Monday, January 30, 2023

Kirk Sims: Is the Essence of Methodism about Method?

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Kirk Sims. Rev. Dr. Sims is a United Methodist missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries, serving as a consultant and theological educator based in Prague. He is an ordained elder in the North Georgia Annual Conference.

One misconception about Methodism is that we are all about method. In fact, it’s in our name! Yes, Wesley and the other members of the Holy Club of Oxford had a method to their pursuit of living holy lives. When others used “Methodists” in a derisive way, they embraced it as a name of honor. And yes, Methodists have been known for keeping meticulous records and holding to a Book of Discipline.

However, to conclude that we are primarily about method is to miss the essence of what it means to be a Methodist. In his widely distributed pamphlet, John Wesley described “The Character of a Methodist.” According to Wesley, “We do not place our religion, or any part of it, in being attached to any peculiar mode of speaking, any quaint or uncommon set of expressions. … Nor do we desire to be distinguished by actions, customs, or usages, of an indifferent nature.”

Rather, he described a Methodist as “one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him.” Wesley chose to speak in general terms. A Methodist gives thanks in all things, prays without ceasing, loves neighbors, keeps God’s commands, serves, does good, and thinks and lets others think.

Wesley does not define Methodists by a method, but by a way of life and commitment to Christ.

Sure, Wesley had his forms, but even in his lifetime, he would innovate and adapt based on what he was seeing in society and what was working—all for the aim of ensuring a people with the love of God shed abroad in their hearts. According to Howard Snyder, “John Wesley saw that new wine must be put into new wineskins. So the story of Wesley’s life and ministry is the story of creating and adapting structures to serve the burgeoning revival movement.”

Wesley could see that some things may work in one context but not another. For instance, even though he embraced an episcopal polity, he was certain to say that was not the only way prescribed by the apostles or the scriptures. And when he chose an edited version of the Articles of Religion for what would become the Methodist Episcopal Church, one phrase remained.

“It is not necessary that rites and ceremonies should in all places be the same, or exactly alike; for they have been always different, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. … Every particular church may ordain, change, or abolish rites and ceremonies, so that all things may be done to edification.”

For Wesley, forms were secondary to a living and active faith. In fact, Wesley said, “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.” A living [Methodist] faith is not about perpetuating forms of religion but a living faith.

The early Methodists borrowed and innovated. Wesley learned and adapted the approach of bands from Peter Böhler and the Moravians, and he sort of stumbled into the concept of classes in Bristol. The high churchman “submitted to being more vile” through field preaching as he met people where they were. Francis Asbury knew he could not simply be appointed superintendent for America. The democratic culture demanded that he be elected by Conference. As the faith spread, circuit riders saw that the camp meeting was an effective means of evangelism, so they embraced that form.

In fact, Methodism is at its best when it uses forms that fit cultural contexts and point to deeper meanings. When the emphasis has been on making the love of God shed abroad, we have often seen growth—when we are less worried about maintaining a strict method or form.

In the latter half of the 20th Century in the US, many churches began to use instruments in worship similar to the style of music that people listened to in their free time. Methodists in India saw the value of retreating in culturally relevant ways, and Christ-centered Ashrams developed there. In many African contexts, it is fitting to express joy through dance, and many Methodists have incorporated collective dance into their worship. And in recent days, we have seen innovation in the digital realm.

As Methodists, our “method” is to point people to a living faith, one where the love of God is shed abroad.

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