Monthly Archives: May 2011

What is United Methodism?

In 2001, in Patton, PA, most of the town’s churches (Protestant and Catholic) gathered during Lent, as they had done for years prior. But this year, 2001, the pastors agreed to them their ‘devotional’ message (given on the week their congregation served the soup & sandwich supper) around the beliefs and traditions of their Church. These are essentially my notes from that night 10 years ago. The only changes were spelling and grammar.

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DAYTON’S NOTES for Lenten Supper March 27, 2001

What is United Methodism?

So… What makes us United Methodists unique?


You see, in the early part of the 1700s, an Oxford student named John Wesley and his brother Charles, were part of a small group of college buddies that got together regularly to pray, read the Bible, and encourage one another in their Christian walk.


Their intent was to help each other be obedient to the Biblical command that called for holiness and holy living from the people of God.


And they knew that alone they were going to mess it up. The church of their day was filled with priests and people who simply went through the motions of religion when they were in church services and lived like the devil all the rest of the week.


So these young men banded together to try and help each other face the temptations and the distractions so that they might be “holy unto the Lord.”


They believed a set pattern of consistently immersing themselves in God’s Word was needed if they were going to be Christian. They also felt that Jesus’ instructions about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, were to be taken seriously… and that we as Christians ought to be about Jesus’ business in those areas.


At one point, they called their group a “holy club.” Other students laughed at them and called them names like “method–ists.”


The name stuck, and Methodist to this day is a good description of what this denomination of Christians believes.


We believe that we must be INTENTIONAL about following Jesus Christ. You can’t simply be baptized and then never acknowledge Christ again. You can’t simply claim to have “accepted Jesus” and then live like the devil from then on. You can’t simply go to church and figure you’ve made it into Heaven.


The analogy of a newborn baby fits pretty well here. Just like a baby has quite a bit of time between conception and its birth, so Methodism teaches that God’s grace is poured out on us even before we are “spiritually born” and that the church, like the mother of that baby in the womb, has a role in caring and nurturing the yet unborn child of God.


In the same way that the baby in the womb eventually reaches a critical moment when the mother’s water breaks and the baby is born, so Methodism teaches that there will be a critical moment where each of us will be “born again,” consciously deciding to allow Christ to be our Lord, our Savior, our source of hope and life. The difference lies in the fact that as humans, we have a choice as to whether we will be born in spiritual birth.


Likewise, just as parents of that newborn baby must then spend years feeding and caring for the helpless baby, Methodism teaches that we must care for the spiritual babes, and discipleship and training are hallmarks of Methodism.


But Methodism also recognizes that that physical child will never be able to quit feeding on physical food and caring for his or her physical body, and in Methodism we find a belief that we, as maturing Christians, can never be satisfied with our past history of being a Christian, but must be intentional about regularly feeding on Gods’ Word, serving Him, gathering together with His people, and talking and listening to Him in prayer.


So far, we could probably be almost any church group represented here… and that’s part of the message of Methodism. Wesley never intended to make a new church denomination. Methodists were a small group accountability, discipleship and evangelism movement WITHIN the regular church that its members already belonged to… the Anglican Church.


You would go church on Sunday at the Anglican Church, receive communion, be faithful to the church, you would have been baptized there and there you go to receive Holy Communion.


But then, sometime during the week, a Methodist would then gather at a Methodist meeting and study the Bible, pray together, and ask each other nosy, penetrating questions like `What sins have you committed this week that you need to repent of?’ and ‘How is it with your soul?’


Methodism was an accountability group… in fact, if you covenanted with these people to be a “Methodist” then you HAD to pay a set apportioned amount into the group coffers to be able to help pay for the ministries of reaching out to the poor with food and clothing. And if you covenanted with these people to be a “Methodist” you HAD TO be present each week. You miss more than a couple of times (without being sick or something) you were kicked out of the Methodist Society.


In fact, it wasn’t until the American Revolution, when the Anglican priests were called back to England, that John Wesley finally consented to actually having “ordained” pastors in American Methodism. In so doing, the preachers, which had simply been lay ministers, were now able to become ordained and thus, able to officiate over the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.

The new American brand of Methodism, in 1784, was called the Methodist Episcopal Church, meaning we were Methodist in our beliefs and episcopal in our structure. (The word ‘episcopal’ means led by a bishop.) Today we are known as United Methodists, because the Methodists have united with others of similar beliefs through the years.

Methodism really is a lot like almost all other churches. Especially the Anglican Church and its American brothers and sisters, the Episcopal Church. Methodists and Anglicans both come out of the Anglican Church and our views on so many things are similar. We work together well.


Methodism shares a heritage with Catholicism, Roman and Byzantine, for it was Wesley’s reading and consuming the works of church writers from both realms that helped influence his formulation of what it meant to be a Methodist. And we, like they, to this day find bishops discerning where its pastors will be best used in ministry settings.


