An undisciplined Methodist is a contradiction in terms. Methodism is as much a spiritual discipline as it is a system of theology. Here are three priorities we can adapt from primitive Methodism in order to serve the present age.
The body of Christ is a unit. Though it is made up of many parts, they form one body. Each one who is baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ is part of that one body, the Church (1 Cor 12:12-13; 27).
God did not intend for believers to live in isolation, but to be nurtured in a community of faith. God did not intend for congregations to exist in isolation, but to worship in connection with other assemblies of believers and minister to the society in which they exist.
The American Church has placed too much emphasis upon being "independent." Steve Harper wrote in Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition
No one can develop a mature spirituality alone. To be a Christian is to be called into community. It is to become a functioning part of the body of Christ.
David wrote in Psalm 133, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity." He then described the priest being anointed for ministry. The oil symbolizes the Holy Spirit. Today the Holy Spirit indwells all believers and all are priests unto God. When we come together in unity, the Spirit is poured out as anointing oil. But division grieves the Holy Spirit.
In this same psalm David depicts a second benefit of connection. Unity is like the dew of Hermon falling on Mount Zion. Mt. Hermon is over 9,000 feet above sea level. It is lush even in the dry summer months because of the dew that sustains growth there. During the summer months Jerusalem gets virtually no precipitation, but there is almost always snow on Mt. Hermon.
When everything around us is hot and dry, Christian fellowship should be cool and refreshing. People ought to anticipate the assembly for worship as a time when they leave the hot valley and climb up to the lush mountainside. When preaching becomes dry and boring, it may be because of division in the congregation.
Galatians 5:19-21 lists fifteen manifestations of the sinful nature. Half of the list are sins of divisiveness and sectarianism which are often prevalent within congregations. I am especially interested in a word Paul used in that list. Hairesis is translated "factions" by the NIV and "heresies" in the KJV. A study of this passage, along with Acts 24:14, 1 Cor 11:19, and Titus 3:10 will demonstrate the close connection between divisiveness and heresy. Many breaches of fellowship which ostensibly occur over doctrine actually take place because of selfish ambition.
Philippians 2 is the classic passage about Christ's attitude. He was willing to give up position, endure hardship, place himself at a disadvantage, and put the needs of our race above his own comfort. With His pattern before us we are admonished, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves" (v 3). But then in verse 21 Paul complains that "everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." What pastor has not encountered the same agenda at work? Diotrephes was not the last man who loved to be first (3 John 9). Nor was he the last churchgoer to engage in malicious gossip.
The advancement of the Kingdom is more important than our personal promotion. William Sangster prayed, "Lord, we don't mind who is second, as long as Thou art first." The common good of the brotherhood takes precedent over our private agenda. If we understand the concept of connection, we will become a team player.
John Wesley once visited an area where the Methodist society had declined. He observed,
I was more convinced that ever, that preaching like an apostle, without joining together those that are awakened, and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer. No regular societies, no discipline, no order or connection; and the consequence is, that nine in ten of the once-awakened are now faster asleep than ever.
John Wesley preached to the masses in fields and other open forums. This was the point of entry. The awakened were then invited to the local Methodist society. When Wesley met with the united society he started with Matthew 1:1 and proceeded to teach the Word of God until he had to leave. Then he left his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament with the lay leaders and they carried on the exposition.
But spiritual formation also requires intimate fellowship, so the Methodist societies were divided into classes, bands, and select societies to promote spiritual growth. All that was necessary to participate was a desire to "flee the wrath to come." Most conversions took place in the small groups or alone as a result of the discipleship.
While the rules for the Methodist societies may sound rigid in our permissive age, no one willing to submit to the Methodist system of discipline was ever "kicked out" of the united society. The lapsed or backslidden who were penitent were reassigned to their proper group. There were classes for those seeking salvation, those who were justified by faith, those groaning after full redemption, and those who demonstrated Christian perfection.
