The Method in Methodism: Part I (9/24 Sermon)

     One of the more interesting phenomena that I was confronted with upon being appointed to Park City Community Church was that many of our people didn’t (and some still don’t!) realize that we have long been a church connected to Methodism. I’ve even heard that there was a time in the not too distant past that the church considered throwing off that particular denominational moniker. My theory, however, is that the confusion over our church’s Methodist identity has almost everything to do with perceptions of church practice and polity than with theology. After all, the United Methodist Church does do things a little differently than many others – like having pastors appointed to churches by a bishop rather than by congregational vote. It’s always interesting to see the reaction of people in the community who ask me, “What brought you to Park City?” and I answer, “I was sent here!”

   The truth is that our church became a “community” church back in about 1919, when two congregations in Park City – one Methodist and one Congregational – decided to merge and put themselves under the Methodist umbrella. I like the “community” emphasis over the denominational emphasis, too, since most of the people who come here have no Methodist roots. No matter what the denominational label we are, after all, all after the same thing—a relationship with Christ.

     But I want to suggest to you that there is much to be gained if we would be intentional about reclaiming our church’s Methodist roots, learning about them and even looking at how recapturing the historic distinctives of our theology and practice could be helpful to us and, even more, lead us to our own kind of spiritual revival. As I look around at the United Methodist Church, I have observed that the denomination itself has become less and less Methodist and more and more institutional—concerned more with bureaucracy and institutional survival rather than making disciples for Christ. Other churches have adopted the Methodist way of doing church and have been effective in making disciples. A recent survey by Baylor University on religion in America says that mainline denominations like United Methodists are in decline as more and more people move toward more independent evangelical churches that are more clear about who they are and what they believe and what they expect of their membership. Now, granted, there’s a lot theologically in some independent churches that is suspect, but the trend does speak to the hunger that people have for a real experience of God that affects their daily lives. Just like the rest of the culture, churches have become more and more polarized into liberal and conservative camps which dilutes the impact of the Gospel for everyone.

     My working premise—my thesis statement, if you will—for this series is this: The theology and practice of the Methodist brand of Christianity, understood in basic terms, may provide an alternative to this polarization—not a middle ground, but a different way of seeing the Christian message that may unite rather than divide us. Paul Wesley Chilcote, who is a Methodist scholar teaching at Asbury Seminary, my alma mater, says that the uniqueness of Methodist lies what he calls a “conjunctive theology” – not a system of religious either/ors, but a relationship of both/ands. Early Methodism was focused on joining worship and theology with works of compassion and justice—what John Wesley called “practical divinity.” You saw that in action last week as Linda Hilton shared with you about Crossroads Urban Center – which is a classic example of Methodist theology and practice at work: faith worked out in engagement with the poor. Faith and works together form the centerpiece of our heritage.

     We’ll be looking at these both/ands throughout this six-week series, but today I want to give you just a little bit of background on the Methodist movement—a little history to set the stage for the rest of the series. To do that, we need to go back a ways in church history…

     You may recall that in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation began when Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, nailed his 95 theses or critques of the Roman Catholic Church on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany. Others followed suit, bucking the power of the Church which had essentially ruled church and state in the Western world for some 12 centuries. In England, the reformation found its legs not so much on religious grounds as it did in the personal circumstances of the English King Henry VIII, who wanted to divorce his wife, Catharine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn instead. The Pope refused to authorize the divorce, so Henry declared that he was starting his own church—the Church of England, which would eventually become (and still remains) the state church. The Church of England is also known as the Anglican Church and the Episcopal Church in America retains ties to it today.

     By the 18th century, the Church of England, however, had become a rather monolithic power in England, much like the Catholic Church had been for centuries before. The Church was more involved in the affairs of state than in spiritual matters. Priests were often absent from their posts, collecting pay while having others perform their work in absentia. The lines between poor and rich in pre-industrial England were sharply divided even in the church as the rich purchased subscriptions to the state church for political reasons and sat in pews while the poor were largely kept outside. Religion and politics were one and the same and the result was to the detriment of both (which is why our own founding fathers, coming from the English system, did not establish a state church of their own in their independence!).

