When I started blogging in the early 2000s, blogging was a fairly new thing. I was a United Methodist lay member beginning to wrestle with a sense of call to ministry. One of the big things I was wrestling with was the question “What is a Methodist?” This question led me to John Wesley, and exploring his writings has been the major emphasis of this blog.
This summer, I was ordained as an elder in full connection with the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. In one sense, the journey that began with this blog has come to an end.
And yet, the initial question remains. Indeed, in some ways it is even more pressing now than it was nearly 20 years ago. As our denomination approaches a split, the question “What is a Methodist?” will be answered in concrete ways as new denominations come into existence and millions of individual United Methodists have to choose a vision of Methodism with which they will journey forward.
For many people, the question “What is a Methodist?” can only be answered by looking at present reality. It is an empirical question. To answer it, we do a survey or study of self-identified Methodists, and from that data construct a portrait of Methodism.
I think such an approach leaves much to be desired. It mistakes the current form of Methodism for the thing God intended it to be. When I want to know what Methodism is, I always go back to the beginning. I want to hear again the words — and sing the songs — that shaped this movement that became a church.
In “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” John Wesley describes the convictions that were preached at the very start of Methodism. He lists the following four, which I have paraphrased out of 18th century English to make them easier to discuss.
- True Christianity is nothing less than the full restoration of God’s original intention for our lives. It is living in peace, joy, and love as God intended us to do when we were created. We do not get there merely by having the right opinions about doctrine or being nice or doing good deeds or being eager for religious activities.
- We get there by repenting of our sins and having faith in Jesus Christ.
- This faith comes freely to anyone who relies solely on the grace of Jesus Christ.
- And once we have come to this faith will have right now — not some date in the future after we die — a taste of the joy, peace, and happiness of heaven. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to conquer sin and all the fear and misery it brings with it.
These are the ideas that gave rise to Methodism. It was at its heart a movement convinced that true Christianity had become diluted into a bland churchmanship. Show up, be nice, do good works, hold to the proper doctrines, and you were a good Christian. The brothers Wesley had drunk from this well and found it poisonous.
Here is how Wesley described the situation he saw in the church of his day.
We see, on every side, either men of no religion at all, or men of a lifeless, formal religion. We are grieved at the sight; and should greatly rejoice, if by any means we might convince some that there is a better religion to be attained — a religion worthy of the God that gave it. (“An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”)
Wesley himself had been a practitioner and teacher of this lifeless religion until God’s grace got a hold of him. No one in England had a higher view of God or more desire to serve Jesus Christ than John Wesley. No one spent more of his time devoted to good works and spiritual growth than Wesley, but until God warmed his heart with the assurance of his forgiveness, Wesley never knew peace with God. Until the Holy Spirit filled his heart, Wesley never felt the power to overcome sin and never experienced the love that it would take a thousand tongues to sing about.
After encountering the free grace of God, Wesley’s life would be spent trying to inform the world that God has so much more to offer than what the church in his day had settled on as Christianity. God does not just want us to muddle through. He does not want us to be merely nice people who do nice things. He desires for us to be the creatures he created us to be, and he has shown us the way to become what he desires.
These are the things the Holy Spirit brought Methodism into the world to teach and live.
And here is the thing I’ve learned a pastor of small churches in Indiana for the last 15 years. Not many of our people know what it means to be a Methodist. Indeed, a large portion of the people in our pews don’t have a very firm grasp on what it means to have a vital and life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not that they do not want that. They simply do not know Jesus. They do not know themselves to be saved. They are like John Wesley before his heart was strangely warmed.
I have spent too many hours at the hospital or death bed of men and women who had built their faith upon the sand of good churchmanship. When the crisis came, they discovered that being good church members and going on mission trips did not actually give them the assurance of salvation they needed to weather the storms of cancer and heart disease. Learning about Jesus was no substitute for knowing Jesus. Contributing proudly to UMCOR every year did not give them the love, joy, and peace of the Holy Spirit.
I certainly do not have all the answers, but the longer I serve as a pastor, the more I realize that the best thing I can do is help people actually learn what it means to be a Christian and help them to actually — often finally — meet Jesus. This is not glamorous work, and certainly not work that the secular world will find useful, but I believe it is the work God has appointed us to do. Wherever Methodism goes in the next two years, I hope we never lose sight of where we came from and the work God called forth the Methodists to do.