Our Future Lies In Our Past
By Dr. James B. Scott
A philosophical seed planted in the 1930s emerged in full bloom in the 1960s, and still today this seed sprouts new growth. The twisting vines of this philosophy go like this: The world is changing, therefore the church needs to change—everything must change; relevancy is mandatory; we need innovation at every level of the church—innovate or die; we need to identify with the people and with the world; identify what people want and change to meet those needs: the old scriptural language is obsolete and cannot be understood, therefore it needs to be reinterpreted for a new generation—a new gospel for a new day. Somehow, it sounded good in the 1960s.
We were taught this philosophy, and we bought into the new ideal. Back in the sixties, many of us clergy were still wearing our clerical collars—so we stopped wearing clerical collars. But we kept our black suits and white shirts crisp and clean, and our shoes were always shined (as the early Methodists required). After a while, we stopped wearing our ties and then our jackets. Soon it did not matter whether or not our shoes were shined.
What happened was that we went out into the world, and we became like the world. Instead of us changing the world, the world changed us. We have become like the world. And we cannot understand why we have experienced half a century of decline. As I consider the growth of that seed, I cannot help but think, Were we not supposed to live the kind of life that the world would see and then want to become like us, rather than us becoming like the world? I have now watched this philosophical ideal promulgated over the course of 48 years of ministry, and my question is, How are we doing?
Even in the early sixties, many of our leaders and people who mentored me, such as Dr. Albert Outler, Dr. Howard Grimes, Dr. Walter Underwood (later a Bishop), and Dr. Bob Goodrich (later a Bishop), were expressing great lamentation at the new direction of The Methodist Church in America. From 1968 to 2006, membership dropped from approximately 10.8 million to 7.9 million. In 1940, the average age was thirty-something, today it is sixty-something. All of the critical indicators of health have dropped: membership, worship attendance, percentage of giving, children, youth, and young adult attendance.
Looking ahead, the picture is not better. Dr. Lovett Weems of Wesley Theological Seminary courageously and consistently speaks and writes of his concern about where we are going and what the future holds for us: the deaths of large numbers of older members and the loss of their energy, passion, and sacrifice, as well as their significant financial commitments. In the next fifteen to eighteen years, almost all of the Greatest Generation and most of the Builder Generation will have gone home to our Lord. With those losses, we might well be looking at The United Methodist Church with about 3.2 to 3.5 million members. In addition to this numerical loss, we do not yet know what impact the loss of these two generations of committed Christians will have on our future or on the future of the Church in America.
The philosophical ideal of the 1960s has not served us well. In fact, it has failed us these past forty years, and it will not serve us well in the future. Yet, astonishingly, after nearly forty years of failure, we are still attempting to hold on to it. The direction The Methodist Church undertook then affects us now in our spiritual journeys and our spiritual health
I love Methodism. Methodism extends back for generations on both sides of my family, directly to the Rev. John Wesley on the Scott side. This challenge, to myself and to others, comes out of the pain of seeing my beloved Methodism in serious decline, at least here in North America, and our resulting loss of effectiveness in contributing to the Kingdom of God. We are still performing wonderful ministries. However, every time we lose 100,000 members, our contribution is diminished.
All the articles and books I have written are founded on the belief that there are better answers to our current crisis than the answers we are getting. The right answers are found still lingering in what might be called our DNA but are absolutely found in our past. A significant number of us believe that our future is found in our past. I would like to speak briefly to that hope and promise.
Journey with me back into the life and times of the Rev. John Wesley. Here is just a small glimpse of the extensive changes that occurred in England during the nearly ninety years of Wesley’s life (1703–1791): England had just emerged from the Cromwellian war, witnessed the beheading of Charles I, and seen the restoration of Parliamentary rule; the divine right of kings had been challenged, and the power struggle between the king and Parliament was in full force; the conflict of the Highlander Stuarts of Scotland with James the Old Pretender and James the Young Pretender resulted in the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. Then during Wesley’s time, there was the war with France; the Industrial Revolution was taking place, which meant the mass migration of people from the country to the cities. Great Britain had become, due in large part to its great naval power, the dominant power in the political and military world, expressing itself in world expansion. Explosive advancements were being made in all the sciences, which prepared the way for Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. Radical reformers such as William Wilberforce, a dear friend of the Wesleys, were challenging the slave trade and other human abuses, eventually leading to the abolishment of the slave trade in the British Empire. Ah yes, and in the 1770s there was the Colonial Rebellion in the Americas. Most clergy were caught up in the new Age of Reason and the belief that man through his own reason could build a great new world without war or disease. Man had replaced God as the center of the universe. The clergy for the most part became more concerned about their entitlements and positions of power than the souls of lost people. Recreation such as the theater and hunting were of primary importance to most church leaders, both clergy and laity. The Anglican Church in England was in serious decline.
