Thursday, July 24, 2008

Distinctly Methodist?

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!


Anonymous said...

I really like your definition of "Methodist". But then, I should since I am a part of the process that gave you some of those ideas. But I am sure that there are many United Methodists out there who think some of it is blasphemy. Can I quote you? Whenever I am asked about what UM's believe, I am often at a loss for words. This sums it up very astutely. Thanks. cb

Unknown said...

There is nothing more Methodist than a pot luck.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see "perfection" broke out as a distinct focus. I believe Mr. Wesley felt that it was this doctrine that the people called Methodists were raised up for. We may not always teach it in a lively manner these days, but should we not if we are going to be "distinctly Methodist?"

Andy B. said...

You are right, Mitch. It was in my mind as I mentioned the way of salvation, but I really should mentioned it specifically.

Anonymous said...

I would have to add the openess of the table. There is something beautiful about a table being set, and not having to shove and argue for a has already been determined that you belong there and are welcome to come and take part in community no matter who you are.


Anonymous said...

I think you have done a beautiful and thoughtful job summing us up. And, it seems to fit perfectly with Wesley's three rules:

1. Do no harm
2. Do good
3. Fall in love with God

Anonymous said...

I guess being a 71 year old cradle Methodist might make me distinctive! Since my husband retired from active ministry 9 years ago we have visited many churches, UM and otherwise--and I could write my own blog about that. Right now we vist one traditional UM church, one new UM church, one UM church with an emphasis on inclusiveness, and an Episcopalian church.

Worship at the traditional church is boring--especially the singing.

At the new church we enjoy singing UM hymns with new rhythmns and settings. People really sing (even the lapsed Roman Catholics) when a familiar Gospel hymn is in the service. However, for the most part the contemporary hymns are "performance" songs and, other than the praise band, people just stand around.

The Inclusive church tries to have something for everybody. There little cohesiveness in the service.

Episcopalians cant sing. PERIOD!

Mariposa in St. Louis

Unknown said...

So what would you add/say about Christian Perfection, Andy?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great post. I wanted to add two things.

First, I think some communal structure for "watching over one another in love" would be important in a definition of what is distinct about Methodism.

Second, at the risk of being nit picky, I would like to point out that the General Rules are: 1) Do no harm, 2) Do all the good that you can, and 3) Attend upon the ordinances of God (or practice the means of grace). I am very pleased that Bishop Job's book has done so well, but "stay in love with God" is not exactly what the third General Rule is. Job's paraphrase is probably an attempt to point to the goal or the reason that we attend upon the ordinances of God (i.e. we do things like read the Bible and pray in order to grow in love of God) but it obscures the discipline "method" that is the heart of the actual content of the third rule.



Steve West said...

As a 7th generation Methodist (no joke, I'm descended from circuit riders!) I think you've covered what makes us distinct very well. While I agree there's no overt reference to Christian perfection, you addressed it in part, talking about the journey of growing as a Christian (this is where the term "Methodist" came from because we believe there is a METHOD to a balanced Christian life ... it's not just because we like committees!). You just didn't emphasize the aspect of being conformed into the image of Christ in all that. The only thing I see that I think is truly missing is that much more can be said about grace and free will. All faiths believe in grace, but we believe in it in a very unique way. It is prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying (it woos and reaches to us, transforms us, and grows us into perfection). Related to that is that I don't see reference here to our belief in free will (Wesley taught strongly against predestination). But good job!

Brother Marty said...

What a great summation of Methodism...along with the additions from others. What strikes me as a mark of Methodism are two things...the open table for communion...and preaching from the lectionary. When I was a lay speaker called to preach here and there, I'd often ask the pastor for whom I'd be filling in if they were preaching from the lectionary and most would say yes.

There is a consistency throughout the connexion in regards to the message being delivered from pulpits throughout. I could come to a congregation and remark that last week was about such and such and this week we'll build on that. The connexion is there. Some mornings when preaching at more than one church someone would say that they heard a sermon on the radio from the same passage of scripture before church. I find that to be distinctly Methodist.

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Vito said...

Well this didn't answer my question.