Early Methodism was organized by Wesley and Asbury on the basis of a series of questions. Wesley believed that the leader led by putting two questions to the church, and the church lived by responding to the leader’s questions.
Don’t you find it significant that the key questions with which Methodism’s first conferences opened were these three: 1. What to teach? 2. How to teach; and 3. What to do; that is how to regulate our doctrine, discipline and practice (Doctrine and Disciplines, 1798, Pg. 18). Notice the very first question – What to teach? Wesley was convinced that Christians must be intellectual equipped to follow Jesus. The demands of discipleship are too great not to have the whole person engaged by the claims of Christ including a person’s intellect. Wesley believed that preachers were primarily guardians of doctrine. They not only preached in such a way that won people to Christ, but to make sure they were winning people to Christ!
This past year I have had a number of experiences as bishop that have confirmed my sense that Wesley was right. The day we spent at ClearBranch pondering the Methodist Christian way of believing, including the follow-up sessions in numerous churches, the Conference-wide discussions on War and the War in Iraq, as well as the teaching experiences I have had in dozens of Alabama churches, have all convinced me that Methodist people want to be taught. They long to grow in their faith. They expect their church to offer meetings whereby they grow as disciples.
The Wesley movement was distinguished principally by its determination not only to win people for Christ but also to grow people into Christ. Notice that our Conference mission statement explicitly states our intention to “Grow More Disciples” for Jesus Christ. A primary way we grow in our faith is by continuing to be informed about our faith, to explore the richness of Christian believing and to learn more about Jesus and his way.
I am therefore impressed that any growing must also be a teaching congregation, where the chief teacher is the pastor. In congregations that are successful in reaching new disciples, the need for teaching and Christian formation is even greater. We not only want to reach people for Christ we want to teach people for Christ. Every pastor ought to be able to identify a setting, other than the pulpit, in which that pastor is teaching people for Christ.
Woe to any pastor or congregation that gets preoccupied with merely caring for the congregation, managing and maintaining the organizational machinery of the congregation and neglect the duty to teach the faith.
One of the most appealing aspects of the younger generation that we are trying to reach is that they appear to have a wonderfully “teachable spirit.” They realize that they have not been well informed about the faith, and they appear to be grateful to, and attracted to a church that takes the teaching office seriously.
What to teach – the substance of the Christian faith, its most important convictions – how to teach – how to let the Holy Spirit energize a new generation of disciples – note that this comes before any of our righteous work, our regulative responsibilities and our organizational forms.
Someone has said that the primary work of leadership is asking the right questions. It is up to the leader to ask good questions; and it up to the congregation to give appropriate answers. Thank you Wesley and Asbury for teaching us to ask the right questions!
William H. Willimon