Unity, Holiness, and the UMC Call to Action

“Unity and holiness are the two things I want among Methodists,” wrote John Wesley in February 1766. At a time when the Methodist movement was rapidly expanding, Wesley’s chief desire and purpose was not greater growth, more money to accomplish the work, more influence in the world, or any of the many other strivings that can so easily distract. Unity and holiness were the two things he wanted.

The emphasis on holiness continued for early American Methodists, as a letter written by the Methodist Bishops in 1824 reveals. Its strong admonitions make it worth quoting at length:

“If Methodists give up the doctrine of entire sanctification, or suffer it to become a dead letter, we are a fallen people… If the Methodists lose sight of this, they fall by their own weight. Their success in gaining numbers will be the cause of their dissolution. Holiness is the main cord that binds us together. Relax this and you loosen the whole system. This will appear more evident if we call to mind the original design of Methodism. It was to raise up and preserve a holy people. This was the principal object which Mr. Wesley […] had in view. To this all doctrines preached in Methodism tend. Whoever supposed, or who that is acquainted with the case can suppose, that it was designed in any of its parts to secure the applause or popularity of the world, or a numerical increase of worldly or impenitent men?”

Such strong statements should force the Church today to ask, Have unity and holiness continued to be our greatest goals? Or have we somewhere along the way supposed that Methodism was designed to secure applause, popularity, or a numerical increase of worldly or impenitent men?

The UMC’s Call to Action proposals are far from encouraging. The Call to Action conducted surveys to find out what its growing memberships (in N. America, only) are doing to keep congregations thriving. The survey identified four “key factors of vitality” that had to do with (1) the kind of programs churches have, (2) their involvement of people in leadership, (3) how inspirational their pastors are and how long their tenure has been, and (4) what styles of worship the churches have. In a recent USA Today article about the CTA, leaders talk about providing opportunities for worshipers to worship casually, with coffee and donuts. One pastor compares worship to “going to a mall,” where “some people like specialty shops [and] some like department stores.” The co-chair of the survey’s steering committee says, “[the survey] gives us great hope” because “there are clearly drivers that are absolutely understandable and actionable.” Nowhere does the article mention, or even allude to, unity, holiness, repentance, faith, or even Christ. It is hard to discern how the survey would look different if it were conducted by Kiwanis or Rotary.

Does this survey reflect who the Methodists have become? How often has our great hope been an understandable and actionable business strategy rather than Christ and Christ alone? How often have we depended on donuts and coffee rather than an honest call to repentance? How often have we banked on an inspirational preacher rather than a legitimate call to faith and holiness for God’s people? Or let people off the hook for their lack of holiness for fear of offending? Have we become so focused on offering the world traditional, contemporary, emergent, and eclectic worship services, that we have lost a focus on offering them Christ? And is it possible that these new focuses are the cause of the UMC’s recent decline, not the solution?

If we follow Wesley and the early Methodists in anything, I hope that we might follow them in seeking unity and holiness above all else. If we desire anything for the Church, if we work toward any goal, I hope that it will be these two things above all else. May holiness, that great grace given to us by God, be the main cord that binds us together.

5 thoughts on “Unity, Holiness, and the UMC Call to Action

  1. One of the things that has concerned me about Call to Action is its focus on programs. I’m concerned about what is a programmatic response to a deep spiritual need. We need to get back to the basics of holiness, truth, and love of Christ. Ultimately though my fear is that Call to Action could do harm to growth that is taking place globally. We should be learning from Africa, Asia, and the Global South.

    1. Great point about learning from other parts of the world, Shannon. It seems that the Call to Action looked for greatest points of “vitality” within the weakest part of the UMC (the US).

      Why, would you say, is the Christian movement thriving and growing in other parts of the world – even parts that are already heavily Christian – while we see so much decline in the US?

  2. That is the question Call to Action/Plan B should be asking. I think we know the answer – preaching the Gospel and holiness – and maybe we are fearful of it in the U.S.

  3. Christianity grows where there is a clear emphasis on the lordship of Christ, the love of God in saving humanity from sin (and you have to be clear that people are sinners), and a people who believe that Jesus is so important that they must share the Good News. There is, simply, no agreement in the UMC that Jesus is Lord; that humans are sinners and that Jesus died a substitutionary death for us; and there is very little–next to none, I would argue– conviction that we should tell anyone about what Jesus has done for me.

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