While countless individuals talk about leaving the United Methodist Church or splitting it in two, seminary students at Wesley Theological Seminary are being invited to (re)examine the greatest gifts of our denomination. In the following essay, Rachel Keller, our MVP ministry intern, shares why she's committed to continuing to find her place in the United Methodist Church.
8 Reasons Why the UMC is the Place for Me
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a part of the United Methodist Church. At two months old, my father, a United Methodist pastor, baptized me in my family’s first parish. At age 14 I was confirmed and haven’t changed my denomination since. I was raised in a home where Sunday mornings were only for church, no exceptions. I never questioned why my parents chose to raise my sister and I in the United Methodist church. I knew who John Wesley was, but I had no idea what he believed or why I was following his beliefs. Then I dated a guy in college who was a fellow United Methodist pastor’s kid. He loved the concept of prevenient grace and would be shocked and disappointed if a Charles Wesley hymn wasn’t played on a Sunday morning. I was surprised that we had similar upbringings, yet he knew so much more than I did about our church. But I’ve never left, because it’s home to me. Over time (and with the help of theological education), I learned why I had chosen to remain in the United Methodist Church and why I am still there today.
8 Reasons Why the UMC is the Place for Me (With the help of John and Charles Wesley):
1. We believe the Bible shows us how we can be in right relationship with God
How do we know if something is the truth or not? Who or what holds the ultimate authority in the truth? How much truth does the Bible hold? Christians stand on many different sides of this issue. In his sermon on “The Means of Grace,” John Wesley talks about the importance of the scriptures in helping us find the truth:
“And, in fact, (God) hath not left us undetermined; he hath shown us the way wherein we should go. We have only to consult the oracles of God; to inquire what is written there; and, if we simply abide by their decision, there can no possible doubt remain.” (109)
Wesley believed the most important truth is how to be in right relationship with God, and that the Bible holds this truth. Today, I appreciate how the church also carefully uses Christian tradition and our own human experiences to find truth, but the Bible is our ultimate authority.
2. We love free will
Does God choose specific people to love, only predestining certain people to salvation? United Methodists would undoubtedly answer this question with a resounding NO! God desires relationship with every single person in this entire world. However, God also created every human with free will. God never forces us to love God back. We have every right to reject God’s love toward us. If we accept God’s love, then we continue on in becoming closer to God. If we reject God’s love, we will feel distant from God. But, God never stops loving us.
When we have those days when we feel like we’re not good enough - God is next to us, accepting us where we are, ready to forgive and keep loving us even when we feel unloveable.
This free will fits in well with our view of salvation as it relates to God’s grace. We may know “Amazing Grace” so well we could sing it in our sleep, but what does grace really mean?
As I said before, God longs to be in relationship with us. Grace is God’s favor on our lives that draws us closer into that relationship. While there are not different types of grace, John Wesley found different ways to describe grace and different names for grace. So here’s a run down of four different ways that we describe grace:
Prevenient grace: God’s love that comes to us before we know or understand God. Therefore, prevenient grace is bestowed on everyone, believing or unbelieving. It shows us the love that God has for each one of us and the desire that God has to be in relationship with God’s creation. This grace leads us to the knowledge of our sinful hearts and our need for God’s love and forgiveness. It pushes us to repent so that we can be in right relationship with God.
Justifying grace: grace that puts us in right relationship with God when we acknowledge our need for God’s love and forgiveness
Sanctifying grace: grace that enables us to grow in our relationship with God as we strive to continue on in right relationship with God
Grace doesn’t always work in everyone’s life in an orderly fashion like it is listed above. We may feel prevenient grace pushing us to repent after we’ve already been justified. All of these types of grace work together and even simultaneously for our ongoing salvation.
4. Our salvation isn’t just about what happens when we die
One of the reasons I love Wesley’s view of salvation is because it’s not just about what happens when we die, it’s about restoring us back to who we were created to be in this life, right now. As one of my past professors, Scott Kisker, once said, “God is extending God’s love to us, not so that the Trinity will have more company in heaven. God extends God’s love to us so that we might grow into the mature character of the free love that has embraced us.”
Salvation is not a one time thing, or a “once saved always saved” type of deal. Salvation is a lifelong process and part of our relationship with God enabled by grace through faith. We never outgrow our repentance, but as we repent, we come to depend more and more on God, and we desire to live in communion with God and in service to others. This gives us a great assurance of peace. Charles Wesley describes the change that happens in our heart when we receive salvation in his hymn, “How Can We Sinners Know”:
We who in Christ believe that he for us hath died, we all his unknown peace receive and feel his blood applied. Our nature’s turned, our mind transformed in all its powers, and both the witnesses are joined, the Spirit of God with ours.
5. We love community
Methodism started as a very social movement. Before there was a traditional denomination, the people called Methodists were organized into small groups called societies, which helped them to grow in love. In 1743 John Wesley wrote about the first society formed in London:
“Such a society is no other than ‘a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.’”
The societies kept general rules that are still used in the UMC today. The three basic rules are: do no harm, do good, and attend to the ordinances of God. Attending to the ordinances of God means keeping key practices and Christian disciplines that help us grow in our life of faith. United Methodists still strive today to hold one another accountable to these general rules through community and small groups. I love being part of a church that recognizes the need for each other as we strive to grow in our faith.
Charles Wesley describes church community in the hymn, “Jesus United by Thy Grace”:
Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s cross to bear; let all their friendly aid afford, and feel each other’s care.
6. We have 2 sacraments that bring us closer to God and closer to each other
Methodists celebrate two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. We believe that baptism is an outward sign of God’s grace that claims us before we are even able to comprehend God’s love. Baptism is an initiation into the body of Christ, the church. Because of this initiation and grace that claims us before our knowledge or understanding, the Methodist church traditionally practices infant baptism. The congregation makes a beautiful promise to love and support the infant and to do all in their power to help raise the child in a life of faith. When the child is older and mature, they can make the choice to respond to their baptismal covenant through a life of Christian discipleship.
The sacrament of communion is also an outward sign of God’s invisible grace. Wesley saw communion as a means of grace, and as such should be taken as often as possible. To refuse communion is to reject Jesus Christ and the grace that is available through communion. In his sermon, “The Duty of Constant Communion,” John Wesley wrote:
“If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper; then we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us.”
Methodists also practice an open table; we believe that God can work through communion to change the lives of those who partake, so it should not just be for those who have been baptized or those who believe. As a means of grace, communion is all about what God does for us, not what we do.
7. We all are called to serve
Our Book of Discipline states,
“Ministry in the Christian church is derived from the ministry of Christ, who calls all persons to receive God’s gift of salvation and follow in the way of love and service. The whole church receives and accepts this call, and all Christians participate in this continuing ministry.”
We believe that clergy and laity are of equal importance in the church. I love being part of a church where everyone plays a part and everyone is called to serve! The church is the people, not the pastor.
8. We have hope in the future that makes us want to work now
We place a large emphasis on living in hope for the new creation. Our central affirmation is that God offers full redemption to all of God’s creation. But we don’t have to wait until the Second Coming to receive that redemption. We are called to live in the Resurrection now and work for the Kingdom of God on earth. Through the Holy Spirit we can begin to embody the redeeming work of Christ now, and the Holy Spirit can work through us to bring about change in the world. Our hope is here now and in the future.
Charles Wesley’s hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”describes this hope in the last verse:
“In Christ, your head, you then shall know, shall feel your sins forgiven; anticipate your heaven below, and own that love is heaven.”