“I have never been to a United Methodist meeting like this.”
That was a commonly heard, positive statement among the more than 160 people who attended Gathering of the Aldersgate Covenant May 16-17 at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan.
Twenty years ago, the first Aldersgate Covenant gathering resulted in legislation adopted by General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body. But this weekend’s event focused not on church rules and governance but on prayer for the Holy Spirit to revive the people called United Methodist.
“The kind of revival that we’re talking about is a renewed depth of faith,” preached retired Bishop Violet Fisher.
She declared that United Methodists have preached too much negativity. “When you want something to happen, you’ve got to talk positive,” she said.
God is not finished with The United Methodist Church yet, she said, but intellect, personalities and power have gotten in the way. She shared her belief the church has been called to a time of repentance because concern with numbers and statistical reports replaced what really matters.
“Renewal’s not going to come because you passed some legislation,” she said. “We’ve got to get on our face before God.”
Preaching and prayer
Fisher was one of four preachers on Friday evening. The preachers included the Rev. Matt Miofsky, lead pastor of The Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis; the Rev. Rob Fuquay of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis and the Rev. Lisa Yebuah of Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, N.C.
Miofsky preached on the theme “Awake,” using the Numbers 11 story of God awakening the Israelites to the reality of their blessings. He encouraged those gathered to use the time “to consecrate ourselves, sanctify ourselves, to prepare ourselves for what God is going to do.”
Fuquay preached about the importance of asking God questions — because, he said, creating answers isn’t our job, but God’s.
Fuquay ended his message with the question: “So what are you asking today?”
"What are you asking for yourself?" he said. "What you asking for your family? What are you asking for children in Uganda, or Haiti, or Asia or the poor who are in our own neighborhoods? What are you asking for your church? What are you asking for our United Methodist Church? We always could share the answers we think should come. But what if we all just asked?”
Yebuah closed out the evening by encouraging attendees to watch for God’s vision. She pointed out Christ’s heavenly banquet in the United Methodist communion liturgy and the promises of the future in our baptism liturgy. She said she does not worry about the state of the church and will not spend any more time fretting about it.
“If God gave us a vision for where the church is going to go, the church is going to go,” she said. “We watch and we wait with the one who will bring the vision to pass.”
Saturday’s session included time for reflection and prayer. “If we pray together, I think we will see the revival of The United Methodist Church,” said Richmond (Va.) Area Bishop Young Jin Cho. He also has called for all churches in the Virginia Annual (regional) Conference to pray together on May 25 for revival.
He told those gathered that “sometimes our prayers are too polite, too gentle; we need desperate prayer.”
But prayer isn’t all about speaking to God, he cautioned. “Is your prayer a monologue or dialogue?” he asked. “Listening is important. God’s first language is silence.”
Cho closed with a simple prayer: “Dear God, your will: nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.”
Origin of the Covenant
Though planning for this event began about a year ago, its origin goes back two decades, to the first meeting of a group called the Aldersgate Covenant on May 24, 1994, on Aldersgate Day — the anniversary of the day John Wesley experienced assurance of his salvation.
That group put forth the United Methodist mission statement eventually adopted by the 1996 General Conference, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ.” It included two future bishops, Scott Jones and Gary Mueller; as well as Mary Brooke Casad, who would serve as executive secretary of the denomination’s Connectional Table from 2007 to 2012. All three sat on the steering team for this year’s event.
Jones emphasized that all of the work of the Aldersgate Covenant needs to be surrounded in prayer. He confessed he has a tendency to ask God to bless what he’s doing, thinking, “Isn’t God lucky to have me on God’s side?” He said the more faithful approach is to ask: “God, what are you doing? Help me to be a part of what you’re blessing.”
Mueller urged those present to resist celebrating the past. Instead, he asked them to talk about what God has in store for the future. He said the steering team acknowledged the feeling that The United Methodist Church is losing ground. He noted the atmosphere of polarization in the church and brokenness in the wider culture.
“There was this sense that maybe what we need to do is spend a season truly opening ourselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit, to help us get where we want to get and long to get, but are struggling to get on our own,” he said.
Thoughts from participants
By the end of the event, a number of participants were expressing their hope that the gathering would begin a fresh movement of the Spirit in the denomination.
“I thought it was an awesome start to a great movement in the church, a good revival — a start to a revival,” said Malachi McDonald of Jacksonville, Ark., a college student who is exploring a calling to ordained ministry.
“I’m leaving here with one question: ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’” said the Rev. Mark Norman, a district superintendent in the Arkansas Conference. He told those gathered to “expect the grace of Jesus Christ to put us on fire again.”
The Rev. Sky McCracken, a Memphis Conference district superintendent, appreciated the cordial spirit of the gathering. But he looks forward to deeper holy conversation in the future.
“The dialogue has been wonderful, but we’re tiptoeing,” he said. “I would like to see next year approach and tackle some things in depth… have a ladies and gentlemen agreement that we’re going to conference, and we’re going to do this as brothers and sisters who love each other, despite how painful it is.
“We’ve got to do something and seize on this spirit to see what we’re going to do next.”
The gathering closed with a Service of Covenant Renewal and Holy Communion. Bishop Mueller instructed participants to read the covenant regularly, pray for revival every day and talk with others about it.
“Whose are you?” he asked. “Know it. Live it. And then, my friends, share it.”
*Forbus is the editor of the Arkansas United Methodist. Kathryn Witte of the Great Plains Conference contributed to this report.