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What does Methodism look like?

July 25, 2008

Andy Bryan reflects on that question over on his (always thought-provoking) blog Enter the Rainbow.  It’s a question I also pondered as I read a little anecdote in F. Belton Joyner’s Being Methodist in the Bible Belt.  Joyner writes of overhearing a conversation in a restaurant and being able to tell that the conversants were Mormons, first because they declined coffee then from a few key words in their vocabularies.

So if an astute observer were listening in on a conversation how would s/he know we were United Methodist? Sure we have a few key words that would give us away.

  • Itineracy / itinerancy
  • Connectionalism
  • Prevenient
  • Wesley
  • Sola Hymnala
  • Covered Dish

But seriously, what makes us distinctive?  I know of a church in the nearby area that has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several years, and my wife knows several people who attend there.  In fact, her sister and her husband used to attend there when they lived in that town.  They all tell the same story – they left their home churches because the sermons left them feeling beaten up: you are a sinner, you need to repent, God hates sin, you’re not doing enough, etc.  They found a home in a church that preached one simple message and got it right:


Everyone who left a Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, or other church to attend this one will tell you that they didn’t really understand grace until they attended there.

This is not to say that the statements above aren’t true – they are.  We are sinners who need to repent.  We are not doing enough.  We are not good enough.  God does hate sin.  But that’s only half the message.  The other half is that God’s grace is bigger than that.  We are sinners, but God loves us anyway.  We aren’t doing enough but God loves us anyway.

That church succeeded where other churches in town failed by forming a central identity – they’re the grace church.  That’s not their name, it’s just who they are.

Are we Methodists missing the boat here?  Are we so busy preaching about the evils of this world, condemning the correct sins, supporting the right missions, getting things done, that we have forgotten to preach the essential grace-fullness of God and the prevenient nature of that grace?  That salvation is a process, a journey and a way of life rather than a one-time event that happened one evening at church camp?  Are we willing to loosen our grips on our personal theological agendas (running the gays out, running the conservatives out, running the liquor stores out, boycotting chain stores) long enough to embrace our identity as those who now recognize God’s grace at work in our lives before we were aware of it?

I believe with my whole heart that Methodism should look, smell, sound, taste and feel like prevenient grace.  Therein lies who we are.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Manskar permalink
    July 25, 2008 1:59 pm

    I’m sorry Will, but if we’re only about prevenient grace were not going to get very far. We’ll be known as the church of cheap grace. You see, prevenient grace is pretty meaningless without justification and sanctification.

    As a Wesley I don’t want to leave people out on the porch of the house of salvation. I want them to come through the door (justification) to experience and live the fullness of life God gives through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit (sanctificaiton). If we’re all about prevenient grace, then we’re going to leave everyone shivering on the porch.

    The historic distinctive of Methodism is holiness, aka entire sanctification, Christian perfection, perfection in love, “having the mind of Christ.” Prevenient grace plays an essential role in preparing people for what God desires for them: justification and sanctification.

  2. July 25, 2008 2:19 pm

    Point well articulated and well taken.

    Here’s where I mean to go with that: Everybody preaches about getting saved (justification) and everybody preaches about getting better / doing better (sanctification), but we don’t always do the best job of connecting those dots back to the foundation of prevenience. God loves us first which makes possible our justification and sanctification.

    I know the preceding statements have gross oversimplifications (and I’m nothing if not gross and simple). But my point is that if we are going to be distinctively Methodist (and therefore Wesleyan) then we need to connect the dots in the Wesleyan way. And doing that means that justification and sanctification are necessarily built upon the foundation of prevenient grace.

    We enter into a life of salvation because of the overwhelming, unexplainable, unmerited love of God. We grow in the faith not because of a sense of obligation but rather from a sense of gratitude. We have earned nothing; we give back because we received so abundantly.

  3. Steve Manskar permalink
    July 25, 2008 3:09 pm

    It’s me again. You are very correct when you say that most UM churches do a poor job of “connecting the dots” that lead from justification to sanctification. However, I’m confused by your phrase “the foundation of prevenience.”

    Sometimes we get in confused when we talk about prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace as though there are three varieties of grace. We need to be clear that grace is singular. It is the power and presence of God at work in the world. This grace is freely given and available to all through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. We experience this grace according to where we are.

    The “foundation” of justification and sanctification is not prevenient grace, it is the love of God for the world revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Methodist distinctive is an emphasis on the love of God for the world and our response to that love through joyful obedience to the way of Jesus. Read 1 John if you want to understand the Wesleyan way of discipleship. That little book was very influential on the thinking and ministry of the Wesleys.

  4. July 25, 2008 3:48 pm

    Maybe the “foundation of prevenient grace” wasn’t a good metaphor, or unclear. My belief as a United Methodist is that if we talk about justification and sanctification without rooting it in God’s prevenient grace, it’s like reading a play but skipping the entire first act. The rest of the story doesn’t make sense without prevenient grace.

    I do agree that too many UMs are confused; I’ve even heard seminary students talk about “three types of grace.” No, it’s all one grace; we Wesleyans emphasize three powerful characteristics in our understanding of God’s grace.

  5. Layman Erik permalink
    July 27, 2008 12:59 am

    If Methodist are confused (I’m not sure that they are, but if they are) perhaps it is understandable given that even the gbgm tells us that “John Wesley believed that God provides us with three kinds of grace…”

  6. Becca Clark permalink
    July 28, 2008 12:20 pm

    I’m with you. United Methodism is all about grace, and our particular distinction is prevenient grace.

    well, that and covered dishes.

    grace and peace,

  7. July 29, 2008 9:11 am

    In the break room right now there is a box of donuts. Some are long johns, others are jelly-filled, still others are regular glazed. They are all donuts, yet there are presented in three different forms. Hmmmmm… 3 different kinds of donuts… but they’re all “donuts”… both individually & as a part of the whole… amazing how hard that is to understand!

    Yes, Wesley believed that God provides us with three kinds of grace… but they’re all just facets of God’s Grace! I am neither an intellectual nor a pastor & I get that. Let’s not get bogged down arguing semantics & language, but instead focus on what we all need… GRACE!

  8. July 30, 2008 10:59 am

    Thanks, Becca. You articulated well what I was trying to say, only you did it more succinctly. Prevenient grace, as we like to call it, is the distinguishing characteristic of how Methodists talk about and understand grace. All churches preach about justification and sanctification, but we specifically talk about them in light of prevenient grace.

    Scott, you would bring the discussion back to food wouldn’t you? Well, I have eaten your wife’s cooking, so it’s understandable. She’s awesome. And we are Deuels.

    Prevenient Grace is only part of the picture, but it is certainly a most distinctly Methodist part, and a part that deserves emphasis in our churches and in our sermons.

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