What is the Book of Discipline?

One of the beautiful and cherished features of the Methodist tradition is the way in which the pastors are brought into a shared covenant with one another. The whole appointment system under an episcopal form of government (bishops and district superintendents) is made possible because of a shared covenant. We pledge to stand together. We all live as those under authority. If, in the wisdom of the bishop’s council, our services and ministry is needed in another location, we pledge to go – and do it with joy – because we believe in the shared covenant which undergirds the wonderful biblical principle that ministry is not about “us.” It is about building the church of Jesus Christ. A covenant, both in the biblical tradition, as well as in modern day United Methodism is not some vague notion, but it is rooted in specific agreements which, in our case, is outlined in the Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline is what binds us together and provides the “grammar” of that covenant. This has served us well since 1784.

It is, therefore, with dismay that Bishop Mel Talbert has called upon United Methodist pastors to defy the Book of Discipline regarding homosexual practice as being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and, instead, begin to marry homosexual couples. Yet, to do this defies the very covenant we have all agreed to follow. For a bishop to openly declare his defiance against the Book of Discipline and to receive no rebuke from the Council of Bishops is truly startling.

I am not writing this to focus on the homosexual issue per se, though that is the presenting issue which Bishop Talbert has thrust upon us. It applies to pastors who raise doubts about the bodily resurrection of Christ, or the efficacy of the cross, or a whole host of other examples which also break with the Book of Discipline. Bishop Talbert’s open defiance of the Book of Discipline is particularly worth noting because he is a bishop of the church. If a bishop is allowed to openly defy our discipline, then our covenant is broken and no minister can be held accountable. When a bishop is consecrated they take a vow before God to “uphold the discipline and the order of the church.” If this covenant is broken, then the Methodist church becomes a sea of independent churches with no shared faith or doctrine or experience. I applaud the Asbury Seminary graduates who pastor some of the largest churches in the country who initiated the open letter to the bishops asking why Bishop Talbert has not been held accountable (see www.faithfulumc.com). We eagerly await a response from the Council of Bishops. I was not a part of the letter which these pastors wrote, but they must have felt almost ashamed to write it. It is like people from a small town gathering together and pleading with the duly elected sheriff of the town to please uphold the law.

What many in the church long for is a church which is faithful to historic Christianity. What we long for are pastors and episcopal leaders who once again share in a common covenant. What we long for is a growing confidence in the Word of God, the supremacy of Christ and the power of the preached gospel in our ranks. What we long for is a faithful church, even as we recall the words of John Wesley when he 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. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

How long, O Lord, must we wait? Have mercy upon us and deliver us in this hour of need.

Missional Leaders for the Church

Demographics don’t lie, you just have to be willing to listen to them. For example, if China has 90 million believers, but the vast majority of those believers are under 30 years old and the United States has 90 million evangelicals and the majority of those are over 50, then there is a demographic story that is not “heard” when one is looking at the raw statistics of Christian affiliation.

The USA is one of the fastest emerging mission fields in the world, but Christians probably won’t “feel” it for another 20 years.  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA the more likely one will question the knowability of truth.  This means a likely rejection of anything that might be described as divine, objective revelation.  The loss of confidence in human reason is almost palatable.  The language of “I think” has moved to the language of “I feel” which is quickly moving to the language of“whatever.”  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA, the more likely you are to discover a distrust of authority, institutions and, indeed, of all hierarchies. This includes a deep distrust in government, in churches and in church structures, including clergy. It also includes a rejection of any kind of metaphysical hierarchy which posits God as the sovereign Lord over His created order.

The younger the person, especially if they are white, the more likely one will find a growing skepticism about the reliability and trustworthiness of historical narratives. History is viewed as hopelessly mired in flawed and biased, agenda pushing perspectives which cloud any possibility of objectivity. Thus, all historical accounts  – whether the iconic account of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, or St. Luke writing his gospel, now lay beneath a new layer of skepticism and historical cynicism. According to quite a few Millennials, Bart Erhman and Dan Brown may have as much a bead on historicity as St. Luke and St. Paul.

