What is United Methodism?

I am about the same age as the United Methodist Church, but I am a 21st century convert to the faith. I did not grow up in United Methodism. I have had to learn it after joining the club.

When I wanted to understand what being a United Methodist was all about, I went back and started reading John Wesley.

More and more, I am coming to understand that was the wrong way to go if I wanted to get a good grip on United Methodism. The John Wesley of United Methodism has little in common with the John Wesley found in his own writings.

I’m also aware that our Book of Discipline is a bad place to find the meaning of United Methodism. It is a jumble of different materials and ideas, not all of which fit together and not all of which any United Methodist I know treats as authoritative.

So, I have been trying recently to distill from my experiences and reading the essence of United Methodism. Here are the core commitments of United Methodism as best I understand them:

  • Trinitarian worship of God
  • Social action and social concern
  • Mutual emotional support for members
  • Claiming to welcome everyone into our worship and fellowship
  • Non-judgmentalism
  • Middle to upper-middle class sensibilities and norms
  • Cultural accommodation
  • Desire for success and relevance
  • Obsession with polity coupled with active resistance to rules and leaders

My window on United Methodism is narrow. I admit this readily. But I have tried to get a wider view by reading and engaging with conversations across United Methodism for the last 5 years or so.

I’m open to modifying my list, but as it is actually practiced in the United States, these are the marks of United Methodism that I see.


14 thoughts on “What is United Methodism?

  1. Hey John,
    I am glad you posted your thoughts and added to the wider conversation of the ‘what is United Methodism’ discussion. First, I would just like to say that I think you hit the nail on the head in our movement away from Wesleyan teaching and method (such as discipleship classes). It would be good for the church to get back to that. Second, the Discipline does have many contradictory and poorly written statements in it that do not aid the connectionalism or welcoming heart of United Methodism.
    In response to your list I would like to say I have visited many UM churches in almost every state in the union (missing Delaware and Virginia) along with churches in the Bahamas and Haiti. I can assuredly say this list does not match my experience of UM everywhere. In every setting I have seen a trinitarian understanding of God, infant baptism, social concern (though not always accompanied by action outside prayer), good hospitality, and a desire for relevance. However, the middle to upper-middle class sensibilities are very centralized to urban caucasian churches in my experience with non cross cultural settings. In short the UM is to diverse to be limited to such an exclusion of understanding. The final thing on your list the obsession with polity is also centralized to larger churches in my experience. Smaller churches, cross cultural/ethnic churches and rural churches are much more low church oriented and have a decrease in polity obsession. I would also say that even in the Midwest the lack of Discipleship classes and small groups is less do to the church and more due to the Midwest culture. Having grown up in this same culture I saw a lack of these things in almost every denomination I attended.
    God bless you in your faith journey. It seems to me you are really grappling with some deep things. I would simply add, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the United Methodist Church.’


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