Below is an edited version of an email I sent out to some pastor friends of mine a few months ago. In my devotion time this morning I was in Psalm 85, which echoed a prayer I have been praying for the Church for many months. It reads,
Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to their folly.
Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land. (Psalm 85:6, 8-9)
What is true for my church, the Methodist Church, is true for many others, I believe. I hope the following is of some benefit to you, and the churches we love and serve.
I’m reading a wonderful little book I picked up at the library today entitled, Methodism Can Be Born Again, by W.E. Sangster, whom I had never heard of until today (an extraordinary Methodist preacher in Britain, as it turns out).
I wanted to share some insights I have gleaned from this book with you as a way to perhaps encourage some dialog with people more learned than myself and experienced in parish life. Or, perhaps this will serve you in some other way on a personal level or be something you feel will serve someone else. Either way, I pray you are blessed.
What I find so wonderful about this book is that it is written in 1938, and as such, prophetic in its diagnosis and treatment of Methodism’s decline. After examining some of the reasons commonly given for decline in both attendance and ardor by those within and without the church (i.e. the War, loss of biblical authority, competing attractions on a Sunday morning, radio (ha!), a transient society, and a spirit of secularism), he goes on to write this, which I quote:
Endless discussions as to the true diagnosis must give way to some radical cure. We know enough to make a beginning. At least, we know enough to know where to begin. We must begin with ourselves. General criticism of “Methodism” must give way to clear, incisive and detailed criticism of a Methodist. Rigorous self-examination is demanded. When a man thinks he has “explained” the parlous condition of the Church by reference to the radio, Sunday movies, new building areas, or whatever other cause is our long category takes his fancy, he thinks also that the responsibility for the situation is not his, and that there is nothing to be done about it.
I couldn’t agree more. A pair of books I read at Pure Life, Calvary Road and We Would See Jesus (by Roy Hession) argue that revival must begin within our own hearts. We cannot lead anyone where we have not first been. The Cleveland District superintendent, Joe Green, reminded me of the conviction of the late Scottish preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, who wrote,
The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness.
Sangster goes on….
On that dark betrayal night, when our Lord said to His disciples, “One of you shall betray me,” John did not say, “Is it Peter?” Peter did not say, “Is it John?” They all said, “Lord, is it I?”
To that point, I believe, the grace of God is constraining Methodists at this time of celebration [he is writing near the bicentennial of Wesley’s Aldersgate experience]. The pew has been blaming the pulpit: the pulpit has been blaming the pew. The pew says that the preaching is lifeless and irrelevant: the pulpit says the people are absent or prayerless. Back and forward the blame has gone, and nothing will be done till the utter folly of this mutual recrimination is seen as folly, and pulpit and pew alike humble themselves before the Cross, confessing their own sins, and saying, “Lord, is it I?”
He moves into addressing the cultural malaise towards denominational-ism and the heightened attitude of church-goers forgoing identification with any one group, preferring being spiritual but not religious (remember, he’s writing in 1938!). He laments our sacrifice of our distinctiveness as Methodists for a more tolerant, unified, catholic Church. Of this, he writes,
If we are right in our supposition that some do not regret the loss of our distinctiveness in the belief that it will aid the triumph of true catholicity, their satisfaction is surely misplaced. Catholicity is one of the things that can always look after itself. To get near to God is to get near to those who are near to Him. It is a blessed by-product of the holy life. It need not be strained for, either in lopping off the characteristic differences of the denominations, or by copying customs, precious to others, yet learned for no deeper reason than the desire to be alike. If we all aim, with a single eye, to get near our blessed Lord, we shall get near to one another. The hill of Calvary is not as large as all that. Those who can touch the wood can touch each other.
I’ll conclude with his 4 questions in the middle of the book, each of which the rest of the book aim to answer. As he analyses the Oxford Group Movement (Groupers) of his day and what they have in common with Methodism’s genesis, he asks,
1. Can Methodism recover fellowship? (meaning, our distinctive class meetings which urge one another towards Christian perfection, or holiness).
2. Can Methodism recover assurance? (meaning, a positive, robust message of the Gospel characterized by a great confidence in the God of our salvation. In a confused world the Methodist preachers were sure. I love this line: “The pioneers of the Evangelical Revival never began a sermon with the phrase beloved by modern preachers, ‘I feel I have a feeling which I feel you feel as well.'”)
3. Can Methodism recover her passion for holiness? (John Wesley, he reminds us, believed that sanctification was the chief reason God raised the Methodists up. Losing this note in both our preaching and practice is, in my opinion, our death sentence).
4. Can Methodism recover her zeal for personal evangelism? (meaning, the early Methodists, enlivened by the power of cancelled sin in their personal lives could not keep it a secret. Religion has become too much a private matter, he says (1938!!) and winning souls is no longer the objective of the pastor nor the layperson – instead, maintenance of a machine is the goal).
I believe the answer to all four of these questions is YES and AMEN! I hope you feel the same. I pray that it will be so, and I pray it begins with me.