     It was into this climate that, in 1703, John Wesley was born to his parents: Samuel, who was an Anglican priest serving the Epworth parish and his mother Susanna. John was the 14th of 19 children Samuel and Susanna would have together, though only 9 survived to adulthood. The Wesley home reflected some of the religious and political unrest of the era. Samuel was a Loyalist to the sitting King—William of Orange, while Susanna believed that the deposed King James was the rightful ruler. Money was tight and Samuel actually wound up in debtor’s prison at one point. When Samuel was away in London at a convocation, Susanna held prayer meetings in the parsonage because the curate who had filled in for Samuel at St. Andrews, his church, was ineffective. Susanna was a spirited, headstrong woman who instructed the children in faith and took on roles that were considered scandalous for a woman of her time.

     As the local parish priest there in rural Epworth, Samuel Wesley was the designated representative of the King. When the royalty decided to drain the marshes around Epworth, from the which the people gained their living, they took out their anger on the Wesleys. When John was 6 years old, the Epworth parsonage was engulfed in a massive fire that some historians believe was set by Samuel Wesley’s parishioners (if you ever get mad at me, by the way, please don’t burn down the parsonage!). John was miraculously saved from the fire, and his parents called him “a brand plucked from the burning” – believing that he was designated to do something important in his life.

John grew up and, as was expected, entered college to study for the ministry. His younger brother Charles would join him a couple of years later. They attended Christ Church College at Oxford. Oxford at the time was considered to be more of a social club for the rich and so the Wesley brothers were a bit odd considering their poor roots. It was there, however, that the Wesleys joined an emerging group called The Holy Club—a small group of students who were seeking a measure of spiritual devotion within the walls of the increasingly secular institution.

     Picture, if you will, a group of students who rose very early in the morning for prayer and Bible study, who held one another accountable for their failures, and who saw their mission as reaching out to the poor, even going to visit prisoners in the local jail. They read the scriptures for 6 hours a day, fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, kept meticulous journals and generally maintained a strict discipline of life. They were considered by their peers to be religious fanatics and were thus called things like “Bible Moths” or “Sacramentarians” or “Methodists.” The name stuck, for they truly did have a method to their spirituality. Imagine, however, having your movement named after an insult!

     John and Charles would eventually be ordained as Anglican priests, but John especially was still searching for a faith that went beyond the formality and regimen of the Church of England. He was never satisfied with himself or his faith and was constantly seeking assurance that he was doing and believing the right things. He went to Georgia in the American colonies on a mission to the prisoners and Indians there…not so much because he was zealous about converting them to Christian faith but because he was searching for assurance of his own faith. The trip was a disaster—his methodology was a turn-off to the people in Georgia and a failed romance that ended badly sent him back to England confused.

     It was on returning, however, that all the discussion and wrestling and discipline he had subjected himself to began to pay off. In May of 1738, he had a kind of conversion of his own as he was listening to someone read from Luther’s commentary about the book of Romans. Suddenly, he had an assurance—a heart “strangely warmed” and knew that God’s grace was available to him and, indeed to everyone.

     It was then that the Methodist movement really began to take off. Wesley began to preach in the open air among the poor, the people whom the Church of England had ignored. He stood in marketplaces, at the entrance to the coal mines, and anywhere else he could proclaiming to the people that God’s grace and love were available to all. In one instance, he was in Epworth and was not allowed to preach in his father’s church because of the openness of his message. So, he went outside and stood on his father’s grave telling the people that God loved them and his grace was available to all. Wesley encountered resistance from the state church as we might imagine, yet he never left it. Methodism was always designed to be a reform movement within the church. That would eventually change, but in its early stages the movement was about connecting people to God in ways the church had failed to offer.

     Methodist “societies” formed all over England, characterized by small groups where people held one another accountable for their spiritual disciplines. To be a Methodist meant more than just showing up on Sunday—it meant a life of devotion to worship, to individual prayer and study and to acts of compassion and justice among the poor. Wesley himself wrote a book called “A Primitive Physic” which was essentially a health manual that promoted simple cures for various diseases (he was particularly fond of cold water and electrification as remedies, by the way). The poor could come to a Methodist meeting house and receive these primitive medications free of charge—a kind of early health care system.

