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Pete Bellini ~ Methodism on Fire

It is no revelation that the United Methodist Church is facing an uncertain and problematic future. The second largest Protestant denomination in the United States is deeply divided over human sexuality and as a result it is divided over its language in the Book of Discipline (the denomination’s manual on agreed-upon life together) and is divided over decisions made by the Judicial Council, several Annual Conferences, and Boards of Ordained Ministry regarding human sexuality. In response, the Council of Bishops proposed The Commission on a Way Forward to address human sexuality and the Book of Discipline. The proposal was approved by the 2016 General Conference. The Commission has been given the Herculean task of proposing a way forward that will maintain unity among stretched and strained denominational differences. When its work is complete, the 32-member commission will report to a special session of the General Conference in 2019.

Amidst the uncertainty there have been many voices from both sides of the divide that have also speculated on a way forward. Several refreshing responses have come under the banner #nextmethodism. Recently, my colleague at United Theological Seminary, Dr. David Watson, wrote an article entitled “The Four Marks of the Next Methodism,” in which he forecasts what God has in store for the weary people called Methodists. Watson’s second mark declares that “the next Methodism will be Spirit-filled.” I think my friend is onto something. Rather, I know the Holy Spirit is onto something.1

The Holy Spirit is always at work in the world and in the church regardless of the problems that we face and regardless of the darkness that seems to prevail. God is a missionary God and has always been moving upon the earth carrying out God’s work. In John 14:26, Jesus promised that the Father would send the Holy Spirit in his name. The Spirit of Truth would bear witness to the person and work of Christ. In Acts 1:8, the disciples were invited to receive the power of the Holy Spirit to be witnesses of Jesus Christ. This invitation to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit is not just for the disciples of that generation but to their children and to their children for all generations. Acts 2:38 promises that all who repent and are baptized will receive forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit.

The mission of God (missio Dei) involves the sending of the Son, but it equally involves the sending of the Spirit. The Spirit is the primary agent of salvation in terms of our appropriating and experiencing the work of God’s grace in Christ. The Spirit draws, witnesses, convicts, enables repentance, justifies, regenerates, assures, sanctifies, quickens and inhabits the sacraments, constitutes the church, empowers for mission, works justice, heals the land, and much moreEarly Methodism understood these operations of the Spirit. Methodism today may benefit from further sound teaching on the person and work of the Holy Spirit and from further strategic opportunities to be filled with the Spirit and to serve in the power of the Spirit.

Early Methodism was no stranger to experiential religion and to the work of the Spirit. A case could be made that one of the greatest outpourings of the church age following the first century began with the Great Awakening and early Methodism. Revival fire lit up England and spread across the ocean and helped give birth to what Kenneth Scott Latourette called the “Great Century,” referencing the vast influence of Christianity in the nineteenth century. The Second Great Awakening, the healing movement, the holiness movement, the modern mission movement, the abolitionist movement, and a host of social and educational institutions all were significantly influenced by 19th century Methodism.2

Going into the 20th century, even the earth-shattering Azusa St. Revival from 1906-1912 was fueled by Methodist, former Methodist and holiness leadership. Wesleyan holiness theology reworked from John Wesley and John Fletcher was instrumental in igniting the passion and drive for entire sanctification and the baptism of the Spirit that launched Azusa St.3  The intense and permeating impact of Azusa’s eschatological pneumatology on the passion and push for missions catapulted North American Pentecostalism globally where it either ignited the fires of existing holiness work or networked with existing indigenous outpourings. Together these spiritual torrents helped to generate the seismic movement known as the Global South Shift. Could one of the greatest outpourings of the Holy Spirit in church history that began with Methodism come full circle back to Methodism?  

The fact is that it is already happening in many parts of the world. Global Methodism is burning with the fire of the Holy Spirit on virtually every continent. At United Theological Seminary, where I serve as Associate Professor of Evangelization in the Heisel Chair, many of the faculty, including myself, have witnessed revival in Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, Sierra Leone and Cuba. Churches have been planted. Thousands have come to Christ. Many are healed. Signs, wonders, and miracles are accompanying the preaching of the Gospel in Global South Methodism. My colleagues and I have been blessed to witness personally the mighty work of the Spirit, and yet the amazing growth of Global Methodism is much greater than the limited experience of our faculty. In Africa alone the church is increasing by 220,000 annually while the United Methodist Church in the U.S. is losing around 90,000 annually.4 Of course, the growth in African Methodism is not an anomaly either but is occurring wherever Global South renewal is diffused, and the character of these movements are usually charismatic in nature, as Philip Jenkins has documented in his now-classic, The Next Christendom

The good news is that God longs to move in American Methodism in the same manner. Many who are crying out in prayer for renewal are already experiencing a foretaste of it in certain oases, like Aldersgate Renewal Ministries, New Room Conference, the Holy Spirit Seminar, Change the World Conference, and in the classrooms at United Theological Seminary and in other places. The examples that I have cited hardly scratch the surface, as people in local churches, training events, and conferences across Methodism are seeking God’s presence over institutional programs. We have marveled at the Methodist machine long enough. We have tinkered with its parts. We have polished the brass until we could see our reflection. Though the Methodist machine is indeed a marvel, in many ways, it has become a body without the Spirit. The body without the Spirit is dead, and the dead need a resurrection.  

The picture of Methodism today is similar to what Ezekiel saw in the thirty-seventh chapter of the book that bears his name. The Lord gave the prophet a vision of a valley of dry bones that were once supporting a body that was filled with life. Of course, the valley of dry bones pointed to Israel in captivity. The Lord had a plan to renew and restore his people. He would breathe his ruach upon the dry bones, and they would live again. God set the prophet apart to prophesy resurrection and life to those dead bones.

I believe God has similar intentions for the people called Methodists. In our decline, division, and defeat, we are down for the count. Yet our denomination still exists and carries on as if something less than a divine move of the Spirit of God, such as programs or polity, will get Methodism off the canvas and on its feet again. In this sense, we are like the living dead. Like the Church at Sardis (Rev. 3:1), we have a name seemingly indicating we are alive, but we truly are dead.

However, like in the time of Ezekiel, in these days God is raising up prophetic voices that are called to speak new life to the Church. They will prophesy to the dry bones that they will live again, and there will be a great rattling among the bones. There will be political rattling, theological rattling, doctrinal rattling, and spiritual rattling among the bones before they are gathered together and restored. Then the prophets will speak to the four winds of the Holy Spirit that will blow over the dry bones of Methodism, and the Spirit will resurrect and revive the descendants of John Wesley. I concur that the next Methodism will be a Holy Spirit Methodism, a Spirit-filled Methodism.

In the places where I have witnessed and beyond, many in our Methodist family are already experiencing a spiritual refreshing, as they are encountering the transforming power of the Spirit with signs and wonders and the manifestation of the charismata (the gifts of the Spirit) for the first time. I believe that the acts of the Holy Spirit and ensuing semeia (signs) found in the New Testament that are experienced in the Global South will be experienced in Western Methodism, if we are humble, open, and willing to repent and receive. Of course, the power of the Spirit is not an end in itself but rather is intended to empower the church for mission and witness. Increased fruitfulness and the spread of the Kingdom will indeed be the product of such an awakening.

Yet I believe more than just a charismatic “next Methodism,” God desires a sanctified next Methodism. Like Isaac in Genesis 26:18, we are called to redig the old wells, in this case the old wells of Methodism. Wesley declared that God raised up Methodism chiefly to spread scriptural holiness across the land.5 Key features of early Methodism will be revived in a sanctified “next Methodism,” such as holiness of heart and life, salvation as therapeia (healing and wholeness), empowerment and release of the laity, transformative discipleship, fresh sacred songs and poetry from heaven, and homiletical authority or preaching that facilitates conviction and conversion.

As we cry out to be set on fire with the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit and to be sent out to be good news to a world that needs hope, the Lord will send a blaze from heaven that will consume sin and fill us with holy and perfect love. A sanctified “next Methodism” will serve as a balance to a charismatic “next Methodism” holiness and power. Power without holiness, charisma without character, and gifts without fruit can lead to excesses in our lives and ministry that will be detrimental to the life and witness of the church. May our hearts’ cry be for the full manifestation of the Spirit.

As a Professor who teaches courses on church renewal and the Holy Spirit, I am often asked by students, “What can I do to have more of the Holy Spirit in my life?” This concise list of ten exhortations to understand the gift of the Holy Spirit and to cultivate the life and ministry of the Spirit may be a good place to start.

  1. Be Christ-centered. Focus on Jesus. The Spirit primarily bears witness to Christ.
  2. Be immersed in the Scriptures. Have a scriptural basis for all you are and do in your life and ministry. The Spirit speaks the language of Scripture.Be aware of exalting your experience over Scripture.
  3. Be presence-based over program-based in life and ministry. Expect and cultivate the presence of God wherever you are.Let life and ministry flow from there.
  4. Make faith your primary epistemologicalinstrument. Reason is essentialbut meant to be subordinate to faith. We are justified by faith and not justified by reason.
  5. Have a passion for holiness, Christlikeness. “Holy” is the Holy Spirit’s first name.
  6. Cultivate humility as a virtue. The Holy Spirit does not speak of himself (John 14-16). The Spirit is humble and is attracted to humility. God resists the proud.
  7. Learn to hear the voice of the Spirit and teach your people likewise. Give the Spirit the solitudeneededto speak to you and expect to hear specific guidance from God.
  8. Have an open heart to serve others especially the poor, the stranger, and the outcast. The Spirit loves to adopt.
  9. Create opportunities and structures for all types of prayer. If we want the fellowship of the Spirit we must communicate in the Spirit.Look for both worship and mission to flow from a life of prayer.
  10. Create an expectancy for the gifts of the Spirit in ordinaryand extraordinary ways and settings.