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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He is recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC


Bishop Will Willimon: Wesley for Everyone

April 27, 2010

The most wonderfully Wesleyan aspect of the spectacularly successful Disciple Bible Studies is its name. It's not "Thinking Long Thoughts about Scripture" or the "Noble Ideas from the Bible" series. It's Disciple. As I see it, John Wesley made two enduring contributions to the church universal:

(1.) Belief in Jesus results in discipleship. Scripture is meant to be embodied, performed, and enacted in our daily lives (Wesley's "practical Christianity"). We're not talking distinctively United Methodist Christianity if we're not talking practical, incarnate, obedient Christianity. Randy Maddox characterized Wesley's theology as "responsible grace," [1] an interplay between the loving work of God in us and the work of God through us, all of us.

(2.) Discipleship is for everybody, young and old, rich and poor. Wesley truly believed that it was possible for ordinary Eighteenth Century people, of every age and rank, to be transformed into saints - if they were disciplined, educated, and formed by Scripture. Early Methodists designed a score of creative means to enable the accomplishment of those two goals.

Recently I asked a successful youth minister, "What is the chief factor in the growth of your ministry with youth?" He replied, "the spiritual needs of students match up perfectly with Wesleyan Christianity. They want to be transformed and they yearn for connectedness with others in their walk with Christ. Methodists know how to do that!"

Uniquely Wesleyan identity doesn't come naturally. Randy Maddox showed me an exchange of letters between Wesley and Miss J.C. March that illustrates the twofold particularities of Wesley's practical Christianity. Miss March had written to Wesley about inadequacies in her spiritual life. Wesley replied, without noticeable sympathy for her plight, chiding her to give up her "gentlewoman" airs and be a disciple of Jesus. How? "Go see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross, woman!... Jesus went before you, and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman; you bear an higher character. You are an heir of God!" [2]

Two years later, in response to Miss March's continued whining about her sad spiritual state, an aggravated Wesley replied, "I find time to visit the sick and the poor; and I must do it, if I believe the Bible..... I am concerned for you; I am sorry you should be content with lower degrees of usefulness and holiness than you are called to." It's vintage Wesley - nobody is too low (or in Miss March's case, too high) to be outside of the reach of responsible grace. For Father John, faith in Christ meant being busy in Christ's work, going where Christ goes, doing what Christ commands. (I count 86 references in his sermons to the importance of prison ministry.)

A major pastoral responsibility is to inculcate and indoctrinate our people, young and old, in distinctively Wesleyan Christianity, even as Father John worked on Miss March.

1. We ought to love Wesleyan Christianity and our people enough to entice them into the joys of Wesleyan believing. I know of no really vibrant, growing church that does not take the orientation and education of new members seriously. Methodism is not synonymous with being a thinking, caring, average American. Everyone who joins a United Methodist congregation should be asked, "What do we need to give you that would enable you to participate fully as a Wesleyan Christian?"

In 2008, our Conference celebrated United Methodist Believing, urging every congregation to have lay-led learning opportunities organized around my book, United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction (Westminster John Knox, 2008). A team of our laypersons designed a fine downloadable study guide. (Go to www.northalabamaumc.org/laity, click "Resource: United Methodist Beliefs" in the left menu)

I recently visited a congregation that requires a four Sunday new member class - led by laypersons. One layperson has fine-tuned, "United Methodist Beliefs in Forty-five Minutes," a class that is organized around the doctrinal section of the Discipline. At the end of that session, each prospective member is asked, "Which United Methodist belief would you like to know more about?" The pastor and lay leaders then point that person to additional resources.

The Wesley Study Bible, with its commitment to biblical interpretation from a Wesleyan perspective, is a great new resource. Adult Sunday School classes could work through the entire WSB in the course of a year, reading selected Wesleyan Core Terms and Life Applications found within the text of each biblical book as an exercise in Wesleyan hermeneutics.

I have written a Downloadable Discussion Guide [see PDF link on that page] that takes the Four Emphases from the last General Conference and utilizes the Wesley Study Bible for study by individuals or groups. Teachers of youth and children could easily adapt this study guide for use in leading even very young Christians into scripture.

I met with a group of High School students who had a "Walking to School With Wesley," in which they took various key Wesleyan terms - justification, sanctification, New Birth, "almost Christian" - and wrestled with how these ideas could be put into practice in their lives as students. "It's great to see that scripture isn't just ancient stuff to be understood in church but also truth to be practiced in my high school," said one sophomore. I see Father John smile.