Every generation has seen radical change. Every generation thinks it is the first to experience radical change. I suppose we focus only on ourselves because we are the ones experiencing the change. We fail to broaden our horizons and understand that every generation for many hundreds of years has experienced radical change.
Here is a crucial question, one that portends to an essential revelation for us: How did the Rev. John Wesley respond to the monumental turmoil and change he saw in his lifetime?
First, let’s look at what he did not do. He did not express the philosophy that since England and the world were undergoing radical change, everything in the Church must also change. Providentially and wisely, Mr. Wesley saw that the theology of the Anglican Church did not need to change. The Gospel that had been "once delivered” and formed the theology of the Anglican Church did not need to be changed. The Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, the Homilies of the Anglican Church did not need to be changed or reinterpreted. They only needed to be believed and taught.
Second, Wesley saw that the episcopal structure of the Anglican Church did not need to be changed. The Rev. John Wesley understood implicitly that the problem resided in the hearts of people. Change the hearts of the people, and the Church would be changed. It was in changing the hearts, minds, souls, and therefore the behaviors of people that restoration, reformation, and new spiritual life would come to the Anglican Church. How many times have we heard Mr. Wesley say that Christianity is a religion of the heart? The early Methodists made Methodism great because Jesus Christ was great in their hearts. This was the beginning of Methodism. The great evangelical revival had begun, notably in part because some of God’s people had prepared their hearts, minds, and lives to be used by God. It was the beginning of the reformation of the Anglican Church. For example both of William Wilberforce’s sons became Anglican priests with one becoming Bishop of the prestigious position Bishopric of London and bringing radical reform, as had his father before him.
In spite of the great worldwide change enacted by Mr. Wesley and the early Methodists, we do not worship John Wesley. We only give him the respect, honor, and position of one of the prominent saints of Christian history. Historians and theologians from all three streams of Christianity, Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant affirm the Reverend John Wesley and the Wesleyan/Methodist movement as representing the core of what is the essence of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. We only look to Mr. Wesley because he takes us with lightning speed back to the essential teachings (doctrine) and practices (disciplines) of Christianity. Our future lies in our past.
Our past teaches us that we should not be chasing after every new fad or voice that comes along. That chasing has not served us well.
Our past teaches us that we do not need to change our theology or our discipline. Between the years 1730 and 1930, there was unbelievable change in the world. However, the Gospel “once delivered” to the saints of the first century and the eighteenth century is still the Gospel of the twenty-first century. For example, one of the theological foundations of The United Methodist Church is the Articles of Religion. The Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church are found in the The Book of Discipline (formerly called The Doctrine and Discipline for over 200 years). Methodist writers like A. A. Jimeson, S. Comfort, Henry Wheeler, and C. Lovell provide heartwarming biblical and theological insight into our Articles of Religion along with powerful commentary. These and other authors teach us how our Articles of Religion contain the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and why they are essential to our spiritual lives. Our Articles of Religion are simply doors to a house full of treasures. Our future lies in our past.
Our past teaches us that there are biblical and time-tested principles of practice that produce faithful disciples of Jesus Christ and provide for the transmission of the gospel to succeeding generations. For example, between the years 1730 and 1930, the Class-Meeting was the “heart of Methodism.” For 200 years, the Class-Meeting crossed continents, oceans, cultures, and multiple generations of individual families. With slight variations and minimal adjustments for cultural differences, the Class-Meeting steadily remained the "heart of Methodism” and was one of the nonnegotiable dynamics responsible for the incredible success of Methodism. With a few more variations, it could again become that engine. Our future lies in our past.
