The Church Is Built Upon Discipleship

 ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house’ (Luke 6:46-49).

Every house needs a good foundation. A weak foundation will result in cracked walls, slanted floors, and other serious problems in the structure of the house. While it is seldom seen or noticed, the foundation is an  essential part of a house.

In Luke 6:46-49 Jesus speaks about two kinds of houses. One is built on the solid foundation of stone. The other is built upon  sand. He says the house built on stone is a people who hear and obey his teachings. That house is able to withstand the flood and storms of the world. The ones who heard Jesus’ words but chose to disregard his teaching built their house on sand. That house could not withstand the flood.

Covenant Discipleship groups are part of the foundation that is obedience to Jesus’ teachings. The people who participate in the groups are the members who are listening to and acting upon Jesus’ teachings summarized by him in Matthew 22:37-39

 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Covenant Discipleship groups form the leaders in discipleship every congregation needs to faithfully obey Jesus’ commission to

 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The weekly process of mutual accountability and support for their daily walk with Jesus in world, guided by the group’s covenant shaped by the General Rule of Discipleship (To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit), helps the members grow in holiness of heart and life. Habitual practice of acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion opens the heart and mind to Christ’s love for the world. The process of daily practice and weekly accountability forms persons more and more into the women and men God created them to be. They are equipped to serve as small group leaders, Bible study leaders, and class leaders; they are the disciples who disciple others in the congregation and in the world.

Jesus tells us in Luke 6:46-49 discipleship is the foundation of the church. Discipleship is knowing, listening, learning, and obeying Jesus. I’m reminded of a quote from Mike Breen in his excellent book, Building a Discipling Culture:

If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples. …

Effective discipleship builds the church, not the other way around. We need to understand the church as the effect of discipleship and not the cause. If you set out to build the church, there is no guarantee you will make disciples. It is far more likely that you will create consumers who depend on the spiritual services that religious professionals provide.

Covenant Discipleship groups serve as an essential part of disciple-making process that must be the foundation upon which a congregation is built. Other parts of such a foundation are shared pastoral leadership, catechesis (Christian teaching with formation), evangelism, and stewardship. Such a foundation leads a congregation to live and serve as a community that listens to and acts upon the words of Jesus.

The mission of Covenant Discipleship groups is to form leaders in discipleship the congregation needs to faithfully live out its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Every congregation needs members who listen to and obey Jesus’ teachings.

When was the last time you took a look at the foundation of your church? Is your church built on the solid rock of obedience to Jesus’ teachings?

Fasting, the most neglected means of grace

 “‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

Entering the season of Lent is a good time to once again consider a means of grace John Wesley practiced all of his adult life. It is an ancient spiritual discipline found in Scripture that is part of Jewish and Christian practice. It is the first thing Jesus did following his baptism by John (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2).

Fasting is a powerful means of grace and the most neglected. It is powerful because fasting is a physical self-emptying that connects us with Christ (Philippians 2:7) and opens our hearts to his grace. Fasting is neglected for a at least one very good reason: people are naturally reluctant to voluntarily refrain from eating. No one wants to go hungry. Especially when we are bombarded by messages at all times of the day to eat and drink. This is, I think, all the more reason for followers of Jesus Christ to practice fasting; at least during the season of Lent.

By fasting I mean anything from skipping a meal at least once a week to refraining from eating for 24 hours. John Wesley practiced a weekly fast from sundown on Thursday to sundown on Friday. He refrained from eating food while taking water and tea during the day. On Friday evening he broke the fast with a light meal (broth, bread, and water or tea). During the fast Wesley spent much of the time in prayer and reading Scripture.

I can think of at least four reasons to practice a weekly fast during Lent:

  1. Jesus did it and taught his disciples to do the same. Disciples are people who learn their teacher by emulating him or her. If you are a follower of Jesus then fasting is a practice you should try. Of course you must be discerning when taking on a practice that impacts your body and health. If you have a physical condition that is not conducive to fasting then Wesley recommends another form of fasting known as abstinence. Refrain from eating a favorite food for a time. When you miss the food or drink or habit, take time to pray. The fact that Jesus practiced fasting and taught his disciples to join him tells me that disciples today should also join him.
  2. Fasting reminds us of our dependence upon God and his grace. When you skip a meal, or two or three, and feel the discomfort of an empty belly you are reminded that your life depends upon food and drink. You cannot live without the produce of the earth and the labor of others to bring the food you need to your table. Christians believe everything we need to live is supplied by God who is the “maker of heaven and earth.” When you fast you are reminded of your dependence upon God and his grace.
  3. Fasting brings you into solidarity with the poor. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). He identified himself with the people of the world who are hungry and thirsty; the ones who are compelled to fast because they have no food. When you fast you share, for a time, in their suffering. When you share in the suffering of the poor, you share in the continuing suffering of Christ who calls you to join him in his mission setting the world right.
  4. Fasting is time for prayer. Fasting and prayer go together. When you feel the ache in your belly telling you of your need for God and his grace, you are reminded to stop and pray. Fasting is a time of self-emptying to make room for God. It tells you that God wants your heart, soul, mind, and Prayer is more than an exercise of the mind. It involves the whole self because God wants your whole self to participate in his mission in the world. Fasting awakens you to the needs of the world and reminds you that God loves you because you are part of the world he has made. We fast because the world is broken. Fasting and prayer helps us to hear and see what God hears and sees every day.

Lent is a good time to add a weekly fast to your regular acts of devotion. Perhaps your group could add a clause for the weeks of Lent to practice a weekly Wesleyan fast. From Thursday dusk to Friday dusk refrain from eating solid food. Take only water, coffee, or tea. When you feel hungry during the day, stop to pray for the world, the church, yourself, and your fellow group members. If your health prevents you from such a fast, then abstain from a favorite food or habit. When you miss the food or habit take time to pray. You could also set aside money for the cost of all the meals you miss and put into a jar. During Holy Week give the money from your skipped meals to Bread for the World, or other hunger ministry.

The Call to Ministry of All the Baptized

As I was preparing for my “Thoughts on Wesleyan Leadership” webinar last week, I discovered that the 2012 General Conference made significant changes to ¶ 220 in The Book of Discipline. I must say I’m encouraged by the acknowledgement of the importance of small groups focused on disciple formation in equipping Christians to join Christ in his mission for the world.

This paragraph appears in “The Local Church” section of The Book of Discipline. ¶¶ 216-221 describe what I call a culture of holiness for the congregation. Everything that happens in the church should contribute to forming members as disciples of Jesus Christ and equipping them to be his witnesses in the world.

¶ 220 is titled “The Call to Ministry of All the Baptized.” It argues that all professing members should be equipped to live the baptismal covenant by serving together with Christ and his mission in the world. Baptism is not initiation into a community that exists to serve you and meet your emotional and spiritual needs. Baptism is initiation into a community of servants called by Jesus Christ to serve with him in his mission for the world (see Luke 4:18-19; Matthew 5-7; 28:16-20; John 20:19-23).

 ¶ 220. The Call to Ministry of All the Baptized—All members of Christ’s universal church are called to share in the ministry which is committed to the whole church of Jesus Christ. Therefore, each member of The United Methodist Church is to be a servant of Christ on mission in the local and worldwide community. This servanthood is performed in family life, daily work, recreation and social activities, responsible citizenship, the stewardship of property and accumulated resources, the issues of corporate life, and all attitudes toward other persons. Participation in disciplined group such as covenant discipleship groups or class meetings is an expected part of personal mission involvement. Each member is called upon to be a witness for Christ in the world, a light and leaven in society, and a reconciler in a culture of conflict. Each member is to identify with the agony and suffering of the world and to radiate and exemplify the Christ of hope. The standards of attitude and conduct set forth the Social Principles (Part V) shall be considered as an essential resource for guiding each member of the Church in being a servant of Christ on mission.

How does your congregation make sure this happens?

How have you implemented covenant discipleship groups and/or class meetings?

Holiness of Heart and Life: Conclusion (part 6 of 6)

This is the last of six parts from a paper I wrote and presented in August 2013. You will find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, and part 5 here. Your comments are welcome.

Conclusion

            The early Methodist societies lead by John and Charles Wesley were a JWmonogrammissional movement. Their mission was “Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”[1] They sought to be a movement of the Holy Spirit within the Church of England that would be outposts of the coming reign of God in Britain and America. For all their efforts the Methodists were held in low esteem by the leadership of their Church. They were regarded as troublemakers and an embarrassment. The secular and church press called the Methodists derogatory names, prominent among them, “enthusiasts.” In contemporary vernacular we would call such people “Bible thumpers” or “religious fanatics.” Those early Methodists were called names and embarrassed the church authorities because they expected God to do something big with them and with the Church. They believed that God would do what he promised in Scripture. They believed that Jesus meant what he said and that the Holy Spirit would empower and equip Christians to “walk just as he walked.”[2] The Methodists did not set out to become a separate church or “sect”, as Wesley clearly states. Rather, they set out to be agents of transformation and revival for their world and the church. The transformation they proclaimed and practiced is holiness of heart and life.

Holiness is rarely part of the vernacular or life of The United Methodist Church. We certainly hear the terms “social holiness” and “personal holiness” tossed about. But they are hollow and far removed from the meaning of the Wesley brothers and their followers. For example, when a typical United Methodist speaks of “social holiness” he or she typically refers to how a local congregation or agency is addressing a social issue such as violence, war, hunger, or homelessness. While these were certainly of great concern to John and Charles Wesley and the early Methodists, such application of the term “social holiness” would be foreign to them. They understood the term to describe the social character of Christian faith and life; “Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”[3]

For Wesley, social holiness meant that Christian faith is deeply personal but it is not private. Christians are responsible for building one another up in love (see John 13:34-35) and for loving their neighbors as themselves (see Luke 10:25-37). One of the problems we face in contemporary Methodism is individualism and the all too common belief that faith is private, a matter between “me and Jesus.” This makes for a rather distorted form of holiness. It puts great constraints on the congregation’s ministry of Christian formation. It is also the reason why most congregations are driven by programs designed to interest individuals in learning about God, faith, spiritual disciplines, and personal development. The problem, however, is that the programs only reach the people who are interested and they are short-term, having little lasting impact on the congregation’s mission and no influence on the local context. This is one way the church reflects the individualistic, consumer culture of North America. Social and personal holiness become little more than simple options in a menu of interests and programs congregations offer to attract and keep members.

