In 1786, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, looked back on the revival begun during his lifetime. He seemed to think that it was well enough established that it would not immediately vanish after his death. However, he was not content with the survival of a lifeless sect that hung around, but failed to renew souls in the image of their creator. He wrote in “Thoughts Upon Methodism”:Watson's inquiry is in four parts and it is not until part 4 that he offers his own answer.I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.This passage is one that haunts me. It is as if Wesley continues to challenge all who call themselves Methodists to continue to have the zeal to “spread Scriptural holiness” that the early Methodists had. I can’t read this quote without asking myself the obvious question: Is the United Methodist Church in America a dead sect, does it have the form or religion without the power? Or have we held fast to the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which we first set out?
Answering this question is sadly easy. The answer is clearly no. We have not maintained a Wesleyan discipline in the United Methodist Church in America. My feeling is that for most Methodists discipline means either: not much, or a book (as in The Book of Discipline). But for Wesley, the Methodist discipline was a commitment to a process that enabled Methodists to grow in holiness. It enabled them to experience transformation. Far to many Christians today are not being transformed. They are no different today than they were 12 years ago. (There are of course always exceptions to the rule, and thank the Lord there are still many people who have been deeply changed by their relationship with Jesus Christ.) However, wherever people are not being transformed and renewed in the image of God, it would seem that Methodism has the form, but not the power of godliness.What do you think? Read the whole series, in order, here, here, here and here.