On top of all this, we should not forget the gnawing loss of confidence in the inevitability of human progress, a belief cherished since the Enlightenment. The generation now in their twenties is the first in the modern period to not end their careers “better off” than their parents.  They will have less purchasing power, less post-retirement security and a shorter life expectancy (by as much as five years) than their parents.  This is the first backwards shift in life expectancy in the modern period. If you are under 25 years old you will almost surely live to see the day when the most Christian countries in the world will be China and India, whereas it will be quite difficult to find Anglo Christians in the pacific northwest. By 2050 the United States will probably have 329 million Christians (more than any country on earth) but the demographic of that Christian will be increasingly Hispanic, Korean, Chinese or India, and far less white Anglos of European descent.

These demographic facts are not easy to accept.  It is much easier to turn up the volume on our latest Christian CD, point to the hundreds of cars in mega-church parking lots, or pick up the latest Christian romance novel, rather than soberly face the fact that we are not passing the faith down to the next generation.   What should we do?  Here are three suggestions.

1.  Your church should plant at least two ethnic, non-Anglo churches in the next decade.  If you are in a major urban center, you will need to plant four.  This does not necessarily imply purchasing land and building buildings.  It may be as simple as starting a new service at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday focused on a nearby Korean or Hispanic populations.

2.  You must introduce rigorous catechesis for all members, young and old, enquiring and established.  We must re-teach the historic faith to this generation with a special eye to interacting with key objections and misunderstandings which are prevalent in our society.   Every pastor should insist on a course no less than six weeks long which introduces the candidate to the faith (historically, doctrinally and experientially).  After baptism, even more instruction, discipleship, and mentoring should follow, which brings people more fully into what it means to be a member of the church.  Incorporating members into small group discipleship settings must be the norm, not the exception.

3.  Evangelism must be at the heart of the church’s life.  The church must regain confidence in the gospel and the clarity of the good news.  I will let others speak for their own denomination, but one of the most striking observations I have made of my own denomination (United Methodism) is how confused and inconsistent and muddled the whole thing is.  Enormous energy is spent just trying to remember or recapture the gospel and fighting heresies at every turn. In the process, tens of thousands go unevangelized. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble and important struggle and every soldier in this struggle deserves our support and prayers.  But, I do long for the day when United Methodism gets refocused on our historic message and witness.  I see signs this is happening, but we’ve got at least twelve years before we see the tide turned. Like the famous frog in the pot of water slowing coming to a boil, the church has slowly taken on the skepticism and doubts of the world regarding the power of Scripture, the centrality of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation. But, the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation.   Let me say it as clear as I can:  There are not multiple paths to salvation.  Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ.   Jesus Christ really and truly and bodily and historically rose from the dead.  This good news is for the world. Jesus Christ is building the community of the redeemed, which is His body, the church.  We are called to live out all the realities of the coming New Creation in the present age.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, shall we?


The Latino and Hispanic Voice in Global Christianity

This past weekend was the dedication of the Justo Gonzalez Center at Asbury Theological Seminary (Orlando). For those who may not know, Justo Gonzalez is the author of the multi-volume, A Story of Christianity, the premier survey of church history from a Latin American author. I read his church history volumes first in 1981, thirty years ago, as a young student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I studied church history under Dr. Nigel Kerr who was not only a wonderful scholar, but a missionary from Latin America who first opened my eyes to the amazing vibrancy of the Latin American church. These were the days when Gestavo Gutierrez published his landmark book, A Theology of Liberation (still in print today!). The mainstream evangelical world in N. America didn’t like it, mostly because it exposed how much we had domesticated the gospel in North America. Of course, looking back, liberation theologians had to learn the lesson that liberation and justice themes are better built on Biblical than Marxist grounds. Nevertheless, I learned to see the Bible differently – and church history differently because of Gonzalez and Gutierrez.

Nigel Kerr at Gordon-Conwell told us not to write the Latin Americans off, but to listen carefully to them. He said, “Just wait, because in thirty years they are going to be the leaders of the next generation of the church.” I never forgot that. It is now thirty years later, and the Latin American voice is rising – 50 million in the USA alone, not to mention the explosion of Pentecostal Christianity in Latin America, finally breaking the shackles of Christendom. It was in Nigel Kerr’s class that I first read Gonzalez’ church history volumes. Gonzalez, born in Cuba, was the youngest graduate to earn a PhD from Yale University and has over the decades been one of the most potent voices encouraging the development of Latino scholarship and helping Latinos to find their theological and ecclesiological voices. This would include Asbury’s own church historian, Zaida Perez, who serves on the Orlando campus and is the dean of our School of Urban Ministries.

