Scripture and the Life of God – a gift to the church

The church always stands in need of engaging, theologically sound writing from pastor-scholars that can “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”

Yet while the need is always present, its fulfillment can be elusive.

Scholars typically write for the academy, and such writing is often not appealing to a broad audience.

Occasionally there is a scholar who has retained his ability to write for the whole church, though. And when that happens, the church stands to benefit in spades.

Such is the case with Dr. David Watson, an elder in the West Ohio Annual Conference who also serves as academic dean and professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH.

With Dr. Watson’s new book, Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed, 2017), we have a work that promises to renew our approach to reading the Bible in the contemporary church. It is an outstanding example of how important solid theological writing can be when aimed at the people in the pew.

Watson’s intent is both to diagnose what’s wrong with the way we’ve been taught to read the Bible and to prescribe a remedy.

So much modern reading of the Bible wants to treat the God we find there as a deity that only acted in powerful ways long, long ago. Such an assumption treats our own era as if we’re living in a kind of shadow land, where the clear light of God’s action just does not penetrate.

Watson rescues us from such an impoverished approach to Holy Scripture. As he puts it, “The Bible isn’t just a book of statements about God; it is a pathway into God’s very life” (p. 6). And the God into whose life Scripture leads us is just as active as he was in the days of ancient Israel.

Dr. David F. Watson of United Theological Seminary

There are many factors that can lead us to treat Scripture as a dead book of ancient literature rather than as the revelation of the Triune God. Watson touches on many of them: a misunderstanding of the nature of science and religion, an inability to see the Bible as a form of divine communication, a desire to tame the Bible to fit our own cultural mores, and even a spiritual numbness caused by First World affluence.

What all these pitfalls have in common is a failure to read the fullness of the Bible as Scripture. When we read the Bible as Scripture, we understand that it is divinely inspired—literally, “God-breathed”—with the ability both to reveal to us the true character of God and to show us God’s incredible vision of salvation.

Surely what is most exhilarating in Watson’s account is his fourth chapter, which takes a hard look at the widespread tendency in the modern church to limit our view of what God can do. Watson points to active disbelief and passive disbelief in this regard. The former is the adoption of a worldview that excludes any possibility of God’s supernatural work in the world. The latter, while not categorically opposed to the miraculous, still maintains a detached skepticism towards it.

Watson sees all such disbelief and skepticism as failing to take seriously that the God of the Bible is the same God we have now. He contends “that we should not only be open to the kinds of acts that God performs the Bible, but actively seek them” (p. 83).

It is at this point that Watson starts to sound a lot less like most Methodists you probably know (much less a New Testament professor at a UMC seminary!). But for me, at least, the change is a refreshing one.

Watson’s critique about the contemporary church is that we simply fail to expect enough of God. He says, “Most Christians are entirely comfortable talking about gifts of wisdom and faith. But healing? Miraculous powers? Prophecy? These may be harder to believe—but why? Simply put, the less a particular gift seems to require of God, the easier it is for us to believe. We have been taught not to expect very much of God, and our prayers match these expectations” (pp. 83-84).

That passage is indicative of the content of Scripture and the Life of God from beginning to end. Watson is determined to show us that the Bible has much, much more to offer us than we’ve ever let ourselves believe. It can, he wants to say, draw us right into God’s own life.

And there is great spiritual power there, indeed.

There is, in fact, a new movement afoot in the church. (Or perhaps it is just a very old movement that is being rediscovered.) It is both deeply scriptural and profoundly open to the work of the Holy Spirit in the church today. Dr. Watson is representative of it, and his new book on the power of Scripture promises to introduce many more people to its fruits.

This article originally appeared in the October 6, 2017, issue of the Arkansas United Methodist Newspaper. You can access the AUM Newspaper online at this link

The Struggle Between Covenant & Schism in the United Methodist Church

Returning from annual conference each year offers a great opportunity for reflection on the unity of the church in her witness and mission. Our annual conference session a few weeks ago in Arkansas was especially encouraging.

The Holy Spirit was present in worship, the teaching was encouraging, and conference initiatives like 200,000 Reasons to Fight Childhood Hunger were inspiring. It all made me excited to be among the People Called Methodists!

And yet, you only have to look more broadly within the United Methodist Church to see ways that the church is fracturing. Particularly in other parts of the United States, the actions of some bishops, boards of ordained ministry, and whole annual conferences are putting stress on the United Methodist connection in ways that threaten to tear the church apart.

