Marks of a Methodist 2: Making a Difference
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. I previously wrote about Mark #1: Experience.
Mark #2 is about the tangible effect that a Methodist Christian can have upon the world. Kennedy notes, “I am still a simple Methodist, believing that the church and the faith ought to make a difference. I believe in results. … Unless we betray our heritage, we must be a church committed to a faith in practical holiness. If the time ever comes when The Methodist Church cannot point to changed lives and conditions because of its preaching and witness, it will be its own witness against itself.”
In today’s United Methodist Church, when we hear about the church making a difference in the world, we often point to political statements or lobbying for certain causes in the public arena. It should be noted that the church’s influence over societal issues is relatively limited. The church’s influence can be seen most dramatically during Prohibition in the 1920’s and to some extent the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.
The most profound impact of the church happens from the bottom up, when individuals are changed or convinced of the rightness of a cause and work toward its adoption. Both Prohibition and Civil Rights are examples of grassroots movements that eventually were codified in law. The hundreds of pages of resolutions and policy papers written by church leaders mean nothing if the hearts and minds of the common people are not first changed and convinced.
Kennedy does not point to political action as the sign of the kind of change he sees Methodism producing, but to the changed individual. “Whenever it was necessary to defend his work, John Wesley could point to members of his societies. It would not have been said of them, as it is too often said of us, that there is no discernible difference between the Church and the world. … The very fact that a [person] became a Methodist at all, meant that he had made a decision.
“I think we must come back to this or become increasingly ineffective. It has to cost something or our whole Christian profession is a farce. … We can be content with nothing less than an affirmation that Jesus Christ is to be Lord of all life. Believe me, it is later than we think, and The Methodist Church must produce more results than it has been producing.”
How are these changed lives produced? Kennedy points to the priority of evangelism. He points to the criticisms of evangelism prominent in his day. “At the very time when Hitler depended on mass rallies to conquer Germany, the Church was saying that large meetings with preaching and singing were outgrown and would not work. In the very day when ninety thousand people go crazy at a football game, we will see to it that no one gets excited about religion, if we can help it.”
I vividly recall the statement by 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody, who responded to a critic of his evangelistic methods, “I like my way of doing evangelism better than your way of not doing it!” Too often, our critique of methods becomes an excuse not to do evangelism at all.
“I think it is most important to get one thing clear,” Kennedy goes on. “We may disagree as to methods of evangelism, but we cannot disagree about evangelism itself and remain Christians, to say nothing about remaining Methodists. Evangelism is not just one interest of the Church, for there simply is no Church if evangelism is not present. … That we should ever think that nothing is to be done to bring the Gospel to [people] who once knew it and have forgotten, or to [people] who never heard it truly, is simply unthinkable.”
How The United Methodist Church has changed! Today there is very little emphasis on evangelism or witnessing for one’s faith or sharing one’s experience with Jesus Christ. The substitute for evangelism today is inviting one’s friends and neighbors to church, which is a good start but no equivalent to introducing people to Jesus.
Kennedy points to a statement in the 1960 Book of Discipline: “The Methodist Church believes today, as Methodism has from the first, that the only infallible proof of a true church of Christ is its ability to seek and to save the lost, to disseminate the Pentecostal spirit and life, to spread scriptural holiness, and to transform all peoples and nations through the gospel of Christ.”
He notes in response, “If we are not accomplishing these results, then by our own confessions we are no longer the Church.” He concludes, “Our words and our experiences open the door to the Temple where [people] may enter the Holy of Holies and find God. Methodists believe that every [person] ought to do this constantly. We believe that this is the mark of a true Church.”
The United Methodist Church (and the Global Methodist Church, for that matter) will only thrive once again when we have regained our voice to share Jesus Christ with our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our coworkers. It starts with us making sure we have something to share! We cannot give what we do not have. Having a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ, we can then share our experience with others, helping them draw near to the One who alone can meet their deepest need.
