Review: The Greatest Story Never Told by Len Sweet

My clergy group recently read Len Sweet’s book The Greatest Story Never Told: Revive Us Again (Nashville: Abingdon, 2012).  I figured I might offer a few thoughts; if you’ve read it would be happy to hear yours.

I confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for Sweet’s work.  I remember reading a few of his books before going to seminary and being thrilled to find out he was at Drew, where I planned to study.  I took my first couple of classes with him.  If you have a copy of SoulTsunami on your shelf, I challenge you to pick it up and see if it wasn’t pretty much on the money about emerging trends in both the church and American society.

That said, Sweet definitely isn’t for everyone.  He loves his metaphors and his stories, and sometimes he’s willing to lose the flow of the narrative for the sake of an illustration.  Sometimes the wordplay gets a little too cute and clever (woe to readers for whom English is a second language).  You have to remember he’s a preacher at heart – and quite a good one.  He loves a good one-liner, and sometimes it seems like a book is just a convenient place to gather a bunch of them in one place.  Here are a few examples:

  • God puts life’s goodies and cookies on a low shelf.  You have to get on your knees to find them. (46)
  •  “Duh!-ciples,” I call them.  Do they ever get it? (51)
  •  [Wesley] advised early Methodists:  “Be electrified daily.”  Not bad advice for our future. (61)
  •  Methodists are people who sing in the key of love. (111)

But Sweet is also a scholar – not only of Wesley but of American Protestantism.  In this book, he sets out to remind us of who we are as Methodists and exhorts us to reclaim that heritage.  In his introduction, he states the problem this way:

What Voltaire once said of the Holy Roman Empire – it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire – might arguably be said of the UMC:  it is not United, not Methodist, and less a church than a bureaucracy, and sometimes less a bureaucracy than a circus.  (xvii)

Sweet usually tries to connect his chapters with a running metaphor, or (more often) metaphors.   Here we’re about music (a favorite Sweet trope) plus the four elements, so we’ve got “The Song of Water,” “The Song of Fire,” “The Song of Wind,” “The Song of Earth,” corresponding to holiness, passion, connection, and hope.  For me, the chapters on passion and connection are the strongest of the book.

When Sweet speaks of connection, he keeps it in its proper context of relationships.  The connections that are most important are not the large C’s of “the Connection,” which has become shorthand for our structure and bureaucracy, but the connections between people that result in mutual support, encouragement, growth in faith, and power in mission.  Relationships are fundamental to our identity, and he offers this challenge to those who would root our identity elsewhere:

When the grammar of God moves from the relational language of withness and worship to the descriptive language of absolute determinative proposition, we have moved away from Methodist heritage to Methodist heresy.  (77)

On passion, Sweet quotes Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the Free Church of Scotland in the 19th century, who called Methodism “Christianity in earnest.”  Wesley, often accused of “enthusiasm,” would surely be disappointed by the stunning lack of enthusiasm for much of anything in many of our churches today.

But here’s the challenge, as a good friend put it to me during our discussion of the text:  “Sweet’s describing a church none of us ever knew, that doesn’t exist except in history books.”  Is it possible for a people to reclaim a history they’ve never seen or experienced?

Sweet has been trying to remind us for a while.  Did you read 11 Genetic Gateways to a Spiritual Awakening (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998)?  Probably not.  I bought my copy when I heard him preach in Raleigh  in 2000, and when he signed it, he said something like, “Congratulations!  You’re the sixth person to have bought this book.”  While The Greatest Story Never Told covers a lot of the same ground, and recycles a few of the same lines, it’s much simpler and conveys more of the essence of what I believe – after three years of seminary and ten years in ministry – what we’re about.

But here’s the thing about Sweet’s work that touches on Methodist heritage and history – it always comes back to the experience of Jesus in the heart of the individual.  That’s what moved Wesley.  That’s what powered the movement.  It was the experience of grace in one life, and another, and another.  We’re talking about revival.  And revival can’t be programmed or planned from Nashville or anywhere.  It can only be prayed into reality, one person at a time, one pastor at a time, one church at a time.

When Methodists Mattered

Gentlemen, -In response to your address, allow me to attest the accuracy of its historical statements; indorse the sentiment it expresses; and thank you, in the nation’s name for the sure  promise it gives.

Nobly sustained as the government has been by all the Churches, I would utter nothing which might in the least appear invidious against any. Yet without this it may fairly be said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the best, is, by its greater numbers, the most important of all. It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospitals, and more prayers to heaven than any. God bless the Methodist Church! bless all the Churches! and blessed be God! who in this our great trial giveth us the Churches!

May 18, 1864

A. Lincoln

A few months back I was at Old St. George’s Church in Philadelphia with my confirmation class, and came across a history of the former Southern New Jersey Conference. I bought it for $2. My wife makes fun of me for doing things like this, but last weekend I was sitting in the backyard, my feet in a kiddie pool, lounging and learning more about the roots of Methodism in NJ.

The book included this incredible letter from Abraham Lincoln, one that I had read before in seminary, but had long since forgotten. I couldn’t help but think:  really? Did Abraham Lincoln just describe the M.E. Church as “the most important of all”?

It’s good to read the address that prompted Lincoln’s reply to gain some context. Lincoln was not unprompted. The General Conference offered him its unqualified support, characterizing the war as “most unnatural, utterly unjustifiable rebellion, involving the crime of treason against the best of human governments and sin against God.” To some degree we went fishing for the compliment.

Still, to read this – in a time when we wonder whether the UMC will survive, when we find it impossible to find our place in the national conversation, when we spend big money on advertising just to let people know we haven’t disappeared from the face of the earth, it’s good to remember that there was a time when Methodists mattered.

I hope that seeing this reminder of our history reinforces your hope for the future – that we Methodists can matter again. And I pray that when you look at your local church, you see ministries that already do.

In the end, you know what’s important is not what those in the seats of power think of the Methodists.  It’s about what the poor, the hopeless, the helpless and the hurting think of us.  That’s how we know what Christ thinks of us.  That’s what matters.