The actions in question are related to the way that some forces in the church have refused to recognize the authority of the General Conference, Judicial Council, and the Book of Discipline itself. When that happens, the very idea that we are a church bound by a common covenant starts to fracture.

The word that often comes up when talking with others about the current troubles in the UMC is “schism.” The word has to do with a split or a division. It’s also a loaded term, not to be taken lightly.

John Wesley had a perspective on schism that can help us think through what the word really means in a church context. That Wesleyan perspective offers us clarity in the present.

In his sermon “On Schism,” Wesley defines schism in the Bible as “a disunion in mind and judgment—perhaps also in affection—among those who, notwithstanding this, continued outwardly united as before” (¶I.2).

He’s talking about the way the word is used in 1 Corinthians, when the Apostle Paul is giving counsel to the Christians in Corinth about divisions in the church there. Wesley contends that true schism doesn’t happen at the point that a group of people leaves the church. Schism actually occurs before that—when the actions and attitudes of a group cause division within the body as it exists.

John Wesley (1703-1791)

Wesley’s point is that the biblical meaning of schism “is not a separation from any church … but separation in a church” (¶I.1).

Wesley is also unsparing in his criticism of such action. As he puts it, schism is “both evil in itself, and productive of evil consequences” (¶II.10). It is evil in itself because it constitutes a “grievous breach of the law of love,” tearing apart that which God desires to be united. And it is productive of evil consequences in that it leads to anger and resentment within the body of Christ.

The issues that have led to schismatic actions within the UMC are no secret. The primary issue is the way that people read the Bible and understand biblical authority. Closely related to that is how we identify and interpret the work of the Holy Spirit. And of course, the actual presenting issues are those related to God’s intention for our sexuality, the definition of marriage, and the standards for ordination.

The current fervor of progressive theology aims to force change on a United Methodist Church that has chosen, time and again, to affirm the traditional biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality (including all the points in our Book of Discipline that support traditional doctrinal positions). What is different now than in the past is the strategy being employed. Whereas once upon a time, opposing voices in the church bided their time and waited for the church to “catch up to the culture,” now they have determined to ignore church teaching and church polity to impose their own views by any means necessary.

The consequences of schism are always tragic—as John Wesley well knew. The Commission on a Way Forward has yet to report its work, and there is a General Conference called for 2019. Yet what hope does the church have if the very church leaders responsible for upholding the covenant we share treat it as if it is entirely optional? It is a vexing question.

There is either a covenant, or there is not. If there is a covenant, then there is a church. But if those within the covenant insist on willfully ignoring it, then the United Methodist Church will dissipate before our very eyes.

The great dilemma that those who believe in the covenant of the United Methodist Church are facing now is what we do when schism is forced upon us by the actions of those who seemingly don’t care about the consequences of what they are doing.

None of this is easy. But I am convinced that God is not finished with us. There will surely be a covenant to embrace and a church to serve when our current schism has been overcome. Veni Sancte Spiritus!

This essay also appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper’s July 7, 2017 edition.

John Wesley and Reading the Bible

Here’s a passage where John Wesley explains how he goes about reading the Bible:

Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights. “Lord, is it not thy Word, if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God? Thou givest liberally and upbraideth not. Thou has said, ‘If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do. Let me know thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. I meditate thereon, with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remain, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: And then, the writings whereby being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”

This paragraph comes from the preface to Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions, published in 1746. Wesley’s reflections here offer us some insight into how he believed we should read the Holy Scriptures. You might call them Wesley’s principles of biblical interpretation. I’ll list four of them, connected to four statements he makes in the quoted paragraph:

1) I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights. — First and foremost, the reading of Scripture should be undertaken in such a way that it is clothed in prayer. Wesley’s belief in the power of prayer comes through just about everywhere in his writing. “God does nothing but in answer to prayer,” Wesley says in the Plain Account of Christian Perfection. “Every new victory which a soul gains is the effect of a new prayer” (Q.38.5). What this means is that we should not approach reading the Bible as something we are doing simply to learn the content, or as an academic exercise. Instead, we should approach the Scriptures through prayer. We should ask God the Holy Spirit to illuminate our hearts and minds that we might receive God’s word within us.

2) Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? — Another baseline principle of Wesley’s is that the Bible should be taken at face value unless doing so would make no sense. As Wesley puts it, “[I]t is a stated rule in interpreting Scripture never to depart from the plain, literal sense, unless it implies an absurdity” (“Of the Church,” ¶I.12). We can easily come up with examples of such absurdities—Jesus’ “I am” statements in the Gospel of John, for example. (When Jesus says, “I am the gate,” as he does in John 10:9, he has not literally transformed himself into a gate; he is referring rather to the way of salvation.)

Following Wesley’s counsel on reading the Bible at face value has some wonderful benefits. For one, it helps us to realize that we do not study the Scriptures in order to master them, but rather so that they might master us. It isn’t up to us to tame or domesticate God’s word. Rather, when we come to the Bible we are come in order to receive and be transformed by it.

On the other hand, the “unless it implies an absurdity” clause in this principle of Wesley’s biblical interpretation also keeps us from reading the Bible too woodenly. Going back to that opening sentence from the preface to Sermons on Several Occasions, we will inevitably encounter things in the Bible where we have doubt as to the meaning of what we’ve read. At those times the text must be read spiritually rather than literally. And when we get to those places it is important to have other interpretive principles upon which to rely.

3) I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. — The principle this statement points toward is that the best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture. If you want to understand some isolated passage or story in the Bible, then compare it with the whole witness of Scripture as represented in other parts of the Bible that shed light on it.

There are two ways that Wesley tends to express this principle. The first is through his phrase, “the whole scope and tenor of Scripture.” An example: in the sermon “Free Grace,” Wesley argues that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination “is grounded on such an interpretation of some texts…as flatly contradicts all the other texts, and indeed the whole scope and tenor of Scripture” (¶20). What he is pointing out here is that an isolated text (such as Romans 8:29) cannot be read in such a way to overturn the vast number of texts that affirm the steadfast love of God. Individual passages in the Bible must be read with respect to both the scope (meaning the breadth from Genesis to Revelation) and the tenor (meaning the enduring tone throughout) of the whole.

Portrait of John Wesley, by William Hamilton (1787)

The second way that this principle comes through in Wesley’s writing is with his many references to the “analogy of faith” or “rule of faith.” This phrase is drawn from Romans 12:6 (“let us prophesy according to the analogy of faith,” in Wesley’s translation). In the Christian tradition, it is typically taken to mean the whole, unified message of the Bible. The early church often saw the analogy of faith as the content of the creed—the Bible’s witness about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Since the time of the Reformation, Protestant thinkers have often connected the analogy of faith with the biblical teaching about salvation. This is how Wesley understood it, as we can see from his commentary on Romans 12:6 itself: “St. Peter expresses it, as the oracles of God: according to the general tenor of them; according to that grand scheme of doctrine which is delivered therein, touching original sin, justification by faith, and present, inward salvation. There is a wonderful analogy between all these; and a close and intimate connection between the chief heads of that faith which was once delivered to the saints. Every article therefore, concerning which there is any question, should be determined by this one rule: every doubtful scripture interpreted, according to the grand truths which run through the whole.”

Thus, Wesley advocates a principle of biblical interpretation whereby shorter passages of Scripture always be read in light of the analogy of faith of the scope and tenor of Scripture—that is, according to the “grand truths which run through the whole.”

4) I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: And then, the writings whereby being dead, they yet speak. — Wesley often said that Methodism was nothing other than “the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive church, the religion of the Church of England” (e.g., “On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel,” ¶II.1). That formulation offers us a succinct way of pointing out something that Wesley took for granted: if you want to live faithfully; if you want to read the Bible accurately; and if you want to renew the church, you look backward to those times when the church was at her best. When it came to the faithfulness of the church herself, for Wesley this meant the church before the age of Constantine the Great. He both appealed to the life of the church in this age as well as to the writings of the early church fathers. Thus, when we need help understanding the Bible, we will do well to consult the fathers of the early church whose writings will bring clarity to the writing of Scripture itself.

So by working through that paragraph from the preface to Sermons on Several Occasions, we arrive at these principles of biblical interpretation:

  1. Approach reading the Bible through heartfelt prayer.
  2. Read the Bible with an eye to its literal, plain sense meaning unless such a reading implies an absurdity.
  3. The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture, so read each individual passage in light of the whole scope and tenor of the Bible.
  4. Use the witness of the early church fathers as an abiding guide to Bible study.

Those were Wesley’s guiding principles to the reading of the Bible, and they can be helpful principles for us to adopt today as well.

John Wesley and the Power of Christian Doctrine

John Wesley was passionate about doctrine. In fact, his love of doctrine is one of the more underappreciated (and sometimes even unknown) parts of his leadership of the Methodist movement.

Wesley was such a believer in the importance of doctrine that it was—ironically—one of the things that caused him to get in trouble with his own Church of England. We see an example of that in a sermon from 1789 called “Prophets and Priests.” In answering critics who claimed that his actions amounted to separation from the church, Wesley responded: “I hold all the doctrines of the Church of England. I love her Liturgy. I approve her plan of discipline, and only wish it could be put in execution.”

His appreciation for the way that the church’s doctrine and discipline were laid out on paper led Wesley to want to see them truly put into action. In fact, he believed that’s what the Methodist movement was attempting to do. When people would criticize him for planning Methodist services in the city of Dublin at the same time as regular church services, one of the reasons Wesley gave for why he did such a thing was to ensure that the people would have a chance to hear “that sound doctrine which is able to save their souls.”

Nowadays there are all kinds of misconceptions about the nature of the message that Wesley preached and wrote about. Sometimes he is depicted as an excitable evangelist that just wanted to get people pumped up about their faith. Other times you’ll hear people make comments like, “I just really appreciate Wesley’s message about grace.”

Both of these points of view miss the fact that there was actually a lot of concrete content to what Wesley was trying to get across. It wasn’t just about being energetic for Jesus (though that is certainly a good thing!). And it wasn’t just a generalized message about grace or love. Wesley’s understanding of the Christian gospel had fundamental doctrinal content—and he believed that content was of paramount importance for people to hear.

When pressed to summarize the Christian doctrine he thought most central to the Bible, Wesley typically spoke in terms of a three-part scheme: the doctrine of sin and the need for repentance; the doctrine of justification by faith and new birth; and the doctrine of sanctification or holiness. He imagines these three doctrinal heads as the porch, door and house of religion in a famous example from the Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained in 1746.

Wesley writes, “Our main doctrines… are three, that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself.”

Wesley’s intense commitment to core Christian doctrine can be explained by the fact that he really believed people’s salvation was at stake in what was being preached by Methodist preachers. The pulpit was not a place to go off into flights of theological fancy, nor was it the proper arena for the preacher to test out his own pet theories about the Bible. It was a place solely meant for the preaching of the meat-and-potatoes gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the last retrospective essays Wesley wrote about the Methodist movement was a short 1786 piece called “Thoughts upon Methodism.” It is there that he shared his thoughts about the prospects for the Methodist movement in the years to come. And since Wesley was not a man to mince words, he stated exactly what he thought the dangers were to the revival that he had led, by that point, for over 45 years.

He writes, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Our present age is one in which all three of those points Wesley makes are being tested in the extreme—doctrine, spirit and discipline. The Methodist movement may go one of any number of directions in the years to come. If it is to go in a Wesleyan direction, the Methodists themselves must surely take heed of Wesley’s advice and embrace the biblical doctrine that Wesley himself embraced in the movement’s first flourishing.

This essay also appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper’s April 7, 2017 edition. You can read it in the online version of the AUM newspaper here.

New Room Conference brings new life

The Methodist revival began in earnest in the spring of 1739. Along with London, the city of Bristol was one of the early centers for revival activity. That activity was so significant that it soon became clear that land needed to be purchased and a building erected to house Methodist activities.

What would come to be known as the New Room in Bristol was the first structure built by John Wesley and his fledgling movement. He describes its beginnings in his Journal on May 9, 1739:

“We took possession of a piece of ground, near St. James’s churchyard, in the Horsefair, where it was designed to build a room large enough to contain both the societies of Nicholas and Baldwin Street and such of their acquaintance as might desire to be present with them at such times as the Scripture was expounded. And on Saturday the 12th the first stone was laid, with the voice of praise and thanksgiving.”

We can interpret the name of the new building—the “New Room”—in a couple of different ways from the standpoint of history. The most obvious is that it was literally a new thing, a building newly erected to house preaching gatherings and meetings of the Bristol bands.

The other way to interpret the New Room’s name is that it provided new room for Christian believers to practice the means of grace. It offered a space within the lives of mostly hardscrabble people to gather together that they might hear the word of God preached and share conversation and prayer about their faith journeys.

If you fast forward 275 years, then you’ll discover that there is yet a third way that New Room can be interpreted: as the name adopted by the fastest growing conference of Wesleyan Christians in the world.

