April 5, 2013

Methodist Cultural Invisibility

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With United Methodist theologian Tom Oden

Follow Mark Tooley on Twitter @markdtooley.

Andrew Thompson, who directs Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary, has a sharp column about the absence of “visibility” for the Wesleyan message in America. I’ve met Andrew and admire him as one of the rising young theological voices in U.S. United Methodism who give cause for hope. His column for The United Methodist Reporter responds to an online conversation on this topic originated by Kevin Watson, a United Methodist professor at evangelical Seattle Pacific University, who complained of an “invisible Wesleyan message.”

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Andrew Thompson

In the American Protestant/Evangelical world, Thompson rightly asserts, Reformed/Calvinist preachers and teachers are much more high profile. He compares the Twitter followers of the most prominent Methodist preachers/teachers with prominent Reformed preachers/teachers. Adam Hamilton has about 9,750 followers and Leonard Sweet has 26,500 followers, compared to Mark Driscoll’s 350,000 and John Piper’s 450,000 followers.

Thompson suggests Methodists emphasize speaking to each other and not enough speaking to the wider culture. He also says that for Methodist founder John Wesley, “there was a doctrinal core that informed the spread of the Methodist revival. He utilized publishing both to nurture the ‘in-group’ and evangelize outsiders. And Wesley also never separated a robust defense of the faith from a robust practice of it.”

There are other possible reasons for lack of wide Methodist visibility in American religious life, even though members of Wesleyan churches almost certainly outnumber Reformed ones. Although Wesley himself was an intellectual, American Methodism’s chief founder, Francis Asbury, lacked great formal education, and was heroically a preacher and organizer, not so much an intellectual. The early Methodist preachers were incredibly successfully in their evangelizing, but their exertions left little time for wider intellectual/theological development.

It’s true that Methodism founded more colleges in American than any other religious tradition. But those schools perhaps stressed pragmatic disciplines rather than more abstract theology. Of course, almost none of the over 100 United Methodist related colleges and universities today remains seriously Christian, much less Wesleyan.

United Methodism is the largest Wesleyan body by far in the U.S., and its theological and membership implosion has left it culturally sidelined, even though it remains America’s third largest church. Very few in the wider evangelical world look specifically to United Methodist resources even if they are themselves Wesleyan. Although smaller Wesleyan denominations like the Free Methodist Church and the Wesleyan Church have remained more theologically robust, they have not offered a strong distinctive voice that is typically felt beyond their own confines.

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With United Methodist theologian Billy Abraham

Who are the great Wesleyan thinkers of today? In the mid 20th century, Albert Outler was considered by many as the most important Methodist theologian. Tom Oden, mostly retired but still very much alive thankfully, is I believe United Methodism’s greatest living theologian. IRD was privileged to have him as a board member. Billy Abraham is a generation younger than Tom and is a great theologian and philosopher. Richard Hays, dean of Duke Divinity School, is an important author and Wesleyan thinker, although his political theology is more Anabaptist. Tim Tennant, president of Asbury Seminary, produces wonderful commentary. Ken Collins of Asbury Seminary, and an IRD board member, is a tremendous Wesleyan scholar. None of these thinkers has as wide an audience as they deserve, although Hays’ majesterial A Moral Theory of the New Testament has been named by Christianity Today as one of the 20th Century’s most important Christian works.

And none of the important Methodist thinkers has become a well-known public intellectual in the way that many Catholics and some Calvinists have. The late Paul Ramsey of Princeton was perhaps the closest to it, although his Methodist affiliation was not widely advertised. On the public stage of American life today there are no Methodist equivalents of Catholics like Robby George, Michael Novak and George Weigel, or Calvinist inclined Southern Baptists like Al Mohler and Russell Moore. Maybe United Methodism’s theological division and marginalization are partly to blame. In years past, Catholics had public thinkers like John Courtney Murray, and evangelicals had Carl Henry and Francis Schaeffer. There was of course the brilliant Richard Neuhaus, first Lutheran, later Catholic, and one of IRD’s founders. Reinhold Niebuhr, of Reformed background, was the premier public theologian of the last century.

As United Methodism increasingly globalizes and theologically recovers, maybe it can create a culture that not only encourages strong minds but can also help propel them into wider public life. The rising African church may contribute refreshing new voices. America, our culture and the universal church need a robust Wesleyan witness theologically and politically. Hopefully young, rising theologians like Andrew Thompson and Kevin Watson, among others, can help show the way.


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12 Responses to Methodist Cultural Invisibility

  1. Andrew is one of our sharpest young minds in Methodism. I am thankful he is teaching at a seminary in my conference.

  2. […] Tooley elaborated on the topic I’m trying to address in a blog post earlier today, and I’m grateful for his optimism about what Wesleyan theologians might be able to do if we […]

  3. Guys, with all due respect, I just don’t see the importance of denominational “branding.” So what if the Methodists don’t have a recognizable brand name in the religious marketplace? The older I get, the more committed I am to “mere Christianity,” the core beliefs and values. I don’t think the UMs are losing members because of brand invisibility, and I don’t think this ought to be a high priority. I don’t think Wesley, Asbury, and the other founders were concerned about “growing the Methodists,” the goal was conversion to Christianity, not a brand name.

