Seven Steps toward Free Methodist Renewal
Howard A. Snyder
[From Howard Snyder, “Seven Keys to Free Methodist Renewal,” in Gerald E. Bates and Howard A. Snyder, eds., Soul Searching the Church: Free Methodism at 150 Years (Marston Memorial Historical Centre, 2007), 147-158. [Written with the language of U.S. Free Methodist polity] Posted on The Free Methodist Church in Canada website with permission of the author.]
The following suggestions are based in three realities: The nature of gospel and church as revealed in Scripture, Wesleyan theology, and our own history and heritage. Note that these seven proposals for renewed life and mission for the Free Methodist Church are not quick fixes, because renewal and spirituality do not come by quick fixes.
1. Build Free Methodist community and identity in our seminaries and colleges.
I became much more a Free Methodist while a student at interdenominational Asbury Seminary in the 1960s. The reason was the Free Methodist community there, centered in the local church and the John Wesley Seminary Foundation. The sixty or so FM students at Asbury got acquainted, formed friendships with Free Methodist professors and developed networks that have continued until today.
But things have changed. Now I find very little Free Methodist community and denominational socialization and visioning at Asbury, except as occurs incidentally in the local church.
A primary reason is that our denomination now affiliates with several seminaries, not just Asbury, and has almost totally dismantled the John Wesley Seminary Foundation as an identity-mission-vision-building community. At least at Asbury, FM students often emerge from seminary less, rather than more, Free Methodist.
This could change. All it would take is intentional and adequately funded leadership at every seminary where ten or more Free Methodist students are found. With denominational leadership from bishops, conference superintendents, and the denominational structure generally, men and women could be emerging from our seminaries year by year with vision and enthusiasm for Free Methodist mission and a taste of Free Methodist community, excited to live the Free Methodist synthesis and embody its charisma.
Currently this is being done more effectively in some of our colleges than in seminaries. But more attention to FM mission, vision, and community needs to happen across the educational spectrum. This would bear rich fruit over generations. It would not change things overnight. But wise steps and prudent investment in this direction now could mean a renewed church in 2050.
2. Develop leaders through mentoring.
Christian leadership is about character and discipleship, not primarily about knowledge and skills. That’s why Jesus trained the Apostles by being with them for three years, discipling and mentoring them. The Free Methodist Church must do the same.
Seminary can’t do it alone, even with programs of “supervised” or “mentored” ministry. The only way to develop leaders who understand and are excited about the Free Methodist synthesis and charisma is to mentor them through a relatively seamless process.
Some ways to do this:
• Assign experienced, theologically well-grounded pastors to mentor (personally, relationally) every ministerial candidate through to the time of ordination. The process should include whatever years the person may spend in college or seminary.
• Implement a three-year mentoring process for all new pastors. Every new pastor should be discipled (personally, relationally) by an experienced pastor (active or retired) who has proven to be effective and spiritually mature and who owns the Free Methodist heritage.
• Assign pastoral mentors to pastors who are leading struggling or at-risk congregations.
• In the mentoring process, focus in four main areas: (1) building community, (2) equipping Christians for ministry in the world, (3) spiritual growth and integration, and (4) deeper grounding in our own tradition. The means should be learning by doing, not primarily learning by reading or by intellectually learning concepts.
The assumption here is that the primary task of pastors is to build up the body of Christ and to equip the body (and all its members) to be God’s mission in the world. This kind of discipling-mentoring is required if the biblical vision of the church (particularly in Ephesians 4:1-16 and 1 Corinthians 12-14) is ever to become operational.
3. Focus the conference superintendent’s role on pastoral mentoring, renewing existing churches, and church planting.
Conference superintendents are above all else pastors to pastors. Their role is well summarized by the Apostle Paul in his admonition to the Ephesian elders: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28; the whole passage, verses 17-35, is important for mentoring).
This approach will gradually become easier, of course, as the first two suggestions outlined earlier begin to bear fruit. Only discipled pastors, in most cases, can become mentoring superintendents.
The measure of success of a conference superintendent should be the number of pastors effectively encouraged and mentored, the number of existing congregations revitalized for mission, and the number of new churches effectively planted, especially among the poor. The process will not work if middle-class megachurches are the model. We now have plenty of evidence that real movements multiply small but lively congregations, not superchurches.
Early Free Methodists understood well that they were not called to build “popular” churches (today called mega- churches). If megachurches happen by accident as a result of faithful ministry, that is both a cause for celebration and a red flag — because (another sociological principle) growing numbers mean declining personal commitment unless the church is honeycombed with discipleship-and-ministry cells.
In other words, the role of superintendents is a larger version of the role of pastors. They are to help equip pastors and congregations for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-12).