Two years ago, Seedbed Publishing began hosting a three-day gathering called the New Room Conference as a way to bring together Wesleyans with a deep passion for revival, worship, prayer and mission. Seedbed’s own motto is “Sowing for a Great Awakening.” The Christian publisher knows that it can’t bring about revival under its own power, but it does believe it can plant the seeds that will provide for revival’s beginnings when God chooses to grant the growth.screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-5-39-19-pm

The New Room Conference takes place each September in Franklin, Tennessee. As an attendee at each of the first three conferences, I can attest to its electric growth. The initial New Room in 2014 attracted a little over 300 people. In 2015, that more than doubled to almost 800 people. At the New Room Conference held just a few days ago, there were more than 1,500 people present. In just two short years, New Room has witnessed a 500 percent increase in attendance.

Why is this significant? For a couple of reasons.

The turmoil that the United Methodist Church is currently undergoing is no secret to anyone. The failure of bishops, pastors, and congregations to abide within our common covenant is threatening to rip the church apart at the seams. One spillover effect of all of this tension is that our official conferencing—in Annual Conferences, Jurisdictional Conferences and General Conference—tends to discourage more than encourage.

In short, we’ve seen very little of what Wesley meant by “Christian conferencing” in our official gatherings over the past few years. When Christian conferencing is a means of grace, it emphasizes testimony, prayer, conversations about faith and the sharing of a common witness.

What we lack in our official gatherings the New Room Conference has in spades. The preaching, teaching, prayer and worship I witnessed a few days ago in Franklin was one of the most enlivening and encouraging experiences I’ve had in 15 years of ministry.

We are at a turning point in the life of our connection. What we desperately need is new room—to rediscover our Wesleyan evangelical roots and recommit ourselves to the deeply Methodist mission with which we first set out.

No single conference is going to do all of the work needed to gain a course correction in our common life. But the New Room is certainly a start.


This essay also appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper’s October 7, 2016 edition. You can read it in the online version of the AUM newspaper at this link.

Wesleyan Accent: Our Sort-of Free Will

I wake up on a Saturday morning. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is out and flowers are in bloom. Should I go to the zoo and watch the animals, or would I rather work in my garden? Am I even free to decide?

Most people would say, “Yes, of course you are free to decide.” And I am. In fact, I’ve got more freedom than the freedom of choosing between the zoo and the garden. I could choose to do something else entirely. I could even choose to lie in bed all day with the curtains drawn—as wasteful as that might seem.

But what if the choice is on a different level entirely? How about if the choice is whether or not to love God? To believe in Jesus Christ?

Do we have the ability to choose our salvation?

That is a much trickier question. Click here to continue reading…


Wesleyan AccentWesleyan Accent provides free and subscription resources for Christian spiritual formation, catechesis, and discipleship in the Wesleyan way. By clearly articulating the Wesleyan understanding of Christian faith, Wesleyan Accent seeks to strengthen discipleship, empower mission and evangelism, cultivate ministry gifts of young leaders, and nurture the professional and service life of young theologians.

Andrew C. Thompson joined the writing team of Wesleyan Accent upon its launch in the Fall of 2013. For the full catalog of his articles on the Wesleyan Accent site, click here.

Moving from Revival to Discipleship

From Revival to Discipleship“Spiritual revival is never an end in itself. It is, however, essential for deep discipleship becoming a reality.”

Bishop Gary Mueller spoke those words as a part of his Episcopal Address at our recent Annual Conference session in Hot Springs. It was one of the main points that he shared as a part of his reflection on the relationship between revival and discipleship.

Understanding that relationship is critical for us if we want the fruits that come from spiritual revival to prove lasting in their effects.

Focusing on spiritual revival as an end in itself would be a big mistake for us. The word “revival” itself means new life. To be spiritually revived means to be given new life by the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit gives life, it is always for some good purpose.

The good purpose for which the Spirit gives life is, of course, the purpose of following Jesus! It is discipleship. So when we find ourselves given the gift of spiritual renewal, we should always be asking how that renewal can lead us to grow in our discipleship to Christ.

One other aspect of the bishop’s message shouldn’t be lost on us: his strong conviction that revival is the fuel that brings discipleship to fruition. Trying to live the life of discipleship without the renewing presence of the Holy Spirit would be like trying to bake a loaf of bread with no yeast in the dough. The grace that the Spirit gives us serves as the ongoing power for the Christian life in every respect.

