the pandemic

Church Growth evangelism: every church can begin now a new port of entry for like-minded people to gather around a topic or activity related to the Christian faith

Media evangelism: this model is 100% geared to evangelism during the pandemic. Religious conversations via social or other media can feel less threatening for a religious seeker. When possible and with safety measures in place, an online conversation can continue offline and incorporate strategies from the personal evangelism model.

Now is always the time to engage in evangelism, and this is true now more than ever.

Reading while White (4)

In an earlier period of my life, I slogged through a master’s degree while working for a business in Midtown Atlanta. One day, I found myself idling in the city’s famously inert rush hour traffic, stressed because I still had schoolwork to finish that evening. While sitting in my humble, but (mostly) reliable, ’96 Nissan Sentra, I complained about my lack of progress in the gridlocked traffic. Suddenly, it dawned on me: “Wait a minute. I am the traffic!” I was struck by the sudden awareness that I was not external to the motionless collection of vehicles, which I had viewed as obstacles between my location and my destination. I realized that I was part of the very thing about which I was complaining.

Representatives of the racial majority in the US find ourselves in an analogous situation with respect to biblical studies. We may recognize that the church and academy have a history of problems in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many of us are concerned about those problems and make genuine efforts to combat them. As teachers, for example, we lecture on multiple models for interpreting Scripture. We revise our syllabi to include a diverse range of authors. We learn about and acknowledge the validity of multiple approaches to biblical interpretation. But, as in my days of moving at a snail’s pace in Atlanta traffic, I’ve also been guilty of perceiving the reality of problems without recognizing the role I’ve played in sustaining them.

It can be difficult for us in the majority culture(s) to realize that our modes of biblical interpretation aren’t universal. Rather, what I call “reading while White” is a particular, historically contingent set of approaches to studying our sacred texts (see part 1). Such is not a problem, in and of itself. It is problematic, however, when we presume that other approaches are nice and helpful, yet outside of “the norm.” If we hold such views and act in accordance with them, we can marginalize other perspectives without realizing we’ve done so. How, then, can we respond to our predicament? As I often say in my classes, if I had the answer to that question, I’d be an important person! Nonetheless, some thoughts come to mind.

1. Historical Perspective. We can begin by critically examining our modes and methods of biblical interpretation. In addition to learning how to use methods, we should study their histories—how and why they came into being. What questions or problems do methods address (see part 3)? Who created them? Were they developed in response to other practices or movements? Importantly, what other interpretive approaches did marginalized people—those without power to influence the academy—use in their contexts? How might the field of biblical studies differ today if those practices had received more attention? By answering questions like these, we can gain perspective on the particularity of our own interpretive practices.

2. Self-Awareness. We should engage with multiple perspectives on the Bible with humility. We are fortunate to live in a time when people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints are publishing in biblical studies at increasing rates. We should read widely, but, for transformation to occur, we need to read with intellectual humility, a virtue characterized by self-awareness and the acknowledgment that we have much to learn from others. To use an analogy, nothing reveals my distinctively American presuppositions to myself like the experience of traveling to a country with which I don’t share the language or cultural assumptions—a humbling experience indeed! I learn about myself by encountering difference. Similarly, by traveling into the worlds of other people’s interpretations openly and humbly, we can discover aspects of our interpretive norms that we might not have otherwise perceived.

3. Sharing the Road. We who already have a place in the field of biblical studies have opportunities, and a moral responsibility, to make space for others. We can empower those who have been marginalized by working to remove roadblocks that have prevented their voices from being heard. Yet, counterintuitively, those efforts don’t begin with advocacy. They start with our listening to the claims of minoritized peoples and assessing how we might have unknowingly erected roadblocks.

A friend who read this series told me that he left each post wanting more—more direction and guidance. I feel the same: I also want more! But maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe, it’s best to begin by recognizing that “I am the traffic” and to let that recognition energize my journey of discovering the myriad of ways in which it’s true. I suspect that understanding what it means to “read while White” is a lifelong process, one filled with listening, self-examination, and transformation. I hope by God’s grace to stay on that road, and I hope that others will join me.

Building a New Testament Library: Hebrews—Revelation

I had one opportunity to spend time one-on-one with the late James D. G. (“Jimmy”) Dunn. In that delightful time, we bonded over our love for the letters from Hebrews to Jude, and he shared that, for him, that love was born out of the fact that his year at Oxford studied neither Paul nor the Gospels but the texts in the New Testament referred to as the “Other.” Though still underrepresented in Christian teaching, more recently, resources on these texts do seem to be appearing with greater frequency. In what follows, I will draw attention only to relatively recent volumes, but with no expectation that these resources should supplant all those that came before them. (I also have tried to offer different recommendations than those previously mentioned in this series, while still underscoring a couple that cannot be missed.) Additionally, while the majority of these commentaries are written by those who identify as evangelicals, I have included some resources from those outside evangelicalism that I think are particularly helpful and serve as useful supplements to evangelical work.

