Do Methodists even care about Methodist discipleship?

A couple of things right off the top:

The tone of this article is greatly subdued compared to the “live” version I was editing in my head over the weekend.

“The Methodists” reference in the title does not refer to the institution of the United Methodist Church, but rather the members of the local congregations which house its youth ministries and in particular the (largely) non-ordained youthworkers that lead them.

There are times where I feel like I’m beating a dead horse about being a Methodist on purpose and there are other times that I feel like being a Methodist on purpose in youth ministry is the dead horse. I took my youth to a conference youth event over the weekend. It’s an annual spiritual life retreat event that (I think) most conferences host in some form or fashion. The usual main idea is to bring as many youth from across the conference together as possible for a time of connectional worship and teaching. Some conferences do it better than others; some have handed the concept off to extra-denominational entities. If you happen to know my local context or which event I attended this weekend, please understand that this is not an effort to throw that event under the bus. On the other hand, I’m not trying to push it from in front of the bus; I’m just trying to draw attention to where such events are often standing.

One of the most difficult things my youth have to process is the variety of approaches to God that they encounter in our community. We don’t live in a particularly diverse community, either. The local high school is literally 96% Caucasian. When we do any local ecumenical effort, the resulting gathering is our group and 14 Southern Baptist churches. So in any conversation at school they are bombarded with language of “getting saved” and “once saved always saved,” both expressions that are not native to the Methodist experience. I work diligently to instill the Wesleyan understanding of grace in our youth–not just to fight off other ways of understanding God’s movement in our lives, but to firmly establish a foundation for their understanding of God with a beginning that emphasizes God first reaching out to them and continues on with that grace working to perfect them as they strive to extend that grace in community toward others. The importance of the “point of decision” fades as we realize that getting whatever our imperfect first step toward God looks like just right isn’t as critical as continuing in the movement of grace. It’s a life’s work, not a certificate program.

So for my group, we’re continually processing and debriefing other approaches to faith. I encourage them to disagree; there are certainly places where I find myself in disagreement with my denomination. But I know why I disagree, an end I’m hopefully leading our kids toward as they develop on their individual journeys. I find it distressing, then, when I attend a conference-hosted retreat and feel the need to go through the same debriefing process. The speaker this weekend came from a theological background that pretty plainly began with a moment of salvation after which life continues in spiritual warfare, with lots of bad guys and good guys. Hard times in life merely represent seasons of testing just before rich blessings that we seem to deserve as children of God pour out over our lives. The main thrust of the weekend was centered around a designed prayer that took a half-sentence of a prayer from scripture (from a single verse) and reworked it into a kind of spiritual self-help & empowerment manifesto. Think Prayer of Jabez with less context and better branding. Missing seemed to be any sense of living in community, other than for the purpose of conversion. Present were painful caricatures of cultural gaps (I watched as a Hispanic youth across the isle from me tried to dissolve into his seat while the speaker worked through her impression of a Spanish-speaking busboy) and an overwhelming & an odd overall sense that hourly employment was beneath God’s design for anyone’s life. At the end of the second session, the Lord apparently interrupted her mid-sentence with the revelation that not all of the several thousand youth present knew Jesus. Her invitation to “come on down and ‘seal the deal’ right now” nearly sent me from the room. I brought my kids to the Methodist event to deepen them, not to find fresh content to rehash. We’ve got truckloads of that at home.

So here’s where I’m at odds with myself. I genuinely believe in interfaith conversation. Not just between denominations–I think the global interfaith conversation is unfathomably important, probably to an extent the local church in America won’t be ready to process for many years. But I think that conversation is weakened if we don’t even know our own background. It doesn’t bother me at all that our speaker this weekend held her particular perspective; it bothered me that it was presented as our own. If the Methodism that we present to our kids comes premixed, what does it matter if our denomination stands apart from others? Does it matter at all? Should we re-homogenize into “the Protestant Church”? Are they supposed to grow up and attend the church that offends them the least? I need more than one hand to count the number of families in our church that would comfortably be Southern Baptist if they’d just ordain women. How many baby dedications does it take to weaken the entire congregation’s understanding of the covenant of infant baptism? Are we just Methodist so that we don’t have to duck-and-cover when we’re seen on the beer aisle? Why do I feel like Methodists are more and more defined in the negative? “No, we don’t believe that… or that.” What do we believe enough to say, “this is what Methodists believe,” and where, if not at a conference event, are we passing that on?

