2020 is a year that will live in the history books for many years to come. In the US alone many aspects of this tumultuous year will fill research journals for years, including epidemiology, race, politics, firefighting, hurricane forecasting, financial crises, education, and human isolation, to name just a few. Christian denominations will study many of these crises as well, but one subject of reflection will be unique to the church, namely, how ideas about Christian formation and discipleship altered in 2020.
To be sure, the end of discipleship will not change after 2020. For Methodists, the end of our discipleship is holiness of heart and life, as John Wesley said (The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, 6:61). For Protestants in general, perhaps the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Confession sums up the end of discipleship well, namely, to glorify God and enjoy God forever. The question ever since the resurrection is: How do we do this? How exactly do we nurture a holy heart? What does it mean to have a holy mind? How do we glorify God and grow in our joy of God? What are the best ways, or indeed, is there a best way to follow Jesus and be his disciple? I prefer the idea that there is no single “best” way to be a disciple, but rather that there is a myriad of good ways. The history of Protestantism demonstrates that Christians have not agreed to a single “best” way for centuries, and indeed the numerous denominational divisions document a plurality of understandings of the best ways to follow Jesus.
Nevertheless, over the course of the past 2000 years, a number of practices of discipleship have become normative, even as different denominations and movements emphasize individual practices to various degrees. These practices include, but are not limited to worship, prayer, service to the poor and downtrodden, partaking in baptism and communion, reading and studying the Bible, listening to the Word of God preached, sharing one’s Christian testimony, Christian marriage, confirmation, fasting, Bible study, and evangelism. The collection of these practices together are often described as the “means of grace.” For United Methodists, means of grace “are ways God works invisibly in disciples, hastening, strengthening; and confirming faith so that God’s grace pervades in and through disciples.” This series of articles in Catalyst is not, however, just about a Wesleyan understanding of the means of grace. Rather I want to have a discussion about how the Coronavirus-19 pandemic may drive Wesleyans to rethink some of their core practices that encourage Christian discipleship. Specifically, I wonder if the pandemic will encourage us to rethink or reclaim historically Wesleyan practices that we’ve downplayed or which have become stale in recent years.
Over the course of the next four issues of Catalyst, I will examine four specific practices early Methodists understood as critical to discipleship. These are family worship, field preaching, sharing one’s testimony, and preaching/Bible study.
Family worship is an umbrella term early Methodists use to describe the central place of the family in discipleship. Virtually all Methodists were, first, part of their local community Church of England parish. As Methodism began to take root in some areas of England it became more and more clear that families needed more than just a Methodist society and class meetings as a compliment to parish ministry. The result was a model that emphasized the importance of family in Christian formation.
Field preaching is also a term that encompassed many practices, including preaching in fields, town squares, school courtyards, people’s homes, and at the edge of mines. Basically, it was any public preaching outside the confines of a Church of England pulpit. For many Methodists, their first conscience thoughts of discipleship took place far from a Christian church or small group.
While sharing one’s testimony is a lost art in most of United Methodism in Western countries, the practice was central to early Methodists. The first Methodists rarely met without one or more people sharing their recent or most important experiences of God. This sharing took place in society and class meetings, along with band meetings, field preaching, and one-on-one conversations. Faith sharing became a central practice of discipleship for Methodists.
Finally, Bible study and preaching, as in virtually every other Christian movement, played a vital role in Methodist discipleship.
In the coming months, I will explore how COVID-19 may cause us to shift our understanding and practices of discipleship in these four areas. Each will remain vital to expressions of the Wesleyan tradition, but each will, I believe, look different than it has in the past. If you have any thoughts in the coming months I hope you will reach out to me (jjackson[at]cst.edu). I look forward to our conversations.