“A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness. It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be” (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast).
The United Methodist Church has a rule of life. John Wesley gave it to the Methodists in 1743. You will find it in The Book of Discipline-2016 beginning on page 77: “The General Rules of the Methodist Church.” The purpose of our rule of life is to guide the church in its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (¶ 120, The Book of Discipline—2016). It describes, in practical terms, how Christians put their faith to work in obedience to Jesus’ teachings, summarized by him in the Great Commandments:
‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Wesley believed the practices named in the General Rules are means of grace. They are how faith works through love (Galatians 5:6); loving God through practicing works of piety and loving our neighbors by practicing works of mercy. When habitually practiced they form habits that produce faith, hope, and love, that in turn form the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23a) in individuals and congregations.
The General Rule of Discipleship (BOD ¶ 1117.2a) is a contemporary summary of the General Rules:
To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through
acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In this series of blog posts I encourage congregations to adopt it as their rule of life. The General Rule of Discipleship describes the habits Christians promise to practice as they live the Baptismal Covenant and membership vows (see The United Methodist Hymnal, pp. 33-39).
This post defines acts of worship and devotion and gives suggestions for how congregations can encourage and support members in forming new habits.
Acts of worship and devotion are what we do to follow Jesus’ first commandment “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” John Wesley called them “works of piety.” Acts of worship and devotion are practices that open our heart to grace. When our hearts are open to grace the Holy Spirit is free to work in us, removing the remnants and repairing the damage of sin.
Acts of worship are social works of piety. We practice them in the assembly of the congregation on Sunday, and other times, when the church gathers to worship. John Wesley named three acts of worship in the third General Rule:
- the public worship of God,
- the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded, and
- the supper of the Lord.
The public worship of God is showing up and participating with the assembly of the congregation in the liturgy of service to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The ministry of the Word is listening to the reading, teaching, and preaching of the Scriptures.
The supper of the Lord is Eucharist, and holy communion. It includes preparing to come to Christ’s table by confessing our sins, the assurance of forgiveness, the Great Thanksgiving, and sharing the cup and broken bread. Christ blesses and sends us into the world to serve as his representatives in the world.
Acts of devotion are works of piety we practice alone, in private. John Wesley named three acts of devotion in the third General Rule:
- family and private prayer,
- searching the Scriptures, and
- fasting or abstinence.
These three practices are helps for participating in and nurturing our personal relationship with God.
Prayer is daily time in God’s presence. It is a conversation with the One who made us and who knows us better than we know ourselves. Like a conversation with a friend or family member, it includes talking and listening with God.
Searching the Scriptures is reading, studying, praying, and meditating with God’s Word in the Bible.
Fasting (or abstinence) is one of the most powerful, and neglected, means of grace. It reminds us that we are creatures who are not self-sufficient. We are need the good gifts God gives in food and drink to live. Fasting is also a way to imitate Christ who “emptied himself of all but love” (see Philippians 2:6-8, and stanza 3 of “And Can It Be that I Should Gain” by Charles Wesley). Fasting involves the whole body. It leads to increased self-knowledge and helps us get closer to Christ in prayer.
Congregations are faithful to their baptismal promises when they expect, teach, and equip members to habitually practice acts of worship and devotion (see rubric 8 in “Baptismal Covenant I & II). These practices must be intentionally taught and modeled for new members, youth, and children. Include teaching about worship and devotion in new member and confirmation classes. Here are some suggestions for congregations:
Acts of Worship:
- Offer an ongoing Sunday School class that teaches the history, meaning, and practice of the Service of Word and Table I and the Baptismal Covenant I as they are found in The United Methodist Hymnal and The United Methodist Book of Worship. Such an ongoing class allows people to join in as they are able. But they know they can return to it as needed. Teaching and interpreting the meaning and purpose of the church’s liturgy communicates that worship is essential to the church’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
- Encourage each household to purchase and keep a copy of The United Methodist Hymnal in their home, along with a Bible. Teach families how to use the Hymnal’s resources at home in household worship.
- Make the Lord’s Supper available every week and encourage the congregation to receive the sacrament as often as possible. If you have more than one Sunday service, include the sacrament in at least one of them every week, preferably the principle worship service. Offer a simple 30-minute service of prayer and Eucharist on Wednesday evenings. If your congregation offers a mid-week supper, then provide the service of prayer and Sacrament before the meal.
Acts of Devotion:
- Encourage daily Scripture reading by members. Provide a daily lectionary for the week in the worship bulletin, church newsletter, and web site. Daily lessons are available online here. A Disciple’s Journal is also a good resource for daily Scripture lessons. Make copies of A Disciple’s Journal available for members to purchase and use at home.
- Offer a class to teach members how to use the devotional resources contained in The United Methodist Hymnal. Hymns are a powerful resource for prayer and reflection. The “Orders of Daily Praise and Prayer” beginning on page 876 of TUMH are a helpful guide for daily prayer for use by individuals, families, and small groups.
- Teach and encourage the practice of weekly fasting (or abstinence).
John Wesley defined disciples of Jesus Christ to be “a people who profess to pursue holiness of heart and life.” The General Rule of Discipleship summarizes the habits that form people into disciples of Jesus Christ who are equipped to participate in God’s mission in the world. Adopting the General Rule of Discipleship as your congregation’s rule of life will help with the congregation’s mission to form a people who “have the mind of Christ and walk just as he walked” (see Philippians 2:5 & 1 John 2:6).