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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