     Methodists also established schools to educate the poor and ministered in places that proper English society would not go—to the inner cities and to the poorest villages. When Methodism came to America in the mid-8th century, it became the first religious group often to arrive on the frontier, bringing good news to people trying to eke out an existence in a hostile environment.

     The point here is not to canonize John Wesley for sainthood. He had issues, like we all do. He was a control freak, perhaps even a bit depressed, had trouble with women, was very rigid and demanding. His theology was not even original and he seemed to change his mind often throughout his life. As biographer Roy Hattersley puts it, Wesley’s theology, especially early in his life, reflected more the book he had just read than his convictions. His own spiritual searching, however, helped him focus on a form of Christianity that was different than the other Protestant reformers, who were mostly Calvinists that believed that God had already ordained who was saved and who wasn’t. Wesley believed that humans had a God-given will to choose a relationship with God for themselves. We’ll explore that a little more next Sunday.

     Wesley was a prolific writer and preacher, but it was his passion for tapping into the deeper roots of what he called “scriptural Christianity” that really grounded the movement—a movement where head and heart went hand in hand. It wasn’t original (look at the book of Acts), but it was uniquely balanced and passionate.

     To sum it up, the Methodist movement was unique and began to change the fabric of a whole culture. A theology of grace that was available to everyone, the practice of spiritual disciplines to help people grow in the knowledge and love of God, the discipline of meeting together regularly for accountability and support, and engagement with the poor and marginalized were the foundational principles of the movement. It grew largely because it saw faith as being less about the trappings of institutional religion and more about the relationships we have with God and each other.

     In the 19th century, as America moved west, so did the Methodists. Methodist preachers were known as “circuit riders” – moving from place to place, bringing the message to people living in small villages, establishing societies and groups and then moving on. Wesley himself had traveled some 250,000 miles on horseback in England and that legacy was passed on to his spiritual ancestors. When people ask why we Methodist clergy move so much, well, that’s why! Our heritage tells us that we are sent to where we can do the most good.

     I can almost imagine the first Methodist circuit rider to come here to the gritty little mining town of Park City, preaching to the miners, establishing a small church, encouraging these rough and tumble people with a message of God’s grace. We’re here today because that movement took hold and we are still here offering that message to everyone.

     After a couple of hundred years, however, things tend to get stale and even a movement like Methodism can become institutionalized, formal, routine. Rather than moving around and taking the message to people, we tend to build buildings and hope that people will come to us. We tend to look out only as far as our neighborhoods and engage people who are like us, forgetting that the focus of Jesus and the thrust of our spiritual forebears was ministry with the people on the fringes of society. The disciplines of study, worship, and prayer that fueled the movement become things that we pay attention to only when we might have a few spare moments. We look at church as being an hour a week rather than a way of life.

     The thing that became most clear to me as I traveled in England this summer visiting Wesley sites and studying the Methodist movement is that we need to revisit these roots and really think and pray about what it means to be disciples of Christ and people characterized by holiness of heart and life. John Wesley prayed that the people who joined the movement would not simply become another static institution that acted as an escape from the world—rather, his focus was on creating a movement that would change the world as people engaged the love and grace of God and acted it out with those in need.

     But changing the world begins with change in us—a change that will only come when we are willing to be disciplined, engaged, passionate. The goal was and is, as Paul says in Romans 5, “God’s love poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” How we embrace and enact that love will be the subject of the rest of this series.

     There’s a lot more that could be said historically about the Methodist movement, but time prevents me from doing so here. I hope that you’ll be here over the next six weeks or listen in online. I’m also teaching a class on Tuesday evenings at 7PM, beginning this week, that will help expand on what we’ll be talking about.

     My prayer is that as we continue to study together, our collective hearts will become “strangely warmed” by the message of God’s grace and love and that we will see a revival in this place—that when people come here or engage us in the community, they would want to know how they, too, can experience the love of God and change their world. Let us explore together a method for doing so!

Wesley Trip Pictures Uploaded

Check the sidebar for some photos that I took during the Wesley Study Tour this summer in England.

New Sermon Series Begins This Week

Wesleystatue This Sunday I’ll be kicking off a new sermon series titled, "The Method in Methodism." The theology and practice of the Methodists were instrumental in shaping 18th century England and Methodist preachers were among the first to bring the Gospel to the American frontier, including here in Park City. The message of God’s grace extended to all, the practice of spiritual disciplines, singing their theology, and the crafting of vital communities of faith were all aspects of the movement that drew people into a relationship with God through Christ.