The Wesleys taught that it is possible not only to come to faith in Christ but also to experience significant growth in faith in Christ. We've got to be half as resourceful as our spiritual forebears in creating means whereby Christians can grow. You probably know that Methodists were among the originating leaders of the Sunday School Movement in Nineteenth Century America. That movement was, in great part, a creative attempt to get the Bible into the hands of everyone, particularly those who had been excluded from the educational systems of the day. I just had lunch with a Disciple Bible study group for homeless persons at one of our congregations in Birmingham. How very Wesleyan.

Confirmation is a grand opportunity to emphasize the special qualities of Wesleyan believing. Confirmation materials that pair a confirmand with an older, experienced adult mentor seem to me a wonderfully Wesleyan way of stressing that Christianity is not just a way of believing but a practiced way of living, a mode of apprenticeship in which we take responsibility for one another's spiritual growth.

2. The love of Christ, working in us, transforms us, as we are drawn closer to Christ and become more joyfully obedient to Christ's will for our lives.

God's grace is not a facile pat on the head with God murmuring sweetly, "I love you just the way you are, promise me you will never change." Wesley taught that God's grace is the power of God to live a transformed life. The first Methodists pioneered the use of small accountability groups where each person took responsibility for "watching over others in love," holding one another accountable to the disciplines of discipleship.

In too many of our congregations, the way pastors utilize their time, the way educational opportunities are offered, and the way the congregation expends its resources, human and material, suggest that the congregation has limited itself to responding to the spiritual needs of one generation. There is a reason that the average United Methodist is about 58 years old.

From my observation, youth may be more attuned to the adventure of Wesleyan transformational Christianity than people in my age group. Young people love to be worked over, turned upside down and transformed. The peaceful, sedate, placid life is rarely a goal of activist Wesleyan believing. In campus ministry, we formed "Holiness Groups" - small groups of students who covenanted with one another to hold one another accountable for five spiritual disciplines each day. Disciplines included practices like praying for one another at the same time each day, attending church together each Sunday, and studying the same biblical passages together once a week. We Wesleyans believe that Christ can transform and empower any life and Christ tends to do some of his most transformative work through small accountability groups.

I have high praise for the Volunteers in Mission from some of our congregations that pioneered the "Grandparents/Grandchildren" teams to Panama. That effort was so successful that they are now doing a team for "College Students and Grandparents" to Haiti. The church needs to realize what a wonderful resource God has given us in the intergenerational nature of the church.

3. God expects not only to be loved but also obeyedby practice of the faith in disciplined communities of faith. Nobody is expected to be a solo United Methodist Christian. Discipleship is too difficult, survival as a Christian is too demanding without habitual, formed and formal practices of discipleship that are taught in the church. Prayer, Bible study, sacraments, public worship, and the small group Christian conferencing that we methodical Wesleyans once cultivated with enthusiasm, may be taken up again by all age groups as essential to Christian believing. It is no small thing that Wesley's greatest theological work was in his crafting of liturgies, hymns, and sermons - those theological practices that were near to the needs of actual believers in their daily walk with Christ. Any real, deep spiritual transformation must be cultivated and sustained through good habits. The most important Christian virtues are too important, and too against our natural inclinations, to be left to when we feel like doing them.

I know a children's choir director who, when I praised her for her choir's stirring rendition of "Love Divine, All Love's Excelling," said, "We used to sing those silly little songs that you buy off the internet. Then I said, ‘Wait! We're United Methodists! We have some really good ways of praising God that we ought to be sharing with our kids." I hope that Charles Wesley heard that.

Last Advent, a group of young couples expressed dismay at the anticipated effect of Christmas commercialism upon their young children. "What can we do to rescue our children from this holiday onslaught?" they asked. A group of a half dozen older women in the congregation stepped up and offered a series of crafts workshops in which parents and children made Christmas gifts that simplified and made more faithful their celebration of Christmas.

So Miss March, take heart! A new generation of Wesleyan Christians is putting our beliefs into practice and being transformed in the process. Discipleship is for everyone. Everyone.

William H. Willimon

Bishop Willimon is General Editor, with Joel B. Green of The Wesley Study Bible.

________________________________________
[1] and [2] As discussed in Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace, John Wesley's Practical Theology, (Nashville: Kingswood Books (Abingdon Press), 1994, 19.


[Taken with permission from "A Message from Bishop Will Willimon," April 26, 2010, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]

 


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