Any student of Methodism knows that fretting about the state of the connection is one of the hallmarks of the movement. John Wesley spilled much ink on his concerns about the failures of Methodism.
As the United Methodist Church turns its attention to renewal as it moves toward General Conference in 2012, I wonder if we find any wisdom in Wesley’s own observations.
In his 1789 sermon “The Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” he starts with a question: Why has Christianity done so little good in the world. In other words, why is there so much wickedness still abroad.
Right away, we see him asking a different question than most of our renewal efforts do. He is not starting with the size or scope of the Methodist societies themselves, but with the broader question of why the world suffers so much.
Wesley’s question might suggest to us that our focus should be placed outside our own walls even as we articulate our sense of failure. The United Methodist Church has failed not because our congregations are shrinking and the heads in the pews are all covered with white hair, but because the evil of the world is unabated – or even advancing upon us.
To answer his own question, Wesley suggests three problems.
First, most of the world – even most of the Christians in the world – do not know true Scriptural Christianity. He offers a list of questions that he would have Christians answer to demonstrate their understanding of the basics of faith.
Do they know of
- The natural and moral attributes of God
- His particular providence
- The redemption of human kind
- The offices of Christ
- The operations of the Holy Spirt
- New Birth
- Inward and outward holiness
Put another way, he asks how many know the “analogy of faith.”
Of the connected chain of Scripture truths, and of their relation to each other! Namely, the natural corruption of man, justification by faith, the new birth, inward and outward holiness.
The ignorance of most of the earth of these key doctrines, Wesley writes, accounts for much of the failure of Christianity.
But doctrine is just the beginning.
He goes on to lament the lack of Christian discipline among many of those who have received the proper doctrines.
In the sermon, he recounts his distress that so many Methodists cling to wealth and spend their money on fashionable clothing rather than helping the poor. He writes that keeping fellowship those who refuse to follow the clear commands of God could be more damaging to the societies than exercising discipline.
That they still grieve the Holy Spirit, by preferring the fashions of the world to the commands of God? And I many times doubt whether we Preachers are not, in some measure, partakers of their sin. I am in doubt whether it is not a kind of partiality. I doubt whether it is not a great sin to keep them in our society. May it not hurt their souls, by encouraging them to persevere in walking contrary to the Bible? And may it not, in some measure, intercept the salutary influences of the blessed Spirit upon the whole community?
So, Christianity’s failures are first that so few know proper doctrine and second that proper discipline is not exercised. And there is a third and even more vital weakness.
Why has Christianity done so little good, even among us? Among the Methodists, — among them that hear and receive the whole Christian doctrine, and that have Christian discipline added thereto, in the most essential parts of it? Plainly, because we have forgot, or at least not duly attended to, those solemn words of our Lord, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
We do not practice self-denial.
And here I come to my question for myself and the connection.
Have we tried John Wesley’s cure for what ails us? Have even we preachers, elders, deacons, and bishops demonstrated these three essential qualities of effective Christianity?
Do we even agree on – much less teach – common doctrines? Do we exercise discipline within the connection and the congregations? Do we model self-denial?
By self-denial, Wesley would not mean living in a slightly less lovely house than most of our professional friends do or driving a slightly older car. He certainly would not mean making grand displays of luxury items and open statements of desire for more of the same.
Do we deny ourselves? Do we even have a culture among the clergy that encourages self-denial and holds it up as both a norm and expectation? Do we shun the trappings of wealth?
I ask this of myself first, and must answer “no” in most cases. I aspire to a more disciplined faith and a deeper and holy life of self-denial, but I am a poor example. I am lulled much too easily by the world’s arguments against it. I am tempted too often and too easily. I have too little of the power of godliness.
As the connection organizes and marshals its strength to push for changes in order and organization at General Conference, I read Wesley and wonder if the changes contemplated in the Call to Action report will lead to the kind of renewal that Wesley envisioned – one built on the three pillars of doctrine, discipline, and denial. I think that is what we need. I do not know how that can happen but for the working of the Holy Spirit, whose hand I pray guides our work.