Institute on Religion and Democracy
January 11, 2001
Nearly 500 United Methodists gathered in a Washington, D.C. suburb for the Council on Evangelism's annual Congress on Evangelism. They got to hear talk about saving the "lost" not typically heard at official United Methodist events. The Council on Evangelism is an affiliate of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
"We have barren churches because we have not prayed for the lost," said Bishop Lindsey Davis of Atlanta. "They love their traditions," he said of dying congregations. "They love their building. They love their cemetery. They don't love the lost. They are an apostate church."
But Davis stressed that even barren churches can be transformed. "If I can find one lay person or one clergy whose willing to love one unchurched person or one unsaved person, then I know that church can be saved," he insisted.
Davis described a dying, "one agenda" church in Atlanta that had declared itself a "reconciling" pro-homosexuality church. "They reconciled themselves right out of business," he said of the 20-member congregation, which he was forced to close. Subsequently he sent a black clergywoman to start a Bible study in that neighborhood. "The Light of the Gospel is beginning to shine again," Davis said, as a "new congregation is emerging from the ashes of the old one."
"We have a lot of conversation in the church about inviting everybody to the table," Davis said, once again touching on the issue of homosexuality. "I've been accused of trying to keep some folks away," he said. But he insisted that he believes the table of God should include all people. But the "Gospel should be allowed to flourish," and the "authority of Scripture [must be] maintained."
"So often I get the feeling that the common table means the lowest common denominator of doctrine and tradition in the life of the church," Davis complained. He warned against accepting "watered-down substitutes." The "redemptive power of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ" must be accepted.
Davis also said dying churches have forgotten the need to reach children and the poor. "We have been seduced by prosperity," he observed. "It has numbed us." He also blamed church deaths on the lack of prayer and the negligence of evangelism.
"We have barren churches because our leaders have forgotten their calling to be evangelists," Davis said. "My most important role is to be an evangelist. We are called first and foremost to be evangelists and to save souls."
"Telling the story of Jesus is not complicated," Davis concluded. Later, during a question and answer session, Davis further acknowledged the problems of false doctrines in the church. "Secularity takes root in the life of the church, in terms of doctrine and our prosperity and materialism," he said. Davis cited the beneficial influence of overseas churches as a "corrective." He also admitted that when confronted by false teachings, "We need to stand and say, 'That's not what we believe.'"
Dale Galloway of Asbury Seminary in Kentucky reiterated Davis' emphasis on evangelism. "Vision always arises out of a passion to reach lost people for Christ," Galloway said. "Lost people do matter to God."
He cited the recent bankruptcy of Montgomery Ward for its similarity to the mainline churches, which have suffered membership decline for 35 years. "Last year the United Methodist Church started 3 new churches," Galloway said. "The Southern Baptists started 1600 new churches," he pointed out by comparison. "If you don't produce new babies, what happens to the family?
James Logan of Wesley seminary in Washington, D.C. gave the daily Bible study at the conference. "Congregations we serve are deficient in biblical knowledge and biblical understanding, almost to the point of being illiterate," he remarked.
"Some say find new language [to express the faith]," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that if that language doesn't reduce the content and meaning of what we're conveying in terms of the Gospel." But Logan warned that too often the "process of reductionism" sets in. Efforts to expand the Gospel's appeal then become ineffectual.
"How many of our congregations have been engaged in intercessory prayer for the unreached?" Logan asked. "We are called to a life of holiness, not the mind that is in the world."
Tyrone Gordon, a United Methodist pastor from Kansas, also warned against conformity with tradition and worldliness. "The church is of God, not the General Conference," he said. "Change is a bad word in the United Methodist Church." Gordon recalled that he learned in seminary to be only a "maintenance pastor." His real skills at pastoring were later learned through observation.
"We have become afraid to say what God has put on our hearts because of the repercussions from people," Gordon observed. "We need men and women who are faithful to the Word of God." He also warned of the dangers of personal ambition and the temptations that clergy face in striving for cabinet positions or the episcopacy.
"It's time for pastors to take their authority and take the mantle of leadership," Gordon enthused. "God wants us to thrive." But he also said, "Pastor leadership in the 21st century will come from servant leadership. Pastor servant leaders will humble themselves."
Bill Hinson, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, recounted his own experiences as a servant pastor during a 40-year pastoral career that will end this year with retirement. But he also warned of theological challenges in the church.
Although last year's General Conference had been "hopeful," Hinson recalled that significant lobbying had to be waged before successfully adding language to the Discipline that describes Jesus Christ as Son of God and Lord of the world. "We don't want to offend anybody," Hinson complained about the political mindset in the church.
Hinson also criticized the National Council of Churches, which is led by a United Methodist minister, for withdrawing its support from an ecumenical initiative that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. "Jesus defined marriage," Hinson observed, but the church council could not. "The One by Whom the world was made is now 'out of touch,'" he further noted with irony. "When you lift up a standard in our culture you will offend someone," Hinson predicted. He warned that defending biblical standards sometimes risked being called a "bigot." But being on the "wrong side of Jesus" was far more "uncomfortable," Hinson said.
One of the Congress on Evangelism's most captivating speakers was Bruce Wilkinson, president of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, an international parachurch group. He preached on the Prayer of Jabez, based on 1 Chronicles 4:10. In this Scripture, Jabez cries out to God: "Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain."
"There's not a limited number of blessings," Wilkinson told an attentive audience. "It's not selfish to pray for blessings." He pointed out that Jabez did not define the blessing but just asked for a lot of it. "You will be overwhelmed," Wilkinson predicted. "This brings pleasure to God."
"Most of us in the ministry do not walk in the power of the Spirit," Wilkinson observed. "When the Spirit moves there's liberty." He spoke for nearly 90 minutes, was asked by several audience members not to stop, but then was interrupted by a hotel fire alarm. After the break, most of the crowd reassembled and Wilkinson preached for another 45 minutes, concluding with an altar call.
Bishop Felton May of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, along with retired Bishop Richard Looney, who now heads the Foundation for Evangelism based at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, briefly spoke to the Congress on Evangelism. Bishop Joe Pennel of the Virginia Conference presided over a concluding communion service that was held at the Washington National Cathedral.