By Steve Beard
Nathan Bangs, a New England Methodist, was flabbergasted when William McKendree from Kentucky was asked to speak before the Methodist General Conference in 1808. After all, McKendree was sunburned and horrendously attired. The Kentuckian stumbled through his prayer and began his sermon in a disconnected manner. Then suddenly things began to change.
According to Bangs, McKendree “was absorbed in the interest of his subject; his voice rose gradually until it sounded like a trumpet. The effect was overwhelming.…The house rang with irrepressible responses; many hearers fell prostrate to the floor. An athletic man sitting by my side fell as if shot by a cannon ball…Such astonishing effect, so sudden and overwhelming, I seldom or never saw before…There was a halo of glory around the preacher’s head.”
So that’s what General Conference is supposed to look like! No wonder British observer Isaac Holmes reported in 1823, “The Methodists in America…appear determined to take heaven by storm.”
This historical snapshot of what used to occur in Methodist meetings is not offered as a prescription for what should happen today. But it should sober us to how far we have come from a dynamic, world-changing, experiential faith. It should also prompt us to pray that God would move in a supernatural way upon the General Conference.
What we need more than anything else is prayer—powerful and potent prayer.
“I believe that what the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more novel methods,” wrote Methodist minister and devotional writer E.M Bounds (1835-1913). “She needs Christians whom the Holy Spirit can use—Christians of prayer, Christians mighty in prayer. The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through people. He does not come on machinery, but on people. He does not anoint plans, but people — people of prayer!”
Bounds goes on to say: “Spiritual work is always taxing work, and Christians are loath to do it. True praying involves serious attention and time, which flesh and blood do not relish.…To be little with God is to be little for God. It takes much time for the fullness of God to flow in the spirit. We live shabbily because we pray meagerly.”
Bounds was talking about me. Perhaps he was talking about you.
“The church is helpless without the power and presence of the Spirit,” wrote Samuel Chadwick, a British Methodist leader from another era. “The lust for talk about work increases as the power for work declines. Conferences multiply when work fails. We see that the church has lost the note of authority, the secret of wisdom and the gift of power through persistent and willful neglect of the Holy Spirit of God. Confusion and impotence are inevitable when the wisdom and resources of the world are substituted for the presence and power of the Spirit.”
Confusion and impotence. Do any two words more appropriately describe the church in North America?
“The church that is man-managed instead of God-governed is doomed to failure,” wrote Chadwick. “A ministry that is college-trained but not Spirit-filled works no miracles. The church that multiples committees and neglects prayer may be fussy, noisy, enterprising, but it labors in vain and spends its strength for nothing. It is possible to excel in mechanics and fail in dynamic. There is a superabundance of machinery; what is lacking is power.”
Yeah, I know what you may be thinking. Tough words. Stinging critique. How many times have you cringed? From my vantage point, I hear Chadwick saying that unless we seriously hunger for the presence of God, all of our new plans are a waste.
Chadwick is surely correct that you don’t need God to run a mere organization. “Man can supply the energy, enterprise and enthusiasm for things human. The real work of a church depends upon the power of the Spirit. Certainly the energy of the flesh can run bazaars, organize amusements and raise millions of dollars; but it is the presence of the Holy Spirit that makes a temple of the Living God. Things will get no better until we get back to the realized presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”
One thing is for sure, General Conference cannot vote for or against the “realized presence and power of the Holy Spirit” — let alone a denomination-wide awakening. But somewhere along the way, we need some men and women in leadership who can stoke the fires of a Wesleyan revival that transforms both the head and the heart and pursues both the good and the true.
Liberal or conservative, we must all understand once again what it means to hunger and thirst after God. “Acute desire must be present or there will be no manifestation of Christ to his people,” wrote A.W. Tozer. “He waits to be wanted.”
It is difficult to imagine Jesus waiting to be wanted. Nevertheless, he calls us as he did the St. Peter to step out of the boat and walk to him upon the water. Within his gaze, we are safe and secure. It is only when we turn our eyes away from him that we begin to sink into the turbulent waters.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.