Another way of making a difference in the world is fostered by the Methodist penchant for organization. Kennedy notes the difference between George Whitefield and John Wesley. Whitefield was a better preacher and converted thousands. Wesley, however, organized his converts into small groups for continued spiritual growth and support. Over time, many more of Wesley’s converts had grown as disciples of Jesus Christ, experienced life transformation, and impacted their world for good, while more of Whitefield’s converts had fallen back into old ways, if not fallen away from faith altogether.
John Wesley famously wrote, “‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than ‘holy adulterers.’ The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.” By that, he meant that one cannot be a Christian and grow in holiness without being part of a community of faith that organizes itself to foster spiritual development.
Kennedy explains, “Methodists are a people with a passion for order which we have inherited from the Founder. … There are those who think we are overly organized, and it is probably true that no Protestant church has more machinery. Some would say that truth organized is truth killed, but our point of view is that the organization of an institution is society’s defense against waste. It is a reflection of our demand for results.”
Kennedy was conscious of the fact that organization can get out of hand. “We need to keep our machinery under constant scrutiny and criticism. Woe unto us when we think organization is the end and not merely the means. There are times when we set up wheels within wheels until one would think we exist only to provide jobs for preachers who are tired of serving churches.” He was unafraid to “name names” even at a time when Methodist organizational structure was considered the epitome of how a denomination should be organized. In the last 60 years, United Methodist organizational structure has only grown in size and complexity.
Acknowledging the need for critique, Kennedy goes on, “Yet I plead for more appreciation of our genius for organization and for more enthusiasm when we do move like a mighty army. … We are a connectional Church, which is to say that we do things together.” He points out how every person has a role to play, and the failure of one person to fulfill his or her role means that others must “take up the slack.” His desire is that “Methodists would gain a quicker appreciation of how much this machinery saves time and increases our effectiveness. Administration is not always an inspiring activity, but it, too, is a part of God’s plan for the evangelization of the world.”
Kennedy’s statement that “the Boards and the Administration exist to help individuals and churches” is regrettably no longer completely true. Some of our United Methodist boards and agencies have created their own kingdoms to the neglect of resourcing and empowering individual disciples and local churches. Like anything else, when done poorly, organization can be a hindrance and a distraction. But when done well, organization can become a channel of the Holy Spirit for the transformation of lives and the equipping of disciples and local churches.
Only at the end of this chapter on making a difference does Kennedy mention the church’s social witness. That witness presupposes the evangelism, discipleship, and life transformation that has gone before, organized into a consistent strengthening of the fellowship of believers as a vehicle for societal change.
Kennedy states, “Our Church still stands as one of the fellowships which assumes that religion is both personal experience and social witness. … It has been amply documented that the great revivals produced social results and released forces which modified and changed society. … Methodism has set loose forces of reform and moral uplift which never have run down. The prophetic note is always an essential part of our message, for society is ever in the process of growth, and it must be influenced to change for the best. To say, as some have done in recent days, that the Church must mind its own business, is nonsense. … Let us rejoice in our record of carrying our faith into the market place, the mine, the factory. And let us resolve that the power of Christ to change lives will be released by us.”
One gets the impression that, for Kennedy, the social witness of the church was just that – a witness, a “prophetic note” in the message of the church. Even in his description, the power for social change comes from individual transformation through the power of Christ. That does not preclude statements by the church on public policy issues, but the emphasis is on the transformative power of the Gospel, which in turn unleashes “forces of reform and moral uplift.”
Mark #1 of a Methodist is the experience of the power and presence of God in one’s life, the redemptive transformation of the cross of Christ made personal, and the power of the Holy Spirit to engage us in worship and holy living. Mark #2 of a Methodist is the desire to make a difference, to have measurable results from the ministry of the church through evangelism and discipleship channeled more effectively through the organization of the church, with the resulting social transformation brought about by spiritual revival and renewal. That is an appealing message to today’s young people, who desire nothing more than to make a difference with their lives. Returning to these roots, affirmed by both Wesley and Kennedy, can energize Methodist churches (whether United or Global) to effective ministry.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Art: An engraving based on a painting by Alfred Hunt depicting John Wesley preaching to a crowd at the site of his father Samuel Wesley’s grave at St. Andrew’s Church in Epworth, England – Public Domain