200th Anniversary of Methodism in Arkansas

October 14, 2017
The Past Is Our Future
Bishop Gary E. Mueller

 

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the erection of the first Methodist church building in Arkansas.
 
I have spent time reading about the history of early Methodism in Arkansas. It is a remarkable account. It includes people like William Patterson, Lorenzo Dow, Thomas Lasley, Jesse Walker, John Henry, Eli Lindsey and, of course, probably the most famous and important individual involved in the establishment of Methodism in Arkansas: William Stephenson. It involves a plethora of conferences, districts and circuits that kept changing, morphing and being renamed. And it includes places like Flat Creek, Mount Moriah and, of course, Henry’s Chapel.
 
A contemporaneous unattributed comment made by someone in Northeast Arkansas sums up the spirit of these early Methodists, “If you hear something lumberin’ through the canebrake, it’s either a bear or a Methodist preacher, and either one’s bound to be hungry!”
 
We have a remarkable history. Yet this is not all surprising because it is exactly what you would expect from people of faith. In fact, it goes back as far as Abram and Sarai, as is evident in these words found in Genesis 12,

Genesis 12 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.[
a]
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”[
b]
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
 

God gave Abram and Sarai the clear purpose of being parents of a great nation that would be a blessing to all peoples on the earth. God gave early Methodist preachers and laypersons in Arkansas the responsibility to bring people to Jesus Christ through spreading scriptural holiness and reforming the continent. God sent Abram and Sarai into the wilderness, not certain where they were going or what would happen along the way. God – and bishops and presiding elders – sent early Methodist preachers and laity into the unchartered wilderness to spread the Gospel. God challenged Abram and Sarai to trust enough to go. God challenged early Methodists to trust God enough to go, even when they knew it might put their lives in danger.
 
I am in awe of the early Methodists. They went to people wherever they were. They brought people to Christ. They discipled them through classes and bands. They started congregations. They built churches. They founded schools. They erected hospitals. They began institutions to help widows and orphans. They addressed injustices; even if was far too often far too slow.
 
That legacy continues today. We still have 653 churches, Methodist – LeBonheur Hospital, Philander Smith College, Hendrix College, Camp Aldersgate, Wesley foundations, Mt. Eagle, Camp Tanako, Methodist Family Health, amazing local church outreach, and on and on and on.
 
But something has happened in recent decades. It’s not pleasant to talk about. But it’s real. Those of us who call ourselves United Methodist Christians are declining in numbers. We are getting older. We have fewer congregations. And perhaps most importantly, we are struggling to connect with people outside of our sanctuaries who are different than us – whether that is color or language or culture or age.
 
So what’s happened?
 
Part of it is us and part of it is a changing world.
 
First the ‘us’ part. We’ve been too successful. People’s lives were transformed and they flocked to churches. Churches had lots of people to care for and they turned inward. The society was transformed and became “Christian.” The structures that were built to serve as mission stations morphed into beautiful, comfortable and cozy sanctuaries. In other words, we stopped being a movement because we lost our passion and sense of urgency.
 
Now the ‘changing world’ part. The culture that was once distinctively shaped by the Christian faith is rapidly becoming more secular. Church is now just one of a multitude of options. Faith is basically irrelevant for nones, dones and never-weres. The world we live in today is much more like the world of those earliest Methodists in Arkansas 200 years ago than it was in my childhood of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
 
So what are we to do in a world that needs the Gospel of Jesus Christ more than ever?
 
We understand that the past is our future. And we take the spirit of that time, the energy of that time and the passion of that time to help us become a movement as we head into the future.
 
When the past is our future, we will be filled with the conviction that the Gospel of Jesus Christ changes people and changes the world. We will believe in the reality and the power of prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. We will be unashamed in saying that we need Jesus – as individuals, as a church and as the world.
 
The most important issue we have to address today is not declining churches, a secular world or, even, human sexuality. It is the fact that too many United Methodists have lost the passion that Jesus makes a difference, is unique and offers us what we absolutely have to have, but can never get on our own. Not in an arrogant way, but in the humble way that comes from knowing we are in need of the very grace we so want to share with others.
 
When the past is our future, we will be committed to growing in discipleship.We will be dedicated to members becoming disciples. We will take seriously forming small groups; why, we may even begin classes and bands! And when all is said and done, we will develop intentional discipleship systems in every single church.
 
When the past is our future, we will see people as our responsibility and go where they are. Like the early Methodists, we will move through the doors of our churches to where the people are. This will happen because Methodist people will believe that it is the responsibility and privilege for disciples of Jesus Christ to be the ones making disciples of Jesus Christ.
 
When the past is our future, we will be serious about equipping the disciples in our churches – all the disciples in our churches – to go out to transform lives, communities and the world to share a real Gospel that makes a real difference for real people in real life.   
 
This all became very personal for me a couple of months ago.
 
I had been in the midst of a crazy travel schedule and was experiencing difficulty sleeping – waking up between 3:15 and 3:45 am – and not being able to go back to sleep. When I finally returned home and was able to sleep in my own bed, I knew I would be able to get a good night’s sleep. But guess what? I woke up again and when I looked at the clock, it was 3:22 am.
 
For some reason, I sensed that 3:22 had a special meaning I needed to figure out. But I was also exhausted and needed to sleep. So, not surprisingly, sleep won.
 
When I woke up, however, my very first thought was not just 3:22, but Jeremiah 3:22. So I quickly opened the Bible app on my tablet and the words I read resonated deeply within my soul as both a challenge and a promise,

 
“Return, faithless people;
    I will cure you of backsliding.”
“Yes, we will come to you,
    for you are the Lord our God.”

Today God is both challenging and making a promise to us as those who are the recipients of a 200-year legacy. God is challenging us to be cured of the backsliding of comfortable religion and become a movement again that is based on going all in to grow as disciples, all in to make disciples and all in to live as disciples who transform lives, communities and the world. And God is promising that, indeed, we are going to do it.
 
And when the past is our future, we will!