John Wesley modeled acts of piety and acts of mercy, and taught that both are essential to our life in Christ. The words piety and mercy sound curiously quaint today, perhaps even stirring negative responses. Piety brings to mind self-righteous, sanctimonious arrogance. And no one wants to be at the mercy of anyone else. Mercy connotes weakness, dependence, surrender.
In Wesley’s model, acts of piety had to do with the practices of prayer, worship, receiving the sacraments, fasting, and belonging to a society of Christians holding one another accountable for our growth in the knowledge and love of God. Through such practices, we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our own growth in grace. By these means we open ourselves to the spiritual life and stay connected to Christ and to one another. Acts of piety convert the heart, turn us daily toward God, and help us receive the life-restoring work of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. Acts of piety feed our relationship with God.
Acts of mercy are ministries of compassion, service, and justice that relieve suffering, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, and heal the sick. These we do in obedience to Christ. We serve others for the purposes of Christ. These are the personal and daily acts of service, kindness, and sacrifice that improve the conditions of life for our neighbors. In wider measure, acts of mercy include our social witness and advocacy, our work for justice and peace, and our support of systems that protect the vulnerable and relieve suffering.
Sometimes we act as if our living in Christ and leading the church requires us to emphasize piety to the exclusion of mercy or to choose ministries of mercy at the expense of congregational vitality. This presents an unhealthy and dangerous dichotomy. It forces us to ask ourselves, “Which kind of Christians are we?” Are we those who seek a deeper spirituality in the changed heart that comes through worship, sacrament, prayer, the Scriptures, and fellowship? Or those who pour ourselves out through ministries of service and justice, helping people to rebuild their lives, and offering hope to a hurting world?
Martyn Atkins, general secretary of the British Methodist Church, says, “Acts of piety and acts of mercy are like two wings of a bird; without either one, we cannot fly.” There is no simple dualism. We can’t evangelize hungry people without giving them food, and offering food alone never completes the task God gives us. Atkins goes on to say, “Following Christ involves praying hands and dirty fingernails.”*
The Call to Action focuses on increasing the number of vital congregations. Some view this as an abandonment of social witness and ministries of mercy. However, the Call to Action’s description of vital congregations includes not only a focus on the means by which people grow in Christ together, but also an emphasis on ministries that reach into the community and world to serve in Christ’s name. We cannot separate the two. These feed each other. Every faithful and fruitful congregation practices both acts of piety and acts of mercy.
Theoretically, all United Methodists know this. But place a mix of us in a convention center for conference, and watch how we feed the false dichotomy. Social justice advocates decry an emphasis on congregations, viewing such a priority as unfaithful and as deadening to our service to a hurting world. Focusing on congregations sounds self-serving, inward-focused, and based on values derived from a success-oriented culture. And those who emphasize starting and strengthening congregations answer that without vital faith communities to reach new people and deepen the spiritual life, there will be no foundation for social witness in the future. We can do better. We cannot allow our calling to serve the world to justify an unwillingness to focus on deepening the spiritual life and witness of our congregations. And we cannot allow our calling to build up the body of Christ to blind us to God’s demand for justice, peace, and healing.
Wesley had a profound interest in cultivating the spiritual life as well as feeding the hungry, serving the poor, and visiting the imprisoned. He wrote the sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” as well as The Primitive Physick , a book of medical remedies to improve physical health. He wrote prayers, prescribed sacraments, and published sermons to strengthen souls while also speaking against slavery to change society. He saw no contradiction between the care of souls and the care of bodies, and he would see no contradiction in The United Methodist Church starting and strengthening congregations while also seeking to eradicate killer diseases. Our conferences are at their best when they invigorate congregational worship, strengthen preaching, enhance youth ministries, and cultivate new faith communities while they also lead congregations to dig water wells, work with at-risk children, confront racism, and advocate for immigration reform. For us to focus on ridding the world of killer diseases does not distract congregations from their purpose; it resurrects their sense of purpose. For us to focus on starting new churches does not dull our ministries of justice; it provides them an invigorating spiritual grounding.
I hope we help one another avoid dualism and reclaim our Wesleyan roots. The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Both elements—making disciples and transforming the world—are essential. Following Christ involves both praying hands and dirty fingernails.
* Martyn Atkins presentation at the 2011 World Methodist Conference in South Africa.
How does a sustained focus on increasing the number of vital congregations affect ministries of service, mission, and justice? How does an outward-focused dedication to service, mission and justice shape congregational strength and purpose?
How does your congregation cultivate ministries of piety and mercy? Your conference?
For deeper exploration, read Matthew 25:31-46; Matthew 20:27-28; and Romans 14:7-8.
To delve deeper, review the chapter on “Risk-Taking Mission and Service” in Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase. For the role of such ministries (including advocacy and social witness) in personal discipleship, read “Loving and Serving Others” in Five Practices of Fruitful Living by Robert Schnase.