John Wesley’s Fear for the Future of Methodism

In the days since General Conference 2012 ended last Friday, I’ve read a number of summaries and reflections. In one article, Elaine Robinson writes …

… those of us who study the writings and practices of John Wesley can’t help but be reminded of those prophetic words near the end of his life: ‘I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.’ (‘Thoughts Upon Methodism,’ 1786.) Have we, the United Methodist Church, officially become Wesley’s Church of England? Or is it the UMC in the United States that is fulfilling Wesley’s prophetic concern, worrying endlessly about the form of our religion, while neglecting the power of Grace? Have we, indeed, let loose of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of our tradition?

I searched this blog for Wesley’s quote I was sure I had mentioned before. Interestingly, I found the quote in a post called, What The United Methodist Church Needs. I wrote the post thirteen months ago after attending the United Methodist Leadership Summit where leaders presented the Call to Action to leaders from around the world via satellite. The words still seem to fit post-General Conference.

Wesley’s words remind us the death of the UMC isn’t the worst thing that can happen; the worst thing that can happen is to lose our vitality, “having the form of religion without the power.”

In recent days, I’ve written a lot about the needed transformation in the UMC, going from institutional to (what George Hunter calls) movemental. Yesterday, I suggested some possible strategies for the transformation, which are closely tied to Wesley’s theology and practice.

Wesley’s words are a sober reminder and challenge to “hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which (we) first set out”!

5 thoughts on “John Wesley’s Fear for the Future of Methodism”

  1. I am in agreement with Hunter’s synopsis of returning to the DNA of a movement. I would not morn the loss of the UMC should that come in my lifetime, but the spirit of what I thought makes us distinct I most certainly would.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Gavin!

    I agree, although I really hate “losing,” so I don’t want to see the denomination die. I’d love to see it return to being a movement (although that may only happen in pockets as opposed to a denomination-wide transformation?).

  3. As one who has attended three UMC church services in gins lifetime, I can see Wesley’s point. I also read on things they are accepting as normal lifestyles that Wesley would have cringed at. If I’m not mistaken, he preached ” holiness”. Thinks lifestyle ( or more to the point, death style) would go against his teachings.


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