Methodists Who Don't Know It

Although I still often have to give some explanation of what Spiritual Formation is if someone asks what I studied in school, it has become a pretty popular buzz term in Christianity in recent years. I recently spoke with a seminary professor who said that one of his students' reasons for enrolling in his course on Spiritual Formation was because "it's the hottest thing out there." While that's an overstatement, it certainly has been popularized tremendously in recent years. Contrast that with the tradition of Christianity in which my roots are firmly planted: Methodism. There is absolutely nothing hip, buzzing, hot, or popularized about being a Methodist. Methodism in our country is on a remarkable rate of decline, and has been for decades. To illustrate this difference, compare the "cool factor" on what comes up on an image search for Spiritual Formation with what comes up for Methodism. Okay, so maybe neither page's "cool factor" is tremendously high, but the page on Methodism might actually score below zero. I believe neither that the faddishness of Spiritual Formation is all good, nor that the un-faddishness of Methodism is all bad. But the contrast is ironic, because Spiritual Formation and Methodism are the same thing. In fact, something about yourselves that will surprise many of you, which may have been true of you for many years, is that you're actually Methodists and haven't even known it. (Don't worry- I won't tell your pastors.) My problem in trying to convince people of this is that many things that get described by the terms Spiritual Formation and Methodist have little if any relation to what those things actually are. So let's define some terms:

First, Spiritual Formation. Two definitions I use are:

  • "The process by which those who love and trust Jesus Christ effectively take on his character" (Dallas Willard)
  • "The process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others" (Robert Mulholland)

These are both good definitions, which convey different nuances, but come out with the same kind of person: someone with an inward and outward life significantly like that of Jesus, and who systematically arranges his/her life toward that goal.

Now for Methodism. I have to make very clear that when I say Methodism and Spiritual Formation are the same thing, I am referring to what Methodism was in its beginnings, when it changed the face of England in the 1700's, and not necessarily referring to anything about someone who is a part of today's United Methodist Church or any of our cousins in the faith.

What it meant to be a Methodist in John Wesley's day was essentially that you agreed upon the goal (living a holy life) and you signed on to a kind of lifestyle that would be conducive to growing that holiness in you. Components of this lifestyle were prescribed simply in the General Rules: Do no harm, do good, and practice the means of grace (things like prayer, reflecting on the scripture, taking Communion, and participating in large and small group meetings with other Methodists shaping their lives in this way).

So the language and cool factor have certainly changed, but the kind of life offered has not. Today's Spiritual Formation movement is much more likely to use the term "Christlikeness" than early Methodism's "holiness," but the goal is the same. And, when they are at their best, the means of getting there are the same also: spiritual disciplines/means of grace practiced in community under the guidance of the Spirit of God and of others who love and trust Jesus as you do.

And here's the kicker: your theological background doesn't determine whether you're a Methodist or not, only that you shape your lives in these ways (i.e. by this method). Although Wesley certainly put effort into defining what he believed theologically, you didn't have to agree with him to be a Methodist. Just shape your life by the General Rules. Similarly, I have met very like-minded and like-hearted people in the Spiritual Formation movement from every Christian tradition I know of, because our goal and means of arriving there are the same.

(Neither Wesley nor I intend to say by this that the  theology is unimportant. The difference between his day and ours is that while you could be a Methodist and disagree with him on theological points, if you were going to be one of his Methodist preachers... you needed to be on the same page with him. Today, both agreeing with his theology and the way you arrange your life have almost become completely irrelevant in the process of becoming a Methodist pastor.)

So, do you know some folks who are Methodist and have had no idea? And if you aren't one already, regardless of what the name on the building of your church says, want to join me in being one?