This has implications also for bishops. Above all, bishops are pastors of the larger flock. Their primary role is not administrative but pastoral and inspirational. They are to pastor (mentor, instruct, encourage) superintendents so they can pastor the pastors who pastor (guide and equip for ministry) the local congregations. Administration is of course necessary but must be secondary and functional for mission.
4. Reinvent the early Methodist class meeting.
The class and band meetings of early Methodism were key to its vitality, growth, and staying power. Yet (as I explain in Populist Saints), Free Methodism never really experienced the class meeting the way it functioned in early Methodism. By B.T. Roberts’ day the class meeting had lost its original function.
All vital churches (at least in North America) have some form of effective small-group, cell-group, or home-group structure. Denomination-wide, the Free Methodist Church has never had such a structure, even though for generations the Discipline made provision for such and required class-meeting participation.
We need a contemporary functional equivalent of the class meeting. A class meeting is not a Sunday School class, a Bible study group, or a group for fellowship and prayer only. It is a structure of accountability with agreed-upon rules (that is, a covenant including specific disciplines).
The class meeting needs to be reinvented for our day and made part of basic Free Methodist structure. It should include specific disciplines that cover key areas such as time use, financial stewardship, family relationships, witness and creation care. Only in such contexts of face-to-face community can questions like these be effectively (relationally, not legalistically) faced:
- Am I honoring God in my financial stewardship? What guidelines do I and my children follow with regard to television, the Internet, movies, and other forms of entertainment?
- Am I spending time daily in prayer and Bible study? Am I caring for God’s creation in practical ways, such as recycling?
- How am I involved with God’s mission globally and locally?
- How am I contributing to the life and mission of our local church?
- How are my relationships with family and coworkers?
- Am I growing in my love toward God and others?
- How am I living out the Free Methodist synthesis and calling?
- Am I using my gifts for mission and to God’s glory? How is my life benefiting the poor and oppressed of the world?
- Is the work I do in my job or employment consistent with the values of the kingdom of God?
If we do not answer these questions in the context of loving, accountable community, we probably don’t really answer them at all.
A special denominational task force could design a Free Methodist form of class meeting for today. Participation in such groups should be mandatory, not optional, for all adult members. If this were implemented, the result is predictable: More highly committed and countercultural Free Methodists; slow membership growth initially but steadily increasing growth over time.
Reinventing the class meeting ties in nicely with the discipling/mentoring emphasis above. We will get more ma¬ture, more committed, and more effective pastors, for ex¬ample, once the denomination begins to reap the fruit of families formed in this kind of environment. Mentoring — informal and effective — begins here, in local churches and in small groups.
5. Tell our story; rehearse the history.
Earlier chapters in this book, particularly those by Doug Newton and Stan Ingersol, show how important it is to tell and retell our family history — as part of the larger story of rescue and redemption that God is accomplishing.
We live today in a world of competing, compelling, life-shaping (and life-warping) stories. The most potent narratives come to us through television, the Internet, and advertising. Today these are mostly merging into one. Increasingly entertainment, news reporting, and Internet communication are all forms of marketing. “Everything for sale,” as one book title puts it. Do we want our children and our churches to be shaped morally by manipulative market myths, or by the counter-story of the gospel of the kingdom and the way it has come to us through the Free Methodist synthesis and charisma?
Telling our story means sharing personal testimonies of God at work in our lives. Early Methodism thrived in part on the testimonies, the stories, of God’s transforming grace in people’s experiences. There is something refreshing and renewing in hearing Christians share how God has worked and is working in their own stories. The trick, then, is to tie these testimonies to the larger story of our church through history. The old testimony meeting can be reinvented as we see how each person’s particular story fits into the larger narrative of God at work.
We need to tell each other our story in bite-sized chunks, in anecdotes and incidents, as every vital culture does. We need to see how the little stories fit into the larger story. This includes, importantly, what God has done and is doing through Free Methodists around the world.
Resources are already available; what is needed now is the doing and telling. That is one key function of the other steps mentioned earlier — building community, mentoring, discipling one another relationally. Stories shape behavior when we rehearse them in community, in the family. They don’t much change behavior if they remain merely printed or archived.
So the Free Methodist story — part of the larger Christian story of creation, redemption, and new creation — should filter its way into our shared life. It should be woven into sermons, retold in families and small groups, shared in membership classes, and required in pastoral training. In bite-sized chunks.
As part of the larger story, our story will keep repeating the originating vision of Free Methodism: “to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity, and to preach the gospel to the poor.” This does not so much need to be reinterpreted as to be repeated and practiced.
6. Teach holiness as the mind of Christ through the fullness of the Spirit.
Holiness as Christlikeness must still be our emphasis. But there is no good reason to continue using the language of “perfection” or “entire sanctification.” This is so for three reasons: (1) the terms are not the only or even the primary ones used in Scripture for holiness; (2) the terms were problematic even in Wesley’s day; and (3) today the terms do not communicate what the Bible actually teaches.
Even proponents of entire sanctification today often misunderstand what Wesley meant. The term “perfection” doesn’t mean for us what it meant for Wesley or the biblical writers. We think of perfection as something that cannot be improved upon, something without flaw. What Wesley meant however was perfecting — constant living and growing in grace. We don’t use “perfect” that way today. Wesley meant perfection in the dynamic biblical sense, not the static contemporary sense.
Since the Bible offers a range of terms, let’s use those that best communicate today. Wesley said Christian perfection meant having the mind of Christ; being conformed to Jesus’ image; walking as he walked. These are biblical terms. “Mind of Christ” means much more than “a Christ-like attitude.” It means Christ-like mission; experiencing the missional mind that Jesus showed, focused on one goal: That God might be glorified through the coming of his kingdom on earth, as in heaven. (Note how Jesus speaks of his own mission in the Gospel of John.)
For Wesley, entire sanctification was practical Christlikeness enabled by the Holy Spirit, generally involving a second spiritual step or crisis beyond conversion. The phrase that perhaps best captures this today is: Living the mind of Christ through the fullness of the Spirit. “Mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16 and related passages), “mind of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:27) and “fullness” (John 1:16; Eph. 1:23 3.19 413. Col 1.19 and other passages) are key biblical terms. Paul says Christians “have been given fullness in Christ” (Col 2.10) and exhorts believers to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).
The beauty of the New Testament term “fullness” is that it unites three related dimensions: Personal infilling with the Spirit, the fullness of Jesus Christ in the church, and the fullness of Jesus Christ in all creation. It is the whole church together that grows up into Christ, “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). No Christian attains to the fullness of Christ alone, but as we are filled with the Spirit, we grow up into Jesus, truly becoming his Spirit-filled body. Usually this involves both crisis and process and is facilitated by small-group community.
This is hugely practical. We can help believers come to know Jesus Christ deeply through the infilling of the Spirit and through life together in Christian community — and thus through redemptive mission in the world in fulfillment of Jesus’ words, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
This is what John Wesley meant by “all inward and outward holiness” — loving God with heart, strength, soul, and mind, and our neighbors (near and far) as ourselves.
The meaning of entire sanctification can be reborn. The Bible shows the way and provides the language. In church history, a renewed experience of the Holy Spirit has often come through finding new but biblically authentic language that communicates well in the cultural context.
7. Emphasize the mission and kingdom of God, focusing on the gospel for the poor.
God calls the Free Methodist Church not to serve itself — not merely to grow, and not to cave in to consumerist culture. God calls us to his mission in the world — the mission of the Trinity: God the Father sending the Son into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring redemption and new creation. He calls and invites us into his mission.
It is not so much that the Free Methodist Church has a mission as that God’s mission has a church. Our part of that church is the people called Free Methodist. So “seeking first the kingdom of God and its justice” (Mt. 6:31) means fulfilling our part of God’s mission.
The kingdom of God is the big picture. It is God’s sure goal (his will done on earth as in heaven) and his master plan: all things in heaven and earth reconciled and healed through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20). And this is being accomplished in significant measure “through the church” (Eph. 3:10). As we are faithful to God, we know where we are headed: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9). The Messiah “will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth” (Isa. 42:2).
The Bible says a key sign of God’s kingdom and effective mission is that good news is brought to the poor. This was B.T. Roberts’ key insight. It is the charisma of Free Methodism and thus key to Free Methodist renewal today.
In 2004 Free Methodist World Missions published a significant 63-page document, A Theology of Mission for Free Methodist World Missions, edited by Dan Sheffield. This excellent resource dovetails nicely with the focus on mission I am suggesting here.
These seven steps can breathe new life into the Free Methodist Church over time. We know this because they are all biblical and practical: Building community in our FM schools, developing leaders through mentoring, refocusing the superintendent’s role, reinventing the class meeting, rehearsing our story, teaching holiness as the mind of Christ through the Spirit, and emphasizing mission in terms of the kingdom of God.
This is not the whole picture, of course. Much could be said on other issues: Sacraments, worship and liturgy, “traditional,” “contemporary,” and “blended” musical styles, economic and ecological justice, ways of evangelism, and particular doctrinal concerns. But given the phases of our history, these seven steps are decisive today.
The search for the Free Methodist soul over the past generation points us this way. Here is an answer to the important question: Why do we need the Free Methodist Church any longer? Shouldn’t we just merge into generic evangelicalism, or melt into mainline Methodism?
Not if we know God’s grace and understand our own story. Our identity as Free Methodists is uniquely grounded in our history. What God said to Israel has its parallel with Free Methodism, as for all who have genuinely heard and responded to God’s grace: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isa. 43:1).
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