If The United Methodist Church has a future, it must once again become a movement that lives to “reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” We need a new Wesleyan movement within The United Methodist Church. Such a movement is resident in our DNA. We have the infrastructure needed in The Book of Discipline.

Of course, you will find part of our mDNA[4] in Part III, Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task (¶¶102-141). The mDNA needed for a Wesleyan movement within The United Methodist Church are found in our definition and meaning of membership and ¶¶ 215-221. Paragraph 215 provides the definition of membership in the local church. It describes the two categories: baptized and professing. Baptized members are persons who “have received Christian baptism in the local congregation or elsewhere.” Professing members are persons “who have come into membership by profession of faith.” The paragraph continues, “A baptized or professing member of any local United Methodist church is a member of the global United Methodist connection and a member of the church universal.” Therefore, both baptized and professing members are “full” members of the church. The difference between the two categories is that Baptized members are persons who have not made a public profession of Christian faith, either because they are not able (as in the case of infants or persons with mental disability) or who have been prevented from or chosen to abstain from actively supporting the church’s ministries by their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Professing members are baptized persons who “make known their desire to live their daily lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. They covenant together with God and with the members of the local church to keep vows which are a part of the order of confirmation and reception into the Church.”[5]

Because The United Methodist Church is an ecclesia it cannot, nor should, it require or demand the high level of discipline developed by John and Charles Wesley for the members of the early Methodist societies. We have become one of the so-called “Mainline” denominations of the Protestant wing of the Church. Therefore, we must, as our recent marketing slogan suggests, be present to the world with “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” As this slogan suggests, the church must be open to accept and receive all people as they are. This is, after all, what Jesus did. In Mark 6:30-44 Jesus “saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mark 6:34). After teaching the crowd he fed them, with the help of his disciples. The Baptized members are like the crowd that came to see and hear Jesus in Galilee. They come to him for a multitude of reasons and he accepts and receives them as they are, asking nothing of them. Only after teaching them does Jesus invite them to follow him. The majority of church members will be with the crowd who comes to see and hear Jesus, but are not ready or willing to be his disciples; to follow him and live his way of life in the world.

The church has a responsibility to provide “the nurture that makes possible a comprehensive and life-long process of growing in grace;” toward becoming and living in the world as a Professing member and disciple of Jesus Christ.[6] I argue above that congregations must develop a system of intentional Christian formation that will provide the instruction, support, and accountability needed to help professing members keep the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant and to grow in holiness of heart and life as disciples of Jesus Christ, and participating in his mission for the world. If there is to be a Wesleyan revival within the church, it will arise among the professing members. They are the people who will lead the church in reclaiming its Wesleyan mDNA.

The professing members of the church are supposed to be accountable for living out their baptismal covenant and participate in the church’s mission in the world. The local congregation may establish minimum standards for professing members, e.g. participation in a small group for support and accountability for practicing the means of grace, regular attendance in weekly worship and the Lord’s Supper, giving in proportion to income (the tithe being a standard goal), participation in service with poor and marginalized people beyond the congregation. Annual evaluation of living out these standards could be done at the end of the year within the small groups. Professing members may then reaffirm their covenant at an annual Covenant Renewal service held on the first Sunday of the year or on Baptism of the Lord Sunday during which all members are invited to reaffirm the baptismal covenant. Persons who are not able or are unwilling to meet the minimum standards of professing membership will voluntarily remove their names from the professing roll. They will remain baptized members of the church with the understanding that professing membership is always available to them when they are ready. The congregation and its pastoral leaders have a responsibility to nurture such members toward professing membership through Bible study, worship, and pastoral care.

When The United Methodist Church begins to take seriously the meaning of membership through an intentional system of Christian initiation, formation, support and accountability it will rediscover its Wesleyan mDNA. For this to happen it must encourage and support a Wesleyan movement within the church among the professing members by developing a system of mutual support and accountability for following Jesus in the world. What I am proposing will require a significant shift in the culture of the church. Such a shift will, of course, take time and require committed, passionate, and gifted pastoral leadership at all levels of the denomination. I am convinced that Christ is calling us to reclaim our Wesleyan mDNA and to move toward becoming a missional, Christ-centered movement of the Holy Spirit.

In this series of posts I argue that Christians who participate  in missional engagement with the world must also be practitioners of their own tradition. They must know who, and whose, they are. I will be so bold as to say that Christians in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition should be able to answer the following questions from Wesley’s historic examination:

  • Have you faith in Christ?
  • Are you going onto perfection?
  • Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
  • Are you earnestly striving after it?
  • Do you know that General Rules of our church?
  • Will you keep them?[7]

Anyone who can answer affirmatively to these questions can be assumed to be a practicing Christian who may be equipped to participate in open and honest dialog and relationship with people of other faith traditions. As practitioners of holiness of heart and life they are equipped to present the gospel to their non-Christian friends, neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances. They will also likely be good conversation partners and open to work for the common good alongside their non-Christian neighbors.

