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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

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….

outler

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….

coe09The 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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Methodist philosopher Billy Abraham examines United Methodism’s decline | Mark Tooley, UMAction (Jan. 8, 2009)
Leading in the Wesleyan Way: Congress on Evangelism inspires laity, clergy | Amy Forbus, UMR Communications (Jan. 23, 2009)
United Methodists at the End of the Mainline | William J. Abraham, First Things (June/July 1998) (via Leadership U)

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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.

ppgswIn 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

Lyn Powell

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.)


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MethodistThinker.com is presenting a retrospective on Bishop Lindsey Davis 12 years as the leader of the North Georgia Conference, now the largest U.S. conference in the United Methodist Church. His tenure in North Georgia ends later this month.

On June 16, 2004, speaking at the annual luncheon sponsored by the Conference Board of Laity (PDF), Bishop Davis reflected on the continuing work of renewal in the North Georgia Conference, much of it led by lay people.

Eight years ago, I told you that our church was in need of renewal, and I invited you to join me on a journey of faith. You’ve been there by my side all the way. And, occasionally, you’ve even be out in front of me, leading the way….

The lay leadership of the North Georgia Conference is extraordinary. Those of you in this room represent the best our church has to offer to a spiritually hungry world.

With your leadership, the North Georgia Conference has grown by 51,347 persons in the last eight years. That’s an 18 percent increase in church membership.

Bishop Davis also noted that North Georgia’s laity had helped the Conference launch “new mission efforts all over the world,” including bringing the Disciple Bible study to Russia, offering refugee assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, building a school in Honduras, and re-constructing a church building in Estonia that, years earlier, had been shut down and desecrated by Soviet troops.

In concluding his remarks, the bishop said lay people must help the United Methodist Church steer a course based on biblical fidelity and theological soundness.

Many challenges stand before us — none, in my opinion, more important than for us to teach and preach in these days to come with theological clarity.

We must support and proclaim, in my view, the classical, orthodox doctrines of our faith — what St. Jude said “was once and for all delivered to the saints.”

We live in a culture of disbelief; we live in culture of bizarre beliefs.

The United Methodist Church must not be timid. We must be loving, and compassionate, and respectful of all persons — but we must also, I think, reemphasize the great verities our faith, which [have] sustained the saints down through the ages.

It is this apostolic faith which will empower, shape, and guide us in the future.

And we cannot be faithful to this task without the ministry of a fully engaged laity. I believe that 99 percent of the vision that God has for this Annual Conference rests in the hearts of the laity.

As a pastor, over and over again, the really important things that we did in our church did not originate in my heart or my mind, but in the hearts and minds of the lay people who were there as a part of the congregation. I believe the same is true for this Annual Conference. And that’s why a fully engaged laity is so very important.

So we look to the future with hope and optimism and excitement. Let us hold on to God’s vision, and let us also hold on to one another, in these days to come. God bless you all.

Streaming audio of his full address is below (13 min.) — or download the mp3 file (3MB).


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