This particular group has about 25 people in it, spanning in age from 17 to 70 and in experience from biblical novices to people who have studied for the ministry. In the first two weeks we covered introductory material and then the all-important “What Does It Mean To Be A Christian?”
Which set us up well for last night’s subject, “What Does It Mean To Be A United Methodist?”
This is always my favorite session to lead. The Methodist distinctives of prevenient grace on the one hand and free will on the other intersect with my own story of not only coming to faith but then maturing in it. So people in Next Step learn about the major tenets of our denomination while also getting an insight into some of my own upbringing and idiosyncracies.
And the gathering last night was notable for this reason: no one (that’s zero out of 25) had any prior “Methodist” experience, so names like “John Wesley” and concepts like “sanctifying grace” were altogether new. I was given a tabula rosa on which to begin forging Methodist identities in the lives of new members at Good Shepherd.
In other words, I could have told them that we believe in predestination, pre-millenial dispensationalism, and perseverance of the saints, and they wouldn’t have known any better.
But I didn’t.
Here are a few of the highlights, continual reminders of why I love the historic theology that undergirds the United Methodist Church.
* When we talked about prevenient grace — the idea that God is working on you before you are looking for him — internal lights went on all around the room. People looked in the rear view mirror of their lives and saw with much greater clarity how God was at work in their lives even when they were oblivious to his presence. People recalled events as painful as the death of a spouse or as joyful as the birth of child as evidence of God’s intrusion into their lives. We realized together that prevenient grace is really intervening grace: God is an expert interventionist.
* I saw the relief in the group when, after explaining the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, I let them know that Methodism lands at the opposite end of the spectrum with our firm belief in free will. (The first church I attended as a teenager was so strongly Calvinist that — in spite of the love of the people and the intellect of the pastor — it propelled me on a “free will” search which ultimately led me to Wesley and the people called Methodist.) The group resonated with the “free will logic” of I Timothy 2:3-4: This is good and pleases God our Savior who wants ALL MEN to be saved & come to a knowledge of the truth. If God truly desires ALL to come faith, why would he have predetermined that many would not?
* Our material teaches people that the early Methodist in Great Britain and the US were known for:
Dynamic Worship (the Shouting Methodists)
Helping People In Need
Inviting People To Faith
The Ministry Of The People, Not The Clergy
As they compared early Methodism with Good Shepherd Methodism, they decided that — in spite of occasional complaints from my clergy UMC colleagues that “you’re not Methodist enough!” — our church does its best to mimic those early, enthusiastic revivalists of the movement.
* When I opened it up for questions, I was stunned by what wasn’t asked: 1) what’s the deal with itineracy? and 2) where do you all stand on homosexuality? Silence on both, though I brought up the former. So whether it’s our outmoded system of deploying pastors OR the controversy threatening to tear our national connection in two (or three or four), people are blissfully unaware. While appreciative of our Methodist roots, they are more dialed in to our congregation’s mission: inviting all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ.