Opening Outward: A New Model of Christian Formation

This article is featured in the Thinking Like Disciples (May/June/July 2008) issue of Circuit Rider

The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This directional mission statement, in use for quite some time by the Council of Bishops, implies the transformation of church and disciple for the sake of the transformation of the world. It makes plain, as some have said, that “the church of God does not have a mission; the mission of God has a church.” The church is called to witness to and actively participate in the transformation of the world into the shalom/salaam of God's new Realm.

The world God calls us to transform is postmodern, multicultural, multi-religious, and globalized, a world of interconnected differences. Indeed, many of our settings for ministry in the United States and North America are becoming increasingly pluralistic and multi-cultural in new ways. For example, elementary children in the southern part of the United States interact with children of families who come from Pakistan, India, Mexico, Vietnam, Thailand, Bosnia, Romania, Russia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya. In one Georgia county, twenty-six languages are spoken by school age children. These same children are reared in Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Christian households, as well as those who come from secular families. But all of these religious households and families are not simply Jewish, Hindu and Muslim. They are Orthodox and Reformed and Reconstructionist Jews, Sunni, Shiite or Ismali Muslims, Orthodox, Evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians.

How are United Methodists to express openness, honest hospitality and faithful Christian understanding when entering into these new and interesting relationships? As religious plurality becomes ever more pronounced and more immediate, the ability to fully engage the world as committed Christians— loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves—requires new methods of formation.

To engage the world for the sake of its transformation, Christians now require formation that opens outward and equips the disciple to embrace “the present age” as the pluralistic, multi-faith, complex diversity that it is. Christian formation among the people called Methodist must explicitly and intentionally open the disciple to the world for the transformation of the world. It must engage the disciple in the depth and truth of other living faiths. It must nurture a deep Christian identity that also eagerly welcomes the “other.”

A new model of Christian formation must teach the disciple to understand this neighbor in order to not bear false witness against their identity or their faith. It must shape the Christian disciple to understand and love this “other” so as to love neighbor as self. And it must equip and empower the disciple to proactively create new bridges of community and reconciliation.

The foundations for this new model can be found in the work of Wesley himself and in the traditional marks of Methodism. How might we now shape our particular Methodist “way of life” to form a people not only known, say, for our singing and for our commitment to mission, but for our character as bridge-builders, ecumenists, good neighbors to all, and as those who lead the way in every community in seeking understanding and respect? To serve the present age, we must redefine “a Methodist” in an interfaith and richly textured and cultured world as one deeply rooted and grounded in the Christian faith, who is generous, inquisitive, respectful and compassionate towards our “neighbor,” and who actively seeks the welfare of the “other.”

The outlines here of a new model are to be invitational and suggestive, pointing to examples of current practices which can become constitutive components of a full-orbed model of Christian formation, opening the disciple to the world for the transformation of the world.

Commitment to Christian Unity and to the Ecumenical Spirit

Methodists have a deep commitment to building community within the Christian family. This commitment is under-girded by a “reconciling intention,” an out-reaching love. It reflects both the desire to enter into relationship and the experience of opening arms to let the other in. Methodists also have vast experience building community as well as the ability to finding common ground while articulating difference.

We come to interfaith relationships in this same 'catholic spirit,' with an eagerness to know the other and with some experience of overcoming fear of the other. To this we add the practice of Christian hospitality, the catalyst of community, in which we receive the other with the same unconditional love as we are received by God. Out of love, respect, openness and humility, we engage the biblical mandate to offer hospitality not only to the friend, but to the stranger and the enemy; moving past stereotypes and prejudice to create a climate in which relationships can thrive. Beyond mere “tolerance,” this is a proactive and engaged intention to engender respect, and to create community and the possibility of real transformation.

Christian Conferencing

Methodists regularly practice “holy conferencing” as the means through which we hear and discern the will of God, build community and overcome differences of interpretation and understanding. It is the foundation and the means by which we confer and vow to live faithfully in community. Based as it is on conversation, dialogue and holy listening, the skill of “holy conferencing” is foundational to the kind of interfaith work so needed for the transformation of the world. In holy conferencing, the other, or the stranger, to be known; for beliefs, thoughts and convictions to be shared; for differences to be explored and mediated; and for community to be created as an alternative to violence.

