A plea for Methodism

In the wake of our great division, the United Methodist Church is struggling to find its identity. We have lots of voices projecting visions of the future of United Methodism and articulating the things that unite us after division. A number of people are planting flags in various places and inviting the church to rally around this or that set of priorities or shared values.

For me, the place to look for the answer to the question “What is a Methodist?” has always been John and Charles Wesley.

United Methodism, I believe, has always struggled to hold on to its Methodist identity. The pull of Mainline Protestantism, a gaunt and dying creature that still has an odd attraction for many, has always conflicted with our origins when we were derided by respectable Christians as too boisterous, too insistent on our discipline, and too expectant that God would actually do great things among us.

Fortunately, we still have the words of the Wesleys to help remind us who we are. Here is a gem that I don’t hear often sung, but I share it with you as one entry point into the heart of Methodism.

Let Us Plead for Faith Alone

Let us plead for faith alone,
faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
only faith the grace applies.

Active faith that lives within,
conquers hell and death and sin,
hallows whom it first made whole,
forms the Savior in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
sure salvation is the end;
heaven already is begun,
everlasting life is won.

Only let us persevere
till we see our Lord appear,
never from the Rock remove,
saved by faith which works by love.

These four short stanzas could sustain a great deal of discussion, but allow me to share a few observations about the contours of a Methodist Christianity found in these words.

First, faith is not something we will into being, but we receive. Let us “plead” for faith. Let us ask for faith. God, give us this faith. From first to last, our faith is a gift from God, not something we accomplish or create within ourselves.

In a recent survey I was asked to fill out of the United Methodist Church about clergy wellness, it asked me how much I agree with the statement that when I am struggling I can find within myself resources to help me through difficult times. My impression was that a “positive” answer to that question would be seen as a good sign, but I struggled to mark an answer because my commitment as a Methodist is that the source of my help is not “down inside me” but with God. We are not called to get through hell by drawing on our own inner strength, but by admitting our weakness and relying on the strength of God, who gives us the faith to stand even when the earth shakes.

Second, our concern for this faith is tied directly to our concern for salvation. We want this faith so that we can be justified by God’s grace, we can overcome the power of sin and death, we can be transformed into the image of Christ, and we can experience the joys of heaven both today and in eternity.

My social media accounts often include posts that say stuff like “The gospel is less about getting into the Kingdom of Heaven when you die and more about living in the Kingdom of Heaven now.” I don’t think that is correct. It is about both, equally. The Gospel is about eternal life. And it is about access to the joys of heaven right now. It is not one or the other. It is certainly not one at the expense of the other. John Wesley wrote in the preface to his published sermons that he desired to know one thing in his life: The way to heaven. We can certainly decide that old John got Christianity wrong, but we cannot reasonably go around telling people to stop being so worried about salvation, saving souls, and heaven and hell and still say we are speaking from the central concerns of the Methodist tradition.

Third, it is a faith that is visible to others in the lives we lead, by our works. Just as a healthy tree bears good apples, so our lives bear good fruit when this faith is the source of all that we are and do. The works signal that the faith is present, but they themselves do not save us or give us any of the blessing that come alone from faith.

My observation as a pastor is that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for good church people is that they confuse works for faith. We confuse the outer things of religious life with a saving faith in Jesus Christ. And this confusion is all the more tempting because the works are the things that win us the approval of the world around us. They are the things people can use to defend the church when it is attacked as irrelevant or harmful or deluded. “Well, yes, but we have a food pantry.” God does want us to feed the hungry, but we are called to do so because we have faith the overflows from our hearts as love for God and love for his people. Without this faith and love, the works themselves are worthless.

Much more could be said about this hymn, and there is much more to say about what a Methodist is. I am a Christian called to be a Methodist by God’s grace. I am a Methodist called to be and remain a United Methodist. In this uncertain time for the people called United Methodist, I pray that God will help us recover the gifts first given to the people called Methodist. I plead for the faith that we sing.

God called us here

I understand the impulse many in our denomination have right now to rally around the flag.

Our official institutional organs, in particular, cannot be faulted for encouraging us to express our love and excitement over being United Methodists. Part of the job of institutions is to perpetuate the institution, after all.

But, I have to confess, I’ve always struggled when invited to shout about how much I love the United Methodist Church.

You see, I don’t really love the UMC.

I love Jesus.

I love Jesus. I’ve been called by the Holy Spirit to be a United Methodist.

I’ve been called to be a United Methodist. I did not choose it. Indeed, and I know this is going to be controversial, I don’t think choosing a church or a denomination is ever a good idea. If your answer to why you are United Methodist is some version of “Well, I shopped around and kicked the tires of a lot of churches, and this is the one that seemed like the best fit to me” then I worry that you might have missed something along the way.

