By David Watson
Let’s face it: no one really knows what is going to happen at The United Methodist Church’s called General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, February 23-26, 2019. Division? Restructuring? Fragmentation? Slow demise? Despite widespread conjecture and one or two wild conspiracy theories, your guess is as good as mine.
The Wesleyan movement, however, is much larger than the UM Church. At its core this movement is dynamic, revivalistic, and evangelistic, and in many places in the world Wesleyan and Methodist communities are in the midst of revival.
I believe we can have revival here, too. Yes, even in the United States, we can have revival. Were this to happen, I believe it would involve the following four characteristics.
1. The Next Methodism will feed the hungry, physically and spiritually.
Physically – One of the great things about the Methodist movement is that we are socially concerned. Historically we’ve been deeply committed to providing for people in need. This is a strength of our tradition that, whatever happens next, we should continue.
Right belief is important, but it is not enough. As Wesley put it, one can be as orthodox as the devil, and just as much a stranger as he to the true religion of the heart.
Spiritually – People are spiritually hungry, too. The problem is that they just don’t know it. Sometimes you hear people ask why revival tends to happen among the poor, rather than the well off. The reason is that the well off can afford enough “stuff” to fool themselves into thinking they’re okay. People in our culture are empty inside and mired in sin, and they simply don’t know it because they have enough stuff in their lives to numb the pain. What they’re hungry for is Jesus. They may not know it, but Jesus is the only one who can satisfy them.
2. The Next Methodism will be Spirit-filled.
Yes, some people do break out in hives at the mere mention of “Spirit-filled” or “charismatic” Christianity. The term “charismatic,” however, simply means that God gives us gifts. These gifts are described for us in Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:8-11. We shouldn’t be surprised if God gives us these gifts both in worship and the broader life of the church. In fact, we should expect them.
For many Christians today, God is basically a construct. “God” is a concept that gives weight to our ethical claims and our exhortations to seek social justice. The idea of God as an agent, though, simply does no heavy lifting. There is no sense of real expectation associated with prayer. The biblical God, so intricately involved in the everyday lives of men and women, is not taken seriously. The loss of the biblical God is a tremendous loss indeed.
The Next Methodism will recover the idea of God as an agent, a giver of gifts who is actively involved in our lives. I truly believe that the next generation will not be converted by plausible words of wisdom, but by a demonstration of the Spirit and power. God is going to have to show up, and I believe God will do this if we ask in faith.
3. The Next Methodism will be rooted in Scripture.
There was a reason John Wesley and his friends at Oxford were derisively called “Bible moths” (among other things). They were rigorously committed to reading, internalizing, and living out the words of Scripture.
The Bible is the one reliable guide that we have to lead us into salvation. There are things we could derive about God just by observing the world around us. For example, we might derive that God is creative and desires order. We might reason from this that God is good. But we wouldn’t know, for example, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Likewise, we would be unlikely to derive on our own Christ’s command to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matt 5:44) or that to enter the kingdom of heaven we must become like a child (Mark 10:15). Through Scripture God reveals to us things we would never know otherwise. Most importantly, Scripture tells us the story of salvation beginning with creation, continuing through the children of Abraham, and brought to fulfillment in Jesus.
There’s one more reason, however, to pay closer attention to Scripture: You can have a revival without attention to Scripture, but it won’t last, and it will soon veer off course. Or, to paraphrase Bill Johnson, biblical illiteracy in a generation seeking miracles will make us vulnerable to false signs and wonders.
4. The Next Methodism will be truly Wesleyan.
A couple of years ago I read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Its basic premise is that the culture has turned against us as Christians. We need to retreat and form tightly knit communities that will serve as arks in which we can ride out the flood of neo-paganism in Western culture. This is the best hope we have of preserving a Christian identity in the midst of a hostile world.
After I finished it, though, I thought, What if John Wesley had done that? Thankfully, he didn’t. In fact, he did the opposite. He preached in the fields and where anyone would listen. He went into the places where he knew people were hostile to him. He didn’t retreat from the culture. He confronted it. And in the midst of all this, he led a revival that swept through England and eventually became a global movement.
I don’t want the Benedict Option. I want the Wesley Option: high-octane evangelism with a deep commitment to Scripture and an emphasis on sanctification and social holiness.
We will have to get more serious about theology if we are to be truly Wesleyan. Too often United Methodists have substituted pragmatism for theology. We will have to recover our doctrinal heritage. We will have to recover elements of our liturgical heritage. We will have to double down on our sacramental life. Our theology of sanctification holds that God is present and active amidst the gathered community of faith, and this is not something we can conjure up on the cheap. Community matters.
This essay isn’t just about the UM Church. It is about something much bigger, more powerful, and more important. Institutions can be helpful, but a movement will change people’s lives. That’s what I want to be part of—a movement, or, more precisely, a move of God.
Come Holy Spirit.
Dr. David Watson is Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council. This article is an abbreviated version of Dr. Watson’s article that originally appeared on his website. To read the full version of his article, click HERE.