“A New Evangelism, A New Connection”
Matthew 22. 34-40; Galatians 5. 13-14
A sermon preached in the Service of Licensing, Commissioning and Ordination of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida, on June 8, 2019, by Bishop Ken Carter.
I spent the formative years of my ministry in North Carolina, the last long portion of that in the city of Charlotte. One of the gifts of that season was coming to know some of the family of the evangelist Billy Graham, and to count his brother-in-law, Leighton Ford, as a mentor. Leighton was, for an extended period, a co-evangelist with Billy Graham. He has been generous with his time, his encouragement and his prayers for me.
I was with Leighton this spring and a small group was reflecting on the life of Graham. I realize that this will mean more to some of you than others. We came upon the experience Graham’s death, in February 2018.
Megyn Kelly was on the Today Show that morning and she was reflecting on what his passing meant to American culture. And then she looked at the camera and said this:
“Who is there today who has his kind of messaging? Uplifting, joyful, faithful, helping me get reconnected with God, don’t shame me, don't guilt me, non-partisan, full of love, not covered in scandal, not trying to rip anyone off.”
You enter the set apart ministry of the United Methodist Church at a complex and challenging moment. Spoiler alert—it is unlikely that our denomination will be configured in exactly this way five years from now. And yet there will still be church, ministry, gospel, Jesus, the human desire for help and hope and healing.
It is a complex and challenging season. And it occurs to me that two crucial tasks are before us: To redefine evangelism. And to redefine connection.
An evangelist is someone who comes with good news. An evangelical has become a political term. A recently heard a prominent U.S. evangelist share this in the form of a lament. But an evangelist is one who comes with good news and we are all called to be evangelists and evangelicals.
This is at the heart the Christian movement, to introduce us to a person, Jesus, to “offer them Christ”. When we meet him, not the cultural stereotype of him but who he really is, it is good news.
And to know him, and then to come to trust in him, is to be in a relationship with him. And to be in a relationship with him is to become a part of his body, the church.
And here evangelism becomes connection.
This is a reality embedded in one of his core teachings. “What is required of me?”, someone asked Jesus. Love God with all of your heart and mind and soul and strength, he said, and love your neighbor as yourself.
And that is where I want us to stay for a while.
Evangelism—-the good news of God’s love for us—-and connection—-the good news that we first live and then share with our neighbors.
What was Megyn Kelly saying when she looked at the camera? “Who is it today that has this kind of messaging?
And then she describes the message:
"uplifting, joyful, faithful, helping me get reconnected with God, don’t shame me, don't guilt me, non-partisan, full of love, not covered in scandal, not trying to rip anyone off.”
Sisters and brothers, you minister in a time of deep mistrust of the clergy, not to mention the church, evangelicals and bishops. You minister in a time of deep skepticism of any kind of authority or institution. This is not the heyday of the 1950s, the golden era of Billy Graham’s evangelism, the era when Methodism grew most rapidly in Florida, when the population of our state exploded with largely churched people.
Reaching New People in New Places and in New Ways
We are on the verge of the 2020s. There is a need for a new evangelism, and a new connection. There is a need to translate the ancient teaching—-to love God, to love our neighbor—for new people in new places and in new ways. Not that any of us needs to be left behind. It turns out this is our common need—to love and be loved. God is love. Love one another.
What we need is obvious, but not easy.
It is not always easy to love God. There are harmful stereotypes about God. Terrible things have been done in the name of God. Agendas that are not of God have been associated with God. Part of the problem is that we are constantly creating God in our image. And this is true inside and outside the church. We have some significant work to do here.
And it is not always easy to love our neighbor. We have done harm to our neighbor. We have been harmed by our neighbor. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, we say in the prayer of confession.
And, simply put, for many of us, our neighbor is a stranger. We are strangers to each other, even in the household of faith. We are strangers to those who come to live among us. We are strangers, clergy and laity, to each other. I confess I am not a great neighbor to those who live around me. I know them to say hello. If there is a hurricane we walk out and talk to each other. And we see each other when the next hurricane comes!
But more often we simply wave to each other as we drive by.
Loving God, Loving our Neighbor
To love God and to love our neighbor, this is evangelism and it is connection. It is also, in our Wesleyan tradition, what we would define as the life God desires for us. It is happiness and it is holiness.
True religion, according to John Wesley, is happiness, and happiness is true religion. It is the necessary integration of the love of God and neighbor, or what he described as gratitude and benevolence. There is no separation of these two. And as we come to love God and our neighbor more fully, the image of God, which is love, is restored in us. This image is deeply Trinitarian: The Father who sends the Son, the Incarnate Son Jesus who bears witness to that Creator and who died on the Cross that we might have fellowship with God and neighbor through the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us and among us.
The restoration of the image of God is the journey toward holiness. It is not a status. It is not a separation from the impure. Holiness is the purpose for which we were created, to reflect the nature of God. And we cannot make this journey toward holiness alone. This was Wesley’s critique of solitary religion, and his affirmation that there is no holiness but social holiness. This means we become more holy as we read Scripture together, take communion together, confess our sins together and respond to human needs through acts of mercy and justice together.