An obstacle to developing a culture in which holiness thrives is the dominant paradigm that confuses study and programming with discipleship. Experience tells me that it is much easier to get United Methodists to study and discuss Christian theology and practice than it is to get them to actually practice what they learn. Discipleship is often presented as an option in a menu of church programs. It is seldom incorporated into the congregation’s missional infrastructure.

What happened during a gathering of active clergy from across a United Methodist annual conference illustrates my point. The purpose of the event was to hear from the bishop, director of connectional ministries, and one another ideas and strategies for navigating an uncertain future for The United Methodist Church. The conference director of connectional ministries gave a twenty-minute presentation focused on the importance of the denominational mission statement:

“To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”[8]

She then instructed everyone to discuss with the people seated at their table the definition of “disciples of Jesus Christ.” The goal of the thirty-minute exercise was to get the clergy discussing with one another how they defined the word “disciple.” Each table was to write their definition on a piece of newsprint. After the allotted time had passed each table was invited to post their newsprint on the wall. We were then instructed to walk around the room to see the various definitions for “disciple.” The first thing that became disconcertingly clear to me was that there was no clear consensus in the room. In fact, there was genuine struggle for many of my clergy colleagues to craft a succinct, coherent definition of who a disciple is. Not a single piece of newsprint posted on the walls of that room contained Wesley’s definition given in “The Character of a Methodist”

           A Methodist is one who has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;” one who “loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.[9]

I left the event at the end of the day wondering how the congregations of this annual conference can participate in the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world when their clergy leaders cannot agree on who a disciple is. While all of the pastors in that room had taken the required Methodist history and doctrine courses in seminary or the course of study, none could give John Wesley’s very clear definition of who a Christian is.

One of the reasons for this reality is the many clergy have limited understanding of the nature of discipleship in the Wesleyan tradition. They have been taught in seminary about John and Charles Wesley and the early Methodist societies. They have studied, discussed, and written papers about Wesley’s theology. And they have read the history of Methodism. But by no means all have ever actually put into practice Wesley’s method of Christian formation. Few have participated in a class or band meeting. Fewer still have entertained the idea of introducing Wesley’s method of catechesis and Christian practice into the life of a local congregation. I suspect one reason for this is that John Wesley and the early Methodist movement he and his brother led are required subjects of study. Seminary students read Wesley’s sermons and books about his life and theology and Methodist history. They write papers on Wesleyan soteriology, Christology, ecclesiology, and anthropology. All this is well and good. Persons offering themselves for ordination in The United Methodist Church should be required to learn about the man who led the movement that became the church they hope to serve. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, does the study of Wesley ever lead to practicing what he did.

Seminaries are very good at teaching the “what” of Wesley and Methodism. The important missing piece is the “how.” Pastors learn about Wesley but they are not taught the organization and practices that made him a great leader in discipleship. We need a renewed emphasis on the practice of Methodism that is integral to the curriculum.[10]

The class and band meetings were essential to the method of Methodism. The interrelated system of small groups formed people into disciples of Jesus Christ. Discipleship was shaped by a simple rule of life (the General Rules) and weekly accountability and support in the small groups (class meeting) guided by a mature, seasoned leader in discipleship (class leader).

Efforts to re-tradition this simple and effective system are routinely neglected by contemporary church leaders. For example, since 1986 the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church has provided resources and staff support for Covenant Discipleship groups and Class Leaders. The goal of this ministry is to help congregations re-tradition the class meeting and the office of class leader. Yet, these resources are routinely ignored by United Methodist schools of theology in their pedagogy and by episcopal leaders in their evaluation of their clergy.

Holiness of heart and life are essential to Christian participation in genuine missional engagement with the world. The Wesleyan Methodist tradition offers a simple, Christ-centered way of helping people to know Christ and grow in love of God and neighbor. Why then do our schools of theology and episcopal leaders do a fine job of teaching about Wesley yet hesitate to train leaders in the basic practice of what Wesley did?

[1] Wesley, “Minutes of Several Conversations between the Reverend Mr. John and Charles Wesley, and Others,” in Works, 10:845.

[2] 1 John 2:6

[3] Wesley, Sermon 24, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse the Fourth,” § 1, in Works, 1:533.

[4] This is shorthand developed by Alan Hirsch in his book The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. He writes in the book’s glossary: “I have appended the m to the letters DNA purely to differentiate it from the biological version—it simply means missionalDNA. What DNA does for biological systems, mDNA does for ecclesial ones. … [W]ith this concept/metaphor I hope to explain why the presence of a simple, intrinsic, reproducible, central guiding mechanism is necessary for the reproduction and sustainability of genuine missional movements. As an organism holds together, and each cell understands its function in relation to its DNA, so the church in given contexts finds its reference point in its built-in mDNA (page 282).” My point here is that an essential element of United Methodist mDNA is our doctrine and discipline contained in Part 2 of The Book of Discipline. Other pieces are the Standard Sermons, Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament, and the inter-related system of small groups that developed in the early Methodist societies.

[5] See The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church—2004, ¶ 217, pages 136-137.

[6] Ibid., see ¶ 216, page 135-136.

[7] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church-2012, ¶336, 262.

[8] Ibid., ¶ 120, 91.

