By Jeff Finley
When asked on a new episode of “The Light + Life Podcast” what excites him about the thought of being re-elected bishop for another four-year term, Cowart told host Brett Heintzman, “I’d say, first of all, finishing the job. … It obviously takes a little while to orient yourself and to get a sense of where our focus needs to be.”
The current bishops spent considerable time asking superintendents and others about their greatest needs, and they also decided to create a statement highlighting the values that shape Free Methodism.
“COVID gave us this season — being able to really focus on The Free Methodist Way clarifying our identity as Free Methodists,” said Cowart, who added the time also helped in “coming to a deeper understanding of the need for those of us in denominational leadership to have clarity around the way we are leading our local churches.”
However, “losing a couple years with COVID hurt us on the implementation side,” he added. “We feel like in the last year or two we’ve gotten some good traction toward implementation, but I’m sure my colleagues would agree that we have a lot to do in terms of fully implementing the Vision Frame around a Spirit-fueled movement that catalyzes the multiplication of leaders and churches, but also fully integrating the values of The Free Methodist Way into our culture.”
“We see where God is at work throughout the country.”
A bishop’s role includes challenges, “but without question, we get to see how God is at work in ways that most people don’t have the opportunity to see. We see where God is at work throughout the country,” said Cowart, who also expressed excitement about places where international Free Methodists “are thriving and where God is doing amazing things in the church. It’s inspiring, and it helps us to keep our hope and our confidence that God is at work in the church.”
Church and Cultural Challenges
When asked about the denomination’s greatest challenge, Cowart said, “I think we’re still battling some distractions that were heightened during the pandemic. For example, there’s still a lot of ideological polarization in the church as a whole. This is not just a Free Methodist issue. It’s really in Christianity in the U.S. as a whole.”
“… so much polarization that divided people, divided families, and certainly divided churches …”
The global church did not experience the same ideological divisions, Cowart said, but the United States had “so much polarization that divided people, divided families, and certainly divided churches and caused many people to leave their churches in search for something that was a little more comfortable, because everybody agreed with their stand on whatever issue is most important to them. That’s a massive distraction.”
Some U.S. Christians have “been more fixated on fighting the cultural war than our true mission of making disciples,” which he attributed to “massive cultural change in the last decade or two.”
“The rain falls on the good and the evil, and everybody would be blessed if we as a nation were following the cultural values of Scripture, but that’s not our primary mission,” Cowart said. “Honestly, it’s backwards to think that we should view those who disagree with us on social values, for example, as enemies, because those are the very people we need to be reaching. If we view them as enemies culturally, it becomes very difficult to reach them with the gospel.”
“Our mission is not to further Christian culture, but to make disciples and to bear witness to the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.”
After all, people who aren’t Christians are not likely to embrace Christian values.
“Our mission is not to further Christian culture, but to make disciples and to bear witness to the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. That’s our real mission,” Cowart said.
For Free Methodists specifically “to become a Spirit-fueled movement, there are some vestiges of institutionalism that we have to lay aside in order to make movement more possible,” Cowart said. “Institutional structure is necessary, and it can be very valuable, but, in excess, it becomes an impediment to movement.”
The bishops are focusing on identifying the essential nature of a church.
“How can we set people free to do church in innovative ways that are both outside the box but fully devoted to what it actually means biblically to be a church?” Cowart said. “We’re working through some of those challenges and trying to identify what our essential ecclesiology is.”
When asked about personal leadership challenges, Cowart said the greatest leadership challenges include creating or changing culture.
“As a church planter, I was focused on creating culture. As a bishop, the greatest challenge is, in some ways, how to change culture,” he said. “That starts — without question — with deep commitment to prayer, because this is a work that the Holy Spirit has to do in us.”
He added that clarity, collaboration and constant recalibration are also needed to change culture.
Love, Truth and Gospel
Heintzman asked, “Do you fully align with our traditional sexual ethic, believing that marriage and sexual union are reserved for one man and one woman, and then, furthermore, how do we learn to love our neighbor regardless of sexual orientation and yet minister the truth of the gospel to them?”
“Do I align with our position? My answer is categorically yes, absolutely,” Cowart replied. “One of our greatest gifts as a denomination is that we have had clarity around that issue for decades, and we have held our denomination accountable to that belief. Some people may know that I come out of the United Methodist Church. I have been working with a lot of United Methodist churches, and one of the things that I have observed with great grief is what happens when a church loses its clarity or accountability. In the case of the UMs, they never changed their language, but they stopped enforcing it, and they allowed ambiguity in practice around that statement, and it has created chaos.”
Cowart said Free Methodists need to be firm in doctrine while loving people.
“There are those who would say we have to allow for more room, but, honestly, clarity is kindness,” Cowart said. “When we have great clarity around this issue, we also have the space to then focus on: How do we love well out of this position?”
He added that we should love people today “the same way Jesus did with the people that He met.” Although sometimes pointing out flaws, Jesus extended grace rather than condemnation while speaking truth.
“… I would want to start with helping people to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is about …”
“We love people where they are, but love demands that we speak truth in the context of that relationship,” Cowart said. “If I had my way and I could wave a wand and make things the way I would want them to be, I’d never start the conversation with sex. I wouldn’t begin with questions around sexual orientation. I would want to start with Jesus, and I would want to start with helping people to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is about and to invite them into a genuine relationship with Jesus with the confidence that as they come to understand and know Jesus as Savior and Lord, the Holy Spirit will do a work that is much deeper than I can do through logical reason.”
Our world is focused on sexual identity, but Cowart emphasized that “our identity is as children of God. My primary identity is not rooted in my sexuality. My primary identity is rooted in the fact that I am a beloved son of Jesus and that His Spirit lives in me and reigns over me as Lord.”
Free Methodist Future
When asked about his preferred future for the denomination, Cowart said, “I envision, and I dream, and I pray for a people who are laser-focused on our mission,” said Cowart who described that mission as “to make disciples” and “give witness to the reality of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, our mission is not just to get people saved, so they go to heaven when they die, but is to see people come into relationship with Jesus and the church in ways that allow us to demonstrate through our lives, individually and together, what it looks like for the kingdom of God to be present on earth.”
Heintzman asked Cowart about God-given visions, dreams or words for the church or about being considered for bishop again.
Cowart believes God has given clarity for the church to not give in to the “great pressure from multiple sides to move in a direction that would take us off mission and off center when it comes to who God has called us to be.”
He said pressure on the church is one reason that after a lot of prayer, he and his wife, Pam, agreed to let his name stand for consideration at GC23.
“I feel compelled to bring whatever I can bring to help us stay focused on the place that God has called us to be,” said Cowart, who added that he believes the Lord is telling him to, if re-elected, “lead proactively toward a positive, greater future.”
Click here to listen to the full podcast, watch a six-minute video featuring Bishop Keith Cowart, and learn more about all of the bishop nominees.