What would make a congregation distinctly Methodist? Other than a big ol’ cross and flame on the sign outside, of course. How would somebody be able to tell that a particular congregation was Methodist?
Just walking in the door one time on any given Sunday, I’m not really sure what that would be. We’re such a diverse denomination. But I’m not really concerned with a one-time impression. I’m thinking more deeply, like a core identity question. Over time, some things would emerge that would be marks of a distinctly Methodist congregation.
It would be connectional. Methodist identity is formed in large part by the connection itself. Congregations are not isolated and do not operate as self-contained units off by themselves, but work together in ministry and cooperate in community and relationship with one another. Preachers itinerate in order for this to happen more effectively. We pool our financial resources, too, and put them to work in global ministries that are more effective than any one congregation could muster alone. The congregational apportionment is not the “bill from the conference,” it is a manifestation of our global connection.
Theologically, the congregation would emphasize grace, and salvation as a way, process, or journey from sin toward a renewed relationship with God. Rather than emphasize a single moment of “conversion,” a Methodist congregation would affirm that salvation is both instantaneous and gradual; and there are moments of conversion all along that way. As a corollary, there would be a “here-and-now” quality to the theology, not completely neglecting the afterlife, but definitely centering on present discipleship as a response to the eternal life given by God through Jesus Christ, and realized in the living presence of the Holy Spirit.
The central, foundational source for everything a Methodist congregation would do would be the Bible. Meetings would begin with Biblical reflection. Sunday School classes and other small groups would read Scripture together regularly. And further, (as Scott Jones wrote, “Scripture alone … yet never alone”) Methodist congregations would rely on tradition, experience, and reason to interpret Scripture. Thus the library in a Methodist congregation would contain a wide array of current, relevant sources on scriptural interpretation, using history, theological writings, testimonies, discussion and reflection resources, and so forth.
There would be balance between mind and heart, so that knowledge and piety would walk hand in hand. Scientific endeavors and historical scholarship would not be belittled; nor would prayer retreat weekends at the monastery. It would not be assumed, for example, that the creation of the world either happened exactly like it says in the Bible or exactly like “the scientists” theorize, but there would be room for both together. Wesleyan theology was formed in a crucible comprised of both Enlightenment and Holiness.
There would be balance between social and personal, so that justice and righteousness would be seamlessly woven. Homeless shelters would be supported and social activism to alleviate human suffering would be common. And at the same time, personal relationships with God through Jesus Christ would be nurtured. John Wesley’s Aldersgate moment happened when he realized that all the stuff he’d been telling other people about God applied to him personally, too, and he responded to that realization by working to end poverty, improve health care, and eradicate the slave trade. A distinctly Methodist church would be neither a social action agency nor a glorified self-help group.
Finally on my list, there would be singing. This one is personal for me, as a singer. Methodists sing “lustily and with good courage,” as John Wesley encourages us to do still today in the front of the hymnal. There is nothing in the world like a Methodist congregation in full-throated praise of almighty God, singing a familiar and well-loved song, practically knocking the roof off the rafters, with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts. A congregation who has stopped singing has lost something distinctly Methodist.
If you have any to add, or want to remark on any of my suggestions, I hope you post a comment. Tell me if you think a connectional, grace-filled, scripturally grounded, thoughtful, devout, socially active group of Jesus-loving people singing praise to God at the top of their lungs sounds like a Methodist congregation to you!
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