Wesley taught this small group dynamic was a means of grace. The concept of the means of grace could be compared to a satellite dish. God is transmitting his grace continually. By turning toward God and tuning in, by utilizing the means of grace, we receive that grace. Wesley cited five instituted means of grace: prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord's Supper, fasting, and Christian conference. While the term conference can refer to an ecclesiastical governing body, it can also simply mean spiritual conversation.
The value of structured conversation within a small group has been rediscovered in our day. Those who are serious about spiritual growth recognize the need for the accountability and structure the small group provides.
But where does a pastor go for spiritual direction? In the Methodist Discipline, a section entitled, "On the Duty of Preachers to God, Themselves, and One Another," raised this issue:
Do we sufficiently watch over each other? We do not. Should we not frequently ask each other, Do you walk closely with God? Have you now fellowship with the Father and the Son? Do you use all the means of grace yourself?
Preachers have a duty to watch over each other. They need Christian conference with others in ministry. In 1752 a group of early Methodist ministers signed a covenant which we should also adopt:
That we will not listen or willingly inquire after ill concerning one another; that, if we do hear any ill of each other, we will not be forward to believe it; that as soon as possible we will communicate what we hear by speaking or writing to the person concerned; that until we have done this, we will not write or speak a syllable of it to any other person; that neither will we mention it, after we have done this, to any other person; that we will not make any exception to any of these rules unless we think ourselves absolutely obligated in conference.
Down through history there have always been those who equated spirituality with spontaneity. They frowned on structure in worship. They saw no need to keep a day of worship; for them every day was holy. They did not need to submit to water baptism; they had the baptism with the Spirit. They did not need the ritual of the Lord's Supper; they had communion with God every day. Yet in their quest for "super-spirituality" many have, in fact, become lawless. Since there are three separate commands given by the Lord Jesus regarding the sacrament of communion, surely we must conclude that much of the Church has neglected this means of grace instituted by Christ.
But if religious experience is regarded only as individualistic, personal piety will be emphasized at the expense of corporate worship. However, some means of grace can only be transmitted corporately. The sacraments were not designed for individual, but for corporate use.
Sacrament is a rich term, but often confused withsacramentalism, the notion that we are saved through the sacramental rituals. Mainline churches have frequently leaned toward sacramentalism and in reaction, conservative churches have tended to play down the importance of the sacraments.
Theologically, a sacrament is the use of a physical element as a symbolic statement of our faith. John Wesley defined a sacrament as "an outward sign of inward grace." He saw the Lord's Supper as communicating prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace to the believing communicant. We participate in this enactment because it is commanded and because Scripture promises blessing as we do so.
There may be nothing impressive about the worship service of a small congregation, but as we gather at the Lord's table, we are connecting with Christians all around the world and across the last two thousand years who have also been nourished at that same table. Christ is also present through the Spirit. Thomas Oden explained
The sacraments presuppose that God has met us in history and that this meeting calls us to regular recollection and re-enactment in order to experience God's real presence in our minds. The grace of God is offered to us in and through these sacraments in a way that we cannot grasp by our own moral efforts.
The bread and wine express promises, not that we make to God but that God makes to us, to which we may respond in obedient faith. They are signs of God's mercy to us and of God's immediate presence in our midst.
Some churches observe the Lord's supper every Sunday, but put little emphasis upon preaching the Word. Other pastors claim preaching to be their priority, but rarely ever obey the biblical imperatives to "do this in remembrance of me." But there is no need for any polarization over the sacraments. Not only do our ordination vows charge us with both preaching the Word andadministering the sacraments, but in fact, the Lord's Supper is a form of preaching the Gospel. Katangello, the Greek word for "proclaim" in 1 Corinthians 11:26 can be translated "preach." Whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, we preach the Lord's death until he comes.
We need to recover the New Testament pattern for the Church by devoting ourselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). We also need to adapt the pattern of early Methodism which emphasized the priorities of connection, conference, and communion.