Whatever the Holy Spirit does next among the people who are Methodists will be sacramental. There are many ways of being Methodist, as we’ve talked about before, but to be true to our roots in the Anglicanism of the Wesleys, the next iteration of Methodism will be sacramental. Which is to say, it will be a form of discipleship embraced at baptism, empowered by the eucharist, and (by extension) committed to classic Christian doctrine about Jesus.
Baptism in the Next Methodism
Baptism is the sacrament by which people are incorporated into the death and resurrection of Jesus and thus begin a lifetime of discipleship oriented towards holiness. In baptism, we “put on Christ,” to use Paul’s language, and we are joined to a communion of saints who know that their identity is chiefly bound up in the Word of God incarnate – so much so that the divisions of the old order are passing away and there is no longer “slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male and female.” (Gal. 3:28) Methodists in the way of the Wesleys baptize by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. This is NOT because we are, at our best, indifferent to worship practices but because we know that it is God’s grace, not the amount of water, that is efficacious.
Methodists baptize infants.
I’m going to say that again: Methodists baptize infants.
This is not a “in non-essentials, charity” sort of question. If we truly claim the via salutis of Papa John, then the prevenient grace (he called it “preventing” grace) we champion has no clearer enactment than infant baptism (or, as the professionals call it, pedobaptism). My evangelical sisters and brothers will often balk at this suggestion, but for those of us (like the author) from a baptist or free church background, this is often a significant practice demarcating the faith we left behind from faith we have embraced. To put it more frankly: Methodists who don’t want to baptize infants should probably be Free Will Baptists (Arminians who practice believer’s baptism), lest they end up rebaptizing those children whom God has already claimed.
Infant baptism is a what the universal church held until the Reformation, and a practice that we would do well to not only tolerate but to embrace as a gift from God.
Eucharist in the Next Methodism
The next Methodism will be a eucharistic fellowship. De jure, the UMC at present encourages regular communion. On the ground, the situation varies greatly place to place. My home church once went from a senior pastor who had monthly communion to a senior pastor who had communion only two to three times per year. That is to say, there is little accountability to our eucharistic theology or practice. Emmaus communities, for all the good that they do, are often bastions of bad sacramental practice (such as Deacons presiding at the table, pre-consecrated elements, etc.). Despite the best efforts of the Council of Bishops, a monstrosity known as “online communion” remains an open question in some quarters of the church.
On paper, our eucharistic theology and liturgy is beautiful. Practice is a whole different ballgame.
The eucharist in the next Methodism will be regular and celebratory. Gone should be the days of communion as a rote, dull ritual. As Ken Loyer encourages in his wonderful little book on the sacrament, the eucharist is a regular practice which encourages our sanctification as individuals and our growth (both deep and wide) as the church. It deserves to be recovered as a joyous feast – not something flippant, mind you – but an occasion both sacred and inviting.
The Wesleyan Revival was both evangelical AND sacramental. John Wesley, we are told, received the eucharist on average nearly twice a week for his whole life, at a time when many Anglicans only received once a year. There would have been no Methodism without the bread and cup, and there will be no next Methodism without the unique grace of the Lord’s Table.
Jesus in the Next Methodism
Everything I’ve written above is and will be moot unless the next Methodism takes seriously the person and work of Christ.
The sacraments claim to join us uniquely to our savior: in baptism, to his death and resurrection, washed in the blood, and brought through the Jordan to the Promised Land; in the eucharist, to the Last Supper, to the cup of salvation in the upper room, to his very body and blood.
In other words, the sacraments mean nothing unless we believe, teach, and proclaim that Jesus is who the church has always said Jesus is: human and divine, savior, friend, Son of God and Son of Man, prophet, priest, and king.
If Jesus is only another prophet, or just one of many equal ways into God-consciousness, or a great moral teacher, or a failed apocalyptic messiah whose bones reside today in the soil of Jerusalem, then I have bad news: the sacraments are nothing but barren rituals with no grace to offer.
Stephen, Evan, and I don’t agree on everything, but if you’ve read us at all you probably realize we are all deeply sacramental. So are many of our outstanding readers and listeners.
But the sacraments are not an end in themselves. Their telos (goal, end) is Christ. They are means of conveying grace. As I heard from a baptist(!) professor in seminary, “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it!” Aesthetics are important in worship, but baptism and communion are only pomp and circumstance unless Christ is indeed risen and the Holy Spirit acts through them to sanctify us.
I am hopeful, along with thoughtful leaders like David Watson, about what the next Methodism has to offer. I agree with Kevin Watson (no relation) that there are changes coming to global Methodism, especially in the UMC. As my friend Scott put it, what is at stake is not mere institutional survival, but a reform movement “that is in need of reform.” The next Methodism will be Spirit-filled, connectional, and will take ordination (and its promises) seriously.
To their important voices, I would give this humble offering: the next Methodism, to be true to its heritage, will be sacramental in practice and committed to the crucified and resurrected Jesus in doctrine. The next Methodism cannot be allergic, as many conservatives tend to be, to baptizing infants; nor can it be, as many progressives tend to be, allergic to the crucifixion, resurrection, and divinity of Jesus. (The next Methodism will be allergic to this neo-sacrament, the so-called “centrist” position, because the next Methodism will hold actual convictions and possess the courage to share them in public.)
The sacraments and the person and work of Christ are a package deal. In the present United Methodist Church, these are all quite negotiable, thanks to the inattention of bishops and the malformation wrought by seminaries. In the next Methodism, it will not be so.
Thanks be to God.