What makes Methodist worship Wesleyan? An interview with Matthew Sigler

September 15th, 2015

I had the chance recently to visit with Dr. Matthew Sigler, a United Methodist theologian teaching at Seattle Pacific Seminary, which is affiliated with Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Sigler teaches courses in church history and worship, as well as United Methodist history, doctrine and polity. He also teaches undergraduate courses. Sigler holds a Ph.D., which he completed in 2014, from Boston University.

Clifton Stringer: Many of our readers are committed Christians and a good number are pastors. How did you wind up being a committed Christian? And how in the world did you become a Christian theologian?

Matthew Sigler

Matthew Sigler: I was born into a family full of pastors and so I was raised in the church. Some of my earliest memories are of worshipping with my parents in church. There’s no doubt that the Lord used this foundation in drawing me “with loving kindness.” I became a committed Christian when I was six years old. I vividly remember lying in bed one evening when the most intense sense of joy came over me. Even though I was young, I still recall having a deep impression of a presence — not merely a feeling — being with me in the room. The sensation was so extraordinary that I woke up my parents who then led me in prayer. I was baptized a few months later by my grandfather. As I have reflected on that moment nearly 30 years later, I am still struck by the palpable sense of love and joy that surrounded me that evening — something that has never entirely left me as I have continued to work out my salvation with fear and trembling.

The theologian bit really emerged over time. My first love has always been history and beginning in high school I served by leading others through music in worship. After three years of serving as a full-time worship pastor in a local United Methodist congregation, I felt led to study more about the history of Christian worship. So my path to studying theology really emerged from praxis with a deep curiosity in how the church of the past can resource the church today. My interests center on what some have called “primary theology” — the prayers we pray, the songs we sing, etc. — from a historical (and sometimes contemporary) perspective.

CS: You wrote your dissertation at BU on the history and continuity of Methodist worship. What's the story behind the dissertation? What do you argue?

MS: In my first full time job out of college as a worship pastor in a “contemporary” Methodist church plant, I began to notice that our “contemporary” worship service didn’t look that different from the Baptist “contemporary” service down the street. Methodists have a heritage marked — among other things — by vibrant worship. The seminal issue that my dissertation attempts to address is offering some answers to the question “what makes Methodist worship Methodist (or, better yet, Wesleyan)?”

This has been a challenge because Methodists have had great freedom in adapting their forms of worship to their local context, and this freedom is something intrinsic to our liturgical heritage. At the same time, Methodists have had authorized texts for their use and periodically have recognized the need to have unity in worship amidst a connectional system. Add to this the rich heritage of Wesleyan hymnody and Methodists have quite a robust “form” within their liturgical tradition.

My dissertation looks at how three influential Methodist liturgists whose lives spanned the early 19th century to the first decade of this century answered the question “What makes Methodist worship Wesleyan?” What I found was that each of these “mediators” (as I call them) of the Wesleyan liturgical tradition valued this tension between form and freedom in worship. Each recognized the need for worship to relate to people in a particular time and a particular place. On the other hand, each of the mediators maintained the need for Methodist worship to be rooted in something beyond the moment. For the three persons I explored, this included the textual tradition of John Wesley’s “Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America” which was Wesley’s adaptation of the Book of Common Prayer and the funnel through which the broad stream of the liturgical heritage of the universal Church flowed to early American Methodists.

It also encompasses the hymns of Charles Wesley. In the midst of this, I think, quite healthy tension between form and freedom one finds a distinct piety in worship; one that upholds the importance of the affections in worship while viewing forms of prayer as a platform for the emotions as opposed to hindering them.

Finally, a Wesleyan liturgical piety recognizes that true worship transforms us. Put crudely, worship ought to “do” something to us and through us for the sake of the world. Worship, for Wesleyans, is sanctifying.

CS: What directions will your scholarship be taking in the near future? Any exciting projects on the horizon?

MS: United Methodist liturgical scholar, James White, used an approach he called “liturgical biography” for some of his work. Similar to James William McClendon, White argued that careful study and reflection on the lives of individuals can yield insight into liturgical praxis. I took up this approach in my dissertation and found it really compelling. I’m hoping to stay on that trajectory for the foreseeable future. There’s a lot that the saints who have gone before can teach us today. Of course, my most immediate project is working on publishing my dissertation, but I’ve been doing some preliminary research on a couple of other individuals I’d like to explore.

CS: Last, a double question. What makes you passionate about studying and teaching Christian theology? And, what would you recommend to someone considering studying Christian theology?

MS: The study of theology, when properly envisioned, leads us into closer relationship with the Triune God and shapes the way we reflect God’s image in the world. From this perspective, theology becomes a life-giving discipline rather than a boring and irrelevant topic. Ultimately, I want my students to have a deeper love and commitment to the Lord from their studies. To this end, my advice to anyone considering studying Christian theology is to anchor their pursuits in the “first order theology” of prayer and worship. If the study of Christian theology is divorced from the body of Christ, it can quickly degenerate into trite speculation or pharisaical maxims. So my advice is to love God’s church and his world — to love the Lord himself — through the study of theology.

Be sure to check out Dr. Matthew Sigler's very good blog posts on worship over at Seedbed.

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of "Christ the Lightgiver" in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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