Recently I met a man who was new to our United Methodist tradition, and he wanted to find out about our church. He asked—with perfect innocence—”So how many people in your church have gotten saved over the past year?” And a part of me wanted to answer him, “You don’t know much about us Methodists, do you? We don’t do salvation like that. We don’t talk in terms of being saved or getting saved. Salvation is a mysterious process. But we hope that it it least happens around age 12 during confirmation.”
Like I said, a part of me wanted to answer him like that. The truth is, when he asked me that, I felt like a fraud and a hypocrite. I say I believe that making a decision to follow Christ is the most important decision a person must make. I say that eternity hangs in the balance on this decision. I say that apart from the saving work of Christ on the cross, we are all bound for final judgment and hell.
I say that I believe that. Yet I don’t preach it enough. I don’t live it out enough through my own personal witness. I don’t pray enough for people’s salvation. I’m not in the habit of meeting people and wondering, prayerfully, if they’ve accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. I mean, sometimes I do, but it’s not a part of my routine; it’s not a part of my lifestyle.
Merciful God, help me change!
The average layperson would be surprised to learn that practically nothing we future Methodist clergy learn in mainline Protestant seminary prepares us for the task of inviting people to respond to the gospel message by accepting God’s gift of salvation in Christ—sometimes known as “leading someone to Christ,” or inviting them to “ask Jesus into their hearts”—call it whatever you want.
No one talks about getting saved!
Why? Our own United Methodist Book of Discipline says the following of our church’s main task:
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world… (¶ 120)
The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world. (¶ 129)
By all means, as we Methodists rightly emphasize, the process of “making disciples” includes the lifelong process of being made into disciples—what we call sanctification. Salvation isn’t just a one-time decision that a person makes during an altar call, or at the end of a revival, or during confirmation.
But at some point we must make a decision—a deliberate, conscious choice—to surrender our lives to Christ and follow him. I wonder if many of us pastors don’t like confronting people with this choice because we don’t want to be rejected? So we make the gospel message something that people can’t reject. We’re just happy if people come to church. Maybe while they’re here they’ll become Christians by osmosis!
If you listen to my sermons, you’ve probably noticed that I often do invite people to make that choice in response to my message. This is—please note—a relatively recent development in my own preaching, something that’s only happened over the past few years.
But I realize I have a long way to go in order to become the kind of Christian—not to mention pastor—who places a priority on doing what our United Methodist Church says I—and all of us Methodists—ought to be doing: convincing the world of the truth of the gospel or leaving them unconvinced, without evading or delegating this responsibility.
I promise, with God’s help, I’m getting there!