[9] Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist,” ¶ 5, in Works, 9:35

[10] Most United Methodist related schools of theology offer students various extracurricular opportunities to meet in small spiritual formation groups. These groups are certainly beneficial to the students personal spiritual development and learning. Only Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. requires student to enroll in student-led covenant discipleship groups during the first year of study. Students receive academic credit for their participation. However, even at Wesley, the practice of Wesleyan discipleship are not integral the pedagogy of the curriculum. We are not properly teaching Wesley unless the practices that were integral to the Methodist societies are incorporated into the pedagogy.

Holiness of Heart and Life: A Disciple-making System (part 5 of 6)

This is the fifth of six parts from a paper I wrote and presented in August 2013. You will find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here. The final installment will be posted on Monday, January 5. Your comments are welcome.

Elements of the Disciple-Making System

            The Wesleyan way of making disciples of Jesus Christ is designed to formChurch as Organic System the habits, attitudes, and character of Christians. John Wesley called these holy tempers. The Apostle Paul called them “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

At the heart of the process are relationships formed in Christian community, a set of practices (the means of grace), and a system of mutual accountability and support. The goal is to form Christ-centered congregations that live and witness as signs and foretastes of the reign of God. These congregations intentionally help their members to learn and practice holy habits that form holiness of heart and life. They teach and interpret essential Christian doctrine, provide a community for the practices of Christian discipline, and help persons to grow in love of God and neighbor.

As sign-communities they point beyond themselves toward Christ and his kingdom. They also work intentionally to equip their members to serve as witnesses to Jesus Christ and to participate in his mission in the world. To that end Christ-centered congregations in The United Methodist tradition are organized for the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The basic elements of such a Wesleyan disciple-making system are:

  1. Clear Expectations: The mission and ministry of the congregation are focused upon making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The congregation trusts God will keep God’s baptismal promises and that God will act in, with, and through the people to prepare the world for God’s coming reign on earth as it is in heaven. In response to God’s amazing grace the members will, according to their ability, follow Jesus’ teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The congregation’s vision is to become a Christ-centered sign-community for the coming reign of God.
  1. The congregation provides an intentional “disciple-making” system designed to provide the means for persons and the congregation to fully participate in the Baptismal Covenant and grow in holiness of heart and life:
  • An interconnected, intentional system of small groups focused upon Christian formation is foundational. Because Christian formation is a relational process, congregational leaders must develop contexts for the baptized to obey Jesus’ command to “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[1] The congregation will provide groups that meet people where they are—seekers, new Christians, growing, and mature Christians—and help them to grow in holiness of heart and life. The small group system of early Methodist societies provides an excellent model.[2] Such a system is how the congregation will cooperate with the dynamic of grace that seeks to draw people to Christ, awaken them to who and whose they are, accept the gift of God’s love through faith, and live and serve as daughters and sons of God who are channels of grace for the world.
  • Worship that is sacramental and evangelical in which Christ in all of his offices (prophet, priest, and king) is proclaimed. By sacramental I mean worship that is directed toward the triune God and invites people to come to Jesus Christ, his very body and blood. The mystery, majesty, righteousness and justice of God are lifted up through prayer, music, Scripture, proclamation, ritual and sacraments. Evangelical means that worship conveys the good news of God given to the world in the person, life and work of Jesus Christ. This good news is conveyed through word, hymns, praise songs, sermons and ritual that invite congregational participation. Finally, the congregation worships the whole Christ in all his offices because Christ saves and redeems the whole person. Therefore, liturgy and proclamation must proclaim Christ as prophet, priest and[3]
  • Every member participates in a curriculum for Christian initiation and formation. This is integral to the small group system discussed above. The “entry level” groups will focus on catechesis, similar to the early Methodist class meeting. The leaders for this catechetical process will be seasoned, responsible Christians who can be trusted with the care of souls. An essential element of the catechesis will be teaching basic Christian doctrine and the practice of the means of grace (discipline): works of piety (prayer, Scripture, worship, the Lord’s Supper, fasting or abstinence) and works of mercy (feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, visiting prisoners, caring for the sick, peace-making, and witness to Jesus Christ in the world). The goal of catechesis is to form persons as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who help one another from “holy tempers” and who strive toward growth in holiness of heart and life.
  • Ministry in and with the local community and the world, especially with poor and marginalized people. This ministry both meets physical and material needs while also sharing the good news of God in Jesus Christ in ways that they receive it as good news. This acknowledges that Christians are commanded by Christ to do good to their bodies and to their souls.
  1. Practice evangelism that is contextual and centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The congregation and its leaders understand that the practice of evangelism is a responsibility of all Christians. It is not a program delegated to “professionals.” The congregation understands that evangelism is witnessing to the good news of the coming reign of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “To evangelize is one way of bearing witness to what God has done in Christ and is doing through the Holy Spirit today to convey the good news. One shares the message in both word and deed.”[4] The evangelical task and responsibility is to share the good news of Christ in ways that it is received it as good news indeed and they desire a relationship with Jesus Christ, freedom from sin, and new life in the reign of God.

[1] John 13:34-35, NRSV

[2] Henry H. Knight, III, The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1992), 95-116.

[3] for more on the importance of this see John Deschner, Wesley’s Christology: An Interpretation (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985), 73-77.

