David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary, posits the metaphor of a delta region to describe the dangerous yet fertile waters the church must navigate in our times. He sees a promising course in Methodists reclaiming their identity as progressive evangelicals believing in a personal God who expects things of each of us personally.
The church in the U.S. is in a “delta region” of its history. In geology, a delta is the point where a mighty river comes out of the mountains and, as the land flattens out, breaks into ever-smaller branches as it seeks the sea. The delta regions of the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, and the Mississippi are confusing places where boats get lost in the estuaries and flounder in the swamps. But they are also full of nutrients and life. They are the cradles of civilization.
Some like to refer to our time as “postmodern,” a concept borrowed from philosophy and art that denies the existence of inherent meaning. I prefer the delta as a way of thinking about our current confusion as a denomination, because it’s a living metaphor. The delta is dangerous, and you can get lost. But it’s also a fertile region. And it’s hopeful because the river does find its way to the sea — even if we don’t know how just now.
Trust the River
What are the rules a delta boat captain uses to navigate successfully? The first is to trust the river. The liturgy of baptism I memorized by saying it so often growing up says, “The church is of God, and will be preserved to the end of time, …” But this isn’t a promise that any particular denomination or congregation will exist that long. They won’t. Our trust is the Body of Christ will persist. The psalmist says: “There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city” (Ps 46:4 CEB) Our endeavor is to be a part of that river in our time — to run our course in our boat as best we can.
Change and Adapt
A delta boat captain must also change and adapt. It enhances the metaphor to know the Greek letter Delta is used in math and physics to represent change. As Jesus says to Nicodemus: “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 CEB). We must be guided by our collective perception of the Spirit’s movement and our sense of who we are as a people. This means we make some educated guesses about our future. The church and its seminaries are in the same boat.
Claiming the Center as Progressive Evangelicals
Claiming the vital center involves bridging two words that usually don’t go together in our current political and theological discourse: “progressive” and “evangelical.” But I believe Methodists must return to thinking of ourselves as “progressive evangelicals.”
To be progressive is to be engaged actively in the affairs of the world, hoping and expecting that things can improve. This is why Methodists are known for our colleges and hospitals, the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries, many hospitals, hundreds of educational institutions, and countless other efforts to foster human welfare. Progressives have an instinct to act and be on the side of those in distress and strive for inclusiveness. One reason we have experienced decline is we have forgotten we are progressive, because we fear losing members.
But we are also failing because, out of theological confusion and fear of embarrassment, we have forgotten we are evangelical. To be an evangelical is to believe in a personal God, one who is concerned with our whole being, one on whom we can call as a child calls out to a parent. It means we come to know Jesus as a friend, we believe in his resurrection, and we believe in the ever-present, personal power of the Holy Spirit to redeem our lives and transform the world.
What connects our identity as progressives and as evangelicals is our belief in a personal God who expects things of each of us personally. Methodists believe the good news is the kingdom of God. And we believe God wants no one left behind. We don’t just believe these things; we proclaim them and practice them. Methodism is spirituality with an attitude and an agenda.
This article is adapted from David McAllister-Wilson’s book A New Church and A New Seminary: Theological Education Is the Solution (Abingdon Press, 2018). Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.
- Fruitful Leadership for a Mission-Shaped Church by David McAllister-Wilson
- What is “Adjacent Possible”? Can It Benefit Your Church? by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.