Centrality of Worship: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The ninth reason I am a Methodist is because of the great emphasis on worship. Methodists sing their theology! Wesley knew that it is not enough merely to believe and to confess the great truths of the faith. We must enter into the very presence of the Triune God in worship. Music was one of the main ways early Methodists passed on the faith.

Wesley lived at a time when the standard practice of the church in worship was to sing the Psalms, often with a brief Christian doxology at the end. However, just prior to the emergence of Wesley lived a man named Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watts is sometimes known as the father of English hymnody because of his pioneer work in introducing new compositions of worship into the church which were not directly built around a Psalm or a specific scriptural paraphrase. This sparked a revival in worship which captured the life of Charles Wesley. Charles was a gifted poet and wrote thousands of new hymns to capture the great truths of the Christian faith and reinforce the grand meta-narrative of God’s redemptive story. Hymns such as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Christmas), And Can it Be? (Redemption), O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (Pentecost), Christ the Lord is Risen Today (Easter), and Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (New Creation) are recognized all over the world as powerful hymns which capture the great themes of the Christian faith. Methodism is known for excellent singing and worship. Even today, every Methodist hymnal still reprints Wesley’s original instructions for congregational singing which includes such classic lines as, “Beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”  Methodists have taken this to heart as well as almost any Christian group in the world.

Discipleship, Catechesis in Community: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The fifth reason I am a Methodist is because of the strong emphasis on discipleship in our tradition. Eighteenth-century Oxford where Wesley studied was a place filled with spiritual apathy, deism, practical atheism, and low-Christology Arianism. In short, it was a world quite a bit like North America and Europe today. John and his brother Charles decided to gather a few students together to “observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the university.” The statutes (long ignored) required that students engage in the “frequent and careful reading of the Scripture.” The Wesley brothers decided to promote this by forming a small group for studying the Greek New Testament. It became known as the Holy Club. They were so methodical in their practice that the people in the Holy Club were given the nickname Methodist. So the very origin of the word Methodist lies rooted in a small-group-formation approach to catechesis.

Catechesis is, of course, a very important feature of the Reformed tradition. In my own experience, the Reformed emphasis on catechesis has been very effective in teaching the great doctrines of the faith. What is distinctive about the Methodist emphasis is how it seeks to go beyond simply giving correct answers to doctrinal questions. For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life (the word catechesis comes from a root word meaning “to echo”). This is a natural extension of the Methodist theme to focus not only on becoming a Christian, but what it means to be a Christian. Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model of discipleship. Normally, new believers were put through an initial instruction period prior to their baptism. This was an introduction to the Christian faith and culminated on Easter Sunday when the new believers were baptized. However, after baptism, the new Christian was put through a second phase, known as mystagogy, which brought the believer into the mystery of what it meant to be a member of the church. This was a period of instruction after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost. Wesley took this idea and united it with the community model of the early Celtic Christians. This developed an entire system of putting new believers in small groups or classes and various discipleship bands. The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care. These small groups would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins. Members in sin would be disciplined. The new Christians would also be instructed in some aspect of the Apostolic faith. They would worship together by singing a song. The meeting would be over in about an hour and everyone would participate. To this day this is still an excellent model.

The Role of Worship: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 8

This blog completes an eight part series on the distinctive of Wesleyan catechesis.  These blogs on catechesis are actually part of a larger project I am exploring through my blogs as to how we rebuild the meta-narrative in the church today.  One of the earliest writers to recognize the collapse of modernity as we in the post-Enlightenment world understood it was the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 article entitled, The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge.[1] In the article, he coined the word “post-modern” (the term had actually been used by several others even in the 19th century, but not in the way it is used today) and stated what has now been observed by dozens of writers in the subsequent years and that is that the fundamental reality of our time as Western civilization is a growing crisis of truth.  In the modern world there was a belief in an overarching truth – whether informed by a Christian world-view or even a secular belief in progress and the perfectibility of humanity.  Lyotard argued that modern societies produced order and stability by generating what he called “grand narratives” or “master narratives.”  In America, for example, one “grand narrative” is that democracy is the most enlightened and rational form of government and that implementing of democracy will lead to universal happiness.   In contrast, the Marxist “grand narrative” posited that capitalism was collapsing in on itself and that, in time – and spurred by revolution – a utopian socialist world order would evolve.

In the post-modern context, we are only on a virtual voyage where one explores self-created worlds.  Post-modernism marks the movement away from claims to objectivity and a greater emphasis on fragmented forms and discontinuous narratives.  In short, the very notion of truth as Truth has begun to collapse.