Asbury worked hard to bring Justo Gonzalez into a relationship with Asbury, provide a research center and, in general, create a bridge between Asbury and the Hispanic world. This past week Dr. Gonzalez came to Asbury and hosted over a hundred Christian leaders from all over the world. At the ribbon cutting and conference we celebrated this new partnership. Major figures in the Western academy were there such as Dan Aleshire, President of the Association of Theological Schools and Michael Gilligan, President of the Luce Foundation, as well as major Hispanic leaders such as Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Jesse Miranda, Stan Perea, Alvin Padilla, as well as, of course, Justo Gonzalez himself. Delegates from our sister seminaries arrived as well as leaders with decades of experience serving in Latin America such as Chuck Van Engen from Fuller Seminary and Leeland Eliason from Bethel. I could go on, but it was a major step forward for Asbury Seminary. From across the nation many eyes turned to Asbury Seminary and they are seeing that we are stepping up to the plate saying, yes, we know that there are 50 million Hispanics in the United States. Yes, we know that they are the fastest growing demographic in N. America. Yes, we know that they are leading some of the most rapidly growing congregations and communities in America. Yes, we are here to serve, to partner and to explore together how we can best equip, train and learn from this dynamic sector of the Church.

Thirty years ago Nigel Kerr told me to keep my eyes open and my ears attentive to what God was doing among Hispanic believers. Now, we all see what he saw. Thanks be to God!

Timothy C. Tennent 2011

Theologically Educate

Brothers and sisters, as your President, I call this community to serious, sustained theological reflection.  Our mission statement calls for us to “theologically educate.” What does this mean? Properly speaking to “theologically educate” forms heart, mind and action. Beloved, it is not enough to declare that “your heart is in the right place.” Your mind must also be in the right place. Your feet and hands must also be in the right place. Traditionally, theology has served four functions:  catechetical, apologetical, homiletical, and pastoralCatechetical is to train children and new believers in the faith, thus assuring that the apostolic message and not some “other gospel” is being transmitted.  This happens in homes, in daily life and in confirmation classes.  Catechesis comes from the verb “to echo.”  We must assure that new and current believers under our charge fully understand and “echo” the apostolic faith.  Apologetical is the role of theology in helping to apply the Biblical text to whatever challenges happen to beset the church in any given generation;  for us, this might mean everything from postmodern epistemologies, to philosophical relativism, to the new atheism, to the commoditization of culture, and so forth. The homiletical function is our commitment to train men and women to properly and effectively proclaim God’s word, evangelistically to the world as well as faithful instruction to the church by applying the Word of God faithfully to our lives. Finally, the pastoral function calls us to shepherd God’s flock, care for those in need, comfort the bereaved, and counsel the distressed. Today, looking across the evangelical landscape, catechesis is in disarray, apologetics is weak; our preaching has ground down to bland moralizing, and our pastoral efforts have become captive to pragmatism.

Asbury stands ready, with this esteemed faculty, to theologically educate a new generation of church leaders. Theology matters.  It was Thomas Oden who famously remarked that “when a pastor (theologian) fails to distinguish between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, it is roughly equivalent to a physician forgetting the difference between disease and health.”1  For if we don’t have theological stability, we cannot have ethical stability, and if we don’t have ethical stability, we won’t have stability of worship, and if we do not have stability of worship, then we are no longer related vitally and necessarily to the headship of Jesus Christ.  The Apostolic proclamation will be lost in a post-modern sea of autonomous self-definitions.