Revival and discipleship in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John gives us a wonderful image to help us understand the spiritual rhythm of revival leading to discipleship. When the resurrected Jesus appears to disciples in the locked room on Easter day, he says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Immediately thereafter, Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

This scene in the Gospel of John is a perfect image for this year’s Annual Conference theme: “From Revival Flows Discipleship.” Jesus gives revival to the disciples by breathing out the Holy Spirit upon them. He restores them from the fear and failure that they experienced prior to Easter morning. By giving them the Spirit, he gives them new life.

In the midst of his gift of revival, Jesus also shares words with the disciples that point them to the purpose their revival should serve. The Father sent Jesus, and now Jesus sends them. He sends them into the world to witness to the salvation Jesus brings through their own faithful discipleship.

Discipleship in the Wesleyan class meeting

So what is our next step if we want the revival that God is offering to us to move us into a deeper discipleship in our own lives?

One of the highlights of our Annual Conference session was a resolution passed on Tuesday afternoon. Its stated purpose: “Encourage the Formation of Accountable Discipleship Groups in the Local Church.”

The text of the resolution affirms our Wesleyan tradition of small-group discipleship formation. It then encourages local congregations to form small groups for women and men based on the early Methodist class meeting.

The class meeting was the most widely used small group in the early Methodist movement. Originally it was a group of 10 to 12 people led by a class leader. Its chief activities were faith sharing and prayer, and the question that the leader asked each class member during the weekly meeting was, “How is it with your soul?” Class members had the opportunity to share their joys and their challenges with one another. They prayed together. The purpose of the gathering was, in Wesley’s own words, “to watch over one another in love.”

Small groups based on the class meeting model are exactly what we need for revival to flow into the discipleship in the Arkansas Conference today. It is through the faith formation that happens in Wesleyan small groups that discipleship is given the rich soil in which to take root and grow.

There are aspects of discipleship that need to be carried out beyond the prayer and conversation of small groups, of course. There is evangelism and mission, worship and study, education and pastoral care. Yet if small groups are done correctly—on the authentic Wesleyan model—they provide a foundation of faith formation that can serve as a springboard for all these other elements of discipleship.

Sometimes the work that we do debating and voting on resolutions during the Annual Conference session is much ado about nothing. Resolutions typically don’t require concrete action by the Conference. They are statements of the Conference’s opinion on this or that matter. But I believe the resolution passed in Hot Springs encouraging all local churches in Arkansas to embrace the class meeting model in a contemporary context is something much more.

If we want to be faithful to the Savior who gives us the reviving gift of the Holy Spirit, then we will heed his call to be sent out into the world to live as his disciples. And the foundation of that life of discipleship will be found in small groups committed to engaging in the serious work of faith formation. The Conference has endorsed such a path. Now let’s follow it.


This essay also appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper’s July 8, 2016 edition. You can read it in the online version of the AUM newspaper at this link.

Wesleyan Accent: The Word and The Spirit

“Whate’er his Spirit speaks in me, must with the written Word agree.”               –Charles Wesley

Many of the more contentious arguments in the church today are over social issues. That has certainly been the case for the United Methodist Church — the church I call home. Nowhere have the UMC’s internal debates over such issues been on clearer display than during its recent General Conference in Portland, Oregon.

The General Conference is the representative body of the 13+ million-member UMC. It meets once every four years. General Conference equips the general church for ministry by ordering its life and funding its ministries. It is also the body within the church that has the authority to write or alter canon law, which for Methodists is held in our Book of Discipline. So at least theoretically, the General Conference can vote to change everything from the church’s doctrinal understanding of the Trinity to how a local congregation handles estate bequests (though in the case of core Christian doctrine the bar on any substantive change is much higher and more complicated than a simple majority vote). Click here to continue reading…


Wesleyan AccentWesleyan Accent provides free and subscription resources for Christian spiritual formation, catechesis, and discipleship in the Wesleyan way. By clearly articulating the Wesleyan understanding of Christian faith, WA seeks to strengthen discipleship, empower mission and evangelism, cultivate ministry gifts of young leaders, and nurture the professional and service life of young theologians.

Andrew C. Thompson joined the writing team of WA upon its launch in the Fall of 2013. For the full catalog of his articles on the WA site, click here.

