Methodist Spirituality Today
Is it possible to describe Methodist spirituality today? What do Methodists actually believe? How do they live their lives as disciples of Jesus?
These were some of the questions facing me in 1999 as I struggled with a growing sense of frustration with the Methodist Church that did not seem able to support me on my Christian journey. The historical Methodism that I read about also did not match my present experience of life within the Methodist Church. I began to study and undertake research with the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield working towards an MPhil which was completed in 2006. As I hoped to uncover a genuine Methodist spirituality that could be seen in the Methodist Church today the research led me to interview people from a variety of local churches across the connexion. The interviews were based around some key questions exploring the whole life concept of spirituality looking specifically at church life, experience, devotional life, spirituality, vocation and mission. This group proved to be a fair representation of the British Methodist people.1
Christian spirituality concerns the quest for a fulfilled and authentic Christian existence, involving the bringing together of the fundamental ideas of Christianity and the whole experience of living on the basis of and within the scope of the Christian faith.2
It was clear that attendance at worship was a priority for many in the research. However, it was realized that for quite a large majority meeting others as they shared in worship was of prime importance; fellowship with others seemed to be the key. People came to the act of worship to meet with others. For many this meant a real sense of belonging as a family or a community, a holding of beliefs in common and in being united in purpose. These elements were not necessarily verbalized as I discovered that many people did not have the language to explain themselves. However, the evidence here was in the warmth that was shown when others in the church were spoken about and in the love that was obviously felt amongst congregational members.
But what about engagement with God, Father, Son and Spirit? Was this missing? Certainly people did not talk about it, perhaps because it was taken for granted but mainly because people were not comfortable doing the ‘God talk’ or talking about their faith journey. There was a high degree of personal care and concern but there is an expectation that faith communities need to offer more than other social care groups.
The element of needing to seek personal holiness through the discipline of regular Bible study and prayer was missing from many stories that were shared during the research. That these elements were missing did not seem to be perceived as a problem. In general people knew that there was an expectation to serve others and to try and live like Jesus and this is what they did. Prayer was a way of life for the majority, praying as and when the need arose during the day.
Many who were reluctant to own a particular pattern of devotional practices during the interviews, also saw their devotional lives as ‘weak’ as they were not following the traditional pattern of early Methodism. However, it became obvious that their lives were lived with a deep, often hidden consciousness of God’s presence in the world which was largely discovered through observation of creation. What they did not do, or want to impose on others, was this following of a particular pattern each day. The combination of wholehearted love of God and others that led to prayer and action was in the past known as ‘holiness’ so perhaps it is simply the way holiness is expressed today needs to be revisited. Is there a new language, a ‘fresh expression’ that needs to be discovered that empowers people who are trying to live the Christian life in the 21 century?
When asked about service and mission individuals spoke most often of serving others as they tried to imitate Christ in their daily lives. His way of life is the one thing that guides the lives of most of those interviewed, not prayer, not tradition, not doctrine or even scripture; although scripture was very clearly held in high esteem by many. So what does this mean?
The Christian lifestyle has merged with being a good person and not hurting anyone as a way of following Jesus Christ. It is as if witness is ‘passive’ in the sense that it just happens rather than being actively pursued with some knowledge that the individual is engaging with God’s mission to the world. This approach is not seen to be a problem by many, as it sits well with the cultural expectations of the particular group of Methodists who responded to the research, but is important in how each individual values the things they do each day. The link with God and God’s actions in the world is just not made.
From what has been discovered why, if Methodists are largely concerned to follow the example of Jesus, do we persist in holding onto the traditional Methodist emphasis of sin, guilt and judgment in hymns and preaching?3 Only one person in the research mentioned the importance of the cross, resurrection and atonement.
I offer possible suggestions as to why this might be.
~**That the talk of sin, grace, redemption and atonement are the responsibility of the minister or Local preacher and others do not feel they cannot talk about it.*~~*That Methodists have much more adapted to the society around them, a post modern society, that sees individuals are valuable, acceptable, and as primarily ‘good’ people. They are very uncomfortable with the idea that humans are born sinners. So whilst traditional hymns are sung, as well as new ones echoing the same theme, only lip service is being paid to them as people just get on with their lives.*~~*That the things of the cross, sacrifice, grace and redemption are just so embedded into the psyche of Methodists that the words do not come out in conversation?**~
As Methodists continue to speak strongly about social justice and action in the world, have we moved away from the need for a personal acceptance of Christ as Saviour, and begun to speak of other ways of connecting with the mission of God to the world? It would be interesting to discover the reasons behind the involvement of Methodists, and others, who have been so active in the 2005 ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign for Fair Trade, More and Better Aid and Drop the Debt.
It seems that we have moved away from a cross-centred spirituality to a Jesus-centred spirituality for Methodist people today, and moving from Christ as Saviour to Christ as example model. The important element seems to be that Christ is seen to be someone whose way of life is worth following, perhaps as a pioneer and role model. Many Methodists are following the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry as they reach out in practical ways to the poor and as they work for justice. There is something here that is reminiscent of Wesley’s imagery of the divine love of Christ shed abroad in the heart that provides the inspiration for action.
This has implications for evangelism. Proclamation of the ‘good news’ does not sit easily with the post- modern world that does not allow for only one truth so it is not surprising that most of those interviewed do not see the importance of evangelism, of speaking about Jesus and encouraging others to think about him. It would appear that Jesus may no longer be helpfully seen as Saviour offering atonement when there may be no real sense of sin in everyday lives. The Finding Faith Today Report also acknowledged this fact.
Apparently four-fifths of people coming to faith did not find the cross and forgiveness the most appealing part of faith today.4
A Methodist Spirituality?L~
Where does this leave us? What do we have to celebrate and share with others?
Could any of the conclusions be said to be distinctively Methodist and if so, what can we offer to the ecumenical debate about mission?
Susan Johnson - Darlington District Mission Enabler
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1. Majority aged over 50, slightly over half women, a mix of lay and ordained, from different geographical areas.
2. Alister E. Mc.Grath, Christian Spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell 1999), p. 2.
3. Only 4 people revealed the importance of the cross for them and 1 saw the resurrection as the key.
4. John Finney, Emerging Evangelism (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2004), p.90.
Susan Johnson was born in the North East of England. She has lived in 25 houses (even more than most Methodist ministers!) being married to a husband in the RAF. They have two married children, one grandson and have a granddaughter due .They have lived in many different parts of this country and in Zimbabwe in the 1990’s.
Susan served as Connexional Mission Education Co-ordinator 2000 – 2005 and since September 2005 has been Darlington District Mission Enabler.
Headline Summer 2007 p.15 & 18.