[4] Scott J. Jones, The Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor: A Theology of Witness & Discipleship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 15.

Holiness of Heart and Life: Witness to Jesus Christ in the World (part 4 of 6)

This the fourth of a six part series of posts based on a paper I presented in the Practical Theology Working Group of the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies that met in August 2013. The focus of the Institute was upon how Christian people and congregations in the Wesleyan/Methodist traditions relate to people and communities of other faith traditions.

I contend that a culture that intentionally fosters the formation of holiness of heart and life in Wesleyan/Methodist communities and persons is necessary for any fruitful engagement with persons and communities of other faith traditions.

You will find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

Witnesses to Jesus Christ in the World

Christ the King

Christ the King

Jesus told his disciples

 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[1]

Like salt, Christians are to improve life in the world. Their witness to Jesus Christ in the world strives to improve the quality of life for all people in their neighborhood, town, city, state, and nation. John Wesley describes the “salty” Christians:

 Indeed, were we wholly to separate ourselves from sinners, how could we possibly answer that character which our Lord gives us in these very words: ‘Ye’ (Christians, ye that are lowly, serious and meek; ye that hunger after righteousness, that love God and man, that do good to all, and therefore suffer evil: Ye) ‘are the salt of the earth.’ It is your very nature to season whatever is round about you. It is the nature of the divine savour which is in you to spread to whatsoever you touch; to diffuse itself on every side, to all those among whom you are. This is the great reason why the providence of God has so mingled you together with other men, that whatever grace you have received of God may through you be communicated to others; that every holy temper, and word, and work of yours, may have an influence on them also. By this means a check will in some measure be given to the corruption which is in the world; and a small part, at least, saved from the general infection, and rendered holy and pure before God.[2]

Christians are “the light of the world.” They reveal the world as it is and as it will be. Their witness reveals the places and people where Christ and his kingdom are present today. Holiness reveals the mission of Christ in, with, and for the world. It is the light of God’s love for the world that draws the world to Christ and his good news of God’s reign. John Wesley describes the meaning of Christians living as the “light of the world:”

 Ye Christians are the light of the world, with regard both to your tempers and actions. Your holiness makes you as conspicuous as the sun in the midst of heaven. As ye cannot go out of the world, so neither can ye stay in it without appearing to all mankind. Ye may not flee from men, and while ye are among them it is impossible to hide your lowliness and meekness and those other dispositions whereby ye aspire to be perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. Love cannot be hid any more than light; and least of all when it shines forth in action, when ye exercise yourselves in the labour of love, in beneficence of every kind. As well may men think to hide a city as to hide a Christian: yea, as well may they conceal a city set upon a hill as a holy, zealous, active lover of God and man.[3]

Light requires energy. The energy is the Holy Spirit working in the lives of persons witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world and following his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion (also known as the means of grace). The light of Christ shines through the lives of persons who are formed by communities that intentionally initiate members into the life and mission of the triune God and provide the means for ongoing support and accountability for mission-shaped discipleship. Such a community is described by Charles Wesley in Hymn #507 written for the Love Feast:

Let us join (’tis God commands),
Let us join our hearts and hands;
Help to gain our calling’s hope,
Build we each the other up.
God his blessing shall dispense,
God shall crown his ordinance,
Meet in his appointed ways,
Nourish us with social grace.

Let us then as brethren love,
Faithfully his gifts improve,
Carry on the earnest strife,
Walk in holiness of life.
Still forget the things behind,
Follow Christ in heart and mind;
Toward the mark unwearied press,
Seize the crown of righteousness!

Plead we thus for faith alone,
Faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
Only faith the grace applies,
Active faith that lives within,
Conquers earth, and hell, and sin,
Sanctifies, and makes us whole,
Forms the Saviour in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
Sure salvation is its end;
Heaven already is begun,
Everlasting life is won.
Only let us persevere
Till we see our Lord appear;
Never from the rock remove,
Saved by faith which works by love.[4]

In the post-Christendom, post-modern, multi-cultural world of today congregations must be intentional about Christian formation. They must acknowledge that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the dominant theology and ethic of the church today. And that MTD undermines the church’s mission to form disciples of Jesus Christ who participate with Christ and his mission in the world.

MTD has gained its place in the church as the result of decades of neglect of essential Wesleyan doctrine, spirit, and discipline. Therefore, the church is ineffectual in preparing its people to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ with their Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Bahai, atheist, agnostic, and pagan neighbors. Without a culture and expectation of holiness of heart and life, United Methodist congregations cannot be full participants in interfaith dialog or relationships.

[1] Matthew 5:13-16

[2] Wesley, Sermon 24, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse the Fourth,” § I.7, Works, 1:536-7.

[3] Ibid., 1:539-540.

[4] Wesley, #507 in Works, 7:698-9.

Holiness of Heart and Life: Part 3 of 6

Practicing Holiness of Heart and Life Increases Self-Knowledge and Knowledge of Jesus Christ

             Holiness of heart and life is synonymous with “perfection in love” and “entire sanctification.” John Wesley defined it as follows:

 The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love.[1]

and

It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love ‘rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks’.[2]

Holiness is the result of the cross-bearing life described by Jesus when he said, Dali Crucifixion“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

The cross Jesus’ followers are to take up is obedience to his commands to love (Matthew 22:37-40). Love[3] is the beginning and end of Christian faith.

