Uploaded by Hans Växby

Recognizing Methodism

Recognizing Methodism
I have noticed two contradictory statements. “I have been to many Methodist churches abroad,
and I’ve felt at home in all of them.” “I went to the Methodist church there, but I didn’t feel at
home at all.” Both are experiential testimonies, more based on emotions than on theological or
sociological reflections. And both are genuine and deserve a closer consideration.
What makes us feel at home in a Methodist church, and what is missing if we don’t? What makes
a church Methodist? Who are we, and whom do we say we are?
Foundational teaching
The central official document, The Book of Discipline, would be the first source to go to. “The Book
of Disciple reflects our Wesleyan way of serving Christ through doctrine, discipline, and mission
through our connectional covenant. The Book of Discipline expresses that unity.”1
Confession of faith
The doctrine is described in Part III of the Discipline, Doctrinal standards and our Theological Task.
The overview of our doctrinal heritage and history is admirably simple and clear. But having
described the marks of Methodist teaching over 10 pages, the Discipline concludes,
“These distinctive emphases of United Methodists provide the basis for ‘practical divinity,’ the
experiential realization of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the lives of Christian people. These emphases
have been preserved not so much through formal doctrinal declarations as through the vital movement
of faith and practice as seen in converted lives and within the disciplined life of the Church.”2
The following Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith3 describe the very foundation we share
with all Protestant denominations. They differ very little from other free churches and the
Lutheran churches in the Nordic countries and parts of the Baltics, and show the well-known
demarcations towards the Catholic and Orthodox churches that are influential in parts of the
So, even if the Discipline is clear about the foundation of faith for Methodists, it alone doesn’t help
us to explain what makes us feel at home as Methodists.
The mission of the church is also clear. It is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the
transformations of the world.”4 In spite of the allusion to the typical Wesleyan social holiness in
the second part, the statement doesn’t make us different from other Christians. And the features
of the mission further described5 would do for most Western denominations.
So here we also don’t find the answer.
The rest of the Book of Discipline, however, makes our church more special. Part IV with ¶¶ 201–
2719 is about Organization and Administration. If we take the opening paragraph of all sections
The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2012 ¶ 101, The United Methodist Publishing House
(Hereafter “BoD”)
Ibid., ¶ 102 page 54
Ibid., ¶ 104
Ibid., ¶ 120
Ibid., ¶¶ 121-125
concerning The Local Church, The Ministry of The Ordained, The Superintendency, The
Conferences, Administrative Order, Church Property, Judicial Administration, and their
subsections, we have a complete ecclesiology, i.e. understanding of the church.
The organization reveals a certain self-understanding.
“The Journey of a Connectional People – Connectionalism in the United Methodist tradition is multileveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge
conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships. - - We are connected by
sharing a common tradition of faith, including Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules (¶ 103); by
sharing together a constitutional polity, including a leadership of general superintendency; by sharing a
common mission, which we seek to carry out by working together in and through conferences that
reflect the inclusive and missional character of our fellowship; by sharing a common ethos that
characterizes our distinctive way of doing things.”6
Our organization is special, and creates a strong sense of belonging to one another. Were ever we
go, we come to our own. But this is still far from explaining why we feel at home in another
Methodist congregation or don’t.
The way of doing things
On a visit to Hjortenbergskyrkan in Nyköping, one of the first united congregations in Sweden, the
pastor informed that one of the unique things about this congregation was its tradition to stand
up during the first hymn. “And I have no idea why they do that,” he added. He was not familiar to
the long time habit of singing the first and last hymn stand, and didn’t realize that there might be
some Methodist contributions to the united culture. Methodists sometimes do certain things the
same way.
The word “culture” (from Latin “cultura”) indicates in it self life resulting in something. MerriamWebster’s simple definition of it is, “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place
or organization.”
The Methodist culture has a firm foundation in the connectional organization. The chain of
conferences and system of superintendency certainly set some limits. 7 However, in spite of the
common bashing of the Book of Disciple, one can’t say that church law shapes The United
Methodist Church.