Christians know that the only true “grand canopy” of meaning is found in the great redemptive work of God in the world.  However, tragically, today’s church can all too easily become co-opted by the self-referential, consumer driven, emotive oriented forces which are present in the wider society.  Nowhere has this become more evident than in contemporary worship.  There are, of course, some wonderful, truly wonderful, new choruses and hymns being written today.  There is also quite a bit of chaff in the midst of the wheat.  We must recognize afresh that the “worship wars” is not a struggle between hymns versus choruses, any more than in Wesley’s day it was over Psalms versus hymns.  The struggle must be focused on the fact that we worship the living God and all worship is a response to His revelation.

This is, of course, the crowning piece in Wesleyan catechesis: The centrality of Worship.  Wesleyans sing their theology!  Wesley knew that it is not enough merely to believe and to confess, we must enter into the very presence of the Triune God in worship.  Worship is one of the main ways Wesley forged the great meta-narrative of God’s redemption into the lives of new disciples.  Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns to capture the great truths of the Christian faith.  If we are to engage in serious catechesis today we must not neglect the renewal of worship.  Our worship must be Trinitarian, theologically rich, memorable and, most of all, faithful to the entire meta-narrative.


[1] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge (MN:  University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

“It’s about Community”: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 3

In the introduction to this series (March 28th post entitled “Catechesis is the first step in ‘making culture’”) I noted that we encounter a wide array of models for how the church passed the faith on to the next generation.  I briefly highlighted the catechumen-mystagogy model of the Patristics, the monastic/service  model of the Celtics, the Longer and Shorter catechisms which emerged at the Reformation, and so forth.  My overall argument (which is taking quite a few entries to unfold!) is that the Wesleyan model draws strengths from each of these earlier models.  I am hoping that some of my thoughts might stimulate a renewed appreciation of the Wesleyan model.

I think that the best current book in print on catechesis is Teaching the Faith – Forming the Faithful by Dr. Gary Parrett and Steve Kang.  The good news is that it is a GREAT BOOK.  I had the privilege of teaching alongside of both Parrett and Kang for many years and can testify that they are insightful, generative, theologically sound and have a deep heart for catechesis in the church.  My one criticism of the book, however, is that this landmark book makes no reference to Wesley and the genius of Wesleyan catechesis at all.  Thus, I think it is fair to say that there are huge swaths of Christian humanity out there who have no idea that Wesley is actually one of the great genius’ of catechesis.  If there was ever a leader who knew how to teach people to “echo” the faith, it was John Wesley.  This is why I thought it was worth a few blog entries.

So far, we have explored the role of prevenient grace (part 1) and waiting “in the means of grace” (part 2) which were both important building blocks to a fully Wesleyan understanding of catechesis.  The third genius of Wesley was his profound appreciation for the importance of small groups in spiritual formation.  In other words, catechesis happens in community.  The default idea in the mind of many people suggests that the best spiritual formation occurs when we are “in retreat” or in some solitary place.  As we will see today and in another blog entry in the future, Wesley challenges this notion on several fronts.

18th century Oxford was a place filled with spiritual apathy, deism, practical atheism, and low-Christology Arianism.  In short, it was quite a bit like North America and Europe today.  John and Charles Wesley decided to gather a few students together to “observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the university.”  The statutes (long ignored) required that students engage in the “frequent and careful reading of the Scripture.”  The Wesley brothers decided to promote this by forming a small group for studying the Greek New Testament.  It became known as the Holy Club.  They were so methodical in their practice that the people in the Holy Club were given the nickname, “Methodist.”  So the very origin of the word “Methodist” is rooted in a small group formation approach to catechesis.

Catechesis is not merely learning the correct answers to doctrinal questions or saying “yes” to a particular Christian formula for salvation.   For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life.   To put it bluntly, it wasn’t just about becoming a Christian, it was about being a Christian.   Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model (this was the instruction after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost which brought you into the mystery of the church), but he united the idea with the community model of the early Celtic Christians.  Later Wesley developed the entire “class system” which put all believers into small discipleship bands.  The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care (Yes, there were all female groups with female leaders, there were all male groups and there were mixed groups as well).  They would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins.  Members in sin would be disciplined.  They would also be instructed in some aspect of the Apostolic faith.  They would worship together by singing a song.  Everyone would participate.  The meeting would be over in about an hour.  It is still an excellent model.  Wesley was an expert organizer.  But, there are other features of Wesleyan catechesis which are even more remarkable which I will explore in the days ahead.