New UMC: Withness

This is the final post in this series, at least in the sense of an opening round of posts. I may add to it as time goes by.

I have written with the confidence that the new UMC has a “future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11), as we move forward to develop and express an inclusive theology of love. “All means all” is a controversial declaration, but it is the Gospel, and it is the message for such a time as this—a time of new Awakening when God is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19) and we are called to join in. [1]

In Wesleyan language, this means we are called “to serve the present age.” [2] As a third-order movement, early Methodism was positioned and energized to do so. And as we recover a third-order mindset, we can be too.

Summarizing this for me has come down to the word ‘withness.’ It is not a word I came up with, but one I have discovered as I have developed the first round of posts in this series. It comes directly from the book, ‘Contextual Intelligence’ co-authored by Leonard Sweet and Michael Beck. But as I have seen how they use it (to call the Church to renewal), I recognize it is an expression of something I have known about for a long time: incarnational ministry. [3]

Withness is another way to describe the Immanuel Principle—that God is with us, and our life with God issues from this Reality. [4] Withness is a good word to connect the idea of Third Orders to the new UMC, with early Methodism as a third-order movement that illustrates the idea in theology and ministry. The new UMC will be a “withness” manifestation. Here are some ways that I see this playing out.

First, being with each other. Formative community is the root which produces the fruit of authentic witness. Making disciples (not converts or members) begins with ourselves before it becomes a ministry to others. Without this, we have little or nothing to invite people to join. [5]

Second, being with the times. This is the continuous process of discernment necessary for congregations to “serve the present age” with intellectual, emotional, and social intelligence. This keeps us informed and responsive, enabling us to be an adaptive church in a changing world.

Third, being with our location. This is the withness of concrete presence that keeps the church grounded, literally. This is the hands-on expression of incarnational ministry that keeps individual congregations visible and neighborly. We cannot claim to be missional if those nearest to us are underserved.

Fourth, being with those who check us out. When people make the effort to seek us out (by attendance, conversation, or online), we must be ready to tell them who we are (identity) and extend to them all the sacraments, ceremonies, and offices/ministries of Christianity (hospitality). As they say, we only have one chance to make a first impression.

Fifth, being with the world. Each day, we fan out all over the world serving Christ through “many services.” Here is where in-person and virtual ministries give 21st century meaning to “the priesthood of all believers” as the new UMC continues to say, The world is our parish.”

These are all expressions of life together. They address the “nones and dones” concern that the church is irrelevant to them, or worse, a negative influence. They speak to Christians who have suspected that there is more to discipleship than church membership. They connect the daily practice of our vocations to the mission of God. Withness is what the world needs. We are destroying ourselves and the earth for lack of it.

As a third-order movement, the new UMC has the opportunity to be one of the wineskins into which God’s new wine can be poured and through which it can be poured out. What could be more exciting than that?

[1] The “New Awakening” series on Oboedire looks at this in a larger context. The new UMC is only one means God is using to bring it to pass. You can follow this series to see the bigger picture.

[2] Charles Wesley, “A Charge to Keep.”

[3] Richard Foster develops this in his book, ‘Streams of Living Water.’

[4] Richard Foster develops the Immanuel Principle in his book, ‘Life With God,’ and this idea is the organizing design for the ‘Life With God Bible’ produced by the Renovaré ministry.

[5] I have benefitted greatly in my understanding of “making disciples” from Dallas Willard’s writings, especially ‘The Divine Conspiracy’ and ‘Renovation of the Heart.’ This has shaped my view of spiritual formation, standing along with Robert Mulholland in his books, ‘Invitation to a Journey’ and ‘The Deeper Journey’ and with Richard Foster in his books, ‘Celebration o Discipline’ and ‘Life With God.’ The Renovaré ministry, the Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation, the Dallas Willard Institute, and Richard Rohr’s Living School are four examples of ministries that teach this understanding of discipleship formation.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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