One of the books we read before writing our theology papers for ordination was Mainline or Methodist?: Rediscovering Our Evangelistic Mission by Scott Kisker, who teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary. We both loved the book.
As the title suggests, the book addresses an identity problem in the UMC. In the foreword, Bishop Timothy Whitaker writes:
The problem with the United Methodist Church is that it seems to have lost its identity through all of the changes over the years. In other words, our church seems to have undergone mutations that disturbed the identity it possessed at its birth. (6)
From the outset of the book, Kisker argues that the UMC is “systemically sick” (10). He writes:
If Methodists are to begin our recovery, we must do so, first, by recognizing the fiction that is ‘mainline.’ There is no such thing as a ‘mainline’ church. (13)
I love it. Kisker argues, “What makes churches ‘mainline’ is that they identify with the establishment” (14).
Kisker is an historian. He reflects on the history of John Wesley and the development of Methodism. In writing about a vision, a message, and a method, Kisker reminds us that Wesley’s vision was about spreading scriptural holiness (i.e., restoration of the image of God). Kisker suggests that “if you catch John Wesley’s vision, the rest of his theology and methodology falls into place” (30).
On our message, Kisker states:
Full salvation and the message of grace provided the content of Methodist preaching. Most United Methodists have ignored the fullness of that message, and thus it has little impact in the world. (51)
Kisker has a very good section on the Wesleyan understanding of grace. Kiskers describes God’s grace in terms of preventing, convincing, justifying, and sanctifying grace. I like the use of “preventing grace” since that’s the term Wesley used. Kisker points out, “God prevents the full natural consequences of creation’s rebellion because of God’s love … God’s grace prevents the natural consequences of being out of God’s will” (63).
Kisker describes convincing grace as “the unmerited love of God that presses us to recognize the pathetic state we are in” (64).
Kisker describes sanctification in terms of “the restoration of the image of God” (30). Kisker believes that sanctification is “both progressive and instantaneous” (42) and that it is “complete restoration of who we have been created to be, here and now, in this life. … God extends God’s love to us so that we might grow into the mature character of the free love that has embraced us” (68).
Kisker reflects on Wesley’s open-air preaching and the development of class meetings and band meetings as means of grace — ways in which God’s grace is active in our lives. Kisker laments, “Our so-called Methodist church has largely given up on the sorts of structures by which we formerly cooperated with God’s grace” (89-90). Kisker adds, “If we, the Church, are to recover our vitality … we must find practices that cooperate with God’s grace at every stage of salvation” (90).
This will not be an easy process. Kisker both warns and encourages:
Such practices will not be popular in or out of the Church. Such a recovery will not be easy. But we will be working with God, with Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. And if we are with God, God will be with us” (90).
Kisker concludes, “The only hope we have is that the Holy Spirit is at work” (115). I agree.