If today’s evangelical church is really marked by shallowness, thinness and cultural sameness, then, to use the phrase of Jack Davis, perhaps it is time we become “deep, thick and different.”  A deep church is one which takes the encounter with a holy God seriously and is shaped by spiritual disciplines, holiness and catechesis.  A deep church is the opposite of a shallow one.  We are to exhibit a deep understanding of the holiness and weightiness of God.  In Hebrew the word for honor and glory is kbd (kabod), meaning “heavy.”  God has become far too lightweight in contemporary evangelicalism.  The great sense of God’s transcendence and holiness must, once again, overtake post-modernity’s sense of over familiarity and casualness in God’s presence.  Indeed, we are profoundly in need of recapturing the sense of God’s presence. Nietzsche’s madman who described churches as “the tombs and sepulchers of God” does, in fact, capture something of the movement from the real presence of Christ to the real absence of Christ in the experience of many churches today. A thick church contrasts with a thin one and is characterized by thick relationships and commitments and where worship is not a product we consume, but the great ontological orientation of our lives. We are the people of the Risen Lord. The consumeristic, therapeutic self of modernity is, through the gospel, the trinitarian, ecclesial self of the New Creation.  A different church is one not marked by cultural sameness, but, instead, is a manifestation of the in-breaking of the New Creation. A visitor should feel somewhat out of place when they walk into our midst, as they encounter people with a radically distinctive orientation. A different church is one which is profoundly distinct from the culture in its “ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior.”2  To be different is to be a community marked by metanoia. Brothers and sisters, may the shallowness, thinness and cultural sameness of our churches become churches, under God and your leadership, which are deep, thick and different.

1 Thomas C. Oden, Agenda for Theology:  After Modernity, What?  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 59.

2 John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God (Grand Rapids:  IVP Academic, 2010), 32.

(Part 5 of 6 from Dr. Timothy C. Tennent’s Convocation address at Asbury Theological Seminary on September 6, 2011)

Just joining this series? Go back here to start at the beginning of this 6 part blog series.

Our Mission to Theologically Educate

In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably described the message of Protestant liberalism as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”1  In the ensuing years Niebuhr’s statement has become one of the more well known summaries of the failure of Protestant liberalism to properly reflect the apostolic message.

Tragically, Niebuhr’s devastating critique is on the brink of being equally applicable to contemporary, evangelical Christianity. Who has lost sight more of the depth of human sin, the certainty of God’s judgment and the call to repentance and transformation at the feet of a crucified savior than today’s populistic, evangelical churches? I knew something was amiss when I read the line from the well known pastor Walt Kallestad who wrote in his book, Entertainment Evangelism, that “the church needs to be friendlier than Disneyland.”2 I knew that somehow we had lost our way when prayers of repentance and confession quietly disappeared from the order of services. I knew we were charting some new path when I heard Jason Upton’s worship chorus, “Into the Sky.” Thankfully, there is a growing realization among many of us who call ourselves evangelical that we have inadvertently participated in an obscuring of the Gospel which is not unlike what we have so vociferously decried in Protestant liberalism. It seems that Satan can work at both ends of the shop.

Asbury Theological Seminary is perhaps better poised than many to observe these dynamics since we have so many feet in so many different Christian worlds. We have one foot in the mainline church (we provide more ordained ministers for the United Methodist church than any seminary in America), one foot in the holiness movement (we were founded by a 19th C. holiness, revivalistic preacher) and one foot in contemporary evangelicalism (we serve over 90 different denominations, many of them part of the evangelical movement). I guess this makes us a three footed toad!

It may be true that the house of liberal Protestantism has nearly burned to the ground and we’ve been standing there screaming with our water hose for almost a century, but, brothers and sisters, we must recognize that our own kitchen is on fire and within one generation, the whole evangelical house will soon be engulfed in flames.

If liberalism is guilty of demythologizing the miraculous, we have surely been guilty of trivializing it. If liberalism is guilty of turning all theological statements into anthropological ones, surely we must be found guilty of making Christianity just another face of the multi-headed Hydra of American, market-driven consumerism. If liberalism can be charged with making the church a gentler, kindler version of the Kiwanis club, we must be willing to accept the charge that we have managed to reinvent the gospel, turning it into a privatized subset of one’s individual faith journey. I realize that there are powerful, faithful churches in every tradition who are already modeling the very future this message envisions, but we must also allow our prophetic imagination to enable us to see what threatens to engulf us.

I’ve been among those who have pointed out the theological weakness captured by such phrases of Protestant liberalism, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” or “open, progressive and inclusive.” These types of phrases are filled with considerable cultural codes which say many things about many things, but precious little about the Christian Gospel. But, perhaps we would do well to exegete some of our own signs and slogans.