John Wesley described the process of forming holiness of heart and life in Sermon 92: “On Zeal”

 In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival. In a circle near the throne are all holy tempers; – longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, fidelity, temperance; and if any other were comprised in “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.” In an exterior circle are all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers- by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace, although this is not commonly adverted to. Next to these are those that are usually termed works of piety – reading and hearing the word, public, family, private prayer, receiving the Lord’s supper, fasting or abstinence. Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our blessed Lord has united them together in one body, the church, dispersed all over the earth – a little emblem of which, of the church universal, we have in every particular Christian congregation.[4]

Love is formed in congregations centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is the way of life shaped by habits and attitudes Wesley called “holy tempers” and the Apostle Paul named “fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). These characteristics are the fruit of a life of obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ in a community devoted to following Christ in the world.

The love that is formed in the heart by following Jesus in the world is described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

John Wesley describes this love in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection:

 God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is continually crying, ’Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth whom I desire besides thee.’ My God and my all! ’Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.’

He is therefore happy in God; yea, always happy, as having in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life, and overflowing his soul with peace and joy. Perfect love having now cast out fear, he rejoices evermore. Yea, his joy is full, and all his bones cry out, ’Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten me again unto a living hope of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, reserved in heaven for me.’ …

“And loving God, he ’loves his neighbor as himself;’ he loves every man as his own soul. He loves his enemies, yea, and the enemies of God. And if it be not in his power to ’do good to them that hate’ him, yet he ceases not to ’pray for them,’ though they spurn his love, and still ’despitefully use him, and persecute him.’

“For he is ’pure in heart.’ Love has purified his heart from envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper. It has cleansed him from pride, whereof ’only cometh contention;’ and he hath now ’put on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering.’ And indeed all possible ground for contention, on his part, is cut off. For none can take from him what he desires, seeing he ’loves not the world, nor any of the things of the world;’ but ’all his desire is unto God, and to the remembrance of his name.’[5]

Love, for Wesley, is much more than feeling deep attraction to and affection for God and the things of God. It is a reordering of the affections and tempers away from pleasing the self and the world and towards pleasing only God. For Wesley, and the Apostle Paul, love is active. It compels specific behavior that is pleasing to God. Paul describes the behavior derived from love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. In other words, persons who profess to love God practice patience, kindness, humility, justice, truth-telling, peace-making, hope, and endurance.

The life of active love is exemplified by obedience to Jesus’ teachings summarized in Matthew 22:37-40

 “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Obedience to Jesus is shaped by these two great commandments: love God and crosslove those whom God loves. Wesley believed God provided the means to follow Christ in his way of love by learning and practicing “works of piety” and “works of mercy.” The works of piety are the practices of worship and devotion God provides, and modeled by Jesus, that draw us to God and keep us in his company. The works of mercy are those practices of compassion and justice that enable people to enact their love for God in the world by loving the world that God loves (John 3:16).

Wesley regarded the works of mercy and works of piety to be “means of grace.” He defined means of grace as being “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”[6] Means of grace are basic practices that open the heart, mind, and life to God and the ways of God in individuals and communities. They are intended to help people live out the relationship they seek with God and with those whom God loves.

The means of grace are very much like the habits couples practice to nurture their relationship with one another. Just as couples spend time together in conversation and sharing their lives with one another, Christians must spend time with God in prayer, worship, sacrament, Scripture, and service in the world God loves. We become what we love. Love forms habits that shape our life and character into the life and character of the beloved. This love that, in the words of Charles Wesley, “forms the savior in the soul,”[7] equips Christians to engage in fruitful, Christ-like dialog with non-Christian neighbors, friends, co-workers, classmates, and strangers.

Wesley describes how Methodists are to interact with God and their neighbors in the General Rules:

 First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil in every kind …[8]

A goal of love of God is forming and nurturing relationships with the neighbor. In inter-faith dialog we do no harm and make on-going relationship possible when we listen rather than debate with the neighbor who professes a non-Christian faith or no faith at all. Listening excludes proselytizing. Christians seeking to build relationships of mutual respect will not denigrate other religious traditions, reduce any religious tradition to caricature, expect any individual to speak for an entire faith tradition, or objectify any person.

 Secondly, by doing good, by being, in every kind, merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and as far as is possible, to all men;—to their bodies, of the ability which God giveth, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick, or in prison;—to their souls, by instructing reproving, or exhorting all they have any intercourse with … By running with patience the race that is set before them, “denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily;” submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world; and looking that men should “say all manner of evil of them falsely for the Lord’s sake.”[9]

Love seeks the well-being of the neighbor. Therefore, Christians will extend hospitality to persons of other religious traditions. They will be made to feel welcomed in our homes and places of worship. We will do all in our power to accommodate their physical and ritual needs when they are in our homes or churches. As followers of Jesus Christ, we will treat our guests as friends and persons of sacred worth created in the image of God. We will acknowledge all that we hold in common:

  • Practice of compassion
  • Service to others
  • Practicing moral precepts and virtues
  • Training in meditation techniques and regularity of practice
  • Attention to diet and exercise
  • Fasting and abstinence
  • The use of music and chanting and sacred symbols
  • Practice in awareness (recollection, mindfulness) and living in the present moment
  • Pilgrimage
  • Study of scriptural texts
  • Formation of community
  • Humility, gratitude, and a sense of humor
  • Prayer is communion with God, whether it is regarded as personal, impersonal, or beyond them both.[10]

The goal in dialog is building mutual trust and relationships for common mission. Christians are not to set out to convert non-Christians. Rather, they are to represent Christ to their non-Christian neighbor. Of course, in the course of conversation the gospel of Christ will be proclaimed in word and deed. Any conversion that may occur is the work of the Holy Spirit. Christians, as representatives and reflections of Christ, must not impede the Spirit’s work.

