Speaking earlier this month at the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism, Dr. William J. (Billy) Abraham said the seeds of United Methodism’s 40-year decline were sown inadvertently by one of the “founding fathers” of the denomination, the late Albert C. Outler. (Outler chaired the Theological Study Commission appointed by the General Conference when the United Methodist Church was formed 1968.)
In the first of three Denman Lectures at the evangelism gathering, Dr. Abraham, who is the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at the SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, praised Outler for his strong scholarship, deep commitment to Christ, and remarkable rhetorical skills.
But Dr. Abraham said it’s time to face the “painful” reality that the culturally driven, “anti-supernatural,” and “high-brow” ethos that Outler helped create in the United Methodist Church has hindered the effectiveness of the UMC in making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Below is a partial transcript of Dr. Billy Abraham’s remarks, followed by a 10-minute audio excerpt.
[I]t’s now time to get past… the appropriate praise [of Albert Outler] and to start coming to terms with the stark reality that lies at the core of Outler’s work, and the work of United Methodism insofar as it embodies Outler’s proposals…. The form of Methodism that was constructed under Outler’s tutelage and watch — it is that form that has suffered drastic decline over the last 40 years….
Dr. Billy Abraham at the 2009 Congress on Evangelism
Now, I’m not going to give you the catalogue of all the difficulties I see in Outler’s position. I think there are many problems in his position. I don’t think he take nearly seriously enough the radical offense of the gospel…. I don’t think that he took sin sufficiently seriously…. That’s two of a number of items… [but] I want to focus in on two criticisms.
First, Outler’s proposals concerning the practice of evangelism are much more rhetorical than they are substantial…. [They fail to] deal head on with the pivotal need to bring the gospel to the world, and then proceed to make — and not just nurture — disciples. Thus, Outler limits evangelism to proclamation or witness, and he sets his face against the critical need for initiation into a robust version of Christianity….
Now, secondly, I think that the fundamental methodology [of Outler's evangelism model] is superficially attractive but ultimately disastrous for the theory and practice of evangelism.
[His strategy] was simple: develop a vision of the core of Christianity, then express that within the conceptual and intellectual norms of the host culture.
We did that in the modern period, and we’re about to that in the post-modern period. We’re now in the throes, in fact, of a fresh application of that strategy — and I’m going to watch with a very close eye as to how that works itself out over the next 20 years. Now, I think the Emergent movement… [is] very important…. But pay attention. We could end up 20 to 30 years from now in fact “giving away the store” because we make post-modernity the intellectual norms into which we’re going to translate the faith — and we will discover, in fact, that this has been a case of death by our own hand….
There are two separate issues that need to be faced in evangelism…. First, there’s the issue of how we justify the core truth claims of Christianity in the face of concerted incredulity, if not outright hostility. The other issue is the radically different problem of how we connect the claims that we advance and the practices we advance with the culture we currently inhabit. These [two issues] are quite different.
Now, to be quite frank about this, Outler gave up on that first enterprise. He did not have in his day… the resources to deal with the massive intellectual attack on Christianity that was launched by David Hume, by Kant, by Nietzsche, by Freud, by Marx, by Russell, by Ayer, and by Anthony Flew….
Illustration of Albert Outler
by Bruce Sayre
What Outler did was collapse these [two issues of evangelism into one] by insisting that we translate the faith into “the language of the university common room, the couch, and the country club.” This was precisely what he did when he turned to process philosophy and to psychotherapy. These represented the high-brow intellectual culture which Outler inhabited….
This strategy… is a recipe for decline and death. It offers a woolly “Christianization” of contemporary high-brow cultural commitments in the name of faith. And we can be sure that the contemporary norms of thought will swallow up and devour the content of the faith….
I don’t care whether you call it modernity or whether you call it post-modernity… if we simply take [cultural forms] as the norms that are going to guide our reception of the Christian faith over the next 30 years, then we’ll have even less in the “hard drive” of United Methodism than we currently have.
What [we need in] evangelism is… a deep re-appropriation of the faith that is intellectually serious, that is sensitive to situation in which we find ourselves, and that is going to reinstate the actual deep traditional practices of evangelism, involving… the communication of the faith by laity and clergy and initial catechesis and formation which will enable people to survive in the world in which they’ve got to live….
[The gospel] is the radical news of…the arrival of heaven on earth. It is the arrival of the Kingdom of God in and through Jesus Christ, in his death, in his life, and in his resurrection. And if we don’t have that at the core, we are dead in the water…. [I]f we stick simply to the modern and post-modern world, [our evangelism] cannot be rooted and grounded in special revelation as enshrined in the [historic] faith of the Church. And the purpose of that revelation is to really disclose the truth about God….
The whole point of revelation is to reveal. And if we do not know who our God is — and are able to defend that — then we are not going to have the gospel itself. I think that the overall outcome of the Outler strategy across 40 years can be stated simply: the Church becomes an endless seminar in search of elusive and ultimately unattainable truth — rather than the carrier of the rich and salutary “faith once delivered to the saints.”…
United Methodist scholars and leaders have given up on any serious intellectual defense of the faith, opting instead for the quest for the culturally relative translation that will somehow take us through to another generation….
Any effort to develop a concentrated church-wide united practice of evangelism is doomed to failure because in fact there is no common faith among us. Any proposal to this end will be evaluated not — please hear me gently here — any proposal will be evaluated not in terms of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but in terms of the gospel as perceived in our current social, intellectual, and political location.
And Jesus will simply become cipher for our own passions and desires.
Use the audio player below to listen to a 10-minute excerpt of Dr. Abraham’s remarks, recorded at the 2009 UM Congress on Evangelism in Nashville, Tenn. (Audio is courtesy of the GNTV Media Ministry. You can purchase the full address here.)
William J. Abraham is the author of Wesley for Armchair Theologians (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) and Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation (Eerdmans, 2006). He served as co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies (2009).
The Congress on Evangelism is presented each January by the Council on Evangelism and the UM General Board of Discipleship, with support from The Foundation for Evangelism.
The Foundation for Evangelism, organized in 1949 by Harry Denman, celebrates its 60th anniversary January 31.
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