Commitment to Learning

A critical component of a new model of Christian formation is based in learning. It must intentionally engage in learning about other religions and people of other faith, for understanding and insight and lest we bear false witness against their faith or their identity.

Countless settings for serious study of other faiths and cultures and history exist in classes, book studies, and discussion groups. Opportunities can be created to study together with people from other faith traditions. Bible studies provide settings for careful examination of texts that pose challenges to interfaith work, especially those that seem to imply Christian exclusivism, those that seem condemnatory of persons of other faith and those that seem to admonish against engaging the other. Scripture study can be expanded to include the new practice of “Scriptural Reasoning” in which groups of Christians, Jews and Muslims meet together on neutral ground for careful reading of one another's sacred texts. Opportunities can be created for learning about other religions/faiths through study and visits. Resources are available for interfaith marriages and families. These might also prove useful to children and youth whose friends at school now include people of other faith. Many resources are available to preachers for sensitive and careful sermon preparation in subjects related to people of other faith.

The Wedding of Knowledge and Vital Piety

The classic Methodist way of holding together knowledge and vital piety brings both head and heart to interfaith work. Through knowledge, prayer and sacramental theology, we learn and experience how to engage one another as adherents of living religions, as people of other faith, and as equal participants in a lived faith. That is, we learn to love our neighbors of other religious traditions as ourselves. A new model of Christian formation must not only provide the disciple with information about people of other faith. It must shape the Christian disciple to understand and love this “other” so as to love neighbor as self. A transforming gift of inter-faith work is the formation of relationships and friendships.

As in all interfaith work, the faith of the disciple is deepened and enriched in relationship with the other. The best of what we bring to our interfaith partners is a passionate, committed witness to our faith in the saving power of the grace of God through Christ Jesus, shared in the spirit of openness to the truth of the witness of the other. The freedom of God to work for good in the world in a variety of ways, the “wideness of God's mercy” as the hymn puts it, can be shared as a gift.

For example, building upon the familiar Christian practice of Lectio Divina, Jews, Christians and Muslims can engage each other's sacred texts together through contemplation and reflection. Through immersion in diverse faith communities, Christians can learn and experience religious practices that will both deepen relationships with people of other faith and deepen their own spiritual life. Worship is a powerful way to connect across cultures. Praying, singing and worshipping in different languages, modes and styles bridge difference and create unity. Planning worship with interfaith partners insures that the integrity of each is retained.

Emphasis on Social Holiness

A new model of Christian formation must equip and empowerthe disciple to proactively create new bridges of community and reconciliation. For John Wesley and his followers, there is "no holiness without social holiness.” This leads Methodists into common witness and mission to transform the world at its places of deepest need. Ecumenical/interfaith partnerships and coalitions create opportunities to both act for the common good AND build deep and lasting relationships with one another, such as interfaith coalitions to address critical global issues such as HIV/AIDS, global warming, poverty and immigration. Interfaith work to overcome violence is having significant impact in places such as the Middle East, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Sudan and Rwanda. The recent agreement signed at the House of Commons between UMCOR and the London-based global relief and development agency, Muslim Aid, is another recent and powerful example of shared outreach.

This “dialogue of life,” this shared advocacy for the full humanity of all men, women and children, can create fruitful, honest, justice-seeking relations with one another to transform this age defined by violence, fear and terror.

The challenge to United Methodists in the 21st Century is that of claiming identity, nurturing faithfulness to our heritage, sources and authority while at the same time being open, and neighborly, working with others to address needs around the world.

Our Methodist DNA makes us uniquely suited to embrace this new reality and live into it with scriptural integrity and grace-filled passion. After all, Thomas Trotter once asserted that Methodists are “dianoiacs,” those who love God by the way we put our worlds together.

A new model for Christian formation offers tools for interfaith and multi-religious conversation, dialogue, study, prayer, worship, and partnership that will transform the church and the disciple for the transformation of the world. These will be Methodists who are curious, committed and passionate about our own faith and eager to form deep bonds with those of other faiths. They will be characterized by adventure and risk, by pilgrimage and exploration, open to the world for the transformation of the world. They will be those described by Thomas Merton as having the vocation of unity, persons who are sacraments, who are signs of peace for the sake of the shalom/salaam of the world God so loves.


Patricia Farris is Senior Minister, First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica. Susan Henry-Crowe is Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life, Emory University. This article is excerpted from a longer paper the authors presented at the Oxford Institute, 2007.

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