The United Methodist Church as a witness and servant to the world

April 7th, 2016

A few years ago I was discipling a young man toward Christian ministry. He was on the cusp of graduating from the Baptist university where I teach—with a bachelor’s degree in music. His focus throughout high school and college was church music. The call of God on his life was as clear as it could be. He grew up in a Pentecostal denomination, became a Baptist during college, and led the choir at a United Methodist church. Of course, I wanted him to attend the Baptist seminary where I teach, which he intended to do. However, at a ministers’ retreat held at a large UMC church he felt God’s call into that denomination. He said, “God is calling me to be part of the great renewal of The United Methodist Church.” How could I argue with that?

Now some UMC folks might be tempted to take offense at the suggestion that The UMC needs “renewal,” but I believe every denomination needs renewal. The Marxist-­communist heir of the Russian revolution Leon Trotsky preached continuous revolution—as did Mao Zedong in China. They were wrong, and even their fellow Marxist-communists came to realize that continuous revolution means chaos and anarchy. However, Jesus calls his people to continuous renewal.

The whole body of Christ needs continuous renewal; spiritual revival that results in newer and deeper levels of consecration to our Lord is what Methodist founder John Wesley envisioned for the people he led. He was no spiritual anarchist; he believed in disciplined renewal, not “wildfire.” On the other hand, he fought against spiritual complacency. The people of The United Methodist Church are his heirs, and at their best they also offer a model of continuous spiritual renewal to the whole body of Christ just as he does to them.

At their best the people of The UMC are Christians deeply committed to spiritual growth in discipleship of Jesus Christ through fresh experiences of the Holy Spirit. Methodists are experiential Christians. They are people of God who seek and find “higher ground” in God’s grace through inward transformation by the Holy Spirit, conforming to the character of Jesus Christ. Many ­branches of Christianity emphasize right doctrine, deep Bible study, tradition, and engagement with culture in balance. Methodists have all that, too. But where they excel, what they offer to the whole church of God throughout the world, is Wesley’s profound warm-hearted experience of grace moving them on toward perfection.

What does that mean—“Christian perfection?” By it Wesley himself meant a heart perfected in love. He didn’t mean God-like perfection, no mistakes, or even “sinlessness”—a term he disavowed. Rather he meant a new inward disposition of love for God and neighbor—what one theologian called “the expulsive power of a new affection” for the “things of God.” Even Wesley did not claim to have arrived at perfection; he intended it as the goal of continuous spiritual renewal.

At their best the people of The UMC, like their founder Wesley, view the whole world as their “parish.” By that Wesley meant that he would not be bound by the overemphasis on order and bondage to tribalism of the Church of England of his day. When asked, “Where is your parish?” he swept his arm toward the horizon and said, “The whole world is my parish.” Today that means The UMC is devoted to ministry to all kinds of people everywhere. United Methodists offer the whole people of God a vision and model of care for all people regardless of race, nationality, gender, or economic status. And, taking Wesley’s words beyond his own meaning, they regard care for creation as part of acknowledging the “whole world” as their parish.

Finally, UMC folks at their best are known for social progressiveness. Wesley himself was a harsh critic of slavery and argued ferociously for its abolition. His followers in America were among the first to ordain women to gospel ministry and fight against oppression in all its forms. They were in the forefront of the temperance movement—not because alcohol itself is evil but because of the oppression drunkenness caused especially for women and children. They were in the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement and vocally opposed unjust wars. The temptation accompanying that social progressiveness, wherever it may be found among Christians, is cultural accommodation, and UMC people are not exempt from its lure. However, whenever they follow their founder John Wesley and his and their Lord Jesus Christ, they recognize that danger and step aside from it.

Continuous multidimensional spiritual renewal—the ideal that Wesley set before his followers—is a signal contribution of The UMC worldwide to the whole people of God. May The UMC rediscover that ideal and rise up to embody it in every way in order to be a source of hope for its parish—the whole world.

comments powered by Disqus