As a Methodist Bishop in Malaysia (1997-2004) I have several concerns about the future of our Methodist Church in Malaysia. We have spent more than one century since the formation of the Methodist Church in Malaysia to build our church. In this long period of time our Methodist members and leaders have made tremendous efforts and sacrifices to build up the Methodist Church in Malaysia. Without their sacrificial efforts and toils we would not have a church as it is now. It will not be one of the larger denominational churches. Up to now we have more than four hundred thousand members pastored by more than four hundred clergymen with more than four hundred congregations spreading over the whole country. Two thirds of our total membership are in East Malaysia. Pastors and lay worked together with one mind and one faith – to bring more souls to God and to trust Him wholeheartedly. They did not bother about the methods which they were to use as they engaged in God’s ministry. They were more concerned about the souls of the people. So they just did as they were commissioned by their master Jesus – “Go and preach the Gospel” and “Go and make disciples of all people”. It was with such commission and conviction of the pastors and lay members that the Methodist Church in our country was built up.
In the Methodist Church lay people look up to their pastors as their spiritual leaders with great respect. The pastors took up responsibility of a shepherd with good care of their sheep in the sheepfolds. Care and concern prevailed in the pastoral ministry. Pastoral care and home visits were major parts of the pastoral ministry. It was with such pastoral ministry of the pastor and the active participation of the lay in the local church that the Methodist Church in Malaysia became stronger as time went by.
But, when we take a serious look into the present situation of our church ministry, the present church is no longer the same. The church has become more complicated than ever before. We are not as faithful as our past leaders and church members. Neither are we committed to our calling.
When we are called to serve, we are more eager to carry out our individual plans and schemes than minister to our fellow-members’ needs and are insensitive to other people’s feelings. When we are called to serve, we tend to pay more attention to our positions and power rather than to our service. We are more interested to become leaders than to be the servants of God. No wonder when my term as bishop got shorter, many church members and some church leaders asked about my concerns for the Methodist Church. They ask because they are very concerned about the future of our Methodist Church in Malaysia. They are aware of the problems which are present in the local churches as well as in the Annual Conferences. They show their concerns because they love the Methodist Church. They want to see the Methodist Church go in the right direction so that the church will continue to grow according to her long history with her rich theology and traditions. They want to see every Methodist pastor preach our doctrine, inculcate experience, urge practice, and enforce discipline because we want to bring together the four aspects of our ministry: doctrine, experience, practice and discipline.
No Methodist would like to see Methodism be like a highly cultivated garden without a fence, exposed to the ravages of the wild boar of the forest. Instead, let every Methodist ground his or her faith in God’s Word and be a faithful Methodist.
A Faithful Methodist
A problem that I have encountered over and over again in my ministry as a Bishop is being a faithful Methodist. The problem related to that is teaching our people to be loyal to the Methodist Church. It is a problem because many of our people have become footloose. They are easily attracted to other churches whose claims are often at variance with our teaching. People shopping around in a “supermarket of churches” is causing great damage to the integrity of the Gospel we preach and worst still, giving in to a “market oriented” lifestyle of modern society.
Let me say that this problem – being a faithful Methodist, is the biggest challenge we will face during the 21st century. The letter of Paul to the congregation in Corinth is well-known to us. And the many passages where Paul deals with pastoral issues facing the congregations reveal to us the core problem.
The church in Corinth is split into factions. There is opposition to Paul himself, even though he founded the church. Rival leaders have grown up and attracted support. Some see themselves as spiritual elites. Instead of seeking to be faithful to the Apostolic teaching, the new leaders promote themselves as the sole authority on matters of faith.
The way Paul dealt with the issue of divisions within the church provides us with a fine principle of pastoral action.
Firstly, Paul affirmed diversity of worship that the Holy Spirit wants in different ways in the lives of individuals and congregations. But the Holy Spirit never works to divide and destroy the body of Christ which is the church. The Holy Spirit never works to criticize but seeks to enrich the traditional heritages.
Secondly, Paul teaches, just as the physical body does not consist of one part but many, so in the church, no one part should think itself more important than the other. Paul says that we are all baptized into one body which is Christ and we are made to drink of the one spirit, which is the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, in spite of all the diversity, God appoints in the church leaders to preserve the teaching of the faith and to maintain the unity among its members. In Paul’s eyes, there is such a thing as apostolic authority which through the exercise of loving oversight, should watch over threats to unity.
To be a faithful Methodist, John Wesley who is the founder of Methodism said, “Preach our doctrine, inculcate experience, urge practice, enforce discipline. If you preach doctrine only, the people will be antinomians; if you preach experience only, they will become enthusiasts; if you preach practice only, they will become Pharisees; if you preach all these and do not enforce discipline, Methodism will be like a highly cultivated garden without a fence, exposed to the ravages of the wild boar of the forest.”
I feel that this advice of John Wesley to the early Methodists is what we need to urgently pay attention to. John Wesley brings together four aspects of ministry: doctrine, experience, practice, and discipline, and points out how easily these aspects can be abused to cause divisions within the church. Let us not talk about reforming the Methodist Church but let us talk about how we are to bring these four aspects of ministry together. Let us spend more time to study the Methodist doctrine rather than to talk about the reformation of the Methodist Church. The Methodist Church in Malaysia needs preachers more than reformers. The church needs more servants of God than the heroes of men.
Our people are easily distracted because our churches are not articulating our doctrines enough; we encourage experience but fail to discern between positive and negative spiritual experiences; we allow practices but offer no parameters about Methodist tradition; and, on the question of discipline, we waver when it comes to putting our foot down on variant teachings that infiltrate our congregations.
In order to help our church members to be faithful Methodists, we should organize theological consultations, to clarify and emphasize our Meth-
odist doctrinal heritage and stan-dards. We should call to account those churches that use all kinds of means to entice our members to join their churches. Some of these churches are not even ecumenically connected and therefore often are a law to themselves. We should ward off intrusions from all kinds of sectarian groups. I strongly call all the Methodist pastors to be very careful when they invite speakers outside the Methodist circle. We have enough confusion within the church. So let us not cause further confusion to our church members.
A True Methodist
We should also at the congregational level provide theological training for our laity on our doctrinal standards as Methodists. In many places, our people are recent converts to Christianity, and if they do not receive the right teaching, they are definitely prone to wander to other “churches” when they are enticed. Furthermore, I must point out too that whoever serves as a Methodist pastor must be a true Methodist. He must be a faithful Methodist so that he is able to set a good example for his congregation learning to be faithful Methodists. If a pastor is not faithful to the Methodist Church, it will be better for him to leave the Methodist Church and serve in a place where he may find it more comfortable to himself as well as to his own teaching. To be a Malaysian we must act according to the Malaysian way. All regulations and traditional customs must be observed. Likewise to be a faithful Methodist, we too must observe our church laws. We must observe the four aspects of ministry – doctrine, experience, practice and discipline. So a faithful Methodist must act as a Methodist and think as a Methodist.
Paul, John Wesley and we ourselves continue to live in a situation where all kinds of doctrine compete to cause division in our churches. Paul insisted on unity under apostolic authority. John Wesley insisted on unity from those under his Methodist connection. We as leaders of the Methodist Church must do the same and insist that our people abide by the doctrine, practice and discipline which they pledge to uphold when they join the Methodist Church.
Let us continue to ponder over this big and serious problem. And let us see how we can play our part in helping our local churches in dealing with this problem.