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.