I recall hearing a sermon in 1961 by Dr. Albert Outler, who was passionately attempting to lift up our Methodist heritage, urging us to reclaim some of its lost treasure and to stand firm on doctrine and discipline. His Scripture text was Hebrews 13:17: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.” I do not remember much of the first part of the sermon, but the latter part is indelibly seared into my being. Dr. Outler emphasized that the clergy and laity who were in leadership at that moment were even that day making decisions that would determine the future of The Methodist Church. Perhaps it would be one or even two decades before the results of those decisions would be manifested, but those decisions were going to come to fruition. The final piercing thrust from Dr. Outler came when he said that we would be held accountable for how we conducted our ministry and our faithfulness in our leadership to preach, teach, and uphold the doctrine and discipline of the Church of Jesus Christ, and particularly The Methodist Church in which we had been called to serve.
Likewise, the Rev. John Wesley spoke about the responsibilities of ministers in terms of pastoral care, protection, living and teaching truth and holiness, and helping souls become formed in the image of Jesus Christ: “They are supposed to ‘watch over your souls, as those that shall give account.’ ‘As those that shall give account!’ How unspeakably solemn and awful are those words! May God write them upon the heart of every guide of souls” (see James B. Scott and Molly Davis Scott, Restoring Methodism, p. 74). You and I, both clergy and lay leaders, are making decisions today about the future of The United Methodist Church. Those decisions are directly and profoundly affecting, and will affect, the souls of those under our care, those who should be under our care, and those who could be under our care. In 15 to 20 years, future leaders will experience and know the results of our decisions.
Along with my colleague in life, the Rev. Dr. Molly Davis Scott, all of our articles, books, and seminars are in essence urging us to more vigorously lift up and strengthen the doctrine and discipline that for over 200 years made Methodism one of the greatest movements in the history of the Christian Church. I am not asking you to listen to my voice. I am asking you to do what I heard and saw Dr. Outler and many others trying to do. I am asking you to listen to the voices of the early Methodists, those voices that were part of the explosive years of Methodism. I bring nothing new; I bring only the voices of the past. The voices I want you to hear are the voices of the saints of history, particularly those in our Methodist history. I urge you to listen to the voices of John and Charles Wesley, Susanna Wesley, John Fletcher, Mary Bosanquett, Adam Clarke, Hester Ann Rogers, Joseph Benson, William Carvosso, Father Reeves, and countless other men and women of our magnificent past. These are the voices, the cloud of witnesses that I urge you to hear and follow. Our future is found in our past.
One of the most encouraging aspects of this is that as we have traveled extensively across the denomination these past few years, Molly and I have found incredible energy and passion for Methodism via The United Methodist Church to regain its full vitality. We have been personally energized and have found hope in both clergy and laity—perhaps most especially in the laity, whose desire and heart is to be faithful to the doctrine and discipline of the past and transform our biblical, historical practices into models that reach the eternal needs of people today. I say especially the laity because our future is more heavily weighted on the side of the laity than on us clergy. A wealth of God’s resources are sitting in our pews weekly. Remember, as Methodist historians have continually emphasized, it was the laity, sometimes led more often supported by the clergy, who were a primary force in the evangelical revival that produced Methodism.
What has all this to do with my spiritual health and life—and yours? The answer is extremely simple: The reality is that my spiritual health and life substantially depend upon the church I attend. The more faithfully my church approaches the doctrine and discipline of early Methodism, the more I have opportunity to experience and therefore express the genuine character of Christianity, both by word and deed. Our hearts and minds find peace and hope when they rest in the heart of Jesus Christ. It is that faith, love, community, and joy in serving that the Church provides.
Mr. Wesley believed that Methodism in its purest ideal was Christianity in its purest ideal. I, too, believe that with all my heart, mind, and soul. It is a high ideal that must forever be kept in front of us. It is the ideal of a loving, compassionate Creator who desires to be united with His creation, with you and me. It is the ideal of being formed in the image of Jesus Christ. It is the ideal of being blessed, taught, and led by the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit. It is the ideal of being overcome with love, joy, and gratefulness so compelling that our hearts are broken for the world and its people. It is the ideal of us joyfully sacrificing everything to heal the hearts, minds, souls, bodies, and lives of neighbors across this tiny planet. It is the ideal of becoming one with the perfect love of God, of being crucified with Jesus Christ that we might rise with Him on the last day, of being sanctified by the Spirit to live righteously, joyfully, and courageously seeking compassion and justice. It is the ideal that with faith we believe God’s promise to be true, even the one that says, “Be holy for I am holy,” a holiness we can experience in this life. It is the ideal that gives us the vision of seeing a home reserved for us in that kingdom where love, compassion, and wholeness will never end. It is the ideal where we know that for eternity, father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister, old friends and new, will know and live forever with each other in perfect love.