The great irony of the present-day United Methodist Church is that we have become the spiritual equivalent of John Wesley’s Church of England.
We are declining, we are moribund and lethargic, our churches are full of practical deists, and we have largely ignored the lower classes of society. In other words, we, like the 18th century institutional church in England, are experiencing “discipleship drift.”
I am hardly the first person to note the similarities, or draw the same conclusions. It doesn’t take much to see the parallels.
But recently I have spent time exploring Wesley’s life and ministry with an eye toward the structures he created which were meant to check this discipleship drift, and encourage people to become real-life followers of Jesus. Surely, there is a way to recapture these practices, in spirit if not in actual replication.
Stated simply, Wesley implemented a three-tier discipleship structure, consisting of societies, classes, and bands. In the next few blog posts, I will share what I’ve learned from my research and reading regarding this structure, and make suggestions on its relevance to our own churches.
One important distinction, however, must be made from the outset: John Wesley always remained firmly within the Church of England. His system of discipleship was designed to work for, under, and within the doctrine and hierarchy of the institutional church.
Therefore, the very first, and most basic, level of discipleship that was to be expected from the ordinary Christian was attendance at the Sunday morning worship service at his or her local parish church. A good Methodist and faithful disciple was, first of all, a faithful member of the Church of England.
The word “Methodist”, then, was primarily an adjective. It described what kind of Christian you were. One could refer to the “Methodist” way of discipleship, to “Methodist” preachers, and to “Methodist” methods.
This point partly explains our discipleship drift. After the Revolution, this primary characteristic of the Methodist no longer applied; now the Methodists became a church, and became occupied with creating and building an institution, which they did very well. Now, “Methodist” became a noun; one could now become a Methodist, entirely contained by a specific organization. The word entirely defined one’s church, doctrine, and polity.
But the fine distinctions between Sunday worship, evening Society meetings, and weekly class meetings were gradually blurred and confused. The emphasis on discipleship waned.
Over time, the question, “How is it with your soul?” morphed into “How well is your church doing?” Preachers became less concerned about preaching good news to the poor, and more concerned about settling down, becoming ordained, and running for bishop. Methodist people stopped thinking of themselves as small societies of radical followers of Jesus, and instead became respectable congregations, located on Main Streets across America.
This raises a great question, which I have yet to answer to my satisfaction. Can the United Methodist Church really re-discover its roots as a discipleship movement while, at the same time, functioning as an institutional church? Is the genius of Methodism really something that works only inside an existing system, and which becomes perverted or distorted when it becomes the system itself?
Put another way, is “Methodist” really a noun or an adjective?