Have at it. What does everyone else think?

Peace,
K


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Comments

  1. says

    AMEN! I’ve got more to say, but I’m getting ready for our DISCOVERY weekend, so I don’t have time to write out my thoughts. But wow, and AMEN are the first words to come tom mind. 95% of what you said was spot on!!!

  2. Debbie Upton says

    AMEN and AMEN! And this comes from a girl born and raised in a Southern Baptist church and home, who is now United Methodist through and through because what I was raised with did not match what I studied and discovered in the Bible. Conference events should be especially focused on how we are all on the journey toward perfection but only with God’s help and empowerment. He’s the one seeking us and perfecting us if we let him. It is not about “me” but the “us” He wants us to be. Thanks for writing this article. It needed to be voiced.

  3. shannon says

    I would love to read the “live version” of this. Haha. We need more voices like this on the district & conference levels and event planning teams!

    • ronald says

      Sorry, but who said there was something wrong with being Southern Baptist? What has been said; “I am a United Methodist, the theology and Biblical perspective I hear in my Church and at United Methodist events shouldn’t be that of another denomination.” If you attend an event by one of the enormous ecumenical organizations, fine. Sometimes, the speakers and the visuals and the material lines up with some OTHER denomination’s perspective. Sometimes, the presentation will be intentionally ALL-INCLUSIVE at these ecumenical events. If everyone is there. . . noone should feel anything but built-up and included, that is a fudamental responsibility of an Ecumenical event. When you attend an event directly sponsored by an arm of the United Methodist Church or by some organization which professes to be United Methodist, you expect to see and hear the Cross and Flame throughout the event. Thank you, Kevin for saying something that I have felt and thought after more than one of the youth events I’ve attended.

  4. Noah says

    Sorry, but who said there was something wrong with being Southern Baptist?

    Debbie Upton did

    And this comes from a girl born and raised in a Southern Baptist church and home, who is now United Methodist through and through because what I was raised with did not match what I studied and discovered in the Bible

    • says

      Noah,

      Also former president Jimmy Carter, a life-long Southern Baptist said it when he declared he was no longer welcome at the Southern Baptist Convention after they had taken a right turn away from the tradition he has spent his life growing in faith in, teaching sunday school in, etc.

      ~Charles

  5. says

    The best part of your circumstance is that the youth you brought to that conference will go home with you. I hear the frustration in your experience, but clearly you care far more about your youth and their theological development than that speaker ever will. Praise God for that.

    I’m in my 9th year of youth ministry and my frustration is that no where can I find a Methodist conference that feeds my youths souls. I feel like I am the only person that cares enough about them to invest as much time and energy into them so that they have a fighting chance against a world that wants to tear them apart so they can get all their money. I’d love to see a few faithful Methodists get together and do conferences right – conferences that espouse a deep theology with no simple, one-sided answers, but that is accessible enough to build up their spiritual lives. Might you be willing to start one Kevin?

  6. says

    Great post and I agree 100% we must teach and be what makes us UM otherwise we turn our UM events into something very dry and generic or as you have said an event for another denomination. I think the problem as you stated in the opening is that too many of our UM Youth Leaders are not theologically trained and un-ordained. Therefore, we end up with a theology at our youth events that represents the theology of the most represented denomination in our context. In Arkansas (my context) as much of the south that would be Southern Baptist. The very sad thing about this is that this is not just confined to our youth events but it applies about 95% of our congregations as well. As UM’s we must get back to teaching the core Wesleyan doctrines that make us who we are.

  7. says

    Great stuff, Kevin. If I may chime in, I feel especially qualified to comment on this post. I grew up in, attended seminary in, and was ordained in the Southern Baptist Church. I have been working as a lay youth director in a United Methodist Church for the past 5 1/2 years. Maybe I got the cart before the horse, but our church hired me based more on my experience in youth ministry than my knowledge of Methodist doctrine. However, when I came on I made a concerted effort to read and study Wesleyan theology, to learn it for myself and also for what I teach the students. Of course there are Christian doctrinal essentials that are going to apply to just about every major denomination, but as I learned more, I began to see my own life fit the ideas and approach of Methodist belief. I can’t take Debbie’s view that I’m UM through and through because I did not find what I had previously learned to be different from the teachings of the Bible. I am still a Methodist because there is room for disagreement. There is room for debate. There is room for a big God who can choose us while at the same time requiring us to choose him. There is room for a one-time commitment to follow Christ followed by daily “lesser” commitments to pursue him constantly. But I digress…

    As for the events, I am also in a group of local youth directors. I am the only mainline church represented and the rest are Southern Baptist or non-denom with SBC roots and principles. We had a See You At The Pole rally a few years ago with a former member of the Power Team who rolled up a frying pan like a burrito and told the kids basically that if they didn’t have a relationship with God they needed to come down and fix that. I was shocked at how my Methodist alert system kicked in and I had to follow a bunch of my kids down the aisle, take them to a conference area and do damage control explaining how the verbage used was emotionally based, ambiguous, and somewhat manipulative, even though I don’t think the speaker had those intentions. Since then I’ve been very careful about speaking my opinions prior to ecumenical events about the nature and content of what is being said and I also do my best to visit with the speakers beforehand. Had this happened at a UM event…not just a small event with a handful of churches or a district event, but a CONFERENCE event, I don’t know what I would have done.

    It does seem to me, though, that because of the dichotomy between clergy and laity in the United Methodist Church, “professional” and “youth worker” don’t always go together. Many churches (or conferences) are more concerned with filling a position or pulling off events than they are with the actual content of the teaching-much the way my church took a gamble on me nearly six years ago. I also think that Methodist doctrine is something we often leave to senior pastors and Confirmation classes, rather than teaching it weekly. A third issue I see is that Methodist curriculum is often lacking. While the content may be there, the methodology is not (I once got a Cokesbury curriculum book for high school youth that had a flannelboard for a lesson activity that was printed in 2003). So many youth workers are often left looking to Group or Youth Specialties and we don’t focus on “Wesleyan” theology.

    Sorry to take so long, but this is an issue I’ve struggled with a lot. I really enjoyed this post.

  8. says

    I’m another ex-Southern Baptist turned Methodist pastor. I think the most valuable thing about Methodist theology are the three components of grace and knowing that we don’t earn our salvation by saying a prayer or officially “accepting” Christ in some other kind of way, which I call “personal decisionism.” Personal decisionism is not Biblical. It’s a product of 19th century revivalist culture where the same people got saved every year at the camp meeting because a circuit riding preacher had to preach a lot of one-shot fire and brimstone conversion sermons rather than anything regarding discipleship.

    I wasted so much emotional energy worrying about whether I got prayed into the kingdom for real or not because of the “Once saved, always saved” doctrine. When I backslid in my early twenties, according to what I was taught, that meant I had never been sincere in the first place when I “accepted” Christ. I’ve been “saved” 4 times in my life according to Baptist soteriology.

    Another aspect of the Methodist tradition that is worth defining ourselves by is the Wesleyan quadrilateral for Biblical interpretation. Nobody interprets the Biblical text without drawing from church tradition, reason, and personal experience. It’s not that we’re adding those things to reading the Bible. It’s that we’re being honest about what really happens when we read the Bible. Sola scriptura is a modernist fallacy.

    The third thing are the sacraments. Not so much what exactly we think happens pneumatologically in baptism and Eucharist, but the fact that we really believe in becoming the body of Christ rather than being individualist Jesus groupies.

    Yeah, Methodist curriculum pretty much sucks. Our youth director is using the Re:form curriculum for confirmation and she’s really enjoyed it. It has options for Wesleyan, reformed, and Anglican traditions I think. Peace.

  9. JA says

    Wesley and most other early Methodists emphasized the moment of justification in their lives (accepting by faith the atoning work that God does for us) and followed this with an emphasis on cultivating sanctification (the work God does in us). While terminology such as “I was saved yesterday” may be problematic, I don’t believe that Methodists should eschew ideas of the new birth or conversion.

  10. Tim says

    I’ve been at the same Methodist church for nearly twenty years. Year-after-year, we see people give their life to Jesus in a moment of decision, and begin to take new steps in their faith. Last year we baptized more than 400 adults, teens, and older children who understood the spiritual journey they had decided to begin.

    I don’t recognize the Methodist church that you describe.

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