What's a Methodist?
By Steve Manskar
I occasionally go to church for dinner on Wednesday night. A few weeks ago I took my plate of food and sat down at an empty table. A young woman was alone at another table, saw me sitting by myself, and asked “Can I sit with you. I don’t like to eat alone.” “Yes, come on over. I don’t like to eat alone either.” She brought her plate and sat across the table from me. As she introduced herself to me I learned that she is a graduate student studying international relations with an emphasis on food policy. She also revealed that she is a Christian but did not identify with any denomination. She came to my church because she heard the food on Wednesday night was cooked with only local, organically grown ingredients and was very good.
In the course of our conversation, a couple more people sat down at the table. Everyone, except the young woman, was a member of this United Methodist congregation. When they learned that she was not affiliated with any church, they began to recruit her. The church members told the woman about the wonderful worship and preaching on Sunday morning, the many options for adult Sunday school, and other opportunities for involvement. At some point the young woman asked a question that stopped the conversation cold:
“What’s a Methodist?”
My fellow United Methodists at the table looked at one another and tried very hard to come up with an answer. One offered, “A Methodist is a person who tries to do good.” Another said, “A Methodist is a person who works for justice in the world.” As an ordained elder serving as Director of Wesleyan Leadership at GBOD I tried to think of how John Wesley would say and then I said: “A Methodist is a person who loves God with all his or her heart, soul, and mind and loves his or her neighbor as himself or herself.”
The source for my reply to this simple question is one of Wesley’s most popular tracts, “The Character of a Methodist.” He begins by saying that Methodists are not distinguished by doctrine or opinions. The mark of a Methodist is his or her love for God. Their devotion to God is complete. Methodists center their lives upon God who became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth. His life and teachings provide the way Methodists live their love for God in all aspects of life. No part of life is untouched by their devotion to God and the things of God. This means that the Methodist’s love for God compels him or her to love those whom God loves. Their daily life is shaped by obedience to the teachings of Jesus.
Some days later, as I thought more about my reply to the young woman’s question, I realized I was wrong. In Wesley’s brief introduction to “The Character of a Methodist” he explained why he was writing. He begins and ends with Philippians 3:12,
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Wesley acknowledges that he had not yet attained the goal of discipleship as practiced by the people called Methodists. It seems to me that he is saying that Methodists are people who are striving toward the goal of Christian maturity, also known as perfection in love and holiness of heart and life. What follows in “The Character of a Methodist” is Wesley’s description of a disciple of Jesus Christ who has “attained the goal”, who is an “altogether Christian.”
A more accurate response to the young woman at the dinner table who asked, “What’s a Methodist?” would be: A Methodist is a Christian who is in training to love God with all his or her heart, soul, and mind and to love his or her neighbor as himself or herself.
Methodism is a system for training people in the practice of loving God. Methodists learn to practice loving God by following and obeying the teachings of Jesus. This way of love is active. Charles Wesley expresses it in a few lines:
Active faith that lives within,
Conquers earth, and hell, and sin,
Sanctifies, and makes us whole,
Forms the Savior in the soul.
Methodism is designed to equip people to receive the gift of faith by practicing the discipline of love given in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. The discipline of love sets them free to become fully the human beings God created them to be, in the image of Christ. The aim of Jesus’ life and teaching is equipping his disciples to participate in his mission in the world. As Christians practice the discipline of love shaped by Jesus’ teachings, they become the Methodists Wesley describes in “The Character of a Methodist.”
Covenant Discipleship is a contemporary adaptation of the method of Methodism. It is a process designed to help people to become leaders in discipleship the church needs. They are historically given the title, Class Leader. The class leaders are mature disciples of Jesus Christ who have gained the experience and maturity needed to disciple others. They are the coaches who help others to train and practice the discipline of love in the way of Jesus.
How does your congregation initiate members into the discipline of love? How are you forming the leaders in discipleship who can disciple others?