A Pastoral Letter to my Congregation in the wake of Orlando

Dear Church family,

By now we have all learned what happened in the early morning hours of this past Sunday, when a domestic terrorist pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (or ISIS) entered a nightclub in Orlando and proceeded to kill 49 people and wound 53 others. Orlando police eventually killed the attacker after a 3-hour standoff.

The sheer magnitude of this atrocity is overwhelming — may God have mercy on us. The loss of life makes the Orlando massacre the greatest single mass killing by an individual in American history. There have been many issues raised in connection with it in the media over the past few days: the fact that that the terrorist was targeting gay and lesbian people (given that he attacked a gay nightclub), the ongoing debate about gun control, the role of social media in allowing terrorists to glamorize acts of violence, and the mental pathologies of the particular man who carried out the attacks. All of these issues are important and worthy of discussion. Yet at heart I think they are symptoms rather than root causes.

There is a root cause, though, and I think it is important to name it. What motivated the terrorist who attacked the Orlando nightclub — according to his own statements — was a commitment to radical Islam and a desire to inflict punishment on the West. We could easily list out a tragic catalog of other attacks inspired by radical Islam over the past several years. In this country alone, that includes the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, the 2015 Chattanooga attacks, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2009 Ft. Hood shooting, and, of course, 9/11 itself. Those are just the incidents that have received the most media attention: because they involved so many deaths, or because they involved attacks on military installations, or because they were so brazen in the way they were carried out. There have been many other similarly motivated attacks besides.

The root cause of the Orlando tragedy and so many others in recent years is a clash of cultures. In the West, we have a foundational commitment to liberty that guides our attitudes towards religious freedom, economic opportunity, and personal self-expression. We certainly don’t always agree with one another — but insisting on a conformity of belief or practice is not what our culture is grounded upon. It is rather grounded upon the idea that a people should be free to seek out their own fulfillment and that a society of free men and women is ultimately stronger because of that very freedom. One might say that the history of the United States of America, while far from perfect, is a testament to the fruits that liberty produces.

As a Christian pastor, I believe that religious liberty, in particular, is essential to my own ability to preach the gospel and guide others to faith in Jesus Christ. I can speak in the name of God with the assurance that no government organization or other outside group is going to censor me. I can lead my flock in the ways of discipleship even when those ways are out of step with the broader culture, knowing that no one is going to arrest or imprison us because of it. Because we share a right to the freedom of assembly, we can gather each Sunday for worship knowing that nobody can place a padlock on the doors of our church to keep us from doing so.

The culture represented by those who have carried out heinous acts like the one in Orlando is nothing so broad as “Middle Eastern” or “Islamic,” and we should be careful about the language that we use when we are talking about it. I have had Muslim friends and acquaintances at various points in my life, and I’ve been enriched by those relationships. During a 2007 trip to Egypt, I experienced Muslim hospitality over meals and meetings and was humbled by it. Understanding that the vast majority of Muslims are just as desirous of peace, compassion, and mutual understanding as anyone else is very important.

Yet there is a particular strain of radical Islam that sees itself as being in fundamental conflict with Western values and beliefs. In some cases — including two different incidents in Libya from 2015 when ISIS executed dozens of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians — the proponents of radical Islam frame their conflict as being between their own faith and that of Christianity. This is the radical Islam of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. And whether the terrorists who embrace it travel to our country from abroad or are domestic terrorists who “self-radicalize,” the danger that radical Islam represents to us is the same. Its culture and our own are simply incompatible.

There are no easy answers to what I am describing here, though I think keeping in mind the actual root cause is important. That’s not to say that the symptomatic issues I mentioned earlier are unimportant. Far from it. Yet I would counsel us all to understand what is fundamentally at stake with clear-eyed vision and courage.

My own heart has been troubled by reading story after story about the Orlando massacre since last Sunday. I have been praying for the victims and their families, and I hope you will do that as well. I have also been praying for all of you — something which as your pastor I will continue to do always.

Yours in Christ,




Watching from the Walls – Elizabeth’s Surprise

Watching from the Walls_Advent 2015Our third sermon in the Watching from the Walls series is “Elizabeth’s Surprise,” which focuses on Luke 1:5-17 and 39-45. In it, we find that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth receives a double surprise — the jolt of John the Baptist leaping in her womb, and the jolt of knowing that her son would be the herald of the Savior himself.

In Episode #14 of our Behind the Sermon podcast, we set the stage for Elizabeth’s Surprise and talk . You can find that podcast episode at this link.

Here’s the sermon, courtesy of Youtube: