The United Methodist Church (UMC), which began in 1968 upon a formal merging of the largest existing groups of U.S. Methodist churches, is currently the third largest Christian denomination in the country. As such, its reach and influence is wide within our society. But many outside the UMC do not know what exactly Methodists believe. In answer to these questions, we have recently asked Senior Pastor David Nichols, of the UMC with a congregation in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to share some basic and intriguing information and insight:
What does the word “Methodist” mean? Where did it come from? Does it have to do with some kind of methodology of your worship or doctrine? The word “Methodist” was originally used as a term of derision for the first group that met at Oxford. Charles and John Wesley and others met and prayed and studied the Bible and then preached in the streets and visited the prisons. The Wesleys called themselves the Holy Club, others laughed and called them Methodists because of their strict methods and discipline. We do have rituals and disciplines to which we adhere but not nearly as rigidly as that first group.
Who began the Methodist church in the United States, and when? John Wesley was himself happy being Anglican, and died so. But, as resistance to his movement of Methodist renewal grew, Wesley sent missionaries, Lay preachers, to the American colonies. Methodism thrived with circuit riding preachers, robust evangelism, and strong hymn singing. The Methodist Church came into being on Christmas Eve, 1784, when the leaders of the Methodist movement in American met in Baltimore, MD. The two leaders of the movement were sent by Wesley: Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury. These two were to be superintendents of the movement. That night the group consecrated them Bishops.
On the spectrum of Christianity, where does the UMC fall? Is it closer to Roman Catholicism or the Southern Baptist Convention? The United Methodist Church prides itself as practicing the middle way. We believe in evangelism on the one hand but we practice infant baptism and have a high view of Holy Communion. We preach and we value the sacraments.
What are the basic tenets of belief in the UMC? What are the core principles the might make it different from other Protestants? The core principals of Methodism are the core beliefs of mainline Protestantism. We are the middle ground, between Catholicism and the free church. Open communion is a practice that distinguishes us, meaning that all who hear the invitation are invited to come.
Do Methodists partake in “street evangelism”? What kind of evangelistic efforts does your congregation perform and support in the community? No. We have come far from our roots. Evangelism is mostly hospitality and openness to others in love and service.
As Methodists grew out of the Anglican Church, do you envision that there will be a day in the next 50 years where the two groups will reunite and reintegrate in full? No. In fact, the way the world is going, I think we will be divided up in Protestantism, much like the church in Canada. There will be a liberal denomination and a conservative denomination.
(For more information on Pastor Nichols, please visit his “Methodist Blog” at http://denichols.blogspot.com/. Nichols was a contributing writer in the book “Top Ten Most Influential Christians- since the Apostles”. This article is part of a series on a better understanding of some of the various denominations within the USA.)