What Would Phoebe Do?

Elaine A. Heath

Sometimes on Sunday mornings while sitting in the pew along with all the other nice people, I imagine what would happen if Phoebe Palmer was our preacher for the day. What would the great Methodist mystic, the mother of the nineteenth century holiness movement, think about our definitions of mission and evangelism—that is, of appropriate social witness in a pluralistic word? How would she view so much of what we do in the UMW, for example? What would she say about our teas and rummage sales, the deeply limiting but common conception of mission as fundraising for denominationally established projects? How would she respond to our often bifurcated vision of evangelism and social witness?

Palmer, our exemplar of evangelism, would have plenty to say. More than that, she would take action. The idea of social witness divorced from vital piety and a Christ-centered message of salvation would be unthinkable to this saint. Like our other great Methodist evangelists and social activists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (see L.C. Warner’s Saving Women: Retrieving Evangelistic Theology and Practice [Baylor University Press, 2007), Palmer understood holiness to be the complete devotion of oneself to God and God’s purposes in this world. For Palmer evangelism was the process of ushering people into the reign of God through prayer, spiritual friendship, written and verbal proclamations concerning the kingdom of God, and concrete actions to alleviate suffering in this world. Being evangelized included participation in corporate worship and growing as a disciple in a small group of spiritual friends. It meant being accountable to those friends for how one is living, what one is experiencing in prayer and Bible study, and how one is reaching out to the world in tangible social action. Evangelism was incomplete if any of these elements were missing in the life of the new disciple. All aspects of social witness were married to an uncompromising message of salvation and sanctification through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, an individual was not fully evangelized until he or she was walking in the “way of holiness,” having placed all on the altar, and engaging in holistic evangelism through word and deed.

Palmer believed that the primary reason the world resisted evangelism was the absence of holiness in lukewarm Christians whom she castigated as biblically illiterate “professors.” She was a reformer in the Methodist Church whom God raised up as a lay woman to confront the accommodation of the church to the comforts and political maneuvering of the world, and to call the church back to its missional vocation. Palmer served as a prophet not only in her powerful preaching, teaching, and writing ministries, but also through many works of mercy. Palmer helped found Five Points Mission, the first inner-city mission in America. In addition to this she and her husband Walter worked among the urban poor in many ways to provide food, housing, recovery for alcoholics, orphanage support, and many other ministries. Palmer wrote an unprecedented apologetic for the public ministry of women in The Promise of the Father (1859), thus providing a powerful resource for proto-feminists in the advancement of women’s rights. (F.E. Willard was one of many reformers deeply influenced by Palmer’s theological work.) All of these actions of social witness were carried out in the name of Christ and as part of the evangelistic mission.

It is time for the UMC to retrieve the heart of Palmer’s evangelistic vision, which is a complete, unreserved surrender of God’s people to the reign of God. Holiness is a daily, hourly commitment to be the hands, feet, heart, and mouth of Jesus, bringing the good news of salvation to everyone. This is a vision of holiness that manifests itself not in partisan political maneuvers, but in prophetic speech and action on behalf of a wounded world. It is holiness in the name of Jesus. This kind of holiness should define the “normal Christian life,” to borrow a phrase from Watchman Nee.

What could a Palmerian vision of holiness do today to revitalize the evangelistic practice and social witness of our church? There are at least three areas in which Palmer can help us recover a truly Wesleyan vision and practice. First, we need to repent for the ways in which we have gone astray, confusing our desire for comfortable religious experiences and personal spirituality with the actual missional will of God for God’s people. Palmer’s spirituality and prophetic vision emerged from her own sometimes painful journey into vocational freedom. She was able to enter into the ministry to which God had called her after she gave up her demands for particular religious experiences and familial security. Palmer helps us to see that discipleship is about going with God on God’s mission, entrusting to God our well-being and our spiritual journey. We are no longer the center of our own universe. God is. Until we embrace this reality, we will not be able to reunite evangelism with social witness because the holistic nature of the mission requires a full surrender to the reign of God.