Methodism shares a heritage with the Presbyterian’s Calvinistic background. Wesley found he could agree with many of the ideas Calvin put forth about heaven and hell… although Wesley stressed that WE the individuals had free will to respond to God’s outpoured grace.


Methodism then and now, believes strongly in the idea that EVERY believer in Jesus Christ is a minister. Agreed, some of those believer/ministers are called to some extra tasks in the church as ordained pastors, but the ministry of evangelism, nurture, outreach, and witness, is the role of EVERY Methodist.


The annual conference, made up of all the pastors and all the local churches in an area, sends pastors on a rotating basis, to help train and equip the saints in doing those various ministries. Sunday morning, to a Methodist, is supposed to be a weekly re-equipping time for them as a minister.


In fact, in Methodism, the highest a pastor can hope to go is to become an `elder’, which in most denominations is simply a layperson who is in charge of leadership in the church… And as pastors, our highest call and greatest recognition is simply as one of the “everyday believers…” who has a specialized ministry.

The final hallmark of Methodism is again something set in motion by John Wesley himself when he said “I am a man of only one book.” In reality, he read A LOT of books, but only one, the Bible, could be used as the reliable, authoritative source of knowing about God. Today, our primary source of knowledge and belief is still the Bible. Sure we use our reason, our experience, and our heritage to help us make sense of the Bible and how it can be applied to us today, but the Holy Scriptures are where we always start.

John Wesley, when answering a question about “What is a Methodist?” responded that a Methodist was simply a Christian who had the love of God in his heart. 

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“Running Through The Thistles”

One of the key lessons of pastoral ministry, for me, came in the late ‘90s as I prepared to say goodbye to my first charge. My superintendent at the time gave me a small booklet called Running Through The Thistles by Roy M. Oswald.

While focused on a pastor’s departure from a congregation, Oswald actually starts with a story from his own childhood. He and two older boys would walk to school (back in the one-room schoolhouse days) barefooted. But there was a short cut through a field that took out a lot of travel. But there was a catch: you had to go through a briar patch if you went that way. Otherwise, it was no savings of time.

Oswald relates that they would usually just simply go around the long way to and from school. However, a few times, when the fish seemed to almost call to them and nothing stood in their way of going fishing once they got home, they would decide to take the shortcut through those thistles. He then explains how they would gather their courage, and then run as fast as they could until they got through those thistles.

The problem, he writes years later, was that once they hurried and got through them, was that they had to then sit down in the field and one by one, painstakingly, remove each and every prickly thistle… and it actually took longer than if they had simply gone around the barbed barrier.

His point in relation to departing pastors is that there are two choices of how a pastor says goodbye to a church and a church bids a pastor farewell. One is to do the hard work of celebrating relationships, reconciliations, and forgiveness; much like Oswald’s long way to school.

The other is to hurry and just ‘get outta there’ as fast as you can. That’s like running through the thistles. When we try to separate ourselves from the experience so that it ‘goes faster’, we actually leave a legacy of pain and hurt, distrust and hesitancy. Thus, when we meet the people in the next church or try to welcome the next pastor that comes, we’ll start with the same issues and concerns we thought we had left behind. We’ll be years trying to pull out the thistles, and those thistles will influence every relationship in the context of church from then on.

So, I choose to take the long way out. I want to celebrate the ministry we’ve been able to do together and grieve for the ones we’ve had to say goodbye to during our time together.

Already, there are some who have tears in their eyes as we talk about what’s yet to come. Others, not so much.

And for the sake of both groups, and for me as well, this is STILL a time to seek reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, and restoration. After all, we’ve been praying in worship for some five years together asking that God forgive us only as much as we have forgiven others. (“forgive us… as we forgive…”). When we feel offended or hurt, our response is like a requisition asking God to treat us the same way whenever we fail, mess up, and sin. And God has been listening all these years.

So how about it? Let’s take the longer, healthier path as I draw closer to my departure next month. Let’s make sure that there is nothing left for us to have to deal with years from now. Let’s talk together, let’s pray together, let’s forgive one another, let’s celebrate what we were able to do together in ministry… Because this isn’t the last time we see each other. Every single one of us is just one missed heartbeat away from eternity. And as ones who believe in Jesus, our plan is to spend all of eternity together with each other in his presence. Let’s get any unfinished business taken care of here, now.

The Staff-Parish Relations Committee (the old “PPR”) has set up a final informal gathering, set for Friday, June 17th at the church camp. And then, on that Sunday (6/19), we will worship together for the last time with me as your pastor.


God Bless!               
Pastor Dayton
“I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all…” (Romans 1:8a, NKJV)
(from Reynoldsville: First United Methodist Church’s May/June 2011
newsletter: “The Sound of the Trumpet”)

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