We believe that holiness can only truly happen in our lives, and we are more likely to discover happiness in our lives, as we are accountable for the grace that we have received. This is real gratitude. Nothing is our possession—our money, our position, our church. Everything belongs to God and we are stewards. Accountability in the early Wesleyan movement happened in small groups and conferences, and as early Methodist people practiced the General Rules.
So, if we would pursue holiness—and here I refer not to perfectionism or judgmentalism, but to the life our Creator intends for us—imagine the life we would intend for our loved ones and friends, even for our children and grandchildren. As you pray and reflect, the following practices might be helpful:
Gratitude—can we write down three specific things each day for which we are grateful?
Generosity—can we simplify our lives and give away what we have accumulated?
Holiness—can we trust that happiness is the path God has chosen for us and walk in that direction?
Accountability—can we write down the names of two to three people who will speak the truth in love to us for the gifts and grace that surrounds us?
This is the path to holiness and happiness. This is a life that corresponds to the evangelism that we offer. This is a life that contributes to the connection that we need.
We need a church that is not conservative or liberal but radical, which is getting back to the roots, the roots literally being the most significant summary statement that Jesus gave us of what this is all about. It is the hard teaching of Jesus, radical, at the root, like a root canal.
If we can love God and our neighbor, we can solve all our other problems. If we cannot love God or our neighbor, we can solve our technical and structural problems and it will not matter.
Love and Law
But you might be saying, “Bishop, what about the law?” It is great question. In the New Testament a lawyer asks it. Lawyers ask questions about the law. The greatest commandment, which Jesus gave us, was in response to a question about the law. “On these two commandments (loving God, loving our neighbor”), Jesus says, hangs all the law and the prophets. All the law and the prophets suspend from these two pillars. “It is not just a matter of priority, but of weight-bearing” …the law remains in force, but love becomes the most determinative requirement…the other commandments tend over time to recede in importance and the Torah is reshaped into a new framework.” This leads to a “hermeneutic of mercy” and a “community animated by mercy, love and forgiveness”.
It is not true that love is easy, and law is hard. Law is easier. To love is harder. I can keep the law without loving my neighbor. I can keep God’s law without loving God. This is precisely what Jesus came on this earth to say to us.
All of this is going to require more, and not less, of us.
We Have to Up Our Game
Three years ago, we were in Portland, preparing for the General Conference, and I had several days of pre-meetings. We were in a hotel. I don’t really like to eat meals in hotels—they are usually expensive and there is a sameness to them and I just want to get out and eat where the people who really live there would go to eat.
So, I came to an employee of the hotel, and said, “We are here for several days, we will take a lot of our meals here, and I know they are great, but if you were outside the hotel, where would you go for a meal?”
She paused for a moment and then recommended a diner about a ten-minute walk away. So, we went there the next morning with some friends. As soon as we walked in I knew we were in the right place. And the price was half of what it would have been at the hotel. This was me!
I ordered, one egg over easy, an English muffin and sausage. Fruit came with it. And coffee.
The coffee came first. Without thinking I put in the cream and sweetener and began to drink it. I was surprised. It was good. Quite good. I reminded myself that I was in a diner, not a coffee shop. But it was really, really good.
A minute later the waiter came by. “Your breakfast is on the way in a few minutes," he said. And then he asked, “How are you all doing so far?”
I said, “We are good, and I have to say something. I was not expecting coffee this good in a diner. It is really amazing.”
I had thought, to myself, usually you choose between good coffee or a good breakfast.
And then he said, “Well, we used to serve a kind of generic, industrial coffee. But we realized the expectations for coffee are so high around here that we had to up our game.”
Sisters and brothers, we have to “up our game.” Many have settled for a kind of generic, industrial kind of church. What would it mean for those of us who are leaders in the church of Jesus, which would be all of us, to up our game?
It might look like this:
“Uplifting, joyful, faithful, helping me get reconnected with God, don’t shame me, don't guilt me, non-partisan, full of love, not covered in scandal, not trying to rip anyone off.”
The church you are preparing to lead is in need of awakening, renewal, reform, healing.
And you represent the church. You are the church. You are the message.
I cannot love God, who I have never seen, if I do not love my brother or sister whom I have seen. We cannot love our brother or sister with exceptions or distinctions or asterisks knowing that God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
We cannot stand in the pulpit and expect people to be transformed by words that have not transformed us. We cannot expect them to be driven to their knees when we have not been driven to our knees. We cannot expect them to love others when we have not loved the people God has called us to serve.
Where do we see this message?
What would it mean for us to keep the main thing the main thing—to love God, to love our neighbor?
What would it mean to up our game?
Click here for a video of Bishop Carter's sermon.
Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), p. 123. Rebekah Miles, “Happiness, holiness and the Moral life in John Wesley”, The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 207ff. I am grateful to Mark Slaughter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for alerting me to the response of Megyn Kelly to Billy Graham’s death and its meaning for our evangelism. And if you are ever in Portland, Oregon, I recommend Milo’s City Cafe.