What follows is the address the Rev. Keith Boyette, President of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, delivered at Transformed, the WCA’s Fourth Global Gathering held at Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday, November 9, 2019.
My entire life is enveloped by my relationship with Jesus and His church.
One of my earliest memories is of standing at the age of three with my extended family as my newborn sister was baptized at Lynnhaven Methodist Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was a couple of years later that, while attending a Vacation Bible School at Cheltenham Methodist Church in Maryland, I first heard the Gospel in a retelling of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. Using a flannel board, the VBS teacher concluded the telling of the story by asking if any of us wanted to be one of Jesus’ sheep. I leapt to my feet crying, “I do!” and never looked back.
We moved a lot because my father served in the Air Force, but faith was central for my parents. Whenever we moved, the first imperative was finding where we would worship our first Sunday in a new community.
It was at Whatcoat Methodist Church in Camden, Delaware that I was confirmed in the faith, where I earned the God and Country Award as a Boy Scout, and where I discerned God’s calling on my life – which initially was to be an attorney.
Pamela and I were married in 1976, and we eventually had three children, Jason, Nathan, and Laura. The community of faith remained exceedingly important to us. At the top of my commitments was full investment as a worshiper and servant — teaching adult Sunday School and as a leader at River Road United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia. (My pastor, the Rev. George Freeman, is here with us today. George later served as the General Secretary of the World Methodist Council.)
I realized I could not be a Christ follower in isolation, so I was involved in several small groups, including one that George was part of that met every Sunday at 7:00 a.m. We were serious! It was in these small groups that I wrestled with how I was to live out the teachings of Scripture in my life. In my law practice I frequently shared my faith and invited people to encounter Jesus.
As I discovered the active ministry of the Holy Spirit in my life. I surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And then on February 4, 1991, at 6:00 p.m. in the evening, as I was driving home from my law office, the Spirit of the Living God filled my car and I heard Him say to me, “Leave your law practice and pastor a church for me.” It was because of all that had gone before in the church that my spirit responded with a resounding “Yes” and with the support of my family, we all began a new adventure. It was the church that called forth God’s gifts, that affirmed God’s call, and that cooperated with the Holy Spirit in ensuring that I would be shaped and molded to be God’s servant.
I love the church. We are the body of Christ – poured out in the midst of a broken and troubled world to offer God’s love, His salvation, and His transforming grace to each and every person to become more and more like Jesus. In the words of Peter, we are God’s very own possession so that we can show others the goodness of God who called us out of the darkness into His wonderful light.
God desires for the church, which He called into being to be one, to be holy, to be catholic in the sense of serving all of His creation, and to be apostolic. The Wesleyan Covenant Association fully embraces God’s call upon the church.
Recently, the words of the prophet Isaiah have come alive for me as the prophet declared God’s message to a people who were traversing troubled times in their relationship with God. Isaiah declares God’s message in Isaiah 42:16, “I will lead blind Israel down a new path, guiding them along an unfamiliar way. I will brighten the darkness before them and smooth out the road ahead of them. Yes, I will indeed do these things; I will not forsake them.” Isaiah continues in chapter 43:19, “For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.”
God is birthing a new Wesleyan movement rekindling the fires that burned in the hearts of those first Methodists who let no social convention or obstacle stand in the way of their sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone and everyone.
For me, there are three movements that are part of God birthing this new thing – the gestation period is much longer than we would like and more difficult than we can imagine.
The first movement is extricating the new thing from the old. As it became apparent that The United Methodist Church was being rent asunder by irreconcilable differences, the Wesleyan Covenant Association has worked to ensure traditionalist churches will be able to move from the UM Church to what is next with the resources with which God has blessed them.
Therefore, the WCA supports the adoption of the Indianapolis Plan for Amicable Separation because it creates the best path for entirely separate groups of theologically aligned churches to emerge from the UM Church. It will enable every church and clergyperson to be aligned with others who hold the same core theological and ethical commitments. Every church will have an opportunity to decide about such alignment so, as leaders, your role in this season is to prepare those connected with your church to make that decision. If necessary, a vote will occur. Now, not later, is the season to do the work of preparation for your church’s vote. Educate your people. Define your mission. Draw closer to the Lord. Speak with boldness and love. Engage in the conversations that are necessary.
The second movement is developing the new. As churches and clergy move from the old to the new, what will the new thing look like? The WCA believes the UM Church will come apart, either by an agreed plan of separation enacted by the 2020 General Conference or through local churches deciding to exit the denomination due to a never-ending cycle of conflict, inaction, and dysfunction. We are preparing for the launch of a new Methodist church in the aftermath of GC2020. We see the WCA as the bridge to this new church. We will provide a framework for churches and clergy to move to an interim expression of this church under the auspices of the WCA.
Yesterday, the WCA’s Global Legislative Assembly received from the WCA’s 34-member council a draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline.” The assembly voted overwhelming to commend this working document to local churches, laity, and clergy who long for a warm-hearted, mission driven expression of Wesleyan Christianity! The WCA will continue to refine this document between now and the holding of a convening conference for a new church. I want to stress, that what we are sharing with you is a work in progress. We warmly welcome your comments as together we take something that is already good and make it better. Our goal is to help a convening conference to move forward deliberately and expeditiously in creating a healthy and vibrant church fully dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in both word and deed!
Time does not permit me to unpack all the elements of the draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline,” but let me share with you certain features we are excited about, and we believe you will be excited about too.
We envision a leaner, more nimble church which is not top heavy with an institutional bureaucracy that constrains rather than liberates us to share the Good News. This leaner, more nimble denomination will exist to serve local congregations – not for local congregations to serve it. There will be no trust clause on the property of churches. We want our movement to be a coalition of the willing, not the constrained!
The structure of this new church will define broad parameters for how local churches will be in connection with one another, but it will grant local churches maximum flexibility to organize for and advance the ministry to which God has called them. As a consequence, more of the tithes and offerings received by local churches will remain with them so they can deploy their resources for reaching the lost, feeding the hungry, and making disciples!
And such a church will be served by a term-limited episcopacy, elected by and accountable to the whole church, not just a college of like-minded bishops. We intend for these episcopal leaders to be apostolic, to promote and defend the church’s teachings, and to act with integrity as they fulfill their duties!
We envision a church which has laser-sharp focus on its mission – to introduce people to Jesus and challenge each person to become His fully devoted follower – which will be our first and foremost priority. Each church will have the freedom to determine how it fulfills this mission, and the expectation will be that every church will bear fruit – making disciples and developing them into disciple-makers.
We envision a church that finds its unity in Christ, and that is fully committed to the great confessions of our faith that we know bring well-being and wholeness to us, both individually and corporately. We truly believe a tenacious commitment to the church universal’s core teachings and beliefs will enable us to identify and deploy faithful, energetic, and effective clergy who are dedicated and excited about practicing, teaching, and proclaiming Scriptural Christianity.
Just as in the early days of the Methodist movement, we envision a church that empowers and releases laity to be leaders of the church. We affirm the priesthood of all believers! In ever more diverse and secular cultures, laity will increasingly find themselves on the frontlines of the church’s great mission to share the Good News with grace and truth. To our great embarrassment, we seem to forget laity are absolutely essential to the church. It is time for each lay person to take their place as persons whom God has called, gifted, and deployed both within and beyond the church. Following Christ is not a spectator sport. Jesus reminds us that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Yet Jesus has provided workers sufficient for the task in response to our prayers. We need to get out of the way and release that which God has already called forth.
Because the best witness is a life which reflects the character of Jesus, we envision a church which deploys leaders who love Jesus first and foremost, who are passionate about serving Him and His kingdom, who are dedicated, faithful, and honorable, and who are committed to living out and being held to the highest standards of the Christian life.
The draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline,” which will continue to be refined and perfected, is accessible on our website and you are invited to share your comments as we journey toward this new thing God is calling into being.
The third movement involves our seeing the future that God has for this new church He is calling into being. Here are some signposts which we see pointing to where God wants to take us.
God wants every person to encounter Jesus, enter into relationship with Him, and receive the salvation which He alone provides. We repent of the lack of fruit produced by a significant part of Methodist churches worldwide, especially in the United States. We cannot talk about being a world-changing movement when our branch of the body of Christ is in precipitous decline. The history of Christianity is the story of how God has used those who the world regards as being foolish and weak to reach ever-increasing numbers of people for Jesus.
Our hearts are broken for those who do not yet know Jesus or who are indifferent to who He is and what He has done for us. We have no reason to exist apart from the mission of sharing the Gospel with our neighbors – all of them without exception – globally. The preeminent priority in a new Methodist church will be revitalizing existing churches so they become vital, vibrant missional outposts bearing fruit in God’s kingdom, and planting vital, vibrant new churches that advance the historic Christian faith in the Wesleyan tradition, especially in communities where the historic Methodist witness is not present. Some of this will occur through the multiplication of existing churches as they open new sites of their church and the expansion of online worshiping communities. This will occur as the Holy Spirit moves through individuals and local churches which reclaim their first love of Jesus, which are broken by the desperate needs which He brings to their attention, and which take initiative not limited by institutional restrictions and efforts to control and micro-manage such initiatives. As a new church, we want to empower, embrace, and unleash such initiatives. Come, Holy Spirit, and light a fire in us!
A strength of Methodism in its most fruitful season was ensuring followers of Jesus were connected to small groups where they could celebrate God’s activity in their lives, confess their sins to one another, seek God’s face, and discover how God was empowering them to live out the Christian faith in all of its aspects with authenticity. Unless we reclaim this imperative of discipling people in community and equipping them to be disciples who make disciples, our branch of the church universal will continue to be weak and anemic. We envision vibrant accountability groups in each and every local church. This will be a major priority of what we will live into.
John Wesley declared, “The world is my parish.” That has never been truer for the people called Methodists than in our day. We are part of a global community. We are called to be a global church. Already God is doing something new, linking together parts of the Wesleyan family of churches around the globe who share the theological commitments of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Part of our vision for the new church God is birthing is for a church that enables significant global missional partnerships. We are committed to developing and deploying effective partnerships for local churches to be in ministry with one another globally across geographic boundaries to advance the Kingdom of God and reach people of diverse cultures with the love of Jesus. Missiologists tell us that one of the largest mission fields for the church is in the United States where more than 180,000,000 are unmoored spiritually.
Methodism has always had a focus on the poor and marginalized. We come by that naturally as that is the heart of our God, reflected in the life and ministry of Jesus. We dream of a church which effectively responds to its calling to be in ministry with the poor, marginalized, addicted, and recovering. Our pursuit of holiness must include being in community with those who have been abandoned by the systems of this world.
Methodism is aging and yet the peoples of the world in which we are called to minister are getting younger. We are committed to addressing the challenge for local churches in reaching teens, shepherding them through the transition to adulthood, and engaging those who are navigating further education or entering the workforce so that they continue as committed Christ-followers. We desire to empower local churches to be more effective in their ministry with young people and young adults.
The Bible tells us that at the culmination of history every nation and tribe and people and language will gather around the throne of our God to worship Him. Yet God desires that His church increasingly embody that reality here and now. We envision a church which deals transparently with the sins of racism and prejudice that are still present in our lives today and which increasingly ensures that when we gather, we experience the worship God calls us to with the presence of the full diversity of the communities where we live and serve.
We are a people in need of healing. We do not trust some of our present leaders. We are suspicious and wary of anything that has the slightest hint of what we have endured for too long. Yet this is a catalytic moment. God is doing something new. We are not doing the new thing; God is!
God is looking for a people who will be radically surrendered to his sovereignty!
God is looking for a people who joyfully proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior!
God is looking for a people who will be desperately dependent upon the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit!
On that people God will pour out His rich blessings, and he will use them to reach all nations, races, and peoples with the Good News of Jesus Christ!
When we are fully committed to that great vision, in God’s good time, He will claim us as part of His one holy catholic and apostolic church!
Let us dare to believe He is bringing that reality to pass in our day. Amen!
By Keith Boyette