In order to be a healthy and vibrant branch of the church universal, a new Methodist movement must equip and empower laity for ministry and service. This is a truism for any church, but we sense it will be critical in an era of increased secularization in some cultural settings and encounters with other religions – sometimes hostile – in other areas. In Africa, Eurasia, and the Philippines, local churches are growing, but they often lack the financial resources necessary to capitalize on that growth. Furthermore, many local churches in the U.S., particularly those with shrinking worship attendance and aging congregations, are also facing the challenge of trying to balance funds to maintain buildings and properties while also maintaining support for local and global missions.
It is abundantly clear these challenges and a host of others will confront the launch of a new Methodist movement, and yet remaining in a denomination mired in a destructive debate over irreconcilable differences is no longer an alternative for many people.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) is convinced one of the most important ways to meet and surmount challenges will be found in leveraging the gifts and passions of the laity. In its proposed “Book of Doctrines and Discipline,” the WCA says, “With other heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we embrace the notion of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ and we call upon both laity and clergy to work together in a partnership of servanthood…. We believe that the sharing of the gospel has thus been entrusted to the whole church, and that it is only as each individual, whether lay or clergy, bears witness to His grace, that the world may come to know Christ and respond to His invitation to have life in abundance” (para. 404).
This, of course, is a hallmark of the Methodist movement from almost its very beginning. While the movement began among a small group of clergy, it grew and flourished as John Wesley and others preached among the laity – wherever they were – and then discipled and equipped them to lead, preach, disciple, and serve others in England, Ireland, and the American colonies. Wesley recognized what many in the Church of England failed to see: without a broad base of faithful, fervent and committed lay people, a church is always in danger of living off its past glories and so becoming an insular and self-serving institution.
The WCA’s draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline” draws on organizational features from the Wesleyan family of churches. Like them, it envisions local churches driven by laity and pastor partnerships with respect to discipleship, ministry, and the administration of the local church (paras. 415-417). Furthermore, it calls for laity to be integrally involved in selecting, evaluating, and holding accountable the general church’s episcopal leaders (para. 610). And in a notable departure from the practice of The United Methodist Church, it calls on laity to be much more engaged and involved in the process of selecting and deploying clergy for the local church.
To be sure, empowering laity means much more than including them in the administration of the church, selecting and deploying clergy, and evaluating and holding episcopal leaders accountable. And that is why the WCA welcomes and encourages the renewed interest in Methodism’s emphasis on small accountability groups. It is in these groups where laity (and clergy) inspire one another to holy living, to honing their ability to thoughtfully articulate the Christian faith in a warm, gracious, and attractive way, and to serving others beyond the walls of the church.
A high priority for a new Methodist movement must be ministry with young people, people of color, ethnic groups, and marginalized peoples. In many local churches in the U.S. people under 35 account for ten percent or less of the congregation. And in every region, many local churches are either not good at or have entirely failed at welcoming and including people of color, other ethnic groups, and marginalized peoples. Equipping and deploying laity to reach these groups and welcoming them into their local churches will enable a new Methodist movement to be the kind of church God has always called it to be.
Despite the challenges ahead, the WCA is full of hope and excited about a new Methodist movement where laity are equipped and empowered to take a far more active role in the life of the church. And it is so because many of the local churches, clergy, and laity aligned with it are already fully invested in this vision and living it out every day in their particular settings. What they long for is the ability to join with a diverse and globally connected body of local churches fully focused on the great commission: to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Laity have always been instrumental in that great calling and the WCA is praying and working for a church that leverages and celebrates the gifts laity bring to achieving it.
By Walter Fenton
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.