In response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent comment that increased funding for government-supplied contraception services would ultimately “reduce costs of the states and to the federal government,” WorldNetDaily today posted an article I co-authored more than a decade ago with Christian financial teacher Larry Burkett.
The piece is titled, “The George Bailey Effect,” playing off a theme explored in Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life.
In that film, struggling businessman George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) is allowed to see how radically different his hometown would have been, and how even the outcome a World War II battle would have changed, had he not been born.
The WorldNetDaily posting is here. The original nine-page publication from 1998 is here (PDF).
Some of the specifics are dated, of course, but the overall argument is unaffected.
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.)
New membership vows for the United Methodist Church took effect on Jan. 1, 2009. Formerly, incoming members pledged “to be loyal to the United Methodist Church” and “to faithfully participate in its ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service.”
Now, new members will pledge loyalty “to Christ through the United Methodist Church.” And to the list of “prayers, presence, gifts, and service,” one more word has been added: “witness.”
Lyn Powell, former president of the Southeastern Jurisdiction Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders, explained how these changes came about in a recent column in the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of the North and South Georgia Conferences.
Witness? Who submitted the petition to add “witness” to the vows? I am happy to share with you that it came from the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders at their 2006 spring meeting in Minneapolis.
Forty of the 50 conference lay leaders were in the room when we experienced an epiphany of sorts — first acknowledging the decline of the UMC in the U.S., then naming the role of the laity in the decline, and finally covenanting to do something about it as lay leaders of our conferences.
In that meeting, we agreed that the biggest shift in the profile of the laity over the last 60 years came with our disengagement from appropriate, effective witness in the community.
Our early faith communities built strong churches by understanding that every baptized member is a minister. Every baptized member is charged with the responsibility of sharing the joy found in the household of faith with persons outside the faith.
Unfortunately, as the denomination matured the laity gradually withdrew from that understanding of themselves as ministers of witness, and unfairly began to give that responsibility to one individual: the pastor.
As the witness efforts of whole congregations declined, so began the decline of the denomination.
Of course, witness in today’s community will have a different look from that of times past. Our Association hopes that with the addition of “witness” to the membership vows, our congregations will begin to examine what effective witness might look like in their own communities.
What efforts would be winsome to their friends, relatives and even to strangers? And, just as importantly, what efforts would be counterproductive — even if they “feel good” to us insiders?
Our Association is convinced that as our congregations identify, teach, and practice modern effective witness, future generations may identify this addition to the [membership vows and baptismal covenants] as one of the most significant actions of the 2008 General Conference.
One additional note: As our Organization presented the “witness” legislation to the General Board of Discipleship to pass on to the General Conference, a Board member suggested a second change… which we supported and subsequently was passed. The [former] vows ask the incoming member “…will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church…”
[Now,] the incoming member shall be asked, “Will you be loyal to Christ through the United Methodist Church…”
During the affirmation of this addition, all of us agreed that our first loyalty is to Christ, and that living out that loyalty through the United Methodist Church is a great joy and unparalleled privilege.
The change in membership vows (¶217.5 and ¶217.6 in the UM Book of Discipline) also affects Baptismal Covenant rituals I, II, and IV in the United Methodist Hymnal (specifics here—PDF). (NOTE: Baptismal Covenant III was discontinued in 2004 as a result of previous changes in the Discipline.)
Lyn Powell, former lay leader of the North Georgia Conference, delivered the 2008 Laity Address, “Disciples Transforming the World,” at last year’s General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
Use the audio player below to listen to streaming audio of her address (31 min.), or download an mp3. (Full text in PDF here | streaming video excerpt here.)
The United Methodist News Service notes that “[p]ublisher Abingdon Press has sold nearly 75,000 copies of the Five Practices book, and demand is hot for the companion leader manual and media kit and church-wide devotional book, Cultivating Fruitfulness. More than 2,000 congregations have used the material in some fashion.”
Speaking last week at the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism in Nashville, Bishop Schnase (Schnay’-zee) explained that the five practices — radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity — are “the fundamental activities by which congregations carry out their mission.”
When I talk about radical hospitality, it’s got to pervade the whole life of the congregation — every cell has to vibrate with… [an] outward focus…. Churches that practice [radical hospitality] are constantly examining every one of their ministries and saying, “How do we become more… attuned to the call of God to reach out to other people?”…
When I talk about passionate worship, I’m talking about worship that is authentic, that is true to the gospel, that is life changing. Worship that we enter into with an air of anticipation that something significant might actually happen in this time together…. I’m talking about worship that really connects people to God….
Intentional faith development has to do with all those things that a congregation offers to help people grow in faith outside of the Sunday morning service…. [This] is central to our self-understanding as United Methodists, of the sanctifying grace of God…. And churches that are vibrant, fruitful, and growing are those that provide rich opportunities constantly for people to grow and mature in the faith….
But you can’t go very far in engagement with Scripture, or learning in community, growing in Christ — this “inner holiness” — without being struck by a call of God to make a positive difference in the lives of people around you.
