Review of George Hunter's "The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement"
by George G. Hunter, III
Abingdon Press, 2012
"SHAZAM!" George "Chuck" Hunter bellowed this acronym to the audience at the 2011 Congress on Evangelism. As he did, his face betrayed the grin of sage soothsayer. He had just baited the hook.
The acronym, Hunter explained, came from the Captain Marvel comic book. In that world of fiction, the one who understood the acronym and all it stood for received superhuman strength. Just as that past memory had captivated his imagination, Hunter began reminding the audience about the importance of remembering key lessons from our Methodist past. In so doing, we will discover "sources of wisdom, virtue, insight, perspective, vision, and power, some of which are not usually as available in the present." At that, arms unfolded across the room and heads began to nod in agreement.
The audience eyed the bait then swallowed the hook. Over the next several days, Hunter shared his four-part Denman lecture series, which has now become The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement. Hunter writes with the same energy and whimsical tone he uses when presenting to a live audience. That combination makes the book both interesting and informative.
The book explores three themes:
- What does it mean to be Wesleyan?
- Contagion -- What can we learn from churches that, through cooperation with the Holy Spirit, express contagious Christianity?
- What is movemental Christianity and how do we return to it?
For the first theme, Hunter predictably turns to John Wesley as a key voice to recall from the past, not that he is our ultimate authority. Rather Wesley offers ministry perspectives worth re-examining. He reminds us about the importance of recovering the gospel, vision, mission, and contagion of early Apostolic Christianity. Hunter rightly encourages us not to blindly imitate eighteenth-century methods. We can, however, use the concepts to urge our "establishment church" to recover its missionary identity.
Hunter begins the heart of his presentation with both a critical question and a four-part response. The question is this: "Can a once-great movement (Methodism), now stuck in sterile institutional form, become a contagious movement again?"
Part one of the answer lies within Wesleyan theology. Wesley's theology was first formed from Scripture and then informed by tradition, reason, and experience. Scripture carried the most weight. As former E. Stanley Jones Evangelism Professor Robert Tuttle notes, we have a Wesleyan quadrilateral--not equilateral. Wesley's key theological themes were: original sin, grace, and sanctification. Without full attention to each, we will likely become "spent forces" as did the Holiness Movement, which focused on the first and third themes, and Liberalism, which focused on the the second theme.
Part two recalls the importance of lay ministries. The laity have been and will always be the engine of evangelistic movements. A review of lay efforts in Wesley's time is telling. Laypeople ministered to family and friends -- house to house. They visited prisoners and the prisoners' families. During epidemics, Methodists courageously visited hospitals when others would not.
Part three is another familiar concept: small groups. Before you yawn, consider this comment to Hunter about Methodism in America by a Methodist preacher from South Korea: "From what I could tell, Methodism does not really exist in America … Your 'Methodist' churches do not have class meetings." The Korean minister further explained that through class meetings, people minister to one another. When laity fail to minister to one another, the church depends solely on the "professional clergy" to shoulder the load -- an impossible task.
Part four explores missional Christianity. The following statement reveals Wesley's clear articulation of the church's main business: "You have nothing to do but save souls." Wesley believed that sharing the gospel with pre-Christian people is the normal work of the whole church -- all the time.
With that as a foundation, Hunter touches upon the reader's Christian desires as he unpacks his contagion theme. There has been a tragic shift away from our missional origins evidenced by these words: "We now regard our parishes as our world." Knowing this, do we want to do what it takes to reintegrate movement behavior in our churches? Such behavior requires clergy to serve as ministry coaches to the laity. It requires articulation of a clear apostolic mission of meeting people on their own turf versus requiring them to come inside the church building where we're most comfortable. Will we adjust to present a gospel message that carries cultural and emotional relevance to pre-Christians?
In the section explaining movemental Christianity, Hunter shares one of the most helpful concepts presented in the book-- Open Systems Theory. In Open Systems Theory, a system, such as a church, realizes that it depends on its outside context for its very life. Consequently, the church engages the outside community and even delights in doing so.
The content in this book is not new. It's just so provocative that after reading it you, like a contagion, will urge others in your church to get up and reach others for Christ.
Please also see this Video Clip Overview of The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement by George Hunter.