Put Some Meaning in Your Methodism, 4: Unpacking the Method

Put Some Meaning in Your Methodism Cover Image b.jpg

1. Do no harm. This includes the obvious ways in which we might harm others (“brawling” was specifically prohibited, as were other things, including buying, having, or selling slaves), but it also meant that they would seek to be aware of and avoid any of the more subtle ways that harm and evil happen. When we do not have rhythms of resting on the Sabbath, or when we cheat on our taxes, or do things to others which we don’t want done to us, harm happens.

2. Do good. John Wesley never said one of the statements most often attributed to him, but it must have come from some early Methodist who was committed to the method. “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Even though Wesley didn’t write those words, it seems certain that he would have been in favor of them, as the method clearly included doing good and being merciful to the bodies and souls of all others, as far as we have opportunity.

3. Practice the means of grace. The early Methodists were committed to doing the things that would give God some open space to work in them. It wasn’t an option for them to do no harm and do good but neglect practices like prayer, reading the Scriptures, and receiving the Lord’s Supper.

* Regularly answer, “How is it with your soul?” to others living this method. Central to the way that the early Methodists were committed to living this method was that they would gather each week with a group of other Methodists and answer, “How is it with your soul?” If you have trouble knowing where to begin with a question like that, perhaps it is helpful to reframe it:“How is your life with God as you are seeking to live this method?”

Just as it wasn’t an option for them to practice any one or two of the General Rules by while neglecting the others, neither was it an option for the early Methodists to live the method in isolation from one another. The only way to commit to their method was to commit to it together. 

This is part of the series, “Put Some Meaning in Your Methodism

Put Some Meaning in Your Methodism, 3: Introducing the Method

Put Some Meaning in Your Methodism Cover Image b.jpg

After the Wesley brothers’ first group was given the insulting name of “methodist,” they allowed it to stick, since they saw the benefit of having a method in place for people who wanted to grow in their love for God and others. They recognized that groups throughout Christian history had lived by such methods, even if they used different terms for them. 

One such alternative term for “method” was “rule,” which rather than meaning (as we might understand it today) a standard which shouldn’t be broken, meant a lifestyle framework to which a group would mutually agree. It was as if to say, “If this is the kind of people we want to become, we recognize that we need to live together this way. Therefore, this is our rule.” Think of it less like the rules in a school handbook given by the principal to students whether they like them or not, and more like the way a successful athletic team agrees to arrange their lives in pursuit of their goal.

So, John Wesley described the method of the early Methodists as three General Rules:

  1. Do no harm.

  2. Do good.

  3. Practice the means of grace. 

Before briefly describing the meaning of these, I’ll add an asterisk which was so implicit in the lives of the early Methodists that it didn’t need to be included as one of the General Rules, but we need it to be stated clearly now:

* Regularly answer, “How is it with your soul?” to others living this method.

That’s it. We will unpack each of these briefly in the following post, but for now it’s important to understand that the early Methodists knew this method, because they understood that they were signing on to live by it together. They didn’t have the danger of considering themselves Methodists because it was a name on a building they entered on Sundays, nor because it was their heritage. The only relevant issue was whether or not they were in a group committed to living this way together.

This is part of the series, “Put Some Meaning in Your Methodism

Put Some Meaning in Your Methodism, 2: Methodism and Us

Put Some Meaning in Your Methodism Cover Image b.jpg

I have a fantasy of being on a road trip and driving past a church in any of the Wesleyan traditions which has a sign in front that reads something like, “By God’s grace, we have a method. Come live it to love God and others fully.”

Can you imagine what kind of difference it might make if every person in a local church could name that method? What if all of us could? Or, to say it from the other direction, why can’t we? If we can’t name what the method of Wesley’s methodists was, doesn’t it mean that their method has ceased to be ours, and we are therefore neither very Methodist nor very Wesleyan, despite whatever other parts of their tradition we have tried to hold on to? 

By the end of the following post, I will summarize for you what their method was. It’s the kind of thing that I can write on a whiteboard in less than one minute when I am with a group. When I have done so, it has become predictable that some folks in the group will say something like, “I have been a Methodist my entire life, and I have never heard this before.”

Folks are often surprised for me to say that any such method ever existed. I have had more than one devoted, long-time Methodist say to me something like, “All these years, I thought the method part of our name had to do with the order of worship printed in the bulletin.” Thankfully, our tradition offers us more substantive guidance than indicating when it’s time for the ushers to take the offering.

