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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Revival

by James Gibson

For those of us who first entered the battle for the soul of United Methodism in the late 1980's and early 1990's, hope ran high for a genuine revival of Scriptural Christianity in the denomination we loved. Renewal groups emphasizing doctrinal fidelity and traditional Christian morality were in their heyday and we, in our naive vanity, envisioned ourselves as the heralds of the coming revival which those groups were ushering in.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the revival.

Instead of turning the denominational infrastructure around, the leaders of the renewal groups became corrupted by the very system they sought to reform. Their own bloated bureaucracies began to mirror those of the firmly entrenched liberal establishment. Rather than embracing a new generation of clergy and lay leaders, they lorded their seniority and "experience" over us. Instead of supporting and affirming our vision for a vibrant and robust church, they belittled our initiative and subjected us to open ridicule. The hopes and dreams we brought with us to the field of battle were dashed, not by those we would consider our enemies, but by those we had thought would be our friends.

Discouraged by the Pharisaic attitude of the aging renewal establishment, many of us from the younger generation began to take divergent paths in the late 1990's. The renewal establishment continued to "work for change" primarily through the legislative process. But this did not, and does not, resonate with our generation. Renewing the vibrant witness of a once great movement is about more than just ratcheting up the Discipline or passing resolutions affirming this or condemning that. Somewhere along the way, the renewal establishment forgot what Methodism was all about: Scriptural Christianity and holiness of heart and life.

Revival does not come about because of legislation. The New Covenant is a covenant of grace, not law. When a church body has to etch in stone its list of "chargeable offenses," not in the hope of preventing them from being committed, but in order to make sure those who do commit them are charged, that body has ceased to live under the New Covenant. It has, instead, re-imposed the enslaving legal code of the Old Covenant, exposing itself as naked before God, utterly devoid of the power of his Spirit, and in dreadful fear of his judgment.

As the second quadrennium of the new century begins, the legacy of the once flourishing renewal movement is in tatters. The emerging generation, discarded by those it once looked up to, will pick up the pieces. But the Methodism we envision for the future is not one that will be bound by bureaucracies, infrastructures, or even denominations. The call of God upon our generation is to pick up again the mantle of John and Charles Wesley and proclaim the message of Scriptural Christianity and holiness of heart and life to the whole Church of Jesus Christ and, through that Church, to the highways and by-ways of a broken, hurting world in need of the transformation and redemption in Christ that only a community under his grace and the power of his Spirit can offer.

James Gibson
Marshallville United Methodist Church


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