The picture on the top of my blog is a picture of the life size (all 5′ 3″ ) of John Wesley. Along with the statue is a plaque with this quote, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” Like a little kid on a long car ride, we continually ask ourselves are we there yet? Are we that dead sect that Wesley warned us about many years ago? My last blog mentioned some of the statistics of our dying congregation. Bishop James Swanson actually began a sermon to new UM pastors with this, “I hope somebody has told you that you are becoming a leader in a troubled, declining organization.” There is no denying that this is a critical time in the history of our church. The crucial question is how will we respond?
Let us begin with where Wesley ends, “with which they first set out.” The early Methodists were known for their passion. Wesley said, “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.” The UMC cannot be a complacent church. We must be a church that is passionate about our relationship with God. This fire must continue, both personally and communally. If we do not have that passionate love relationship for God, all of our ministry efforts will ultimately fall short. Passion for God is not an option, it is a command.
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframesof your houses and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Continuing to move from the back, Wesley tells us that we are to hold fast to our discipline. Not our Book of Discipline but the reason we got the name Methodists in the first place. As Methodists, we believe that their is a method to disciple-making, we call these means of grace, and they essential to becoming who God has called us to be. Yet, we have lost this crucial part of our identity. While we have this current General Rule of Discipleship, “To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” One, most Methodists do not know about this rule, and secondly, we lack the accountability system to follow it. The early Methodists had a small-group relational community called classes that existed for accountability in others walk with God. This was not optional, but was a requirement for membership in Methodist churches until the early 1900s. Our discipline is severely lacking. Few churches have requirements for membership, and fewer keep those members accountable for being disciples. This is one of the original staples of Methodism that we must return to. We need to be a discipline community built on small groups that are centered on accountability and covenant. For more information, read my Senior Paper or go to the Covenant Discipleship webpage. We all know what happens when we lack discipline with our money or with our exercise habits, why would we expect anything else, when we lack discipline in our faith?
Wesley tell us that we are in danger if we lose our spirit. Some of this has to do with the passion that I mentioned earlier, but also we need to get caught up in the Holy Spirit. We cannot be a church that ignores the leading of the Spirit. I’m not thinking that our churches need to include a speaking in tongues section during their Sunday morning worship service, but I am thinking more in terms of the sanctified life. As Methodists, we must believe that Christian Perfection, being perfect in love, is not just an ideal, but it is a reality. A reality, not of our own doing, but only by the inward work of the Holy Spirit, who can and does transform us. We must not quench the Spirit, but be an open channel for the Spirit to work through us.
Finally, Wesley told us that we must hold fast to our doctrine. This is something that we have held true on, at least officially as our Articles of Religion in the Book of Discipline are the same as they were when we first began, but unofficially and we have all heard it, “You can be a United Methodist and believe whatever you want.” There are some excellent books on our doctrine and possible means of renewal check out this one by Willimon, Abraham, and Oden. While we are a church that continually re-evaluates our understanding of God (And Praise God that we do), We are a church that must hold to our doctrinal standards. My seminary professor referred to us a “soft confessional church.” While, we don’t have a rigid set of beliefs, like some denominations, we do have a boundary of beliefs that we must maintain. Restoring our doctrinal identity will help to heal our greatly divided church. Jesus said “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannotstand.” (Mark 3:25). I am not wanting the UM church to lose the ability ot think and let think, but I believe that we are called as a church to know our doctrinal standards and to live up to them.
If we want to be a vibrant, relevant church, then we must be a church and a people that are passionate in love with God. We love God before we love anything else, and we love God more than we love anything else. If we fail to do this, we fail. We also must regain the discipline and the accountability that were crucial for the early Methodists. We must get caught up in the move of the spirit and trust that God is present and working in this world. Finally, we must learn our doctrine and then live our doctrine. If you read all this, then you probably love the UMC like I do. Let us together refuse to allow the church to become that dead sect, and instead together let us be caught on fire, so the whole world can watch us burn!