  4. Just a couple of observations, now as an ex-United Methodist (though very much Wesleyan in sympathy and thinking).

    Over the years, having gone through most of the UM Discipleship series (both as a participant and leader) I noted that some of the later course revisions began to minimize contributions of theologicians like Albert Outler and Tom Oden, preferring instead to highligh contemporary theo-political figures concerned with topics like “the social gospel,” “the feminist gospel,” “societal justice,” “re-imagining God,” “re-thinking church” and the like. Those of us who have been in the UMC for many years (and have been paying attention to happenings beyond our own backyard) know the drill and wince with each successive year. (Reverend Ellsworth Kalas must be distressed, but, after all, he’s getting old and enlightened progressives must move on).

    The point is this: Wesleyan theology is as powerful as ever, but how can it be promulgated when it’s being dissed by the largest denomination that claims it?!

    The latest capitulation to culture by previously well-respected pastor Adam Hamilton is just the latest in a sad series of Methodist accomodations to secularism. Why pay attention to pastors who stick their finger in the wind and go with the cultural flow? Why pay attention to pastors more concerned about making people feel good about themselves than introducing them to the transformative power of God?

    C. S. Lewis said that God does not love us because we are good, but God will make us good because He loves us. If we think we are already good, and that the only bad is in “the political system” or “the corporations” or “the institutions” or “the greedy capitalists” then there’s no need for personal tranformation, only political activism (with a veneer of religion to make it more palatable for church-going folk).

    Yet, it’s the personal transformation that people need most.

    • ericvlytle says:

      Cleareyed, I speak not only as an ex-UM but ex-employee of the UM’s curriculum division and, trust me, the staff had zero interest in the Wesleyan tradition, probably because they were barely aware it existed, despite most of them being alumni of UM seminaries. Had they been committed to the orthodox mainstream of Christianity, the lack of emphasis on Wesleyan tradition could be forgiven but, as you pointed out, they had a lot more interested in the latest faddy theology than in John Wesley or any other figure who lived before 1950. Let me add that they HATED Albert Outler and referred to him as the “anti” guy, since he was not going along with the feminist/gay accommodationists. Abingdon, the UM book publisher, published the first books by Tom Oden, not because they believed in them but, unlike most Abingdon books, they sold well. No one on the curriculum staff would’ve been caught dead reading one of Oden’s books, they were too busy reading the shallow liberal hogwash by Harvey Cox and Rosemary Ruether. For them, truth is as changeable as clothing styles.

      The rule in the mainlines is this: the guiding orthodoxy is liberalism, and that trumps any connection to John Wesley, John Knox, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or any of their worthy successors. Despite some surface differences (e.g., the Presbys and UCCs don’t have bishops), the mainlines are all one body, totally in sync with each other, same view of the church as a political action committee, no concern at all with salvation, the afterlife, evangelism, or conversion. In short, you would be hard pressed to prove they are Christians.

      • Your comments are even more eye-opening, especially coming from someone who has inside knowledge.

        With liberal church members (who have contrived to hold a highly disproportionate influence) leftist politics trumps everything else.

        I think you are right, I would simply point out that there is a lot of apathy on the part of the laity which has served to facilitate liberal political activists rising to levels of power.

        Before I left the UMC I would point out the actions of, typically, the GBCS, and some folks would seem indifferent or skeptical, and some would react with concern. But they would VERY RARELY check it out on their own. They just didn’t seem to care that leadership was misrepresenting not just their views but orthodox Christian views.

        As you seem to realize, many manline churches are little more than a Rotary Club with a cross stuck on the door.

  5. johns79 says:

    Is there a distinctive Wesleyan message? Although not a Methodist I’ve attended Methodist and UMC churches most of my life (family connections) and I must say that I’ve rarely heard anything distinctive in those churches. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve not seen much distinctive between the Methodists and those around the neighborhood. If anything the UMC/Wesleyan message is that of the culture at large. Be good, do well, enjoy life.

    Adam Hamilton seems to be followed because he is distinctive in one way; he’s a “successful” UMC pastor (as the UMC now defines success-bottoms in the pew), a rare thing.

    • Donnie says:

      Maybe at one time, but I can’t tell any difference today.

      I have been to a couple of United Methodist churches, and one PCUSA church, and I couldn’t tell the difference between any of them. None of them were very deep theologically speaking, to be very blunt.

  6. […] Mark Tooley asked what caused the “lack of wide Methodist visibility in American religious life, even though members of Wesleyan churches almost certainly outnumber […]

  7. […] Methodist Cultural Invisibility (juicyecumenism.com) […]

  8. Greg Ross says:

    Can anyone point me to a resource that provides a good history of when/how the UMC got off track? I’m trying to understand/define the turning point, the leaders that strayed from traditional Christian thought, etc. How did they get so wrapped up the Song’s and the Borg’s of the world? They appear to worship intellectualism rather than Faith/Spirit.

  9. RMeixell says:

    As an apostate Methodist minister’s son (sorry, guys), I think there is an obvious enough explanation for this. Methodism is, in a sense, an “accidental” denomination (although this is something I didn’t learn until relatively late in life). It would be an exaggeration to say that Wesley didn’t care about doctrine, but he was fairly flexible about it, and the primary focus of Methodism was devotion and the pursuit of moral perfection.

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