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A Wesleyan Witness to Transform the World

Why Wesleyan Christianity can renew American society and help us navigate a complex world

I believe a vibrant Wesleyan Christian witness is the best hope for the renewal of American society and for navigating the complexities of our world. I also believe that the United Methodist Church is distinctively well-positioned to carry forth such a vibrant Wesleyan witness in the future.

I am aware that these are bold assertions, and there are plenty of reasons to cast doubt on both of these claims. After all, to most 21st-century Americans the Wesleyan understanding and practice of Christian witness is largely invisible. The problems seen in American society, from economic challenges and disintegrating institutions on the one hand to polarized politics and obsession with entertainment on the other, look so overwhelming and pervasive that any notion of renewal seems somewhat far-fetched.

The current state of American society is daunting enough, prior to describing the dysfunctions of the United Methodist Church. We are poorly organized, still reflecting a mid-20th-century, top-down, bureaucratic mentality with too many people invested in, and benefitting from, the status quo. We typically now reflect the polarization of American politics rather than providing an example of a third way forward rooted in a deep and rich understanding of what John Wesley called “scriptural holiness.” And we have settled for what John Wimmer D’82, the program director in the religion division at the Lilly Endowment, has called a contentment with “mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness.”

More than once I have cringed when hearing descriptions of United Methodism that strike too close to home. Jon Stewart described United Methodism as “the University of Phoenix of religions.” Garrison Keillor’s song “Methodist Blues” includes this stanza:  “The organist’s mad, the pastor’s unhappy / The hours are long and the pay is crappy / Troubles? O we got a whole long list / Because we are Methodists.” And I have repeatedly been frustrated to discover, upon meeting someone whose faith and discipleship is exceptionally vital, that they had “been raised” United Methodist—but had felt a need to leave when they began to take their faith more seriously.

Even so, I remain excited by the possibilities of a vibrant Wesleyan witness, and I remain committed to the United Methodist Church. I do so because, at our best, we offer an expression of Christian faith and life that helps people discover “the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:19). How?

First, Wesleyan Christianity fosters what Roger Martin, the former dean of the Rotman School of Management, calls “opposable” thinking. We have too much oppositional thinking in American culture; ideas, people, or parties are depicted as sharp dichotomies with no ability or incentive to find common ground. Martin proposes instead opposable thinking for business leadership—namely, to hold positions together in tension instead of opposition. Wesleyans at our best do this: justification and sanctification, evangelism and social justice, small groups and sacraments, evangelical commitment and catholic spirit, and the list could go on. In a time of polarization both within the church and in broader culture, we have a powerful and distinctive witness to offer.

Second, we have a particular knack for opposable thinking around what I call “traditioned innovation.” This has been a hallmark of our practice and self-understanding at our best, seeing ourselves as a reform movement within the church catholic. We have cultivated this mindset through both a focus on the renewing power of the Spirit and a connection to the best resources of our past. In a time when the tectonic plates of cultures are shifting, an approach that models a way to be open to a new vision while still valuing the blessings of our tradition offers great wisdom for Christians as well as fellow citizens.

Third, Wesleyan Christianity is committed to the importance of institutions. From our founding in England and through our development in the United States and in countries around the world, we have invested in core institutions that enable human beings to flourish: education, health care, food security, hospices, prison ministries, and more. In a time when the West is afflicted by what Niall Ferguson calls “the Great Degeneration,” in which institutions are “decaying” and economies “dying,” recovering the understanding and practices that enliven institutions is a countercultural, transformational witness.

And, fourth, Wesleyans have wonderful experience with the transformational power of small groups. As my wife, Susan, and I reflected on Wesleyan bands and class meetings, we have seen how “holy friendships” are crucial to Christian life in particular and human flourishing more generally. We describe these powerful relationships this way: “Holy friends help us challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim, and dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed.” In a time of loneliness, fragmentation, and isolation, we yearn for holy friends.

I continue to believe that the United Methodist Church, even with all of its dysfunctions and self-inflicted pathologies, is distinctively well-positioned to carry forth the vibrant witness of Wesleyan Christianity. We still have enormous influence because of our engagement with networks and institutions such as Duke and other colleges; we have patterns of thought and life on which we can draw; and we have deep within our sensibilities the commitment to the practices of opposable thinking and holy friendships.

And I believe that Duke Divinity School—through its faculty and staff, students/alumni and friends, programs and initiatives—is distinctively well-positioned to offer leadership in renewing both the United Methodist Church and a broader witness to Wesleyan Christianity.