When John and Charles Wesley began getting together with a group of friends to discuss the state of their own souls–and were made fun of with the derogatory term “methodist” for doing so–I’m quite certain they did not expect that almost three hundred years later, there would be millions of people on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean still using the label they were given by others who disagreed with their methodical approach to spirituality. Surpassing that surprise would be their shock at how small a percentage of those using the name would be able to define any method to go with it.

Let’s do our part to change that right now (with the next post, “Introducing the Method”).

In Contrast to What You May Have Heard (An Open Letter to My Church)

In contrast to what you may have heard, Methodism is not in crisis. On the contrary, from my point of view, Methodism—both in our local congregation and beyond—is as strong as I have seen it in my lifetime, perhaps even on the verge of thriving beyond what any of us have seen in our lifetimes.

I do not say this out of ignorance of the continually growing divide which has been evident in the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember, which was on national display in our recent specially called General Conference. Nor do I say it with a lack of empathy for those who have been hurt and/or worn out by that divide. Rather, I say it as one who feels at home in my long-standing seat on the fringes within denominational United Methodism and who has learned to lean into Methodism from sources both within and outside of our denomination.*

My claim is not that United Methodism as a denomination is thriving. In some communities that is true, and in others it certainly is not. Rather, Methodism is happening and thriving wherever (whether within churches that trace their roots through the Wesleys or in many other places) the following aspects of early Methodism continue to provide a practical framework for people’s lives:

  • a theology which emphasizes God’s grace as being given in abundance to each and every person, as the only thing which gives us hope of being able to freely and genuinely love God and others.

  • practical guidelines for a lifestyle of cooperation with God’s grace (a.k.a. a Rule of Life). In Methodism’s case, these are called the General Rules: 1) Do no harm, 2) Do good, and 3) Practice the means of grace** (particularly prayer, scripture, communion, and fasting)

  • a high level of commitment to meeting regularly with others who are seeking to live this way in order to help one another be attentive to the ways God’s grace is working in our lives and how we are cooperating with it (the curriculum in these groups is our lives rather than an informational study)

Christians of any denomination who self-identify as traditionalists, progressives, or anything else can live by this method, and Methodism will continue to thrive. Those who attend the same local congregation of the United Methodist Church as I do can live by this method, stir the work of God’s grace in one another, and Methodism will thrive among us. In recent years, I have seen more people than ever before in my lifetime living as Methodists in this way––many of whom are not United Methodists, and some of whom are. In the recent life of our local congregation, I have seen more people living as Methodists in this way. Our community, our denomination, our world, and––certainly––my own soul need this kind of Methodism to continue to grow and spread among us. May we continue to invite one another further into this method so that God’s grace can run more fully among and through us.

* There is an important dynamic here, which has been in place since our beginnings: Methodism and the life of any denomination (whether or not that denomination has the word “Methodist” in its name) are related to each other, but are not the same thing. In Wesley’s day, the primary denomination in relation to Methodism was the Church of England, and in regard to my local congregation today, it is the United Methodist Church.

This is illustrated by the irony that it is largely from folks in other denominations that I have come to love, practice, and communicate Methodism as described above. Dallas Willard (ordained as a Southern Baptist) was the first to plant in me a deep love for John Wesley’s theology, particularly in regard to the centrality of God’s grace, and the Renovaré groups inspired by Willard’s teachings are good examples of the thriving of Methodism. Ruth Haley Barton has never been part of a Wesleyan denomination, but I believe the thriving her Transforming Communities is a good example of the thriving of Methodism. James Bryan Smith is an ordained United Methodist pastor who teaches at a Quaker university. I do not see his name and voice included in the current United Methodist denominational issues, but he is among the most influential and effective teachers of Methodism as outlined above.

**Wesley’s original third rule was “attend upon all the ordinances of God.” By saying “use the means of grace” instead, I think I’m staying true to both his language and his intent.

On Her 40th

  1. From the very beginning, I’ve never felt like I needed to pretend to be someone I’m not when I’m with her. On the contrary, she—more than anyone else—welcomes and invites my truest self (the me that’s usually hidden from other people and even from myself) to show up and be known. 

  2. She’s a record-settingly good mom to our kids. They love being with her, and not just in a “young kids want to be around mom” kind of way. She’s fun, patient, caring, and encouraging with them. 

  3. When she laughs at something, she’s usually kind of a cute quiet giggler. But I love the sound of the rare times she has a good belly laugh. 

  4. She takes life at my kind of speed. An example is that an ideal vacation for either of us doesn’t involve moving fast and being around noise. Give us a porch with a view and a couple of rocking chairs and we’re happy. This means we have a good, long future of enjoying one another. 

  5. She cares deeply about people. 

Read More