A common evangelical sign which could be found across America might read something like this: “Traditional service, 8:30, contemporary 10:00, blended service, 11:30.” Next line: “Welcome – come as you are, no need to dress up.” Then, on the final line there will inevitably be some pithy gospel message. Let me share a few signs actually displayed outside evangelical churches: “Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.” Another sign reads, “Try Jesus – if you don’t like him, the Devil will take you back.” Also cited is this: “Walmart is not the only saving place.” A church near a busy highway put this sign up: “Keep using my name in vain – I’ll make the rush hour longer – God.” Of course, if it is Christmas time, you will inevitably see the classic one, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!

If you think I am being unfair by citing these examples of public messaging, I suggest that the inside message is often not much different. Evangelicalism is awash with the constant drumbeat message of informality, the assumed wisdom of consumerism, reliance on technology, love of entertainment, pursuit of comfort, materialism and personal autonomy – all held together by easy-to-swallow, pithy gospel statements.

But, let’s push the pause button and do a little exegesis of ourselves, shall we? The next three blog entries will examine these evangelical signs more carefully.

(Part 1 of 6 from Dr. Timothy C. Tennent’s Convocation address at Asbury Theological Seminary on September 6, 2011)

1 Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (NY: Harper Row, 1959 edition), 193.

2 Walt Kallestad, Entertainment Evangelism (Nashville, Abingdon, 1996), 81.

Conclusion to Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Hillary of Poitier (300-368) was one of the great defenders of the faith in the early church. He is known as the “hammer of the Arians” because of his vigorous opposition to this Christological heresy which had spread so widely in his day. The Arians believed that Jesus Christ was not the eternal second person of the Triune God, but rather a created being before the foundation of the world. However, Bishop Hillary vigorously reminded the church that the position of Arius was not faithful to the Apostolic witness. In time, Arianism did not prevail, and the church re-emerged. In our own time, many of us have looked around and found that many expressions of Protestant Christianity have pushed beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy and begun to seriously erode the unity of Nicea. Many liberal Protestants – and a few daring Roman Catholics – finally came out in the open and, like Arius of old, denied the true Deity of Christ or the inseparable link between a truly Risen Christ and the Church. Christ, they argued, must be made more reasonable for modern men and women. Christ did not truly, bodily rise they insisted, but arose in the preaching of the Apostles. Some boldly claimed that the Enlightenment had finally delivered the crushing blow and called for the church to re-invent itself along lines more compatible with modernity, lest the church have no future in a secularized world. More recently, in some of the post-modern readings, we are called to all experience Christ in our own way and not be bothered by the confines of some ancient Apostolic proclamation. Post-modernism urges us to live as independent islands in a sea of meaninglessness. Your autonomous opinions, they argue, are just as meaningful and valid as those who deliberated at Nicea or who were first commissioned by the Risen Lord. A hermeneutic of proclamation and faith is replaced by a hermeneutic of suspicion and doubt and both called equally valid. According to this scheme, theology, it seems, is really – after all – only anthropology. The church is a human construct, not a divinely ordained community. Yet, in the face of all of this – though the tempest rages for a season, the church will, once again, be reconstituted into the truth.

With the emergence of global Christianity we are witnessing many new and faithful expressions of the church from other quarters, mainly in the non-western world and the great unanimity of the church throughout the ages marches on, because God is the one who preserves his church and its living witness to Jesus Christ. The church is constantly being reconstituted in the truth. Harvey Cox, in his book Fire from Heaven observes this phenomenon, calling it in the words of the Frenchman Gilles Kepel, “the revenge of God.”1  Indeed, every time the New Testament is opened and the Gospel is proclaimed it happens again and again throughout the world. The church, therefore, is called to persevere as the public witnesses of the apostolic message. We are a living community united to the Risen Christ. The word “saint” never appears in the singular a single time in the New Testament. The word for church, ekklesia denotes a public assembly, not a private cult.2  We are a community of witnesses and we cannot bear witness in isolation from our brothers and sisters in the faith around the world in space or the witness of the church through the ages in time. We are united to them both in worship and in witness in what the Apostles’ Creed calls the communion of the saints, the communio sanctorum. To forsake either that worship or that witness is to cross the boundaries and to cease to be the true Church.

