Like many of you, I have been following the rollercoaster of events in United Methodist denominational politics with some interest and quite a bit of concern. From my perspective, it feels like this is the part where things are going to get uglier, where we follow the all too predictable pattern in our history of starting with good intentions and a commitment to assume the best in each other and ending with fighting and suing over property and assets. I very much hope I am wrong about that. From where I am sitting, it does not look promising.
Like many of you, I’ve been praying about The United Methodist Church and my place in it. I’ve been asking God to break through. I’ve been wrestling with what faithfulness looks like for me in this time and in this place. And over the past few days I keep hearing the word Return. The first time I heard that word, my mind was going in so many different directions I wasn’t sure what it meant. But as I’ve kept hearing Return, the mist and confusion has been clearing away and one particular image has come into view. I think it is best captured by Jeremiah 6:16:
Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
I believe that there are two ancient paths the people called Methodists ought to return to and walk once again.
First, we need to return to the practice of “watching over one another in love” through small group formation like the Methodist class meetings and band meetings. Class meetings were required for membership in early Methodism. A Methodist was someone who attended a class meeting. Class meetings were focused on transformation and not information. The basic question was “How does your soul prosper?” Every Methodist was asked this question in class meeting every week.
Band meetings were smaller groups of three to five people that were voluntary. They focused on confession of sin in order to grow in holiness. Five questions were asked at each meeting:
- What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
- What temptations have you met with?
- How were you delivered?
- What you have thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
- Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?
In the past year, I have been tremendously encouraged by the number of pastors I have heard from who have started band meetings, especially through New Room’s focus on “banding together.” My life has been changed in ways I can’t even fully explain through participating in band meetings. The practice of confessing sin to brothers in Christ and receiving the promise of the gospel that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) has been the most tangible place I’ve experienced growth in holiness in my life.
I cannot overstate the importance of small group formation in the history of Methodism. When Methodism has been a vibrant movement of the Holy Spirit, Methodists have gathered together in small groups to share their burdens, to pursue growth in holiness, and intercede for one another in prayer. (For those of you who are interested in resources designed to help you return to these practices, The Class Meeting is designed to help contemporary churches return to this practice, as is The Band Meeting.)
Come what may in UMC politics, it is time for Methodists to return to a Wesleyan approach to small group formation. Many of you already are. We will make mistakes along the way. That is ok! Let’s keep connecting with each other and helping those not yet connected find places of belonging.
Second, we need to return to what John Wesley referred to as the “grand depositum” of the people called Methodists, the doctrine of entire sanctification or Christian perfection. The mission of Methodism in Britain and in the United States was initially to “spread scriptural holiness.” Holiness was the core focus and purpose of the people called Methodists.
Here is what I see as being at stake for us today. I believe that we live in a world where many are desperate for hope and healing. Many have a quiet desperation that comes from the numbness and pseudo connections that have come from spending too much time “connected” to our screens, and far too little time connecting in person in life-giving relationships. Many are desperate because they know that their lives are going in directions that are not going to end well, but they are not able to stop. Many are depressed, discouraged, and simply without hope. The list could go on and on.
Into this world, in this reality, our calling is to preach the full gospel. We have the good news of Jesus Christ. And this news is not news that only brings forgiveness, pardon, and a get out of jail free card in the next life. The gospel is the good news that you can not only be forgiven, but you can be healed. You can be cleansed, restored, set free. We need not limp through this life, defeated, merely surviving. No, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us!” (Romans 8:37) We can be saved to the uttermost.
There should not be a church in any of our communities that has a more audacious and bold optimism of what God’s grace can do in the lives of every single person in your community than Methodist churches. This, is what is at stake in preaching and teaching Methodism’s grand depositum of entire sanctification. And we preach this not as an idea, but as the fruit that comes from knowing a person – Jesus, our risen Lord. Jesus saves. Jesus rescues. Jesus heals. He has done these things and he will do them again.
I am convinced that the future of the people called Methodists starts with unplugging these two wells: Wesleyan small groups and entire sanctification. There is still living water here. As we unplug these wells and bring people to them, we will see fruit. We will see lives undone by the love of God that has been poured out over the world in Jesus Christ. We will see lives mended and made whole. And we don’t need to wait on the decision of a Special General Conference or Judicial Council deliberation. We can unplug these wells and offer the water that is already in them today to the people in our communities.
Let us return to the ancient paths. Come Holy Spirit, breathe life into your people once more.