Today's post is by Rev. Lic. Daniel A. Bruno. Rev. Bruno is a pastor of the Argentina Methodist Church and Professor of Church History. It originally appeared (in Spanish) on the website of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina (IEMA) and appears here in translation with the author's permission. It is the second of a two-part translation of the original piece.
In an earlier post, I described the context of neoliberalism in Latin America and its effect on the churches there, including Methodism. In this post, I will point out briefly some aspects that deserve to be debated to glimpse a new horizon and a possible future for our Methodist churches.
The challenge of community evangelization in context
For decades we have been concerned, and continue to be, with the question of the numerical growth of our churches. And that's okay; it is a genuine concern. The problem has been linking the concern for numerical growth with the concept of “evangelization,” which is much broader and more challenging. Today commercial marketing uses the word "evangelize" as a method to sell a product and generate customer loyalty. Without a doubt, we have done something wrong if it has learned this from the churches that speak of “evangelizing.”
The model of evangelization that came to us through the missions was effectively a client model. They had to grow in number in order to not close the mission post. Thus, the terms began to melt together: growth and evangelization. Added to this is the subjectivist and individualistic character that was imprinted on the evangelistic action.
Wesley's practice was very different. His phrase "spread the good news of salvation and reform the nation" demonstrates his broad concept of the task that the witnesses of the good news have in the society in which they live. Wesley created what we might today call a community network of evangelism. The space in charge of spreading the good news was given, not to an individual, but to community spaces, such as the societies, classes and bands that, as a connective network, nourished the believers in all their needs and also gave them a horizon of testimony. Wesley was never concerned with "growing", but rather with giving witness to the love of God in the lives of people. The enormous growth of the Methodist movement was a consequence of working in networks and witnessing in society.
Growth arises as a consequence of a committed mission, not as an end in itself. This is reflected in the book of Acts 2: 46-47, when the first Christians lived the gospel and as a consequence of that testimony: "The Lord added every day to those who were going to be saved." The testimony comes first; growth accompanies a good testimony. When we ask ourselves why we are not growing, we should ask ourselves what witness we are bearing to the Good News.
The challenge of a mission that troubles
This leads us to revise our mission. One of the most dangerous concepts that neoliberalism has managed to implant in our societies is that of "common sense," that is, the uncritical acceptance of what is given or of what is "politically correct" since it is accepted as true by many. It is the way of accepting what is established, without accepting other transgressive alternatives.
The concept has penetrated our churches and without a doubt, applying it to mission is a contradiction. If Wesley would have based himself on "common sense," he would never have gone to Bristol to preach in the open air. If Jesus would have based his ministry on "common sense," he would not have left Joseph's carpenter's shop. The gospel demands a mission that troubles.
The challenge of a “two-way” mission
During the 19th century, Protestantism used the term "mission" disconnected from the task of the witness of churches in their places of origin. It continued to use it as an expression of a special action of missionary expansion (accompanied many times, it must be said, by colonialist military expeditions) to reach regions where the gospel was not known, establishing a "mission" there.
Today it is necessary to strip the concept of mission of the idea of "going and bringing," and change it to that of "meeting and dialoguing." Latin American Methodism must necessarily seek its mission outside of common sense or sometimes against it. Mission in Latin America, a land shaped by so many and varied cultures, must know how to open spaces for dialogue, letting the Spirit act and in many cases allowing oneself to be evangelized by “others,” as Jesus did with the Syrophoenician woman. And in that encounter, claim all the faces and excluded or subaltern groups such as: indigenous peoples, women in their fight for gender equality and against violence against women, creation as a mistreated common home, etc.
The challenge of returning to being a movement
If Wesley had something very clear, it is that he never wanted to be a church institution. That was what the Anglican Church was for. He always perceived Methodism as a movement. Does this mean the absence of organization? Certainly not; Wesley was quite strict with habits and discipline. But he was very clear that the entire organization and structure had to be at the service of and be functional for mission.
The missions that organized Methodism in Latin America had a different vision. For them, mission consisted of marking territory, through the construction of large and beautiful churches, by endowing the mission with an institutional structure copied from the Methodist Episcopal Church, which, by the way, the autonomy processes tried to modify, but without a doubt it was not enough.
This heritage, which by the way we must value and which at some point was necessary for external visibility and internal organization, today in many cases has become a burden. In many cases the institutional structure stifles the mission. The roles were reversed.
And that must necessarily be revised. The Latin American Methodism of the not-so-distant future will have to be wise to reorganize itself in its context. It must transform itself with an embodied spirituality and a renewed liturgy, which maintains all its historical richness but appeals to the new generations. May it build communities of abundant life in times of institutional disbelief and exacerbated individualism.
The challenge of a broad ecumenism
Large historical Methodist churches of our continent are retreating from a pioneering path of ecumenical leadership to close themselves in an atmosphere of self-pleasure intolerant of difference. Undoubtedly, this is part of the "climate of the times" in which we live, a conservative, intolerant wave that affects all areas of life – social, cultural, economic and, of course, religious – in our region.
The strange thing for Methodism is that, having a rich history that since its origins points to a path of openness of view and mind, today it tries to twist the obvious with conservative and orthodox positions with which Wesley would never have agreed. In a large number of sermons and tracts, Wesley refers to "thinking and letting think" as applied to various aspects of the Christian life. Sermon 39, “The Catholic Spirit,” which could well be translated as “The Ecumenical Spirit,” also reveals his fight against intolerance.
This invites us to think about the forms and attitudes that, as people and as a church, we adopt in the face of differences. We must recognize that, at the beginning of the 20th century, almost all Latin American Methodisms did not have this sermon in mind at all when they made the controversy against Catholicism a battle for ideas, for membership, and for territory.
Neither do certain Methodisms have it in mind today when they abandon ecumenism and deny both thinking, as a free and critical action of reason, and letting think, as an action of tolerance in the face of difference. Without a doubt, Wesley's tremendous phrase " God has given no right to any of the children of men thus to lord it over the conscience of his brethren," should be a guide that helps to revise our affirmations, our judgments, and our prejudices.
The challenge of speaking clearly and loudly
The prophetic task of the church has been a characteristic of Methodism. What we know today as public theology, for Wesley was part of the works of mercy. His concept of good news, deep and radical, led him to fight against the "execrable villainy of slavery," to dabble in economics, in health, in medicine, and to criticize those who transformed these tools given by God for the well-being of God’s children into matters of personal profit. Latin American Methodism also knew how to speak clearly and loudly at different hard times in the history of its peoples.
In this current context, the prophetic attitude is dissipating. Why? Why, right at a time with so much injustice, inequality, violence, and hunger, does it seems that we are returning to "winter quarters"? Why do we close ourselves in the churches and transform public theology into private theology? Perhaps it is because of what we said before, have we put the institutional structure before the mission? Have we given in to the temptation to elaborate a mission from “common sense”?
These are some of the challenges we face as Latin American Methodists. it is time to start working on them. We invite you to follow our posts for the month of August on the Evangelical Methodist Church Argentina’s website, where these aspects will be deepened by additional authors.