By Thomas Lambrecht
We have been examining what it means to be a Methodist in honor of John Wesley’s tract, The Character of a Methodist, but following a modern version of those ideas in Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s 1960 book, The Marks of a Methodist. We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love. In the previous article, we noted the mark of Discipline, a focused and structured effort toward the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Today we consider the fourth mark, Mission. It could be said of Methodism in general what our pastors say of the local church I attend: “Missions is the heartbeat of our church.” Mission has an outward focus, without which the church turns inward and begins to die.
Kennedy quotes Wesley: “God, in Scripture, commands me, according to my power, to instruct the ignorant, reform the wicked, confirm the virtuous. Man forbids me to do this in another’s parish; that is, in effect, to do it not at all, seeing I have now no parish of my own, nor probably ever shall. Whom then shall I hear? God or man? … I look upon all the world as my parish.”
Methodists throughout our history have admitted no limit to where we should go to proclaim the Gospel and minister to the needs of people.
Kennedy writes, “Sometimes I think the Great Commission was given with the Methodists in mind. For if there has ever been a Church with the word ‘go’ at the center of its life, it is The Methodist Church.”
The need to go sent John Wesley an estimated 250,000 miles by horseback throughout his life and ministry, mostly in the British Isles. That same motivation led Francis Asbury, the founder of Methodism in America, to travel an estimated 270,000 miles by horseback in this country. Asbury was so insistent upon traveling to preach the Gospel and oversee the clergy and churches that historian John Wigger has written, “more people would recognize Asbury on the street than Thomas Jefferson or George Washington,” the famous leaders who lived during the same time.
It was the call to go where the people were that led Methodists to adopt the ministry model of itinerant evangelists and preachers called “circuit riders.” Every six months (and then later, every year) the circuit rider was appointed to a new circuit, or route of towns and churches, on which he rode, preaching and baptizing, performing weddings and funerals. Wherever he went, the circuit rider was establishing new churches. As the frontier in America moved west, the circuit riders moved along with it, always staying on the cutting edge of the country’s growth.
This impetus to go into all the world and preach the Gospel motivated Methodists to be some of the staunchest supporters and participants in the modern missionary movement. Beginning in the early 1800s, thousands of missionaries went to all the continents and countries of the world, establishing schools, hospitals, orphanages, and planting churches.
Today, one can get a sense of going into mission by taking a short-term mission trip, serving on mission projects in the U.S. and other parts of the world. While short-term mission trips bring help and encouragement to the mission field, they more profoundly impact the missioner with the life-changing awareness that God is at work in all places and all cultures. Taking such a trip opens one up to being used by the Lord in new ways to serve others. For many, this experience is transformative.
The need to go where the people are and where the needs are can mean local church members getting outside the walls of the church to serve. It might mean going to the other side of town or into neighborhoods that are different from one’s own. Taking risks and carrying the ministry of the Gospel out to the people of the community is the essence of mission, exemplified by the Apostle Paul and millions of other Christians ever since.
Mission is born of love – love for God played out in love for others, in response to God’s love for us. That love extends not only to the heart and soul of a person, but to the body, mind, family, and every other part of the person. Kennedy reminds us, “There has never been any willingness to believe that any part of life is beyond the reach of our faith. From the beginning we have had a concern for the physical conditions of life. … The Gospel deals with all of life because it comes to heal the whole [person]. The Bible knows nothing about partial religion, and it has no tendency to divide life into compartments. The goal is a Kingdom in which [each person] will be a citizen under the government of God. So, we may begin where we will and go in any direction, but if Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives, we will travel straight toward human need. We will soon be involved in solving human problems and making life better for all.”
Our goal as Methodist Christians is to seek the welfare of all people in the name of Christ. That is why Methodists have been in the forefront of establishing schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, farms, and other social service agencies. That is why Methodists have felt called to advocate for policy changes like the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and the ending of child labor in the 20th century.
Where Methodists have often agreed on the “what” of human need, we have sometimes disagreed on the “how” to meet that need. It is important to acknowledge the validity of different strategies to combat social ills like prostitution, drug addiction, human trafficking, world peace, and crime. When the church limits itself to one approach, it runs the risk of being wedded to an ideology, whether liberal or conservative, rather than focusing on the Gospel and practical love of neighbor. The church is at its best when it goes out to meet the needs of people directly. It is less effective and sometimes harms itself when it ventures into the political arena and begins playing by the rules of advocacy and activism.
Even worse is when the church comes to believe that passing resolutions or governmental laws is the sum total of social concern. Kennedy warns, “The world must be changed, but in the hearts of [people]. There is no system that can do it and laws are poor weak things when you are trying to change society. Wars can stop some things from happening, but they cannot build the new life. What a limited thing is force and how inadequate is money! But God has entrusted to us His love and power to conquer our sin and redeem our wills.”
The transformation of the world comes through the transformation of individual lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the power of political rallies or governmental edicts. But much of that individual transformation happens when people see the love of God in Christ displayed in our loving outreach to minister to human needs. That is the essence of mission.
Individual transformation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. That requires evangelism to be a central part of missions. Kennedy states, “When the Gospel is a living experience, there is no need to talk about evangelism. For to share that experience both consciously and unconsciously is inescapable.”
Living a life of love and caring for others opens the door to relationship. In the context of that relationship, one can then share “the reason for the hope that [we] have” (I Peter 3:15). And certainly, we can use the relationship to invite people to accompany us to church, where they can experience the Gospel in that setting.
Foremost on our minds should be our striving to live a life that is congruent with our message. A life that does not display the grace of God and his love for all the world will not be a great advertisement for the truth of our message of redemption through Jesus Christ. It has been said that you and I may be the only Bible a non-Christian will ever read (at least until they get interested in finding out more about Jesus). On the other hand, Kennedy cites a story about a meeting of college students where one student asked, “What is Christianity anyway?” The response was, “Why Christianity is Oscar Westover” – the name of a Christian believer known to the group. “I love those quiet Christians who move among their friends like a judgment and a benediction,” observed Kennedy. “They are witnesses and evangelists.” Our lives can embody the message we proclaim and be the walking definition of what it means to be a Christian.
Kennedy writes, “There is no joy to compare with bringing Christ to another. The Church has bestowed on me many honors, but nothing compares with the privilege it gives me to call [people] into its saving fellowship.”
Kennedy concludes, “Any church must be missionary in spirit, or it dies. But this is particularly true for Methodism because its whole spirit and polity are not proper for a finished institution. We must march or lose our life.” I wonder if modern Methodism has domesticated the spirit of early Methodism and created that “finished institution” that Kennedy thought we had not attained. That “finished institution” can become a museum piece to be preserved and admired, rather than a vehicle for mission. That way lies the death of the church. May we recover the missionary spirit of early Christianity and of early Methodism. For this God has raised us up!