The North Alabama Conference of United Methodists will soon have a new bishop in place. He is well known in Christian circles, especially among clergy. His views are innovative and yet in many ways traditional. You might say he’s a new Bishop with an old idea for a new day.
William Willimon has served as dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University since 1984. Willimon is known for his many accomplishments but none more important than his calls on members of the Christian church, Methodists and otherwise, to reclaim their authentic role as followers of Jesus.
In his book Resident Aliens, co-authored with fellow faculty member Stanley Hauerwas, Willimon identifies what he believes is the best image for the church. Reaching back into the language of the first-century church, Willimon prefers to think of himself and fellow Christians as “aliens living in a foreign land.”
The theological reasoning behind using this image for the modern church is fairly straightforward. Willimon believes it is hazardous for the church to become cozy with the culture in which it resides. The church by nature of its calling and Jesus’ radical teaching must always be counter-cultural in its existence. All cultures, all forms of government and economics are “foreign” as far as the gospel is concerned.
He uses his own tradition to illustrate his point. United Methodists, along with a few other Protestant traditions, comprise what are known as “mainline” churches. For the better part of America’s history, mainline churches have served as the semi-official religion of America—sort of chaplain for the American way.
But the church is not called to be a guardian of the American way of life. The church is called to bear witness to the meaning of Jesus in the world. Willimon believes that failure to maintain this witness has had disastrous effects on the church. United Methodists along with other mainline denominations have been steadily losing members for the past three decades. Willimon writes that until the church reclaims its proper identity of following Christ, and reclaims its proper purpose as the worshiping community, the decline will continue.
This is what makes his coming to Alabama so interesting. While mainline churches have declined, evangelical churches, especially in the South, have flourished. Evangelicals are in many ways the new “mainline.” As such, conservative evangelicals are busy trying to rescue American values from the hands of secularists, terrorists, feminists and so on.
It’s hard to know exactly where United Methodists in Alabama are in this transition. My guess would be that they are comprised of part old mainline thinking and part new conservative evangelical. Evidence of this duality is fairly obvious in the faith of President Bush. The president is at once a Methodist, but also a leading spokesperson for the evangelical right.
It will be interesting to see if Willimon can influence the church to embrace a resident alien identity. If he can, it will certainly make for some interesting politics in the state, but perhaps politics in a new/old way.
Willimon writes, “Our challenge is to be a church that asserts that God, and not the nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”
Christians as resident aliens and politics as the cost of discipleship–has ever a bishop spoken in such a way?
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.