“Wesley rejected undue reliance upon these rules. Discipline was not church law; it was a way of
discipleship. Wesley insisted that true religion is ‘the knowledge of God in Christ Jesus,’ ‘the life which
is hid with Christ in God,’ and ‘the righteousness that [the true believer] thirsts after.’”8
No culture is formed just by written laws, but is rather a complex and dynamic combination of
factors, many of which are regional and contextual, and change over time.
Order of worship
In addition to the Book of Disciple, the Book of Worship has an influence upon what Methodists
do when they meet. When John Wesley agreed to organize a separate Methodist-Episcopal
Church in North America, he gave them The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America,
which was a simplified and edited version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. However, the
liturgy for the weekly main service never came in common use. This was actually in line with the
Ibid., ¶ 132
See above
Ibid., ¶ 102, page 53
letter Wesley wrote to Our Brethren in America on September 10, 1784 with instructions for the
organization at the Christmas Conference the same year,
“As our American brothers are now totally disentangled both from the State, and from the English
Hierarchy, we dare not intangle [sic] them again, either with the one or the other. They are now at full
liberty, simply to follow the scriptures and the primitive church. And we judge it best that they should
stand fast in the liberty, wherewith God has so strangely made them free.”9
Back in England the Methodist had been encouraged to go to the strictly ordered worship in the
Anglican Church in the morning, and to the freer Methodist Society meeting in the evening.
Probably this was something Wesley had in mind when he wrote The Sunday Service of the
Methodists in North America 1784. But,
“By 1792, a mere eight years later, most of the order of service was abandoned officially. It was
replaced by the Book of Discipline as adopted and approved by the General Conference in Baltimore,
Maryland. That document contained the following statement, ‘let the morningservice consist of singing,
prayer, the reading of one chapter out of the Old Testament, and another out of the New, and
preaching.’ The rationale for this was stated as being for the, ‘uniformity in public worship among us,
on the Lord’s Day.’ The text for the Lord’s Supper was retained as an addon to the end of the service.”10
This principle – freedom, but not without order – has followed the Methodists during the
centuries. The 1992 Book of Worship opens its description of An Order of Sunday Worship Using
the Basic Pattern,
“While the freedom and diversity of United Methodist worship are greater than can be represented by
any single order of worship, United Methodists also affirm a heritage of order and the importance of
the specific guidance and modeling that an order of worship provides.”11
The 1968 Swedish Book of Worship, however, doesn’t give the same latitude.
“Some of the material presented in the new Book of Worship, we consider to be such that they shall be
used, e.g. Sunday morning Worship service, Holy Communion, Baptism, Reception of new members,
Wedding, Burial, Ordinations, etc. And some has been included to provide help for private and public
worship and devotions at various occasions.”12
There is reason to believe that the Swedish Book of Worship and its equivalents in the other
Nordic countries were received and commonly followed, probably influenced by the fact that the
surrounding Lutheran culture had a strict order of worship.13 And until the 1990s, the Nordic
Methodists didn’t seem to have any problem with that. Wherever they travelled in the Nordic
countries they could go to a Methodist worship service, recognize the order, and “feel at home”.
John Wesley, ”Our Brethren in America”, included in ”John Wesley – Edited by Albert C. Outler”, Oxford University
Press, Inc., 1964, page 82
“The People, Places, and Paraphernalia That Make Worship Work”, published by South Carolina Conference of The
United Methodist Church, https://www.umcsc.org/PDF/WorshipNutsandBolts2.pdf
“An Oder of Sunday Worship”, The United Methodist Book of Worship, 1992, The United Methodist Publishing
House, page 16
Bishop Odd Hagen in the preface to Kyrkohandbok for Metodistkyrkan i Sverige, 1928, Nya Bokförlags Aktiebolaget,
page 3. ”Något av det som föreligger i den nya Kyrkohandboken är sådant, som vi anser allmänt bör användas, t.ex.
ordning för allmän gudstjänst, nattvard, dop, medlemsintagning, vigsel, jordfästning, ordinationer etc. Annat som
finns i kyrkohandboken har tagits med för att ge hjälp vid enskild och gemensam gudstjänst och andakt vid olika
When the Protestants in Europe no longer had to follow the Latin Mass, the churches responded with new orders of
worship that were as firm church law as the Catholic one.