Persons who strive toward holiness of heart and life join with others to serve the world that God loves. Loving your neighbor as yourself means Christians join with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, pagan, atheist, and agnostic neighbors who are willing to serve with and improve life for people who are poor, sick, oppressed, voiceless and marginalized by the world.[11]

Thirdly, by attending upon all the ordinances of God. Such are:
The public worship of God;
The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded;
The Supper of the Lord;
Family and private prayer;
Searching the Scriptures; and
Fasting, or abstinence.[12]

Disciplined practice of the works of piety (also known as “the instituted means of grace”) listed in the third General Rule make practice of the first two Rules possible in personal and congregational witness in the world. They are practices that connect persons to God and his grace that transforms the heart, mind, and soul. The transformed heart is open to God and to those whom God loves. Grace re-orders the affections and helps persons to understand that God’s love is not limited to Christians and the Church. The triune God is Lord of the Universe and all that is in it. Those who confess and practice love of this God are compelled by love to love those whom God loves. The writer of 1 John expresses this quite plainly:

We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.[13]

The works of piety connect persons to the grace that opens the heart, hands, eyes, and ears to all people, of all religious traditions and of no faith. When the heart is opened to grace and our affections and tempers are re-formed and re-aligned with Christ we realize that our non-Christian neighbor is our sister and brother. Disciples of Jesus Christ must love their neighbors as themselves because their Lord and Savior loves them.

Loving others means accepting them as they are, befriending, and providing hospitality to them. Loving as Christ loves means that Christians live as channels of his grace for all people. The works of piety “forms the Savior in the soul” and equip Christians to be fully present to their neighbors in love, compassion, and justice.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.”[14]

The General Rules are a rule of life for Christians in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. It is “a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be.”[15] The aim of this rule is to form persons whose lives reflect the life of Jesus in the world. They are guided by the power of the Holy Spirit to “walk just as he walked.” When they encounter persons of other religions, or no religion, their witness is characterized by incarnate love described by John Wesley:

And while he thus always exercises his love to God, by praying without ceasing, rejoicing evermore, and in everything giving thanks, this commandment is written in his heart, “That he who loveth God, love his brother also.” And he accordingly loves his neighbour as himself; he loves every man as his own soul. His heart is full of love to all mankind, to every child of “the Father of the spirits of all flesh.” That a man is not personally known to him, is no bar to his love; no, nor that he is known to be such as he approves not, that he repays hatred for his good-will. For he “loves his enemies;” yea, and the enemies of God, “the evil and the unthankful.” And if it be not in his power to “do good to them that hate him,” yet he ceases not to pray for them, though they continue to spurn his love, and still “despitefully use him and persecute him.”[16]

[1] Steven W. Manskar, A Perfect Love: Understanding John Wesley’s ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection’, (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2004), 41.

[2] Wesley, Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.9, in Sermons II, 2:160.

[3] When Wesley uses the word “love” he means that love described by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. He summarizes the character of this love in Sermon 149: “On Love,”

“Now, what is it to love God but to delight in him, to rejoice in his will, to desire continually to please him, to seek and find our happiness in him, and to thirst day and night for a fuller enjoyment of him?

As to the measure of this love, our Lord hath clearly told us, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.’ Not that we are to love or delight in none but him. For he hath commanded us not only to love our neighbour—that is, all men—as ourselves; to desire and pursue their happiness as sincerely and steadily as our own; but also to love many of his creatures in the strictest sense—to delight in them, to enjoy them—only in such a manner and measure as we know and feel not to indispose but to prepare us for the enjoyment of him. Thus, then, we are called to love God with all our heart.”

[4] Wesley, Sermon 92, “On Zeal,” §II.5, in Sermons III, 3:313.

[5] Manskar, 15-16.

[6] Wesley, Sermon 16, “The Means of Grace” §II.1, Works, 1:381.

[7] Wesley, #507.3 in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists, in Works, 7:698.

[8] Wesley, “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies,” § 4, in Works, 9:70

[9] Ibid., § 5, 9:72

[10] “Principles and Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue”, http://www.cccm.ca/Stage/…/Principles_and_Guidelines_for_Interfaith.doc

(International Movement of Catholic Students, 2008), 5-6.

[11] Mark 3:31-35

[12] Wesley, “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies,” § 6, in Works, 9:73.

[13] 1 John 4:19-21, NRSV

[14] 1 John 2:3-6

[15] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 138.

[16] Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist,” ¶ 9, in Works, 9:37-38.