One Thing I Hope Will Emerge from “The United Methodist Way” Event
The Council of Bishops and extended cabinets have been meeting at Lake Junaluska this weekend. They’ve been learning and discussing “The United Methodist Way.” You can check out the documents they’ve been using to guide their conversations here: http://www.gbod.org/extendedcabinet/.
I’m very encouraged that this event is happening and that the Council of Bishops is leading the way for a conversation on the United Methodist Way. This is a conversation that we need to have. What does it mean to be a Christian today in The United Methodist Church? How can we get beyond all that divides us and begin to work together in mission guided by what unites us? I believe that when we put all the idolatrous ideologies aside we will find that we have much around with to unite.
One thing I hope will emerge from the event is a renewed emphasis upon teaching and putting into practices the General Rules. This simple document is the heart of the “method” of Methodism. We see this in the few sentences that preface the “rules:”
“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.
It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, …”
The rules that follow are intended to provide guidance for how the people called Methodists can live out their desire for salvation. Wesley clearly states that belief in the saving power of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not enough. If you want to be a Christian you must show it by what you do, by how you live your life in the world. Belief leads to faith. Faith leads to practice.
These lines also reveal that while “desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from … sins” is all that is required to enter the society, the society will love you enough to help you turn that desire into reality. The mission of the society is to provide a community of nurture, support and accountability that will equip you to grow from one desiring salvation to one who can know that you are “saved by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). And you will be helped to “work out your salvation” (Philippians 2:12b) through obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ summarized by him in the “Great Commandments:”
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mark 12:30-31).
The General Rules provide a simple and practical guide, a “rule of life,” to equip a congregation to lead its people into a life of obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is, after all, how people have historically been formed as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. It is how people live out the requirement of discipleship given by Jesus in Luke 9:23, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Obedience to the commands to love is the “cross” Jesus teaches his disciples to take up daily. Christian life is a “cross-shaped” life of obedience that leads to freedom and healing. The General Rules are the Methodist rule of life that equips a community to lead people into the life of discipleship as witnesses to Jesus Christ and followers of his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I pray that the Extended Cabinet event will be a first step toward re-claiming the method of Methodism. That it will inspire and equip bishops and superintendents to encourage not only teaching and training in discipleship guided by the General Rules but also a renewed emphasis upon the importance of practicing the means of grace, the works of piety (acts of worship and devotion) and works of mercy (acts of justice and compassion) through which people of faith have historically made themselves available to God by meeting God in the places where God promises to always meet us.
I also pray that we do not receive yet another program from the UMPH. If the “United Methodist Way” is reduced to yet another program it is almost guaranteed to have no lasting impact upon the church. We do not need any more programs! We have all the programs we need. In fact, we have right now the very best programs (Disciple Bible study, Walk to Emmaus, Companions in Christ, Christian Believer, etc., etc.) of any church in the history of Christianity. And look where they have gotten us. We are more polarized, shrinking in membership, and more illiterate of our own tradition and practices than ever before. Programs will not renew the church.
What we need is a renewed emphasis upon the historic practices of United Methodism, which includes the General Rules and the system of small groups that support learning and putting the Rules into practice. What we need is, therefore, a renewed emphasis upon the grace of God experienced through acceptance, repentance, faith, and sanctification. We need to not only teach people about grace and the means of grace, but to expect United Methodists to practice the works of piety and works of mercy in their daily lives. We need to help the people of the church form those holy habits through which they become channels of grace for the world and the church will once again become salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).