Today, 2000 years into this great proclamation, after having weathered every storm from Gnosticism to Arianism to Protestant Liberalism to the current storm of post-modernism, I remain convinced that the true church will always re-emerge as the faithful witness. I say this because as I review the top eight reasons why I am a Methodist, I am painfully aware that many Methodist churches do not exhibit these great truths today. However, if we are all witnesses and stewards of a worship and a witness summoned forth by the Father, through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and heralded through the ages by countless millions, then our voice joins the great chorus of other faithful Christians throughout the world and back through time. In this respect, despite my deep love for Methodism, I still remain far more identified with the common evangelical witness of all true churches than any particular outpost. As I noted at the outset of this series, our particularity only has meaning if it is built on the great common doctrinal, experiential and historical truths, which unite all true churches together. For if we don’t have doctrinal stability, we cannot have ethical stability and if we don’t have ethical stability we don’t have stability of worship and if we don’t have stability of worship, we are no longer related vitally and necessarily to the headship of Jesus Christ.  Our historic boundaries would become lost in a post-modern sea of autonomous self-definitions.

What a contrast from the Apostle John, who gives that final testimony at the end of time which gives us the courage to know that in the Final Day the Church will be preserved out of every snare. For he hears this act of worship in heaven, testifying not to another gospel or something novel, but to the Apostolic proclamation: “You were slain and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…” and so “to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever” (Rev. 5:9,13).

1 Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century, (Addison Wesley Longman, 1995) xvii.

2 Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) 501-536 .

Missional Movement – Social Consciousness: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The sixth reason I am a Methodist lies in the fact that Methodism has managed to retain its DNA as a missional movement. Historically, Methodism was born as a renewal movement within the Anglican Church. Wesley carried this missional renewal emphasis right out into the streets of his day. He brought the Gospel to broken, hurting people who had been marginalized and forgotten by the church of his time. Wesley famously declared that “the world is my parish.”1

Throughout the history of the church there has been a healthy tension between the active and contemplative traditions. The earliest monastic traditions idealized desert hermits such as St. Antony (251-356) who is often cited as the founder of monasticism. They were the forerunners of the great contemplative stream. Our minds run quickly to the great masters of this tradition such as Bernard of Clairvaux, the Rhineland mystics (e.g., St. Hildegarde or Meister Eckhart), Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila or Thomas Merton. This broad contemplative tradition has given the church many gifts, such as the Rule of St. Benedict and the lectio divina. This remains a long and wonderful tradition.

However, there were others who understood spiritual formation to occur in the world. This is the great active tradition. The mendicant orders such as Dominicans and Franciscans also renounced the world and entered into the consecrated life. However, they lived out their formation actively in the world, preaching the gospel and serving the poor. St. Dominic founded the Dominicans as a preaching order. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans as an order to serve the poor. Wesley loved both the contemplative and active traditions, but he was drawn more powerfully to the latter. Wesley formed his disciples in the context of actively serving in the world. Wesley understood, for example, that if you really want to be formed spiritually you should be eager to go out into a place of pain, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty serving the poor. While Wesley remained deeply committed to prayer and contemplation, his vision of the church existed as profoundly missional. Wesley took his new preachers out to the brick yards and into the prisons. For Wesley, not only is the world his parish, the world is God’s greatest spiritual workshop. It is on the anvil of a suffering world that God shapes and forms his disciples to understand what it means to take up their cross and follow him. Thus, the Wesleyan tradition is an active tradition, i.e., we believe that spiritual formation occurs in the context of active service in the world.

1Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 25, Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 616. I quote this from the 1980 edition because I agree that this famous letter was more likely written to John Clayton on March 28, 1739, rather than to James Hervey on March 20, 1739.

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.

Conversion through faith in Jesus Christ: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Third, Methodists affirm (along with most evangelical movements) the importance of conversion. On May 24th each year Methodism around the world celebrates one of the most famous conversions since St. Paul on the road to Damascus. On May 24th Wesley “unwillingly” went down to a Christian society meeting and there encountered a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. During the reading of Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle, John Wesley experienced a profound conversion. Listen to Wesley’s words as recorded in his diary:

About a quarter before nine, while the reader was describing the change which 
God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. 
I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that 
He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” 1

Scholars and historians still debate what precisely happened to Wesley that night. What is clear is that, at some deep level, Wesley really heard the central truth of the Reformation: namely, that we are justified through the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. We cannot add to that work. It is no mistake that Wesley’s transformation came as he listened to someone reading Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans. Martin Luther had experienced a similar conversion in his so called “tower experience” in the Augustinian Black Cloister in Wittenburg. As Luther read Paul’s words in Romans 1:17 on the way the righteousness of God is revealed through faith, he recalled: “I felt myself born anew and to enter through open gates into paradise itself!”