The Central Conference in Gävle, Sweden 1989 received a “report and debate input” from its
Youth Council.14 No decision was taken nor were any guidelines given by the conference, but the
document was a signal to renewal of the worship service.
A wide discussion started in the annual conferences, and led to a bolder use of elements from
other traditions. Both in a more liturgical style with influences from the ecumenical liturgical
movement15 with the use of parts of the traditional mass, written prayers, sign of the cross, and
wearing of robes, and in a freer style with influences from the Praise and Worship Revolution16
with the use of amplified guitars, drums, and short praise songs projected on screens. Today we
can find a much richer and varying specter of worship in Methodist churches than fifty years ago
and our Northern European ancestors could imagine.
More than anything else, the hymns have been carrier of the Methodist identity. Not only did the
Wesleyans introduce a totally new way of singing hymns in the 18th century, they intentionally
used the hymns to teach the people. For example, Charles Wesley made a notion on each hymn
which Bible passage it was based on. The hymnbooks were catechesis in disguise.
This didn’t mean that Methodists sang only Wesleyan hymns. In line with the claim to build on the
“Basic Christian Affirmations”17, Methodist Hymnals have always included hymns by other
international as well as national poets. But the selection has remained theologically intentional.
The ecumenical hymnals in Sweden, Finland, and Estonia in late 20th century didn’t seem to
jeopardize this.
The Praise and Worship Revolution, however, brought worries. In the beginning the selection of
songs was very narrow, and covered, when it comes to content, just the very first section in
traditional hymnals, i.e. Praise and Worship.18 Over time this has developed, and today the songs
cover a broad specter of the Christian Life, although songs about sanctification still can be hard to
Since music and poetry speak strongly to emotions, the singing no doubt can be decisive to the
“feeling at home;” especially for a person coming from a Praise and Worship Methodist
congregation visiting a congregation using the traditional hymnals, and vice versa. If a hymnsinging Methodist visits a Methodist congregation abroad, however, the singing may not help at
all. “O for a thousand tongues to sing,” for example, is sung in four different tones by Americans,
English, Swedes, and Finns. On the other side the Praise and Worship tradition is very
international, right now dominated by American and Australian songs, not always translated.
No doubt, The Book of Discipline, The Book of Worship, and the Methodist Hymnal give a lot of
material to describe and explain the Methodist identity and culture, but not enough to clarify why
Med liv og sjæl – gudstjeneste for alle aldre, rapport og debatindlæg fra MNUR’s gudstjenestegruppe till
Centralkonferencen 1989
Cf. Hans Växby, “Gudstjänstens språk och musik,” Överås 2003,
Cf. http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/october/praise-and-worship-revolution.html
BoD ¶ 102, page 47
As an example, the first section of the Swedish ecumenical hymnal is ”Lovsång och tillbedjan,” i.e. “praise and
we feel at home or not. In order to get grip of what trigs the emotional part of the experience, we
have to enter the area of ethos.19
“Ethos” seems to be a word used in a variety of areas and senses. Sometimes it is simply
understood as a synonym for “ethics”. The Swedish edition of Wikipedia refers to it only as the
term for a speaker’s credibility within rhetoric. Online Etymology Dictionary gives a fuller
explanation of the word.20 And Dictonary.com gives us the full definition, ”the fundamental
character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or
practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period.”
The underlying sentiment
It seems that we have come to the very heart of the question. The underlying sentiment! What are
the attitudes we are met with when we come to a Methodist Church? What is the spirit in which
worship and programs are conducted and performed? What is the deeper drive and drift?
There are four continuous currents in the Methodist ethos. They are like the deep waters currants
of the oceans, independent of the diverse cultural and contextual surface streams.21
Theology of grace
The theology of grace is the Gulf Stream of Methodism. “Grace pervades our understanding of
Christian faith and life,” is the first statement under “Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases” in the Book
of Discipline. And it continues, “While the grace of God is undivided, it precedes salvation as
‘prevenient grace,’ continues in ‘justifying grace,’ and is brought to fruition in ‘sanctifying grace.’”
