Will Willimon: Churches can love their denominational heritage and also grow

Purpose-driven approaches to church growth say we should ditch the denominational label. This is exactly the wrong way to go.

In the ancient church, a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba may I have a word.' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. The letter to which Will Willimon replies is here.

Dear Tom Arthur,

It’s good to get a letter like this. In a world full of flaccid Anglicans, mean-spirited Neo-Calvinists, and aging progressive Christians, Wesley needs all the friends he can get. I'm pleased that you discovered Wesley. He is quite a wonder -- one of the greatest gifts that God has given us. Growing the church is a rich Wesleyan heritage. Of course I'm prejudiced, but you have vowed to be as well!

It would be interesting to know just what you think about when you say "our Wesleyan heritage." You don't have much to say about that in your letter. In my experience, we Wesleyans can have vastly different ideas of just what the riches of our heritage are.

However, I share your concern about the tendency to jettison Wesley in our efforts in new church starts. First I want to say that a church is not Wesleyan just because it's in decline. Wesley gave us no theological rationale for a congregation that is closed to new life and that is not making new disciples. From what I've seen, much of the planting-new-churches movement began with a decidedly anti-denominational bias. We were told to take our denominational labels off our churches, as if our family were an embarrassment. I find it a strange anomaly that you say you are serving a church that was birthed to be a "purpose-driven congregation." Rick Warren, to the extent that he is theological, has a neo-Calvinist bent. Why would we Methodists want to start a congregation to embody that?

The good news is that many of our new congregations are discovering the riches of being unashamedly Wesleyan, Arminian, and thoughtfully, generously orthodox and evangelical. Here in North Alabama, our church growth consultant, Jim Griffin, has told us "Put your Methodist label on your church, upfront. You have a great 'brand recognition' and a high approval rating from the unchurched." Jim speaks not just from a marketing perspective but also because the world needs the unique Wesleyan "conjunctive theology" (Ken Collins) now more than ever -- evangelical and catholic, liturgical and free church, personal holiness and social holiness, grace for all combined with full sanctification.

We have learned some important lessons as we plant churches. We now insist that our new churches critique their Sunday worship to be sure it has enough substance to keep the saints fired up, that they unashamedly articulate our Wesleyan ethos, and that they affirm that they are started by a connectional system with a sent ministry. Their willingness to do this suggests again what a wonder Wesleyan theology is.

Your concerns are well justified. I hope this response cheers you. Remember, we Wesleyans believe in conversion and sanctification. It's not too late to convert those purpose-driven-folks into more faithful doctrine and life. Get started on that project next Sunday!

Will Willimon is a United Methodist bishop serving in Birmingham, Alabama.