As some of you may know, I’m currently a seminary student working toward my Master of Divinity degree to be (eventually) ordained in the United Methodist Church. A required course for ordination in the Methodist church is “Methodist History and Doctrine,” a course which generally covers the history of the Methodist church in England, the United States, and everywhere else, as well as the assorted doctrinal movements within the church that have led us to where we are today. I decided to enroll in this class during my first semester, a move which initially made me worry that I was getting in over my head by taking a non-entry level course, but quickly proved to be an amazing and enlightening experience. So much has happened during the life of Methodism, and there is so much depth to be found by reading the sermons and hymns of the Wesley brothers! I found myself continuously convicted, desiring to learn and do more.
As I read, one common theme continuously surfaced among the authors: a major part of the Christian walk was to go into the world and make a difference, both physically and spiritually, in the lives of those who are in need. Thus, I feel confident in saying that the answer to the question “what’s the point of Methodism?” can be seen in, or at least supported by, our emphasis on mission work.
In The Book of Discipline, paragraph 166, there is a section titled “A Companion Litany to our Social Creed.” It is composed of several congregational readings and responses which seek to convey the general spirit of Methodist social principles, and it begins like this:
Today is the day
God cares for the integrity of creation,
wills the healing and wholeness of all life,
weeps at the plunder of earth’s goodness.
And so shall we.
From the early days of the Methodist movement, service and mission work has been a two-fold task: we were to care for the physical well-being of people as well as preaching the Gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. John Wesley founded the Kingswood School in Bristol in order to provide an education for the poor children of coal miners, starting a trend which followed missionaries all across the world: missionaries not only founded churches, but also schools so that the children could receive an education.
Another example of this dual nature of mission can be found in John Wesley’s visits to prisoners awaiting execution. Prison ministry is a difficult and trying ministry, one that not many people have the heart to do. To see so many people behind the bars of a cell is a challenge even for the toughest of minds! Yet John Wesley went to them, the people who had been removed from society (some for terrible crimes, some for simple debts) and spent time with them. Nobody wanted to spend time with these people! Yet Wesley did, and he did so graciously, extending a hand to those who could no longer reach out themselves. This is beautiful and simple social mission work, if I do say so. Yet as he spoke to these men who were facing death, he made sure to tell them of the hope they could find if they repented and placed their trust in Christ, for he could save even the worst of these criminals from their sin; no man is too terrible to be made new in Christ. This is the spiritual side of the church’s mission.
Looking back at the miners whose children attended the school, you can see that Wesley was stepping outside the normal work of the church. He didn’t stop there, though. To John Wesley, the miners themselves were important, since they too needed to hear the word of the Lord given, though many would have been unwelcome in the churches of the day. So, unlike many of his contemporaries, John Wesley went out to the mines and stood in fields, preaching to the miners and the laborers where they were rather than expecting them to come to him. John Wesley, the Oxford-educated Anglican priest, found himself convinced even more of the power of God when he saw white streaks running down the coal-black faces of the miners who came to hear him. The love of Christ was too important for them to be ostracized, he decided, and continued to preach in fields across England.
So, how does that play into the modern Methodist church?
Chances are pretty good that when you think of Missionaries, you think of people traveling across oceans to preach in some foreign land, stepping into a culture they see as lost and bringing it to truth. Methodists, however, do not think of mission work in that way, though preaching and evangelizing is certainly a part of it. Remember, we see the Christian task as striving to be stewards of Creation, to bring the world as a whole closer to sanctification, and we believe that a sanctified world is one without oppression, hunger, or pain. Wesley established schools because we believe that even the poor need someone to love them enough to provide education, he established hospitals because we believe that no person should be without medicine. And we should preach the love of Christ as we do it, because it’s available to all people, regardless of education, wellness, past deeds, or current situation.
As the members of Christ’s body, we are called to act as Christ did in our world, by caring for those in need. We are also called to bring people to faith in Christ, that they can be saved. Together, these things are what mission work means in the Methodist church.