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Andrew Thompson, who directs Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary, has a sharp column about the absence of “visibility” for the Wesleyan message in America. I’ve met Andrew and admire him as one of the rising young theological voices in U.S. United Methodism who give cause for hope. His column for The United Methodist Reporter responds to an online conversation on this topic originated by Kevin Watson, a United Methodist professor at evangelical Seattle Pacific University, who complained of an “invisible Wesleyan message.”
In the American Protestant/Evangelical world, Thompson rightly asserts, Reformed/Calvinist preachers and teachers are much more high profile. He compares the Twitter followers of the most prominent Methodist preachers/teachers with prominent Reformed preachers/teachers. Adam Hamilton has about 9,750 followers and Leonard Sweet has 26,500 followers, compared to Mark Driscoll’s 350,000 and John Piper’s 450,000 followers.
Thompson suggests Methodists emphasize speaking to each other and not enough speaking to the wider culture. He also says that for Methodist founder John Wesley, “there was a doctrinal core that informed the spread of the Methodist revival. He utilized publishing both to nurture the ‘in-group’ and evangelize outsiders. And Wesley also never separated a robust defense of the faith from a robust practice of it.”
There are other possible reasons for lack of wide Methodist visibility in American religious life, even though members of Wesleyan churches almost certainly outnumber Reformed ones. Although Wesley himself was an intellectual, American Methodism’s chief founder, Francis Asbury, lacked great formal education, and was heroically a preacher and organizer, not so much an intellectual. The early Methodist preachers were incredibly successfully in their evangelizing, but their exertions left little time for wider intellectual/theological development.
It’s true that Methodism founded more colleges in American than any other religious tradition. But those schools perhaps stressed pragmatic disciplines rather than more abstract theology. Of course, almost none of the over 100 United Methodist related colleges and universities today remains seriously Christian, much less Wesleyan.
United Methodism is the largest Wesleyan body by far in the U.S., and its theological and membership implosion has left it culturally sidelined, even though it remains America’s third largest church. Very few in the wider evangelical world look specifically to United Methodist resources even if they are themselves Wesleyan. Although smaller Wesleyan denominations like the Free Methodist Church and the Wesleyan Church have remained more theologically robust, they have not offered a strong distinctive voice that is typically felt beyond their own confines.
Who are the great Wesleyan thinkers of today? In the mid 20th century, Albert Outler was considered by many as the most important Methodist theologian. Tom Oden, mostly retired but still very much alive thankfully, is I believe United Methodism’s greatest living theologian. IRD was privileged to have him as a board member. Billy Abraham is a generation younger than Tom and is a great theologian and philosopher. Richard Hays, dean of Duke Divinity School, is an important author and Wesleyan thinker, although his political theology is more Anabaptist. Tim Tennant, president of Asbury Seminary, produces wonderful commentary. Ken Collins of Asbury Seminary, and an IRD board member, is a tremendous Wesleyan scholar. None of these thinkers has as wide an audience as they deserve, although Hays’ majesterial A Moral Theory of the New Testament has been named by Christianity Today as one of the 20th Century’s most important Christian works.
And none of the important Methodist thinkers has become a well-known public intellectual in the way that many Catholics and some Calvinists have. The late Paul Ramsey of Princeton was perhaps the closest to it, although his Methodist affiliation was not widely advertised. On the public stage of American life today there are no Methodist equivalents of Catholics like Robby George, Michael Novak and George Weigel, or Calvinist inclined Southern Baptists like Al Mohler and Russell Moore. Maybe United Methodism’s theological division and marginalization are partly to blame. In years past, Catholics had public thinkers like John Courtney Murray, and evangelicals had Carl Henry and Francis Schaeffer. There was of course the brilliant Richard Neuhaus, first Lutheran, later Catholic, and one of IRD’s founders. Reinhold Niebuhr, of Reformed background, was the premier public theologian of the last century.
As United Methodism increasingly globalizes and theologically recovers, maybe it can create a culture that not only encourages strong minds but can also help propel them into wider public life. The rising African church may contribute refreshing new voices. America, our culture and the universal church need a robust Wesleyan witness theologically and politically. Hopefully young, rising theologians like Andrew Thompson and Kevin Watson, among others, can help show the way.