Hebrews

Beginning with Hebrews, in addition to the excellent recent work by Gareth Cockerill in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT; Eerdmans, 2012), I highly recommend the recent commentary by Dana M. Harris in the Exegetical Guides to the Greek New Testament series (B&H Academic, 2019). This is a specialized commentary that focuses on the grammar and syntax of Hebrews. As such, for some who have not studied Greek, it might be difficult to use (initially); however, Harris is incredibly clear and offers an indispensable resource for interacting with the complex—though rich—text of Hebrews. Further, even if you consider yourself limited with respect to the Greek, the volume is very affordable, and Harris’s sermon outlines and brief discussions and bibliographies for topics related to Hebrews are absolutely worth the price. As a bonus resource, technically beyond the commentary genre, I also highly recommend Patrick Gray’s and Amy Peeler’s Hebrews: An Introduction and Study Guide in T&T Clark’s Study Guides to the New Testament (Bloomsbury, 2020). If someone wants a brief yet reliable introduction to Hebrews, they simply must turn to Gray and Peeler. (Peeler also has a commentary on Hebrews forthcoming with Eerdmans that you cannot miss!)

James

Turning toward the Catholic Epistles, some excellent commentaries have appeared on James in the last fifteen years or so. Among these exemplars is the 2008 volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series by Craig L. Blomberg and Miriam J. Kammell (Zondervan, 2008). This commentary showcases the incredible potential of this series by Zondervan. It is attentive to the Greek text, but still offers rich discussions of the argumentation and by extension the theology of James. Much the same could be said of Scot McKnight’s commentary in the NICNT (Eerdmans, 2011). Further McKnight, similar to Blomberg and Kammell, is attentive to the social dimensions at work within James. Though often forgotten, James is an invaluable resource for helping modern pastors and scholars navigate difficult questions being raised today about equity and justice. For those who would to learn about the social situation of James, a bonus resource for consideration is The Scandalous Message of James, by Elsa Tamez (Crossroad, 2002).

1 Peter

Though a bit older (2005, with a second edition expected later this year), the outstanding commentary by Karen H. Jobes in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (BECNT; Baker Academic) remains a crucial contribution to Petrine literature. In it, Jobes offers her distinctive expertise on the Septuagint (Greek versions of Jewish Scripture) to illumine the many quotations and allusions of Scripture within the text. She additionally provides a useful overview of the background of the letter, taking seriously work focused on the social identity of the readers (e.g., John H. Elliot’s work) but integrating that with the historical context (especially their exile from Rome under Claudius). More recently (2017), Dennis R. Edwards published 1 Peter in the Story of God Bible Commentary (Zondervan). This volume, like others in the series, focuses on relevant intertextual connections at the start of each section, as well as how to apply the text. The work on contemporary application in Edwards’s volume is especially rich. Finally, Craig S. Keener published an exceptional commentary on 1 Peter in 2021 (Baker Academic), and as of today, I believe, it is both the longest and the most recent commentary on 1 Peter. As with all of Keener’s work, it is meticulous and comprehensive—a must read. (As a bonus, watch for Ruth Anne Reese’s volume on 1 Peter in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary [Cambridge University Press, 2022].)

2 Peter and Jude

Since many scholars think 2 Peter draws on Jude (or vice versa), these two books are often addressed together in commentaries series. In the last 10 years, Jörg Frey released The Letter of Jude and the Second Letter of Peter: A Theological Commentary (Baylor University Press, 2018). In it, Frey offers fruitful, theologically engaged commentary on the texts themselves but with consistent attention to how these texts can be situated within New Testament studies more broadly, how they might intersect with early Jewish literature, and how to think about their backgrounds. Frey considers these texts to be pseudepigraphic. Reaching back a bit further, two noteworthy evangelical commentaries are those from Gene L. Green and Ruth Anne Reese. Beginning with Reese, her Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (THNTC; Eerdmans, 2007) is an excellent contribution. As with other volumes in the series, this is a theological commentary that deals with the grammatical, historical, and literary features of 2 Peter and Jude in service of theological discussions. Reese, whose early work focused on Jude, has particular expertise in narrative-critical readings, though she by no means neglects those other aspects of the biblical texts. Green’s commentary in the BECNT (Baker Academic, 2008) also attends to each of these aspects of 2 Peter and Jude but the balance is different. His discussion is thoroughly theological, but the emphasis is more on what he considers the historical backgrounds of the text. Green’s volume offers a more robust discussion of textual issues and intersections with Jewish literature than Reese’s, but they complement each other quite well. (Another forthcoming bonus commentary for these texts is the Wisdom Commentary [Liturgical Press, 2022] by Pheme Perkins, Eloise Rosenblatt, and Patricia McDonald, offering feminist readings of 1–2 Peter and Jude.)

1–3 John

The Johannine Letters received far more attention than usual in the last decade. The most recent contribution to these letters is the THNTC volume by Thomas Andrew Bennett (Eerdmans, 2021). Like Reese above, this is an excellent volume in the series. Bennett interprets these letters in light of what they offer the church today. Given the considerable neglect of 2–3 John in particular, this is a much-needed commentary for most modern pastors and practitioners. Another noteworthy contribution to Johannine literature is the commentary by Alicia D. Myers in the Reading the New Testament series (Smith & Helwys, 2019). Myers, interpreting within the Baptist tradition, provides a “literary and theological” commentary. In this work, she uses a moderate approach to navigating the relationship among texts associated with the apostle John, arguing that they should be read together, but not allowing that relationship to overdetermine how any single text is read. Her contribution to the theology of the Johannine letters is particularly rich and consistently integrates the work of Judith Lieu, whose commentary is arguably the critical standard in the field (New Testament Library; Westminster John Knox, 2008). Finally, I recommend Constantine R. Campbell’s commentary in the Story of God series (Zondervan, 2017). Complementing the other two commentaries, Campbell offers more intertextual connections as well as explicit ways to apply the text today.

Revelation

Last but not least is recommendations for Revelation. As one who was guilty of avoiding this difficult text for quite some time, I am incredibly thankful for excellent resources that help me to preach and teach this text well. Among the most recent contributions is David deSilva’s Discovering Revelation (2021), from the Discovering Biblical Texts series published by Eerdmans. These are excellent volumes that are not traditional commentaries, per se, but offer comprehensive discussions of the text alongside discussing major interpretive issues in the history of interpretation. deSilva offers an excellent discussion of Revelation within its first-century backdrop, enhancing his interpretations through insights from reception history. Revelation by Buist Fanning (ZECNT; Zondervan, 2020) is another great contribution. The notes on the Greek text are particularly thorough, but presented in an accessible manner. Many of those more technical comments appear in the footnotes, which means the main text of the commentary provides higher-level conclusions based on that more technical work. It’s a really great approach that allows for expansive commentary on the many relevant dimensions of Revelation, while not discouraging interpreters who are less comfortable with the Greek text itself. Finally, Michael J. Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly (Cascade, 2011) remains an invaluable resource for teaching Revelation and providing readers with tools to think about how Revelation presses us toward more faithful living today.

Recalculating

I don’t always have the best sense of direction. That’s one reason why I was particularly thankful when GPS systems became available for our cars. I no longer had to pull over to look at a map; rather, I could just obediently listen to the voice traveling with me, telling me where to turn. When I strayed from the best path, the voice in the GPS gently reminded me that the device is “recalculating” and told me where I needed to go.

Some years ago, I was in visiting family in another city. We had to run an errand in a part of the city that was unfamiliar to me, so I got out my GPS. Our eight-year-old son was with us and, to have a bit of fun with him, I set the voice on the GPS to “Yeti.” Yep, Yeti. I’m just weird that way. (I have no idea how the programmers know what a Yeti sounded like.) Well, Joshua loved to hear the funny sounds that the Yeti made when it gave you directions in its Yeti language.

To have even more fun with our son, we intentionally disobeyed the GPS’s directions so that the Yeti would have to correct us. The more we drove, the more it yelled at us in its unintelligible, nonsense language. The more he yelled, the more Joshua laughed at the funny voice. I drove blissfully along, not really knowing where I was going, while we all laughed at Joshua laughing at the funny voice. I had the form and function to accomplish what I needed to do. But rather than listen to the voice that would get me where I needed to go, I decided to listen to the voice that was cute and novel.

The Bible tells us that, in life, we have a guide who reminds us of what we should be doing and where we should be going: the Holy Spirit. Throughout Scripture, we see that the Holy Spirit only affirms what is written in God’s Word to us and is to be our source of direction in all things. This means that individuals and communities will flourish under the Spirit’s guidance. But I’m not so sure we are always listening as we should.

I have an evangelism mentor who tells me, “In order to share your faith, show up in someone else’s life and pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is doing.” Discerning the many competing voices in our lives and the lives of others can seem difficult. We can face pressure to follow the voices around us, though they may be in direct conflict with God’s desires for us. For those who want to share faith with others, trying to be winsome when the world’s novel voices contradict Jesus’s commands can be exhausting.

However, we do not have to navigate this alone. This is a key reason why John Wesley instructed the early Methodists to “attend upon all the Ordinances of God.” These, he said, included, but are not limited to the public worship of God, the study of Scriptures, celebrating Holy Communion, private prayer, and fasting/abstinence. These are ways the Holy Spirit speaks to us so that we can discern the Lord’s voice from all the competing voices in the world. We best recognize the voices of those with whom we spend the most time. Simply put: To recognize God’s voice, spend time with him.

I might still be lost on the errand with my son if it had not been for the fact that I took along a brother-in-law who lived nearby. He knew the way we were to go and guided me over the noise of the Yeti and my son’s laughter. All I had to do was to discern which voice was just for fun and which one would get me where I needed to go. So it is in our spiritual journeys. We could all use some “recalculating” to make sure we are listening and obeying the Holy Spirit’s perfect directions.

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