June 25, 2013

Missional United Methodism for the 21st Century – Part 2 of 6: Scripture

John Lomparis speaking

It is quite ironic that the UM renewal event was held in a room with an adjacent office that highlights the very problem facing the denomination.

The following remarks were delivered by UMAction Director John Lomperis on June 15 at the annual lunch of Cal-Pac Renewal, the evangelical renewal caucus within the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Emphasis on the Bible as our final authority on all matters of doctrine and morals. 

In the words of Article IV of the EUB Confession of Faith, part of our denomination’s core Doctrinal Standards in Paragraph 104 of the Book of Discipline: the Old and New Testaments are “to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”

In the words of Scripture, in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” And then a little later in that same epistle, verse 4:2, Paul instructs the young pastor: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.”

If we act like laughter or entertainment is the main thing we have to offer, then frankly, the folk we need to reach can find more high-quality entertainment elsewhere. We are long past the days when we could draw people to our churches and camp meetings in largely because there were simply not many recreational alternatives.

Furthermore, we are, not completely, but increasingly transitioning out of the days of the old, mainline Christianity model in which you could rely on cultural pressure pushing people into church for the sake of social respectability. Now people don’t need church for that, either.

Churches that only offer unimaginative echoes of secular culture do little to motivate people to drag themselves out of bed on Sunday mornings.

So let’s just embrace the fact that the one thing that Christian churches have to offer that people can’t find anywhere else in our culture is Scriptural Christianity.

Now how many of you have heard it said that the heart of Methodist theology is John Wesley’s quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience?

Since some myths won’t die, it’s worth stressing that Wesley was not the one who came up with this formulation.  The so-called quadrilateral was coined by twentieth-century United Methodist theologian Albert Outler, who later publicly regretted popularizing the phrase because of how it was misinterpreted to demote the authority of Scripture.  Outler correctly noted that Wesley indeed used church tradition, critical reason, and Christian experience (not just any sort of human experience) to evaluate truth claims – but all within the boundaries of Scripture.

In his “Thoughts Upon Methodism” John Wesley himself very directly identified the “fundamental doctrine” of Methodism as “That the Bible is the whole and sole rule both of Christian faith and practice.”

In my observation, the church in America, including but not limited to United Methodism, is suffering greatly not just from humanity-glorifying, supernaturalism-denying theological liberalism but also from widespread biblical illiteracy.

Today, we have to assume that the starting point for most of the people who show up in our churches is simple ignorance of what is actually taught in Scripture – aside from a few shallow and distorted references from pop culture.

Friends, we are guilty of an inexcusable dereliction of duty if our churches are not “equipping” our people with “thorough” knowledge of Scripture. Without this, they will lack a firm, lasting foundation for their faith. Without this, we cannot trust that they can have the immune systems to avoid poisoning from such influences as the media and secular friends. Without this, our people will not be sufficiently equipped to obey their obligation, in 1 Peter 3:15, to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

But the more the people in our churches know the Word of God, the more they can be used by God to spread His Gospel and grow our churches, the more they can know how to relate to others in a God-honoring way, and the more they can understand the character and the will of God in their lives.

So whether you are a pastor or a layperson, here are some practical changes you can promote in your congregation:

First of all, stop assuming that people already know and understand Scripture. Realize that even some of your strongest members often know the Bible less well and study it more infrequently than you or they would like to believe.

We all have an obligation, by teaching and example, of promoting a culture in all of our congregations in which members are expected to have DAILY times of at least 15-20 minutes of personal prayer and Bible study. Make a point of sharing with others what God has been teaching you in your daily quiet times and gently asking other professedly Christian members about theirs.

In the sanctuary, are Bibles placed on every seat for people to follow along during the sermon? If the only way people receive the Word of God in the service is by hearing someone else read it, think about what you’re training them to do. We need to promote the habit of looking into the Word with our own eyes, rather than just relying on what we hear others say.

If you are serious about reaching new people for Christ, is your church regularly stocked up on readily accessible Bibles to give away, free of charge, to anyone who needs one?

Look systematically at how your church programming gets members into the Word. Now I’ve learned a lot from also reading Wesley, Bonhoeffer, and Lewis.  But our churches are missing the point when we have all sorts of groups and gatherings to watch movies, learn about other religions, discuss interesting issues, read contemporary writers, and focus on anything and everything but the Scriptures we need to evaluate all of that other stuff.

Then there’s preaching. There was lots of good data in that report our denomination’s Call to Action Team did a couple of years ago. But perhaps the most frustratingly myopic part was when they asserted that “topical preaching” was a key “driver” of “congregational vitality” – based on treating lectionary preaching or some mix of the two as the only alternatives.

Now there may be times when pastors discern that their flocks really need a sermon on a particular issue.

But what about straight exegetical, biblical preaching, going completely through one book of the Bible for a sermon series? I have seen this done very well.  Preachers, after you select the books, alternating testaments and genres, this takes the pressure off of having to continually invent an extra-biblical foundation for each sermon. It will help your people have a richer understanding of Scripture, as over the course of several weeks they understand biblical teaching in context.

Most importantly, preaching through an entire book of the Bible protects the congregation from the pastor. A pastor’s job is to ground people in Scripture rather than in anyone’s personal ideas. We all have our blind spots. But preaching through an entire book forces pastors and laity alike to listen to what God has to say to us in not only the fondly familiar passages of Scripture but also in those challenging, counter-cultural passages we may prefer to avoid.

As evangelical United Methodists, we sometimes envy our evangelical neighbor’s churches when we see their leaders not compromising on some of the same high-profile issues on which we have sadly seen so many of our own leaders compromise. But on other issues, plenty of evangelical, non-mainline churches have blind spots which enable them to also follow the culture in opposition to biblical values.

When kids grow up in culturally compromised churches of one sort or another and then go off to their colleges and careers, they have already been conditioned to follow culture rather than Christ, if following Christ could risk personal sacrifice or breaking community norms. Given this foundation, it is sadly unsurprising to see many young Christians growing up to either completely abandon the faith or else still call themselves Christian while rejecting much of the biblical teaching with which they were raised.

So it is essential to teach the whole word of God, in season and out of season, not fearfully shrinking back from lovingly, humbly challenging our people on difficult topics.

One somewhat unique thing that United Methodism has to offer here is how our increasingly global nature has the potential for allowing Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Americans to all come together as members of the same church to lovingly help each other recognize our blind spots and become better, more counter-cultural, boldly biblical Christians in each of our respective contexts. Because the biblical Gospel is not the property of any race, country, culture, or class – it is GOD’s Gospel for all who would accept it, and thus stands apart from all fallen human cultures.

If you would like to support the work of John Lomperis and UM Action, please donate here.

6 Responses to Missional United Methodism for the 21st Century – Part 2 of 6: Scripture

  1. It’s always distressing to read polls about people’s biblical illiteracy, because the polls inevitably show that people who attend evangelical churches regularly are almost as biblically illiterate as people who never darken a church door. I feel for pastors and Bible study leaders because in their few minutes each week they are having compete with the information overload from TV, the Internet, and all the other modern distractions. But I don’t let those leaders completely off the hook because, as this article points out, there is way too much “busy-ness” in all churches, all so focused on keeping parishioners entertained (and in the pews) that the Bible is sadly neglected.

    Thanks for pointing out that Wesley himself never defined the “quadrilateral,” and that poor Albert Outler is probably spinning in his grave over the ways that liberal UMs use the quadrilateral as an excuse for elevating experience over the Bible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *