In my attempt to paint a picture of where Methodism falls among other denominations, I’ve discussed our doctrine’s focus on holiness and our emphasis on mission work, both of which have played a fundamental role in the development of the United Methodist Church as we currently know it. We’re based in a good mix of personal and social holiness, looking to move ourselves and the world toward perfection through Christ and the love of God. We also looked at the role of the Church (big C), saying that its role is to build up and enable its members to live lives of faith. So, what’s special about the local churches within the Methodist tradition? What’s the point of Methodist community?
As I’ve mentioned before, the Methodist movement first began to form in a so-called “Holiness Club” at Oxford. Charles Wesley joined before his brother John, but John, being the more stubborn and (honestly) extreme one of the pair, encouraged the group to take things a step further. Inspired by the German Pietists, who sought to live holy lives, the members of this club lived very methodical lives (hence the name, Methodists) in an attempt to keep their temptations from drawing them into sin, and more importantly, they participated in this club together, taking the time to share in one another’s struggles and temptations and give encouragement – and rebuke them, when necessary – that they may live holy lives.
As the Methodist movement developed and spread across England, small “societies” (ideally, a small group that still went to church and used the society to go above and beyond) began to form. The people in these groups operated similarly to the original Holy Club at Oxford, meeting for worship, Bible study, and to hold each other accountable in their faith. They also supported the schools and hospital that the Methodists ran.
In the American version of the movement, there were far more towns than there were pastors, which led to the development of the “Circuit Rider” system (Methodist lingo again!), simply meaning that each pastor was assigned to a “circuit,” or a set of towns that they would ride between on horseback, visiting each for a period of time before moving on to the next one. While they were there, the pastors would serve communion, perform baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and give any pastoral care and theological advice that was needed. But what happened when the pastors weren’t there? The members of the community took care of the church! They would preach, visit their sick neighbors, and do everything that didn’t require a pastor (see my previous list). This led to very self-reliant and tight-knit communities, not really dependent on their specific pastor, as life on a circuit was dangerous, but more dependent on each other.
This is the real foundation of community in the Methodist church. The members of the local churches are supposed to continue this tradition, taking on some degree of responsibility for each other and for their local church rather than just leaving all that up to the pastor. The community is to support itself and its members, providing support, comfort, and encouragement whenever needed.
So, there you have it. The Methodist church in three posts: doctrine that revolves around love, grace, and holiness, a focus on mission work to sanctify the whole of Creation, and a community where people support one another, their church, and equip one another to fulfill their roles.
It’s hard to distill down everything to a specific point, even after all these posts, but we can see some common themes that run like threads through every aspect of Christianity. The point is to love as we were loved, to show grace as we were shown grace, to encourage as we were encouraged, and to sanctify even as we are being sanctified. The point is to pursue God in faith and action, and to help others do the same.
That’s the point of everything, after all.