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Reclaiming the Method in Methodism

By Bob Kaylor

My first full-time ministry gig was as a lay youth director at a United Methodist Church in central Pennsylvania. Having grown up a Presbyterian, I knew little about Methodism, yet I’ll never forget the day the senior pastor slid the confirmation materials across his desk to me and asked me to teach a group of eighth-graders the basics of Wesleyan theology and practice. When I raised the prospect of the blind leading the blind into a pit of theological confusion, Pastor Dave only said, “You’ll figure it out.”

As I began to read about John and Charles Wesley, their focus on grace and holiness, the discipline of the “Holy Club,” field preaching, and especially the class and band meetings, I was captivated. Here was a real method for growing disciples of Jesus that went beyond simply memorizing doctrine and going to Sunday School (both good things)—it was about banding together with others to “watch over one another in love” and “spur one another on to perfection” in love of God and neighbor (even better things). Not only was Methodism and its emphasis on growth in grace and renewal in the image of God doctrinally sound, it was also intentionally and unapologetically focused on shaping a disciplined community of Christ-followers who live and work for God’s Kingdom.

The only question for me was, “Where was this method actually used in the United Methodist Church?” As I got to know Methodist colleagues and entered the candidacy process for ordination it became clear that things like class and band meetings were the exception in most Methodist circles and not the rule. The engine that had driven the explosive growth and impact of the Methodist movement in its early days, when being a Methodist meant being in a class meeting, had been stilled and other less effective methodologies were deployed that did little to inspire and instill “holiness of heart and life” in each person. Things had changed. Sadly, the world has taken notice. As comedian Jon Stewart of The Daily Show quipped on August 2, 2010, “Being a Methodist is easy. It’s like the University of Phoenix of religions. You just send them 50 bucks and click ‘I agree’ and you are saved.”

In 1786, John Wesley in Thoughts Upon Methodism foresaw this potential disconnection—that Methodism would become a “dead sect, having the form of religion without the power” unless its people would “hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” Doctrine and spirit are vital, but without the discipline of intentional, accountable discipleship—the vital “method” in Methodism—any church or denomination that claims the Methodist name will be more a punchline than a powerful movement that spreads “Scriptural holiness across the land.”

Identifying discipleship as a key component of a new global traditional Methodist church, the WCA Global Legislative Assembly tasked an Accountable Discipleship Task Force to focus on this vital reconnection of a disciplined method to the doctrine and spirit of a new traditional Methodist denomination. Recently the task force delivered its final report to the WCA Global Council. Using a working definition of a disciple as “one whose life reflects the character of Christ and extends the mission of Christ in holy love of God and neighbor,” the task force proposed a ministry of accountable discipleship for the new church that would “make, develop, and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ through small groups where each person is invited, challenged, supported, and held accountable in living sanctified lives that reflect the practices, character, and mission of Christ.” To that end, the task force made eight recommendations that were received and approved by the WCA Council as proposals for the convening conference of the new global traditional Methodist church. These recommendations represent a serious call to place accountable discipleship groups at the heart of the new Methodism and to make personal participation in an accountable discipleship group an essential requirement for membership.

Highlights of the task force recommendations as adopted by the WCA Global Council include:

  • The adoption of a clear definition of discipleship in The Book of Doctrines and Discipline, which has been included as a new Paragraph (404).
  • The creation of an official catechism and catechetical resources for the new denomination as theological grounding for growth in discipleship. The WCA Global Council created a Catechism Task Force in response to this recommendation.
  • Developing resources for leaders and participants in accountable discipleship groups in the local church as well as vetting and recommending existing discipleship resources.
  • Developing opportunities for disciple development at all engagement levels in the local church with an emphasis on moving people toward personal and intimate space in accountable discipleship small groups modeled on the class and band meetings. Churches would be held accountable to this requirement by presiding elders at the annual charge conference.
  • Adopting participation in an accountable discipleship small group as a basic expectation for membership in the local church. Existing churches joining the new denomination would deploy a phased implementation process as the means of integrating church membership and accountable discipleship, ultimately requiring participation in an accountable discipleship group for new members and for those who would serve as leaders in the local church. Each local church would also make appropriate accommodation for those who are physically or mentally unable to participate in accountable discipleship small groups.
  • Requiring seminaries and Courses of Study approved by the new denomination to provide students working toward ordination with coursework, training, and experience in participation, leadership, and development of accountable discipleship groups including class meeting and band groups. Clergy entering the new denomination would be trained and would personally participate in an accountable discipleship small group within their first year of clergy membership in the new denomination.
  • Developing an online network where annual conferences and local churches can share best practices for accountable discipleship and designating “teaching churches” from which other local churches can learn and be equipped.
  • Requiring new church starts in the new denomination to begin with accountable discipleship small groups as an essential requirement for new and charter members.

These commitments represent an important fork in the road: Will we be a new church that still calls itself “Methodist” without the method, or will we be known as a dynamic movement where lives are being changed, where people are inspired, empowered, transformed and held accountable in reflecting the character and mission of Christ in their daily lives, and where people truly watch over one another in love?

The WCA Global Council recognizes that these commitments represent a high bar for membership in the new denomination. We believe, however, that these commitments also represent our best chance to launch the new Methodism with the kind of doctrine, spirit, and discipline that can truly spread Scriptural holiness across the land.

                                                                                                                                                           

The Rev. Dr. Bob Kaylor is the lead pastor at Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument, Colorado, a council member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, served as chair of the Accountable Discipleship Task Force, and lastly co-hosts the WCA podcast called Holy Conversations.

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