Theological Reflection from a Wesleyan Perspective

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

"Generation Rising" - Andrew Thompson Interview Part One

10:33 PM Posted by Casey Taylor , ,
Below is part one of an interview with my friend and rising (no pun intended) Wesley scholar, Andrew Thompson, in response to his first book, Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for the United Methodist Church.

First, my apologies to Andrew and to his publisher, Abingdon Press, for the lateness of publishing this interview.  I meant to post these earlier and allowed myself to be sidetracked.  I quickly read Andrew's book and posted a review some time ago.  Again, apologies.  To my readers, I believe you'll still find Andrew's words worthwhile.

Second, talking to Andrew is always refreshing.  He loves Jesus Christ and loves the theology of John Wesley which is nothing less than practical and needed today.

Third, I'm struck by Andrew's insistence that we United Methodists focus more fully on salvation, which, not surprisingly, is utterly Wesleyan.  I've heard about so many initiatives and foci and slogans in the UMC...but so very few connect the dots between those promotions and our salvation through Jesus Christ.  And one wonders if that alone doesn't speak volumes either about our theology or our agenda items (or both).

I asked Andrew a variety of questions.  Below is part one of our interview, conducted both via email and phone.


1) What's the single most important thing the UMC needs to do right now to be part of God's work (or have a future?)?

            That’s a tough question, if you are asking for only one single thing! As a whole church, I’d say that we most need to distinguish the difference between life in the world and life in the church. We’ve gone for a long time assuming that discipleship to Jesus Christ doesn’t require any more of us than living as good citizens in our own society. And so you’ll often hear people talk about how the church isn’t “keeping up" with the culture. You’ve got to think about what that implies. People who feel that way assume that our culture is on an inevitable upward trajectory and that, for the church to have a place, we need to take our cues from what the culture deems to be good. But I don’t read Scripture as calling for us to underwrite the agenda of Caesar. In fact, the whole scope and tenor of Scripture – to use a Wesleyan phrase – is deeply skeptical of the powers and principalities at work in the world. There is a wonderful statement of Wesley’s in the Large Minutes, where he writes, “How few are there that know the nature of repentance, faith, and holiness! Most of them have a sort of confidence that God will save them, while the world has their hearts.” The inability to distinguish between the church and the larger world is not a new problem.

            I’ll add this: I think a lot of what we’re trying to do in Generation Rising is to present a path forward for the church that can assist in the work of seeing what life in the church really looks like. We have ground our work in the language of the means of grace, which is the Wesleyan term to describe those practices of the faith through which we are formed as a holy people. For the means of grace to really transform people, they must be practiced seriously, intentionally, and in a disciplined way. They are not an end in themselves, but they are a means to the end that God intends for all of us. They allow us to receive Jesus Christ in his presence and power, exactly because the Holy Spirit is at work in the midst of them. And if the congregations of the United Methodist Church begin to take the means of grace more seriously at the center of their communal lives, then I think we will find ourselves simultaneously at the center of God’s own work in the creation.

2) Why this book? Why did you write it? Why do we need it?

            I first had the idea for Generation Rising from a late-night conversation with Arnold Oh (one of the contributors) over the future of the church. We talked about how books on church renewal tended to be written by people in the generation ahead of us. Many of those books are really strong. Increasingly, they’ve tended to focus on connecting our current practice with the rich Wesleyan heritage we’ve received from our tradition, which I think is important. But it struck Arnold and me during that conversation that the church needed to hear the voices of the generation currently rising into leadership. It is when people start to get into their 30’s and 40’s that they start to be seen as having the experience necessary to take real positions of authority and responsibility. That’s where Generation X finds itself right now. So the timing seemed right.

            But let me say this: While the book is written by 12 authors from the Generation X cohort, it is not aimed just at other Gen X readers. It’s a book written for the whole church. The perspective it offers comes from Gen Xers, but the church we are trying to envision is a church of all of us – young, old, and somewhere in between.

I think Generation Rising can serve as a real resource for pastors, laity, and whole congregations because it takes an honest look on where the church finds itself in our current culture and offers ways to ground our common faith in Wesleyan practices of discipleship. The chapters themselves present quite varied perspectives. That is only natural in a book that is a collaboration of 12 writers. Some of the chapters are very practically oriented, suggesting particular ways that congregations can live more fully into their faith today. Others are more reflective essays about how the experiences of people in both church and culture affect they way we understand ourselves religiously. And still others try to do some fairly meaty historical and theological ‘work’ while putting it in language that a broad reading audience can understand. All in all, I think that collaborative approach makes the book stronger than it would have been if any one of us had written it alone. (And in fact, we make that very point in the book’s preface!)

3) Why does the world need the UMC?
            That’s a challenging question. What I’d want to get away from is the suggestion that the United Methodist Church is some kind of unique institution that the broader Christian church can’t do without. I’m not interested in a “denominationalism” in my approach to our church’s calling and ministry. I am interested in the distinctive tradition out of which we come, which is the Wesleyan tradition. Methodists don’t call themselves Wesleyans because we think that claiming John Wesley somehow defines our Christian identity. We call ourselves Wesleyans because we think that the ministry, witness, and writing of John Wesley show us the way to Jesus Christ. Within that Wesleyan heritage, I would point to Charles Wesley, John Fletcher, Francis Asbury, and countless other early Methodists as well. Those men and women responded to a calling from God that they understood to be all-consuming. John Wesley writes in the Large Minutes about God’s design in raising up Methodist preachers in this way: “Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” And to his junior preachers he writes, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that [need] you, but to those that [need] you most.” Now, the best way I know how to describe this Wesleyan calling is that it is an evangelical calling to be ministers of the gospel of salvation we receive from Jesus Christ. We’d need to dig deeper to get at the heart of what that word – “salvation” – fully means, but that’s the core meaning of what it is to be Wesleyan.

            So why does the world need the UMC? Well, I think the world needs the UMC because we are inheritors of that vital Wesleyan tradition. And God loves the world, and he wants to world to know salvation. We aren’t called to save the world per se. That is Jesus’ work alone. But we are called to bear faithful witness, which we do by worship, ministry, and mission. The UMC has the potential to be a faithful expression of God’s holy people, but we also need to continue committing ourselves to the reformation of our own life that the Holy Spirit can guide us in.

4) What role does the Christian explosion in the Global South have to play in UMC renewal? What do we Christians in the Global North where Christianity has been declining have to offer Christians in the Global South, and vice versa?

            The growth of the church in the Global South is probably going to be the biggest story of the 21st century, as far as Christianity is concerned. We’re seeing that in the United Methodist Church, where the growth of the church in Africa in particular is causing the overall percentage of African UM membership to rise rapidly. Some people want to categorize the understanding of Christianity in the Global South by using words like “more conservative,” “Biblicist,” and a whole host of other terms that are almost always intended to be pejorative. I disagree with that assessment, and I think it smacks of the cultural condescension that Westerners tend to have for people from Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

I’d offer another view, which is that the West has become so wealthy and so comfortable (usually on the backs of the Third World) that we have lost the ability to distinguish Christian discipleship from general citizenship. I write about some of that by telling a story of my own experience with the Methodist Church of Peru in the book, and Arnold Oh’s chapter on missions centers on that North/South dichotomy. Arnold presents a pretty strong critique of American Methodism by looking at our history over the 19th and 20th centuries, but I think the point he is making is an important one: We fell into the trap of “over-translating” the gospel so that we associated being Christian with being Western. Christians of the Global South are receiving the gospel now without all the cultural baggage that Western missionaries inflicted on them for so long, and the fruits of that new encounter with the Holy Spirit are being borne. For those of us in American society, we need to try and put our cultural baggage to the side and see God’s work in other places with fresh eyes. We might find that it allows us to be born again, so to speak, by the process of what is sometimes called “reverse mission.”

5) General Conference is coming in 2012. What are your hopes? What are your fears?

            My main hope for General Conference is that it will more closely reflect the original Wesleyan notion of conferencing than it has in a long time. Conferencing is supposed to be a means of grace, and it can be that if it is focused on worship and equipping for ministry & mission. Between now and next year, there’s going to be a lot of talk about the Call to Action report and the way it will impact the work of the General Conference. Much of what I’ve read is encouraging about Call to Action, though any large-scale initiative runs the risk of becoming an end in itself. We need to avoid that, and we need to pray that the Spirit would free us from the fear that many feel about change.
    I guess my fear about the upcoming General Conference is that it would become preoccupied with issues that are not truly helpful to the church’s mission and ministry. The GC is so legislative in its focus that it sometimes seems as if we Methodists think we can legislate ourselves to Christian perfection. That’s never going to happen, and I hope we can work to make the GC a less legislative body overall. If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I’d encourage him or her to pick up a copy of the Book of Resolutions sometime, which is the collection of current official statements by the church. There’s some good theology in it, but that is a distinct minority. It’s full of a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I grieve to think how much time and energy are spent debating and voting on issues that have no real impact or lasting significance. And I would want all of us to remind ourselves that we are not doomed to this kind of impoverished expression of conferencing. There’s got to be a better way!