22 John Wesley elaborates in his 43rd Standard Sermon,23
”The salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first
dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory. - - If we take this in its utmost extent, it will
include all that is wrought in the soul by what is frequently termed ‘natural conscience,’ but more
properly, ‘preventing grace’… But we are at present concerned only with that salvation which the
Apostle is directly speaking of. And this consists of two general parts, justification and sanctification. - Justification is another word for pardon.”24 And “From the time of our being born again, the gradual
work of sanctification takes place. We are enabled ‘by the Spirit’ to ‘mortify the deeds of the body,’ of
our evil nature; and as we are more and more dead to sin, we are more and more alive to God.”25
The teaching coming out of this is a clear theology, far from based on indifference. Everything is a
gift from God by grace. And as little as merit can deserve forgiveness and access to God, as little
can discipline and checking off all “shoulds” make us better Christians. “It’s not something you did
that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do
good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”26
The consequential attitude is generosity and openness toward all people, and a less tendency to
check people’s faith and life style before they are accepted into the fellowship.
Ethos is refferred to in the above quoted BoD ¶ 132, but not defined
ethos (n.), the 'genius' of a people, characteristic spirit of a time and place," 1851 (Palgrave) from Greek ethos
"habitual character and disposition; moral character; habit, custom; an accustomed place," in plural, "manners…"
Cf. https://earth.usc.edu/~stott/Catalina/Oceans.html
BoD ¶ 102, page 49
Albert Outler says about this sermon, “If the Wesleyan Theology had to be judged by a single essay, this one would do
as well as any other and better than most.”
Ibid., section I, paragraphs 1, 2, and 3
Ibid., section I, paragraph 8
Ephesians 2:9-10 Common English Bible
Process is the pattern of all that has life
Salvation is not an event; it is a process. Every conversion has a pre-history and a subsequent
implementation over time. Integrated with the theology of grace, we find an overall pattern of
John Wesley talked about “gradual work of sanctification.”27 A newborn Christian is like a newborn
child, the potential for a fully developed life is there from the very first moment. And it is amazing
to follow every new step and phase in the development.
The teaching coming out of this is that Christian life takes time. Salvation is not an instant change
from black to white, where the individual takes over the responsibility after God has done the
break through. A child learns to crawl, stand, and walk before it can rush through life – and Jesus is
the Guide and Master of it all.
The consequential attitude is the confidence “that he who began a good work in [people] will
carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus;”28 and the willingness to walk with people a
shorter or longer portion of their walk of life, trusting that God who has the overview is guiding.
Focused mission
When John Wesley was asked why God had raised Methodist preachers, the answer was, “To
reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” 29 Most
of the nicknames given to the people called Methodists were referring to their zeal. They knew
what they were doing and why they were doing it. And later in his life, Wesley’s only worry for the
future was that his people would lose this focus.30
To be Wesleyan, therefore, doesn’t mean to do exactly what the first Methodists did or what
happened 50 years ago, but to have the same focus as our forerunners. Their reason to be is our
reason to be! Vital Methodist congregations31 today are creative and inventive in their ways to
reach out to people and spread “Scriptural holiness throughout the land.”
The teaching coming out of this is the awareness of “the mission of the Church [which] is to make
disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”32
The consequential attitude is genuine interest in people, and a natural way to include everyone in
the mission of the church.