And that leads us to risk-taking mission and service…. [These are] the things we do out of our commitment and obedience to Christ that we would not have done if we had never known Christ…. Risk-taking mission and service stretches us, and churches that practice risk-taking mission and service… [are] looking at the gifts and abilities of the people in their congregation and the needs of their community and the world, and they’re [asking], “Where do these intersect?”…
Now, extravagant generosity. I’ll just say it up front, what I’m talking about is teaching, preaching, and practicing the tithe, among other things — and just being unapologetic in our proclamation of that. Churches that are growing and vibrant and fruitful talk about generosity — not about the church’s need for money, but about the Christian’s need to give. They focus on generosity as an aspect of Christian character…. The practice of tithing — of putting God first in everything — starts changing how we feel and experience everything else.
Use the audio player below to listen to a 12-minute excerpt of Bishop Schnase at the 2009 Congress on Evangelism.
Rob Renfroe is the pastor of adult discipleship at The Woodlands (Texas) United Methodist Church, one of the UMC’s ten largest churches. He is also a former member of the UM General Board of Church and Society (GBCS).
Writing in the January/February 2009 Good News, Mr. Renfroe mentions the current lawsuit related to whether GBCS has violated a 1965 Declaration of Trust that earmarked certain donated funds for the promotion of “temperance and [ministries related to] alcohol problems” (lawsuit details are here and here).
While serving on the Board, I asked questions about the suit that had not yet gone to court….
When I made a motion that every Board member be given a copy of the Trust so we could read it for ourselves, I was voted down.
And after the suit was filed, when I asked why we were employing a legal strategy that had not been authorized by the Board (i.e., asking the court to allow the Board to use funds for purposes other than those specified in the Trust), I was told that these matters could not be discussed with me.
At that point, I resigned.
For Mr. Renfroe — and for anyone else who may wish to read it — the 1965 Declaration of Trust is posted here (PDF—8 pages).
Key paragraphs (note: the Division of Alcohol Problems is a predecessor to the General Board of Church and Society):
The [Methodist Church] Division [of Alcohol Problems] owns securities and cash given to it over the years through donations, contributions, and bequests to support the work in the area of temperance and alcohol problems….
[These assets,] including real, personal, and mixed property, have been impressed with a trust-in-fact for them to be used and applied for the purposes for which they were given — for work in the areas of temperance and alcohol problems. The assets have been so utilized to the present time.
It is the purpose of this Declaration of Trust to formalize the existing situation and provide a method for the continued management, investment, reinvestment, and application of the principal and accumulated income for the purposes for which the funds were originally given, that is to say, work in the areas of temperance and alcohol problems….
It is the further purpose of this Declaration of Trust to implement the action of the 1960 General Conference of the Methodist Church…. [T]he General Conference… ordered the following wording to be placed in that section of the 1960 Discipline of The Methodist Church which describes the Board of Christian Social Concerns and its Divisions…:
Funds vested in any of the predecessor boards shall be conserved for…the specific purposes for which such funds have been given.
The General Board of Church and Society is asking the District of Columbia Superior Court for a “reformation” of the Trust “which will make it clear that the trustees of the Board will not in the future be limited in the use of income of the Endowment Fund to problems of alcohol abuse only.”
The Board’s Feb. 2007 complaint filing to the Court is here (PDF—15 pages).
The case is before the D.C. Superior Court
Some Methodist conservatives have complained that GBCS appears to be using funds that should be restricted for temperance-related ministry to lobby for causes associated with the American political left, such as abortion rights, government-run health care, and an expanded welfare state.
In 2007, the Western North Carolina Conference overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on the Board to comply with the “purpose stated in the Trust and use Restricted Funds for the work on temperance and alcohol related problems” (see “Petition 34” here—PDF).
The resolution asserted that the Board has not “followed either the letter of the trust or the spirit of its founders as it has expended a large portion of the funds from the trust (approximately $2 million annually) on items and programs not in accordance with the requirements of the trust.”
District of Columbia Superior Court associate judge Rhonda Reid Winston (PDF), a graduate of the Duke University School of Law, is expected to issue a ruling in the Trust case soon.
The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society has withdrawn its support from the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), and has removed itself as a signatory to the controversial “Interfaith Call to Action on Reproductive Health” — an “open letter” to President-Elect Barack Obama calling for expanded access to “comprehensive sex education, abortion services and contraceptive information and options.”
MethodistThinker.com reported in mid-November that GBCS was urging Mr. Obama to push for passage of FOCA.
The legislation, which Mr. Obama has promised to sign, would establish “a fundamental right” to an abortion and abolish virtually every existing state and federal limitation on the practice, including parental consent and notification laws for minors.
Now, Linda Bales, director of the Louise and Hugh Moore Population Project for GBCS, says the board has changed its position.
After further examination of the ramifications of this bill and considering the most recent statement on abortion approved at our 2008 General Conference, the legislative arm of our denomination, we have withdrawn our support of this bill due to language added by the General Conference….
[O]ur Social Principle on abortion [in the United Methodist Book of Discipline] now contains a statement supporting parental, guardian or trusted adult notification in cases of minors seeking abortions. Several states have notification laws which would be overturned if FOCA was passed.
Last April, the 2008 United Methodist General Conference passed legislation acknowledging “the sanctity of unborn human life” and noting that United Methodist are bound to “respect the sacredness of life and well-being of [both] the mother and the unborn child.”
Further, the Conference “support[ed] parental, guardian, or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood.”
As in previous years, the General Conference stated that the United Methodist Church “cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control” (¶161, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2008).