Marks of a Methodist 1: Experience
By Thomas Lambrecht
My wife is a marriage and family therapist. One of her recommended questions as a discussion starter to help couples remain emotionally connected is, “How am I changing and how have I stayed the same.” Methodism is in a period of upheaval right now, with the liberal evolution of United Methodism, structural separation, and the formation of the Global Methodist Church. Looking back over the nearly 300 years of Methodist history, it is helpful to ask the question, “How is Methodism changing, and how has it stayed the same.”
Two-hundred-eighty years ago, John Wesley (Methodism’s founder) wrote The Character of a Methodist to describe what he considered the essential qualities of a Methodist. I bloggedabout it in June. Just 63 years ago, Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy did a take-off on Wesley’s work in The Marks of a Methodist (1960). It is instructive to see what changed and what stayed the same in the intervening 220 years, as well as how Kennedy’s perception of Methodism fits with today’s church.
Gerald Kennedy would be called a centrist in today’s theological taxonomy. He was friendly and fair toward evangelicals, speaking at the very first Good News national Convocation in 1970. But he would not have classified himself in that historical category. Raised in California, Kennedy served as a pastor and college teacher (Pacific School of Religion) in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Elected bishop in 1958, he served four years in the Pacific Northwest, then an unheard-of 20 years as the bishop of Los Angeles. He was widely respected as a great preacher and authored nearly two-dozen books. He holds the distinction of being the only United Methodist bishop to serve as an active bishop and a local church pastor at the same time, when he appointed himself to First UMC of Pasadena.
In his book, Kennedy begins with the “distinguishing sign” of Methodism being experience. By this, he means a personal experience of the love, relationship, and power of God in one’s life. John Wesley’s father, Samuel, is quoted as saying, “The inward witness, son, the inward witness – this is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity.”
This experience in Kennedy’s mind is birthed in conversion as an essential aspect of God’s working in a human life. “When [one] has it and knows it, the most natural thing in the world is to proclaim it to others and then watch it happen. Yet, … this first mark of a Methodist is often missing from our preaching.”
Kennedy laments that, “There is no room for something unplanned entering into the sanctuary and shaking [people’s] lives. It is all under control – our control. One of the main questions facing us today is whether formal churches can find room for the Spirit to move in the hearts of the congregation.” He maintains that such is possible in a “Gothic sanctuary with robes, processionals, and ritual,” but that it must be intentionally cultivated.
“This generation is as much in need of being converted as any in history,” writes Kennedy. He calls for “a thousand [people] who will receive the live coal from off the altar and set the fires of expectation to flaming in our Church.” Do we cultivate the experience of conversion in our worship? Do we testify to our own personal experience of God and invite others to share it?
Kennedy cites Wesley’s words that the one who has had this experience “is therefore happy in God.” “The consciousness that God had accepted him as a son and forgiven his sins put a song in the heart of the Methodist convert,” writes Kennedy. This joy is available to anyone, regardless of circumstances or past. “This happiness was not found at the price of reality. Sin was not just a theory to the Methodists, for many of them had come up out of degradation and immorality. They had been rescued from the hopeless part of society which the Established Church assumed was beyond the reach of sanctification.” Whom do we consider to be “beyond the reach of sanctification” today? How are we imitating Wesley and Kennedy in carrying the good news of God’s transforming love and forgiveness to those very souls? That is a distinguishing mark of Methodist mission and ministry.
Kennedy diagnosed his own time (1960) as a time of undue and unbalanced pessimism. “Theology that emphasizes human hopelessness, uselessness, and worthlessness, in order to emphasize God’s sovereignty, is unbalanced.” One could say the same of our time, when many feel hopeless and powerless in the face of intractable societal problems and our divisive polarization.
The antidote to this pessimism is the Christian experience of conversion and redemption, which leads us to testify to the reality of a God more powerful than problems. “We must bear our witness that Christianity is the restoration of joy. Nature looks different to the Christian and so does history. People become new creatures and life becomes the great adventure. Life after [our own personal] Aldersgate may not be easy, but it will never be meaningless, and it will never be sad.”
Worship is often the venue for conversion, as happened to Francis Asbury, the “American Saint” who led the early Methodist Church in the U.S. Kennedy notes, “The mark of a Methodist service is its singing, its sense of the immediacy of Christian redemption, its warmth of fellowship, and its enthusiastic invitation to salvation. The cold, lifeless, formal services, which are the marks of so many of our churches, bear sad testimony to our apostasy. This is not our way, and these are not our gatherings.”
One is struck by the boldness and bluntness with which Kennedy confronts the shortcomings of the churches of his day. Such therapeutic honesty is lacking in many of our leaders today. Unfortunately, the same diagnosis of “cold, lifeless services” might be levied against many Methodist congregations today, whether they are formal or informal, traditional or contemporary in style, singing hymns or the latest praise music.
Worship is to be an embodiment and overflow of our experience of Jesus Christ. “Methodists sing their theology. … Theology ought to be sung, for, if it is real, it is a part of a person’s emotional life.” Charles Wesley’s over 6,000 hymns expressed Methodist belief in a way congregations could internalize. Songs sung on Sunday are often the soundtrack playing in our head throughout the week. Unforgettable are those experiences of singing with other believers joined together in a common faith and a common experience of God’s redemption through Christ. There is a power in such worship that sets the table for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of all who are there.
Kennedy sums up the Methodist mark of personal experience in this way: “The Methodist preacher without an experience is a fire that smokes but never flames. The Methodist [layperson] without an experience may be a [salesperson] for an institution, but who wants to live in an institution? We believe in a wide variety of experiences, and we do not assume that God deals with all [people] alike. But we believe that God reveals Himself to every [person], and, if we will allow Him, He will find us, and we will know it.”
Are we structuring the ministry of our churches in such a way as to encourage people to seek the Lord in a personal way and come expecting to experience him? This is an essential mark of Methodism that needs to be recovered in the church today. It was the hallmark of the Wesleyan revival in the 1700’s, was lacking in much of the church of Kennedy’s era, and is often absent in our congregations today. Authentic Methodism cultivates the presence, love, and power of God in a real and tangible way. Absent that experience, we have nothing to share with a world hungering for God.
Thomas Lambrecht is aUnited Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo of Bishop Gerald Kennedy (1907-1980) courtesy of Abilene Library Consortium provided by the McMurry University Library to the Portal to Texas History. Kennedy was the feature speaker for the 1967 McMurry College Willson Lectures.