Holistic perception of life
Life is not divided in one sector of spiritual life in relation to God, and another sector of worldly life
in relation to creation, culture, politics, and people33. For Methodists, “Scriptural holiness entails
See above
Philippians 1:6 Common English Bible
Minutes of Several Conversations, Q.3, in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 8
“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,
Vital congregations have: Inviting and inspiring worship; Engaged disciples in mission and outreach; Gifted,
empowered and equipped lay leadership; Effective, equipped and inspired clergy leadership; Small Group ministries;
Strong children’s & youth ministries (http://www.umc.org/how-we-serve/vital-congregations)
BoD ¶ 120
more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbor, a passion for justice
and renewal in the life of the world.”34 Wesley stated, “Christianity is essentially a social religion;
and that to turn it into a solitary religion, is indeed to destroy it.”35
“The United Methodist Church has a long history of concern for social justice. Its members have
often taken forthright positions on controversial issues involving Christian principles. Early
Methodists expressed their opposition to the slave trade, to smuggling, and to the cruel treatment
of prisoners.”36 John Wesley and the first Methodist cared for both the body and soul of ordinary
people. Education for poor children, dispensaries, and "poor man's bank” are only a few of many
examples. And of all books Wesley published, his Primitive Physick, last published 2003, has by far
been his best seller.
In all the Nordic Countries, the Deaconess Movement made a considerable impact on society with
its ministry among people without economical means, and establishing hospitals and nursing
schools. In Sweden, Methodist pastor Göte Bergsten created S:t Lukas, which today is a leading
actor in counseling.37
In today’s situation with the many refugees and asylum seeker in all our countries, you can also
notice this underlying current of Methodist ethos. A congregation distributes food and clothes,
another arranges housing. A Methodist layman teaches newcomers in national culture, another
responses to racism in social media. A pastor engage in the public debate of refugee quotas,
another takes a stand on begging.
The teaching coming out of this is a concern for life in all its forms. The surrounding world is not
foreign territory, but God’s world where we are called to be ambassadors and co-workers to love
humankind and creation back to God.
The consequential attitude is a readiness to equip for and engage in diaconal, environmental, and
political projects.
There are at least four conclusions to make from this.
1. No paragraph in the Book of Discipline, no book of worship, no hymnal can explain what makes
us feel at home in a Methodist church. The connectional system is based on trust, not control;
there is not one book of worship, and there has never been liturgical conformity; hymnals are
constantly updated and completed with new hymns and songs of the most diverse character; and
although we might be forerunners for certain ministries, we can’t claim a set of practices
exclusively our own.
2. There is not one unified Methodist culture. The mission context and regional traditions form a
variety of cultural patterns. What we hold as our Methodist culture, as important as it is, is often a
regional surface current, not the “deep water current.” We can note differences not only
between countries like Tonga and Kirgizstan in other parts of the world, not only between Esbjerg
Cf. Luther’s Two Kingdoms Doctrine
BoD ¶ 102, page 51
BoD page 103
”S:t Lukas is an ecumenical voluntary and professional organization. It was founded in 1939 by people from different
churches and professions. They maintained that people have interacting social, physical, psychological and spiritual
needs. This conviction of an existential whole has since then guided the work of S:t Lukas.”
and Lappeenranta in our own episcopal area, but also between single congregations in the same
annual conference.
3. We don’t go to church to have our musical taste or cultural preference satisfied, but to worship
God together with believers and seekers. It is therefor important for local churches to find the
balance between tradition and cultural expressions that communicate with newcomers. If not, we
lose our mission.
4. It is only when it comes to ethos, the underlying sentiment, that we find the factors that make
Methodism recognizable. This might be disturbingly vague as an answer to the question, and could
even be considered as emotional and personal as the testimonies of feeling at home. The
underlying sentiment, however, turn out to have a theological basis of grace, process, mission, and
holistic perception. As Methodists, we normally don’t announce labels to our theology, but it has
been passed on as a dynamic “practical divinity” from generation to generation.
Subsequently, a visitor may or may not recognize worship style and programs when visiting
another Methodist church. And it shouldn’t be necessary. But it is highly desirable that we as
visitors can register the underlying sentiment for the various expressions and ministries wherever
we go to a Methodist church in the episcopal area or around the world. This requires a certain
historic and theological awareness, and puts a responsibility on especially leaders, both lay and
clergy; Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, choir leaders, worship leaders, musicians, greeters,
custodians, deacons, young pastors, old pastors, etc.
“Above everything else, guard your heart; for it is the source of life’s consequences.”38
Hans Växby
Proverbs 4:23 Complete Jewish Bible