Affiliates, Babes, Disciples and The More Excellent Way...


Scot Bontrager commented on "More? Why do we ask for More" with a reference to John Wesley's "not-uptight" sermon, "The More Excellent Way."

Here, a mature Wesley reflecting on years of experience leaves aside some of his "anxious rhetoric" that seemed to imply (at least to some) that unless you were a Methodist constantly "going on to perfection" you would fry in hell. No, he says. Not so. If you have received justifying grace, and live a harmless life, generally comply with the better customs of the world, and do good to others, you may find "mercy at the close of life."

But there's SO much more than this.

Here's how Wesley put it.

5. But at present I would take a different view of the text, and point out "a more excellent way" in another sense. It is the observation of an ancient writer, that there have been from the beginning two orders of Christians. The one lived an innocent life, conforming in all things, not sinful, to the customs and fashions of the world; doing many good works, abstaining from gross evils, and attending the ordinances of God. They endeavoured, in general, to have a conscience void of offence in their outward behaviour, but did not aim at any particular strictness, being in most things like their neighbours. The other sort of Christians not only abstained from all appearance of evil, were zealous of good works in every kind, and attended all the ordinances of God, but likewise used all diligence to attain the whole mind that was in Christ, and laboured to walk, in every point, as their beloved Master. In order to this they walked in a constant course of universal self-denial, trampling on every pleasure which they were not divinely conscious prepared them for taking pleasure in God. They took up their cross daily. They strove, they agonized without intermission, to enter in at the strait gate. This one thing they did, they spared no pains to arrive at the summit of Christian holiness; "leaving the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, to go on to perfection;" to "know all that love of God which passeth knowledge, and to be filled with all the fulness of God."

6. From long experience and observation I am inclined to think, that whoever finds redemption in the blood of Jesus, whoever is justified, has then the choice of walking in the higher or the lower path. I believe the Holy Spirit at that time sets before him "the more excellent way," and incites him to walk therein, to choose the narrowest path in the narrow way, to aspire after the heights and depths of holiness, -- after the entire image of God. But if he does not accept this offer, he insensibly declines into the lower order of Christians. He still goes on in what may be called a good way, serving God in his degree, and finds mercy in the close of life, through the blood of the covenant.

7. I would be far from quenching the smoking flax, -- from discouraging those that serve God in a low degree. But I could not wish them to stop here: I would encourage them to come up higher, without thundering hell and damnation in their ears, without condemning the way wherein they were, telling them it is the way that leads to destruction, I will endeavour to point out to them what is in every respect "a more excellent way." (emphasis added)

As I continue to reflect on the implications of the Pew Report on Religion among Millennials in the US, our mission as United Methodists to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," and what it means to be missional as opposed to attractional, incarnational as opposed to extractional, here are some further observations.

1. The Pew Report identifies the rate of affiliates. These are people who say they identify themselves with a particular religious group and participate in it in some way.

2. My response to Scot's comment on the previous post was to describe the "first order" or "ordinary Christians" as "babes in Christ" (to use Paul's language). Affiliates in the Pew Report might generally equate to "babes in Christ."

3. Maybe-- but we have no way of testing this-- the 37% of Millennials and GenX AFFILIATES (31% of Boomers) who say they are "strong members of their faith" would correlate more closely to those at least attempting the "more excellent way." I actually tend to doubt quite seriously the figures are anywhere nearly that high. My guess is these folks are active in their congregations and have some sort of personal spiritual life. That doesn't necessarily mean they are actually doing all that Wesley describes. It's hard to say whether these people are in fact continuing to grow, or have simply developed some competency beyond the infant stage. The Pew Report doesn't offer the level of granularity to discern much more than that sort of guess.

4. As I read Wesley, what we now call "disciples" in our mission statement SHOULD equate to those who are diligently pursuing "the more excellent way." They are boldly and intentionally living out the baptismal covenant-- renouncing spiritual forces of wickeness, repenting of sin, resisting evil, filled with the power and freedom Christ gives, working with people of all ages, nations and races, serving Christ as Lord (and no other!), and being Christ's representatives in the world. Actually getting proficient at all of those things and always getting better after some proficiency is achieved-- THAT is the standard and measure of discipleship. THAT is the "more excellent way."

So, Pew says what it does. But it barely scratches the surface of the mission this denomination and the whole history of the church and its baptismal covenant say we're on. Pew identifies that our gestation/nursing rate has declined. It also identifies that the use of typical spiritual practices-- such as reading the scripture and prayer-- have significantly declined.

But what does that have to do with us?

Those of us who are deeply committed to real discipleship that actually involves equipping people to get better and better at living out the baptismal covenant-- rather than just say the words from time to time-- we must get on with doing that. AND we should do so without telling everyone else they're headed to eternal destruction if they don't!

We know a more excellent way-- and it is a way of diligent practice, practice, practice of the means of grace, a disciplined, accountable way of life that actively engages and joins in God's mission in the world. It is not an easy way. But if we desire to be more than babes in arms, and if we wish to see our churches (congregations and missional groups, both!) be more than "babies having babies having babies....," it is the way the Spirit sets before us.

We are called to more than a new birth, as good as new birth is.

We are called to a whole new life-- "to grow up in every way into Him who is the Head."

And to do that is "the more excellent way."

So go-- and be "more excellent" to each other!

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards