As the son of a Baptist pastor, I’m often asked with a raised eyebrow, “How in the world did you become a Methodist minister?” Because I believe that each denomination has gifts to share with the rest of Christianity, I’ll often tell folks that I don’t really feel like I “left” my Baptist roots – I continue to be shaped and inspired by their deep love for Jesus and knowledge of the Bible. Instead, I like to think about my switch to Methodism as “adding” new dimensions to my faith that I’d been searching for. Here are a few of the things that I’ve added; gifts that I’ve come to treasure in my adopted home in the United Methodist Church:
The Journey of Salvation: As a kid, I can remember praying the Sinner’s Prayer so many times (especially after a scary sermon!) that I wasn’t exactly sure when I really “got saved.” Instead of viewing salvation as a single moment in time, United Methodists understand salvation as more of a journey. God saves us by his grace, reaching out in love to the world through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus. John Wesley taught that we experience God’s grace in three distinct ways: prevenient grace (inviting us into a relationship), justifying grace (forgiving our sin), and sanctifying grace (helping us grow in holiness). Our response to this gift of love is faith – not only through an initial act of repentance and trust in Jesus – but by the way we live each day. One of my Methodist youth said it best: "I'm not just saved, I'm being saved!"
Interpreting the Bible: There is a bumper sticker that says, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” Lots of Christians claim that the Bible should be read literally like a modern textbook – but if the Bible’s meaning is so clear, then why are there so many competing interpretations? I love the Bible, but I continue to wrestle with passages that I do not understand. In the United Methodist Church, the Bible is of primary importance, but we read it as part of an ongoing conversation with the Spirit, using the tools of tradition, reason, and experience to interpret difficult passages. When it comes to understanding the Bible, United Methodists have open minds – as Wesley said, “We think and let think unless it strikes at the root of Christianity.”
A Deeper Tradition: Growing up, I’d never heard of Advent, Lent, or the Apostles’ Creed. Then, in college, I fell in love with liturgy in the United Methodist Church. The rhythm of the Church’s calendar began to shape my devotional life, and I found new meaning in the ancient words of the Creeds and the Lord’s Prayer that Christians have held dear for centuries. My baptism and the celebration of Communion also took on new meaning as I came to understand the sacraments as opportunities to meet the living Jesus in the water, bread, and wine. Since Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” children are welcome to be baptized as well as adults. And since Communion is the Lord’s Table (and not ours), everyone is invited to receive Holy Communion.
Social Justice: For most of my early life, Christianity was limited to a personal relationship with Jesus and going to heaven after I died. I didn’t worry too much about the needs of other people, except to pray for their salvation so that they could go to heaven, too. But in the Bible, Jesus doesn’t just forgive peoples’ sins; he heals their bodies. He has compassion on the poor and the sick, and notices people that society ignored. That’s why John Wesley taught his Methodist groups, “there is no religion without social religion” – that yes, the gospel has the power to save souls, but it can also save bodies and transform society. It’s also why United Methodists have such a strong legacy of social justice – of supporting soup kitchens and homeless shelters across America and starting some of the best hospitals and universities in the world.
Ecumenism: Instead of identifying themselves over and against other Christians as the only true church, one of the main things that drew me to United Methodism was their humble claim to be one small part of God’s greater family of faith. Started as a renewal movement and not a separate church, it’s in Methodism’s DNA to work together across denominational lines. John Wesley once wrote to a Roman Catholic, “If we cannot think alike, can we not love alike?” By joining hands with our sisters and brothers in other churches, we can witness to the unity we have in Christ and have a bigger impact for God’s Kingdom in our communities and the world. United Methodists are involved in ecumenical partnerships at the local, state, and national levels as well as on a global scale through the World Methodist Council and the World Council of Churches.