If your answer to why you are a United Methodist is something like the above, then, at the very least, please never criticize people for their consumer attitudes toward the church.

But, even more than that, if you think the church you are a part of is mostly about your choice, I’d invite you to pray about that. Pray that the Holy Spirit show you where God is calling you to be.

We Methodists have to spend a lot of time talking people out of what we consider mistaken notions about baptism. Lots of people think baptism is mostly something we choose to do. This is why infant baptism is confusing to so many people. They think baptism is a choice we make and therefore should not be provided to those incapable of making choices.

But this understanding of baptism is confused. Baptism is not something we decide to do. It is a gift of God. We are called by God to baptism. In his grace, he gives us a choice about accepting what he offers, but fortunately our fitness for baptism has nothing to do with us being able to make fully informed decisions about our choice. None of us knows enough to understand what we are getting into when we get baptized, which is fine because baptism was not our idea.

Although we Methodists have a lot of experience trying to help people understand what it means to be a called people when we talk about baptism, we fall right back into the language of choice when we are trying to generate enthusiasm for our struggling denomination.

Sadly, I cannot find any support in the Bible for the idea that we are the ones in charge when it comes to God. There are lots of stories in the Bible about people comparison shopping for gods. There are lots of stories about the people deciding that God did not meet their needs or he asked of them things that felt unreasonable. I don’t think, however, we United Methodists should take them as models.

In this moment of fear, anger, and chaos in the United Methodist Church, I don’t think what we need most is a campaign to #BeUMC or social media invitations to tell everyone why we love the UMC. I think, in this moment, we need to spend less time talking about how much we love the UMC and more time figuring out how to be Methodists.

We have been called by the Holy Spirit to become a part of this movement within the Church catholic stirred up by the Holy Spirit in England in the 1700s. It was and remains a movement that can energize and revitalize the church, if it remains true to its call and purpose. It was and is a movement gifted with a strong vision of simple Christianity that preaches salvation by free grace, believes in the power of the Holy Spirit to actually make us who Jesus calls us to be, and refuses to stop moving as long as there are people who have not yet heard — really heard — the good news.

I did not choose the United Methodist Church. God called me here. If you are a United Methodist, I believe God called you here as well. The question for us in this moment is not how to #BeUMC or invite people to share how much they love the denomination. The question for us is the same one that the Holy Spirit laid before John and Charles Wesley. How do we — in this moment — take what God has placed in our hands and wants to plant in our hearts and reach a world that does not know Jesus? How do we be Methodist Christians?

If we can figure that out, I believe the UMC will continue and even spread. If we cannot, or if we abandon who we have been called to be, then we will be pruned. No amount of hashtags and pep rallies will prevent that.

Who are we now?

Given the fact that most of my longstanding readership is moving or has moved out of the United Methodist Church, I’m not sure who will read this or have any interest in this, but I feel a bit like the guy stranded on a desert island building a fire in hopes a plane or ship passing by might see it.

We in the United Methodist Church have a serious problem.

It is easy to look at the huge wave of churches and pastors leaving the UMC and say it is all about misinformation and animus. That would be a foolish conclusion.

The most effective argument, by far, in persuading people to depart the UMC is that our polity is broken. The argument goes something like this: our Book of Discipline is a “scrap of paper,” our accountability systems are arbitrary at worst and ineffective at best, our General Conference is pointless and toothless, and the meaning of what it means to be United Methodist depends more on who your particular bishop is rather than any shared tradition, belief, or covenant among us.

Again, you can pretend none of this is true, but if the UMC wants to convert this hemorrhaging into a total collapse, we will say those who left had nothing to say and we have nothing to learn from the last few decades of strife. Because here is the truth: Even as we lose members by the thousands we have thousands – perhaps millions – of members still in the UMC who have very little faith in the denomination.

I, honestly, don’t know how this can be fixed. Perhaps it cannot.

I don’t even know what the first step is.

I recall over the last couple decades how often someone has asked a question along the lines of “What makes a United Methodist a United Methodist?”

I was just talking about that with a person considering membership in the congregation I serve. I talked to her about universal beliefs we all share as stated in the Apostles Creed. I talked to her about this evangelical renewal movement started by John and Charles Wesley that preached ceaselessly about justification by faith, free grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. I talked about the movement that was so passionate about the gospel that it adopted whatever means it could discover to save souls, and in doing so transformed communities and nations.

My sense is that this story no longer is shared by United Methodists as our story. When we look for the things that unite us, too often, it feels like we look to the superstructure of the denomination rather than the power of our story.

If this is not “our story” any longer, what is our story? Who are we now? What is the vision of United Methodism that can give us the clarity and will to repair what is broken within our denomination?

I guess a better question really comes first. Do we want to be healed? Do we even think it is necessary?