In this series, I will be spending a lot of time focusing on the message and practice of the Methodists, with my basic premise being that our own faith and practice can be revitalized by studying and embracing the best parts of this movement. Many of the people who attend our church are unfamiliar with its heritage, but beyond the history is a way of understanding Christian faith that, I believe, provides a life-giving alternative to the polarization that permeates postmodern religion. As we move through these six weeks together, my prayer is that we’ll experience our own brand of revival!

I hope that you’ll plan to join us in person over the next six weeks or listen in online to the sermon audio or read the sermons posted here in the blog. I’ll also be leading a class on Tuesday nights at 7:00PM using Steve Harper’s book The Way to Heaven: The Gospel According to John Wesley as a springboard for getting deeper into the discussion.

Having spent a couple of weeks in England this summer studying early Methodism I can tell you that my own faith and resolve has been strengthened. This is an important time in the life of our church, both here and in the larger Methodist family, and I’m convinced that one of the most effective ways we can move forward and recapture the passion and spirit of "scriptural Christianity" is by looking back at our roots.

As always, your comments and questions throughout the series are very welcome!

Loose Items from a Tight-Leaf Notebook

Things observed:

1. So, spinach now has E. Coli in it. I tried to tell my mom that spinach was bad when I was a kid, but some parents never listen. Of course, I said the same thing about beans, squash, and cucumbers, so…

2. The pope got into trouble making statements about radical Islam and, in a historic move, has had to apologize. Here’s another sign of the global culture–anybody, anywhere, can tick anyone off anytime. We live in a world where the extremists get the most press–be it in religion, politics, or any other public sphere. Offer a critique and you’ll be branded an enemy, and this goes to all sides of any ideological conflict. Our world takes itself too seriously and religion has become more about being powerful than being human. Whatever happened to grace?

3. A parishioner gave me an article cut from the Wall Street Journal back in February that talked about the state of Army basic training. In an effort to make the transition easier for people to join a recruit-starved military, trainees are no longer subject to profanity-laced tirades from drill sergeants, are given 8 hours of sleep a night, are allowed more "personal time" and can even have seconds on dessert. The goal, according to the article, was to allow the recruits more time to train on their jobs and basic combat skills.

Okay, as one who went through basic training in 1982, I have to admit that this sounds like a military gone soft. The real value of basic training, for me at least, was the realization that when I was pushed to the limits in terms of physical and emotional stress, I learned that there was always a little bit more that I could take. Just when I was on the verge of quitting, I found out that I could take just a bit more…until I found that any limits I had were largely self-imposed. I left feeling more confident and realized that quitting was never an option.

There are few consequences for quitting in our culture. People quit school, quit church, quit commitments at the drop of a hat when things get uncomfortable. They self-impose limits and, when they meet them, that’s the end of it. It’s a shame to see that that attitude has, in effect, come into the military–which is one place where you really can’t quit or the consequences for everyone around you are serious. Rather than simply lower stress, you have to learn to deal with it.

If we never push our limits, we’ll never grow. It’s true in the Army and it’s true in the church as well. I’m sure there’s a larger sermon in all that somewhere…

4. Today is "Talk Like a Pirate Day." Bet ye didn’t know that, ye scurvy dog! It was started by a couple of guys who were goofing off on a racquetball court one day (go figure) and then became a national phenomenon when Dave Barry picked it up in his column. Now if I could just find a plank…

A Special Privilege

My family and I just returned from a weekend in Ouray, Colorado, where I officiated at a wedding for a young woman who was in our youth group in Colorado Springs. It’s an amazing experience to be involved in people’s lives in this way. I watched her grow up from a giggly freshman to a mature senior and now a wonderful young woman who is marrying a great guy. They both love Christ, are involved in growing in their faith, have strong Christian families, and a great support network of friends and relatives. If you were to paint the perfect scenario you’d like to see for a marriage, this comes pretty close.

So many times I do weddings where the couple is focused on everything but the marriage. It was so nice to be part of a special weekend where the focus was on Jesus and the love that two people have for each other.

We also had a great time together as a family on the long drive. The key? Books on tape!