Monday, June 28, 2010

A Thesis for Discussion and Debate...


On arising the morning, the thesis below had crystallized in my mind.

I do not claim this to be complete, accurate, fair or anything of the like.

I do think it is provocative, and so maybe fruitful for conversation that might lead to better action and better understanding.

So here is the thesis:

Early Methodism and its structures were about saving souls and making them holy. 

Current United Methodism and its structures are about saving congregations and making them larger.

Have at it!

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards


Br. Scot said...

Billy Abraham and I had a great discussion the other day on a similar topic. I was arguing that Methodists--as conceived by Wesley--needed Anglicanism as, say, the Jesuits need Catholicism. In the shift from a holiness movement within an established Church to a denomination in its own right in America, Methodism was forced to modify its identity. Coupled with the blindingly fast westward expansion, the shift went from promoting the more excellent way within a culture that was on the "almost Christian" way to an evangelical movement struggling to get people onto the "almost Christian" way.

Billy thinks that in the long 19th century that the denomination figured out how to retain its "more excellent" identity. I'm not so sure given the interior history of the denomination that this is true.

Framed slightly differently. Wesley's original requirement for joining a Methodist society was a desire to flee from the wrath to come (a very low standard) but to stay in the society one needed to show constant growth in Holiness. The later (American) evangelical focus on growing the denomination shifted to primarily (or exclusively) getting people in and forgetting about growing in holiness.

When the Methodist Episcopal Church was /the/ dominant (some would say default) denomination in the US, I think we went from being the Methodists to being the Anglicans. Groups like the Nazarenes saw this clearly. Unfortunately the Nazarenes forgot Wesley's logic and quickly broke off into a new denomination instead of forming a holiness movement within the MEC.

If Bishop Scott Jones' vision comes true and the UMC becomes a (or the) dominant protestant denomination in the world, will we have completely sacrificed Wesley's vision and method—his focus on "the more excellent way"? Can a denomination focused on numbers and growth really hold people accountable for growth in holiness?

Stephen said...

To follow up Br. Scot's comment with a good deal of Dr. Abraham...

I would argue that even some holiness movements (Pentecostals/AOGs) and some not so mainline mainline denominations (Southern Baptists) have followed our pattern. Once the established church is established more effort goes into upkeep rather than renewal.

A good example: my wife worked in the membership department of a non-profit. The CEO wanted her to spend more time "hanging" on the the dues paying members they had rather than seeking new membership.

And in the Methodist sense (from the recent Annual Conference I was at) we seem to be more concerned about finance/property/parachurch organizations (all fine things) rather than conversion and spiritual growth.

ed said...

After attending my annual conference session I can only agree with your statement. Almost (if not all)all the discussions were about maintaining the current institution (e.g. worry about property/liability insurance issues, health insurance, etc) and how to "attract" people to our institutions. I heard very little talk about actually making new disciples and growing those in congregations in their relationship with Christ. Bishop Schnase spoke of this but very few others did. I think Father John would be very disappointed.

Alex Tracy said...

I hate to say that I think this is spot on. I know that the church I serve has no expectations of further growth for those who join, at least not that are explicit. Sunday School? Bible studies? Small groups? All entirely optional. As a denomination, we have become so lax that it is virtually impossible for a layperson to screw up so badly that they are asked to leave, much less have ecclesial charges brought against them. They are, after all, a valuable butt in the pew when that offering plate comes 'round. It's a far cry from Wesley, who would have you tossed out of the society not only for doing something inherently wrong, but simply for failing to strive after sanctification.

journeyman37 said...


I'd love to be in a room where Scott Kisker and Billy Abraham go at it on the very point you raise.

Early Methodism cared about numbers too-- but not numbers in congregations. They cared about numbers in their midst who were advancing in holiness of heart and life. And they cared about whether more people in more places were getting the opportunity to do the same.

So the problem isn't numbers or measurement, per se-- but WHAT you try to measure.

And related, in this case, is whether the institution you're measuring (congregation) is actually in the best place to generate the outcomes you say in your mission statement you're trying to generate-- disciples of Jesus Christ (who can join God's mission of) transforming the world.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Br. Scot said...

Assuming that the diagnosis we are circling around is correct, so what then? Is Professor Abraham's view of 19th century Methodism a viable possibility for an improvement over our current condition?

Br. Taylor and I have talked briefly about renewal and holiness organizations within the UMC such as the Order of St. Luke, Stephens Ministry, Walk to Emmaus, Disciple Bible Study, Order of St. Julian of Norwich, New Day (and all of Elaine Heath's countless projects). Do any of these groups compare to Wesley's project? To what degree and in what ways?

Ted Campbell's new group ("ROACH" the remedial organization for the advancement of Christian Holiness) is still in the early days.

The local church were I'm a member (Frisco, TX FUMC) has recently started transitioning to a "medium expectation" church--meaning we won't let you join the first time we see you.

I'm hopeful that some of these will take root. Does anyone have good news to report or any wisdom to share on what does or does not work? My friend Kevin Watson is working on some interesting ideas surrounding the class/band system of Wesley's days. But, I don't know that he has got a single band together.

Br. Scot said...

Br. Taylor:

Right, Wesley was deeply concerned with numbers. But, at the same time, he wasn't afraid to send people back to penitential bands and withhold communion tickets. The way the system works now, it would be a career limiting decision to ask those just keeping the pews held down to get serious or maybe they need to find another place to work out their salvation.

How do stay a place where all those afraid of the wrath to come see our doors as wide open, and yet insist, as a condition of ongoing membership, what you keep growing in holiness? The only requirement for showing up is showing up... but the requirements for staying are much higher.

I can't get my mind around it.

ed said...

I know exactly what Alex is saying. In all the churches I've served there has been zero expectation for growth of the people in the pews and when I've attempted to encourage growth with small groups, accountable covenant groups, even in-depth Bible study, I've been met with blank stares or even some opposition.

journeyman37 said...

@ed and @alex:

I'll be talking a bit about the lack of interest in growth in congregations on the other blog I host-- United Methodist Worship tomorrow.


Taylor Burton-Edwards

journeyman37 said...


Short answer... the only admission to BEGIN to attend a trial class meeting was a sincere desire to flee the wrath to come and to be saved from sin. But it still took you six months of doing that, plus the support of your trial class leader, plus the vote of the other society members, actually to get you admitted to the Methodist societies. Well, that was how it was supposed to go, at least.

So the societies were easy to start in, but not easy actually to get into or stay in.

And precisely because they were societies, and NOT congregations, that was a doable proposition.

Congregations who tried to maintain such high standards either were sectarian (and fairly small) or quit maintaining those standards after a time-- and I would argue sort of by the force of the centuries of historical inertia that identified congregations as fairly open, public institutions.

So I think the reality is that congregations, as a format of Christian community, turn out to be fairly incompatible with making disciples well-- precisely because they are not very good at sustaining the necessary levels of accountability and support while also being, in essence, public and open to all or nearly all, even in membership.

john said...

William Lawrence's Methodism in Recovery is an argument that supports that statement.

In many respects we have compromised our mission to make disciples. We've been happy to have fans, but, as we have seen, fans come and go.

Matt Kelley said...

Early Methodism had an organization to which it was attached: the Church of England. Even in its early days in America, the frontier didn't have room for organizations or institutions just yet. So to compare Early Methodism to today apples to apples simply isn't fair. There's a whole lot that's messed up about the UMC, and a lot we can learn from our earliest days, but the idea (which I know you, Taylor, aren't suggesting, but plenty of others are) that we can somehow recreate the good 'ol days is quite naive.

ed said...

I realize we cannot "re-create" the past and that there were certain aspects of early Methodism that were specific to the time and context. That goes without saying. However I do believe there are some things from the days of early Methodism we can adapt and use to enable us to make disciples. As you have said, Taylor, the congregation is not designed to make disciples, so we need to find ways to accomplish that. And some of those ways can come from remembering our past and possible re-purposing some elem,ents John Wesley taught/used.

Katie Z. said...

I do think that one answer is making room for pockets of disciples that are committed to growing in holiness in the congregation. I am more convinced than ever that TBE's idea of the congregation being the new anglican church is correctly. the institution remains open to all who want to come... but we also help those who want to go deeper do so. Even if it's five people to start with - we help them go deeper and then as they grow, their faith will start to catch fire. The entire congregation may not be at all concerned about going onward to perfection... and maybe that's okay... we can only do what we can in the place we have with the resources we have and spending all of our energy trying to get the "blank stares" to go to a bible study means that we aren't providing the encouragement that those who do want more need.