Of Evangelists and Pastors

Seven years ago, Teddy Ray published a series of articles that still has me thinking.

Ray’s thought draws heavily from Wesley’s sermon, The Ministerial Office.

If I can summarize Ray’s argument, it goes something like this. Wesley appointed preachers, not pastors.

The preachers were traveling evangelists who proclaimed salvation in Christ, invited people to repent and believe, organized Methodist societies where there were none and checked on the health of existing societies as they traveled.

Wesley’s preachers were like the extraordinary prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New. The Church of England clergy were more like the Old Testament priesthood. Both were important. Methodists received the sacraments and the other priestly ministry of the church from the regularly constituted clergy of the Church of England. Pastors (bishops, elders and deacons) cared for their the people of their parishes and dioceses.

When Wesley ordained clergy for America, he broke from this model. American Methodism now had churches. Nevertheless, the preachers in America basically followed a pattern similar to the one laid down in England. The traveling preachers had sacramental authority, but they were not really pastors of the churches they visited. They still functioned in an apostolic role, evangelizing, planting churches and guiding the churches in their charge.

Since the itinerant preachers were rarely present in for any length of time in any one place, the everyday job of pastoral care and discipling fell to local leadership, including former circuit riders who had “located”.

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Connected to Pursue Holiness

The entire Wesleyan connection was built so that Methodists could strive together toward that holiness “without which no one will see the Lord.” When Wesley said that there is “no holiness but social holiness” he meant that we make this journey toward holiness with other Christians. “You can believe and practice whatever you want as long as you do it by yourself ” is just not a Methodist way of being the church. Our structures exist so that we can help each other live the holy lives to which we have been called.

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Unbound by Geography

In John Wesley’s England, a parish was not just a congregation. It was a piece of land and the people who lived there. Each parish had defined geographical boundaries. Two parishes did not compete for the same parishioners. Likewise, each episcopal diocese was geographically defined. One bishop did not plant churches in another bishop’s episcopal area.

It was in this context that John Wesley wrote his famous declaration, “I look upon all the world as my parish“. Wesley denied that any priest or bishop held exclusive ecclesiastical authority within the geographical bounds of a parish or diocese. God’s call and authority superseded any human boundaries. No one had the right to exclude Wesley or his movement from any territory.

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The Many Streams of United Methodism

There are many streams of United Methodism in the in the United States, each with its own language, customs and culture. Each stream reaches deep into Methodist history and thus expresses some of element of who we are (or at least who we have been).

In practice, the streams overlap and interact with each other. Most Methodist-related congregations and institutions combine several streams in varying proportions in their practice of Christianity.

Infinite permutations and combinations exist. And just as chemical elements, when combined in different proportions, can produce materials with vastly different properties, so the multiple streams of Methodism can combine to produces vastly different versions of “church”. When you change the mix, you change the product.

And finally, each stream also draws from wider movements in church and society, creating natural partnerships and affinities with groups outside Methodism which share its interests.

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Receiving the Apostolic Witness

Luke 9:1-6, Luke 10:1-20

What if, in reading the stories of the twelve and then seventy disciples Jesus sent to preach and heal on his behalf, we saw ourselves first as the villagers whose fate depended on how they received the apostolic witness, and not as the disciples chosen by Jesus for a special mission?

We all want to imagine ourselves as the hero of the story. In our vanity, we want to see ourselves at the heart of the narrative. How can I be like those courageous individuals Jesus personally chose to share his power and authority? How can I make my life more complete by applying lessons from their lives? In other words, how can I make this story about me?

But the story is not about me. I could imitate parts of it. I can proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God and encourage people to respond to this unique moment of grace in their lives. I could surrender all my possessions and walk from village to village, asking for a place to stay and some food to eat, although that would be a very strange way to engage people in my cultural context. But what I can’t do is what Jesus did: heal the sick, cast out demons and raise the dead. I can do good things for people, but I can’t do that. I can pray for people, but I can’t unfailingly heal them with the words of my mouth or the touch of my hand. That’s exactly what Jesus did, and that’s what he appointed a group of disciples to do in the context of his Galilean ministry.

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