What it Means to be a Methodist

It's a common expression to hear someone described as having "grown up in church." While we understand that normally means they've been involved in church from childhood, I can take it even farther. I literally grew up in church, not only for the reason stated above, but because before being a house, the house that I grew up in was Pioneer Memorial Methodist Church for about 15 years in the 50's and 60's. The community it existed to serve was made up of oil camp workers. The camp closed, leaving no one in the community, so the church closed as well. A few years later, my parents were married and eventually remodeled the church building into their house. They have now lived there 40 years, and it's the primary place where I "grew up in church." As an adult, it has come to hold a lot of meaning for me not only that I grew up in church, but that I grew up in a Methodist church, because my roots there are strong and deep, and surely I don't know the extent to which they have shaped me. I think it's accurate when I say to people that I've been a Methodist a lot longer than I've been alive: my great-grandparents started a Methodist church in their house before moving to this part of West Texas; my grandparents helped start the Methodist church that eventually became the home I was raised in; my parents helped start a new Methodist church in the late 80's. And I began my first staff position in a Methodist church fourteen years ago.Despite my deep roots in Methodism, it wasn't until adulthood and having already been on staff for some time in Methodist churches that I began to understand and treasure the immense value to be found in the "method," or the lifestyle, that originally came along with claiming to be a Methodist. Methodism was a very significant movement in the histories of England and the United States, and largely so because it was such a reliable guide for the development of people characterized by love for God and for one another.

I'm not going out on any limb to say that it no longer serves as such a reliable guide. Yet this is not because the original method of the Methodists has failed or been found lacking, but rather because the way it was intended to shape our lives has been left in our history rather than continuing to be emphasized as standards among us. In conversations with people at my church, the most common reasons that people give for being Methodist are things like, "I was born one," "I like it that we don't have all of the rules like other churches," or from many of the most honest folks, "Because I can be a Methodist and still drink."

Virtually nothing remains in Methodism in our culture today of the practical shape that it once gave to people's lives. Yet writing something like this doesn't accomplish anything good if I only use it to bash my church. Rather, the hope that I have for all of my Methodist family across the world is that we can recover the riches of our heritage and find the best ways to put them into practice in the 21st century.

A couple of years ago, I came across this quotation from Methodism's founder, John Wesley, while re-reading Paul Chilcote's book, Recapturing the Wesleys' Vision, and although the language is old, it is every bit as applicable today as it was when it was written in 1745:

"If you walk by this rule, continually endeavouring to know, and love, and resemble, and obey the great God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as the God of love, of pardoning mercy; if from this principle of loving, obedient faith, you carefully abstain from all evil, and labour, as you have opportunity, to do good to all men, friends and enemies; if, lastly, you unite together to encourage and help each other in thus working out your salvation, and for that end watch over one another in love- you are they whom I mean by Methodists." (John Wesley, Advice to the People Called Methodists)

If we only had this single paragraph to learn what it means to be a Methodist, we would still have plenty to guide us more fully into "the life that is really life." Just in these few words from Wesley, we learn to:

  • Continually endeavor to know, love, and resemble, and obey God
  • Abstain from all evil
  • Do good to everyone with every opportunity
  • Watch over one another in love, helping and encouraging one another to work out our salvation

I want to be one whom Wesley meant by Methodist and live this way, and I deeply want to be part of a community of people committed to doing so as well.