It was so good sitting next to you in church a few Sundays ago. I hardly recognized you. It’s been a long time since I drove you and Tallie to middle school every day. I am so proud that you served in the Peace Corps for a few years after graduating from college and are now studying non-profit administration in grad school. Clearly, you want to make a positive difference in the world.
As far as I know you have never been to a United Methodist Church before, so I’m curious how you found your way to First UMC. Perhaps you remember from your youth that Gary and I served as pastors here. Or maybe you were simply responding to that longing in your heart to connect with God. If I have the opportunity I’d like to show you a little book I’ve been reading that makes the best case I know of for why you should become a United Methodist.
I don’t know where this original edition came from, but some faithful United Methodist probably gave it to Gary and me along the way. Reasons for Becoming a Methodist was written by Rev. Isaac Smith in 1855, 161 years ago. Rev. Smith says that he wrote the book in order to refute misconceptions and ignorance about Methodist doctrines at a time when Methodism was rapidly spreading across our country.
Rev. Smith was introduced to the neighborhood Methodist Episcopal Church as a child, but his family was not churchgoing, so he “backslid.” In Smith’s own words, “I refused to bear the cross.” As a young man he joined the Closed-Communion Calvinist Baptist Church because his brother and family attended there. The distinguishing mark of this denomination was right in their title: they practiced closed communion, meaning that anyone who had not been baptized by full immersion in their church was not a real Christian and was thus excluded from communion.
As you know, Jessica, the Sunday that you came to First Church was a communion Sunday. I didn’t remember what your religious background was, but I was so hoping that you would respond to pastor Gary’s open invitation for all to come to the table. In The United Methodist Church we insist that everyone is welcome to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation. It was a great encouragement to me that you, too, stood up, and walked to the communion table to receive the sacrament.
At age 24 Isaac Smith went to Oberlin College to study for the ministry and during a revival had a life-changing experience of God’s grace. Through his conversion Isaac lost all of his uncharitable feelings toward other churches and began to wonder if God was more inclusive and accepting of others than he was. Eventually Isaac Smith went on trial in the Closed-Communion Calvinist Baptist Church because he began practicing open communion and dared to ask the question, “Do we make the door into our church narrower than the gate to Heaven?” After his expulsion Smith discovered the Methodist Episcopal Church, as it was known at the time, and went on to became a great defender of his new denominational home for 3 reasons:
- 1. Purity and simplicity of doctrine
- 2. Means for spiritual improvement and growth in grace
- 3. Facilities for doing good and converting the world
Jessica, I think you will find that these 3 hallmarks of the Methodist movement still characterize The United Methodist Church 161 years later and summarize why I think you should become a United Methodist.
Purity and Simplicity of Doctrine
United Methodism is not a confessional church; that is, we do not demand that you subscribe to a certain set of beliefs. The core of our Wesleyan heritage is quite simple: we believe that all people are created in the image of God; that we have the freedom to choose good or evil; that Jesus Christ died for all, not just for some; that through God’s grace and our repentance, our sins are forgiven, we have the assurance of new life, and we are empowered to become perfect in love; and that we are created for good works.
These beliefs may sound pretty normal to you, Jessica, but in Rev. Smith’s time the Methodist conviction that through God’s grace we are all worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven was considered to be on the fringe of acceptable Christianity. Smith writes, “This is one of the peculiarities of Methodism; and although it is at the present day admitted, and sometimes advocated by others, yet it should be remembered, that within 50 years, yea a much less time, Methodists were regarded and represented as a band of wild fanatics, who pretended to know their acceptance with God; and were accused by all Calvinist churches of boasting of their piety, being self-righteous because they preached and professed to enjoy the witness of the Spirit. They (the Calvinists) contended that no one could know whether he was a Christian or not; he might have a faint hope…”
Jessica, United Methodists are not considered quite so wild today, which may be to our detriment! However, we do insist that God’s grace extends to the least, the last, and the lost, and I think you would want to be a part of a church that embraces this kind of inclusivity and hope.
Means for Spiritual Improvement and Growth in Grace
I know that you are a good student and love to learn, Jessica. John Wesley, the founder of The United Methodist Church, insisted on an educated clergy. Wesley himself read hundreds of books as well as the Bible as he traveled on horseback around England preaching and witnessing to God’s love. The United Methodist Church does not ask you to leave your intellect at the door but rather encourages you to study the Bible, read widely, discuss theology, ask questions, and grow in your faith.
Wesley organized his converts into class meetings, small groups who met regularly in order to be accountable to one another for their spiritual lives. Even 161 years ago, Isaac Smith saw the critical role that small groups played in the growth of Methodism. He said, “It is there (at the class meeting) the inexperienced learn wisdom, and the experienced become wiser. There the weak become strong, and the strong renew their strength. Is it there the tempted find deliverance, and the delivered become established.”
In addition, worship and prayer meetings have always been very important for Methodists, for when we gather together, the Holy Spirit sets us on fire to transform the world into the kingdom of God. Isaac Smith writes of the Methodist prayer meetings, “Then there is something peculiar in the Methodist prayer-meetings. Not only that they are held more frequently than among most other denominations, but there is a degree of spirit, life and ENERGY, in them, found in no other… They believe that the Christian life is one of constant vigorous action.”
You should become a United Methodist, Jessica, because you will be encouraged to grow in your faith through worship, small groups, and Bible studies. And, yes, we are still a people of energy and vigorous action! You’ll find us everywhere in the world, living out our faith.
Facilities for doing good and converting the world
John Wesley referred to works of piety and works of mercy as the means of grace. What good is our faith if we do not take it with us into the school, the workplace, our communities, and the world? In fact, the mission statement of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Isaac Smith felt that a primary reason for the rapid growth of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the first half of the 19th century is because Methodist ministers were (and still are) itinerant. That is, preachers are sent by God and the bishop wherever their gifts are needed to grow the church. Methodist itinerant preachers, their horses, and saddlebags were found throughout the frontier, moving west with the people, cheerfully bringing the gospel to the loneliest and barren parts of our country. Rev. Smith wrote, “It has been fitly said, that ‘the usual stationery ministry waits for the call of the people, while the Methodist ministry goes forth to call the people.’”
Jessica, I would be remiss if I did not tell you that The United Methodist Church is struggling right now to rediscover its identity in an ever-changing world. Isaac Smith could not in his wildest dreams imagine today’s world, especially the opportunities we have now to travel to the far corners of the earth to share the gospel, work for justice, and seek shalom for all of God’s people. Yet our mission is still to go forth and call the people.
We need young people like you to help reinvent our denomination so that we continue to demonstrate purity and simplicity of doctrine, means for spiritual improvement and growth in grace, and facilities for doing good and converting the world. You urge us to respect differences, honor diversity, think globally, reach out to our neighborhoods, be sensitive to the environment, challenge hypocrisy, greed, and selfishness, and perhaps most important, live the questions.
In good United Methodist fashion, I call you to claim your identity as God’s beloved child and consider becoming a United Methodist, not so much because we need you but because you need to be connected to the vine of Jesus Christ. But be warned, Jessica. When the fire and wild passion of the Holy Spirit gets ahold of you, you can change the world. I’ll be cheering you on.
P.S. I love holding a 161 year old book in my hand, but you can read the first 5 chapters of Reasons for Becoming a Methodist at http://www.imarc.cc/br/history8.html#acts.