I have been thinking a lot lately about Methodism. What made Methodism so attractive? Why did so many people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries join the Methodist movement? What did Methodists say that people found compelling? What, if anything, constituted the heart of the Methodist message? I believe these questions can be answered in one word: transformation.
At our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists proclaimed to anyone who would listen that real change was possible, both in our personal lives and in society. We insisted that it did not matter what side of the tracks people were from. We taught that it did not matter how much money or education people had. We believed that, in Christ, there was no longer male or female, rich or poor, black or white. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was truly for everyone – for the wealthy attorney and the cotton mill worker. And it was absolutely life-changing.
At our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists believed, taught and confessed that people were not doomed to repeat their sins. On the contrary, we told people that they really could come to know and love God because God was eager to know and love them. And we insisted that loving God and being loved by God was truly transforming. Indeed, loving God and being loved by God led directly to loving our neighbors as ourselves.
At our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists taught people about the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and invited them to join us on a journey to perfection. We told people that the Holy Spirit was ready and able to form the mind of Christ in all who would humble themselves, confess their sins, and attend to the means of grace. In Scripture, preaching, various small group initiatives, and in baptism and Eucharist, we believed that the Holy Spirit had blessed us with powerful medicine for the healing of the world. We believed, taught and confessed that, through these things, the Holy Spirit brought about spiritual fruits in our lives, transforming us into a people characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self-control.
At our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists believed that, with God’s help, the church could make a real difference in society. We believed that we could help the poor and the disenfranchised among us. We believed that we could work for and help to bring about more just working conditions. We believed that we could combat societal problems like alcoholism, poverty, criminality, racism, sexism, and spousal and child abuse.
At our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists were confident. We were not confident in our schemes or devices. We were confident in the power of God to change us from within and then to work through us to bring about the transformation of society. In other words, at our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists believed in and proclaimed the God of Holy Scripture and the great ecumenical Creeds, which is to say, the divine Trinity. We believed, taught and confessed that, unlike the God worshipped by Deists, the Christian God is a God who really does get neck deep in the muck and mire of creation. We proclaimed the audacious message that, in the Incarnation, God really did become human in order that we might be healed. In our asceticism, we pointed with the whole of our lives to Christ crucified. And with glad and joyous hearts we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit to live within and among us.
All of this, of course, raises a question. What happened? Did people cease to be attracted to our message, or did we cease to believe in it? Did people become hardened secularists incapable of hearing and responding to the Methodist message, or did we Methodists become functional Deists? My hunch is that, somewhere along the way, we Methodists are the ones who changed, forfeiting the energizing and utterly compelling vision of God contained in Holy Scripture and the great ecumenical Creeds for the impotent and ultimately uninspiring god of Deism (along with a host of other lesser deities). If I am right about this, then the road to renewal for us Methodists must begin with repentance for our unbelief and our idolatry.
Used with permission – Next Step Evangelism