This emphasis on conversion was re-discovered in the Reformation, and by Wesley’s day, was a vital feature of the pietistic movement. Finally, conversion experiences became fully embedded in Methodism because of Wesley’s own experience, and later, through the strong emphasis on revival preaching and conversion in the camp meetings and in the frontier church planting work of American Methodism.

1 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Journal Entry, May 24, 1738 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 103.

Means of Grace: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Second, I am a Methodist because I believe in the “means of grace.” John Wesley lived two centuries after the start of the Reformation. This gave him a unique perspective on the strengths and the weaknesses of the Reformation. On the positive side, Wesley was a strong supporter of the major emphases of the magisterial reformers. Wesley could affirm all the great solas of the Reformation: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone. However, Wesley also understood that the restoration of the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the emphasis on the sole sufficiency of the work of Christ in our salvation could, tragically, lead some in the church to adopt a more antinomian view regarding the life of holiness and the call to continue growing in Christ. Wesley saw that in the years since the invigorating message of the Reformation, the churches were doctrinally and theologically sound, but the lived experience of Christians was still at a very low ebb. Wesley responded by developing a more robust understanding of how God’s grace works throughout the life of a believer. He was a keen listener to the non-magisterial Reformers such as the pietists, as well as the earlier patristic Christians (eastern and western) who could assist him in this reflection. It is here that Wesley developed his views regarding the means of grace. Wesley defines the “means of grace” as “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”1  Wesley goes on to identify three primary “means of grace” which God has given to us: prayer (private or public), Scripture (reading or listening), and the Lord’s Supper. Now, quite a wide array of Christian groups accepts the general idea that prayer, Scripture and the Lord’s Supper are “means of grace.” They are widely understood as the general means by which Christians grow stronger in their faith and grow in the grace of Christ. In other words, they are God’s instruments to sanctify us. However, Wesley has a much broader understanding of the means of grace. What makes Wesleyan thought distinctive is that he sees these means of grace as a channel to convey not just sanctifying grace, but also preventing (prevenient), and justifying grace. In other words, Wesley understood that prayer, Scripture reading and even the Lord’s Supper can be used by God to convert someone to the faith. Wesley understood this because the “means of grace” have no power in themselves to save anyone. Rather, they have the power to convey all forms of grace precisely because Christ himself is present in prayer, in the reading of Scripture, and in the Lord’s Supper. So, for Wesley, there is no such thing as an autonomous person reading Scripture, or praying, or taking the Lord’s Supper. These are all done in the presence of the Risen Christ. Remember, Christ is the only true “means of grace.” The customary “means of grace” are given to the church as channels to Christ himself. So, we should exercise our free wills and avail ourselves of the full range of the “means of grace.” Wesley encouraged people to wait in the means of grace, not outside them. He wrote, “all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the means which he hath ordained; in using, not in laying them aside.”2

Wesley conveys a deep reliance upon Christ not only in coming to faith, but in remaining in the faith. In Wesley’s journal he records a time in his life when he felt a complete lack of faith. He writes about it on March 4, 1738 (remember, Wesley’s heartwarming experience at Aldersgate does not occur until May 24, 1738). Wesley decided to quit preaching because, he reasoned, “how can you preach to others when you have no faith yourself.” Wesley asked his good friend Peter Böhler if he should give up preaching. Böhler famously replied, “Preach faith till you have it; and then because you have it, you will preach faith.”3  This captures well the importance of waiting in the means of grace, not outside the means of grace.

1. The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Sermon 16, II.1, Means of Grace (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 187.

2. Ibid., Sermon 16, III.1, Means of Grace, 190.

3. Ibid., vol. 1, 2, Journals from October 14, 1735 to November 29, 1745, Journal entry, Saturday, March 4, 1738, 86.