The second area where Palmer can help us is with the interpretation of our own struggles and losses in life—our own brokenness. Palmer taught that Jesus is the altar upon which we offer the gift of ourselves, and whatever touches the altar is made holy. In other words, Jesus has the power to sanctify not only the good parts of our lives, but also the painful memories, struggles, disappointments, and losses. As we bring everything that we are and everything that we have to Jesus, he sets it apart and makes it precious and useful in God’s mission. Richard Rohr notes this kind of surrender in the title of his wonderful book, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad, 2003). Nothing of our lives is wasted or lost. The grace of God makes all things new, including the meaning of our losses and brokenness.

Dynamic social witness that is truly Christ-centered always emerges from our own reception of the mercy of Christ in our lives. We love because he first loved us. Those who are most effective in offering the healing, evangelistic love of God are those who have experienced the healing love of God. To revitalize our congregations so that there is a much greater outflow of God’s evangelistic mercy, we must help people reconnect with the powerful, healing love of God. This means that our ecclesiology must be reshaped so the church becomes both a missional outpost and a hospital for wounded souls. The church should be a healing community where the missional vision and call emerge from the lived experiences of healing of those who are being evangelized. A retrieval of missional ecclesiology is essential in order for this to happen. The local church cannot be a missional outpost or a hospital for souls when it is controlled by those who seek their own comfort, privilege, and power in the church. The greatest challenge to us in this area is our addiction to our own comfort and control.

The third element of a Palmerian vision of holiness has to do with telling the good news. Palmer insisted that for sanctification (set-apartness for God’s mission) to continue in a believer’s life, he or she had to be about the business of telling others what God is up to. The idea of evangelistic social action unaccompanied by some form of verbal sharing of the good news would have been incomprehensible to Palmer. She would probably ask us if we are ashamed of the name of Jesus, and if our answer were “yes,” we would have some serious explaining to do.

Many United Methodists today do not know how to tell others what God is up to in their lives (that is, verbally share their faith). The idea of “witnessing” has been so skewed by those who try to shame, judge, and frighten people into the faith, that most people cannot hear the word “evangelism” without repugnance. Evangelism has become a bad word. Thus the UMC must retrieve a truly biblical and Wesleyan understanding of evangelism in regard to how we tell the good news.

Brian McLaren, a prominent leader in the emerging church, describes evangelism as a dance of spiritual friendship (More Ready Than You Realize [Zondervan, 2002]). In any true friendship there is a sharing of life, a mutual self disclosure and trust, a shared journey. True friends call forth the best from one another. They love each other. Every quality that marks a true friendship subverts the possibility of exploitation, manipulation, or coercion. One cannot be a good friend and at the same time try to maneuver the other person. A spiritual friendship that is evangelistic, then, is essentially a true friendship. It includes the honest sharing of one’s own faith journey, and an openness to being questioned, challenged, and influenced by the other person. The spiritual invitation to the friend who is being evangelized is the invitation to journey together with the Christian regardless of the outcome. In other words, the friendship is solid whether the other person comes to faith in Christ or not. This is the part that is most difficult for Christians who have been drilled to think of evangelism as “soul-winning” or in other marketing terms. “Why bother with Susy,” such a person might think, “if she is not going to get saved? I should not waste my time on her any more.” This kind of thinking is antithetical to the heart of the gospel.

Phoebe Palmer is in fact a patron saint for United Methodists who are called to minister in emergent and new monastic contexts. Her holistic vision for evangelism that unites piety with social justice, her disciplined spiritual life, her eschewal of financial compensation for her prophetic work, and her vision for reformation of the Methodist church all cohere with the best of emerging and new monastic forms of mission.

What would Phoebe do if she could journey with us today? Probably many of the same things she did in her own day. She would help UM Christians to reconnect with our own rich heritage of holiness of heart and life, the holistic practice of evangelism that integrates social witness with the proclamation of the good news in Jesus’ name. A Palmerian vision of holiness is exactly what the UMC needs in order to become the vital, missional community to which we have been called.

Posted Feb 01, 2010