First, a book recommendation. Scott Kisker's Mainline or Methodist from Discipleship Resources, 2008. Here's the cover. You can get this book from Upper Room Bookstore here or at your favorite online vendor.
I'm not recommending this book because GBOD publishes it through one of our publishing brands. I'm recommending it because it dares to place "mainstream" Methodism in North America into a different historical meta-narrative than the "official" denominational views of that history normally have or even maybe currently do. That is, it judges Methodism by its faithfulness to its original missional principles-- its doctrine, discipline and spirit-- rather than by its own ongoing narratives of institutional success.
How we view present reality depends heavily on the meta-narrative in which we place the "facts" of our current existence. If an institution thinks the facts of its current existence are "the norm" or are at least on the path of the norm we want to move toward, then the way it tells its official story-- and spreads that story-- will likely be designed to reinforce something along the lines of "here's how we got to be as great as we are, and here's how we'll get even greater from here." This sometimes gets framed in fancy Latin theological terms as "theologia gloriae"-- a theology of glory. If an institution thinks that some other period of its history was the "golden age," it will tell its official story-- and often seek to develop or redevelop its programming-- both to acknowledge the wrongs done, the fall as it were, and to achieve that norm again in the current circumstances. This sometimes gets called a "restorationist narrative."
Probably all institutions or historians connected to them in some way do one or the other or some combination of the above in telling their story. I think you could make the argument that Scott's book (and in a similar way, The Forgotten Ways, actually), participates in the second-- that of choosing a different period as "norm" and determining that it provides the guidance for the way forward. And frankly, I think that since the facts of declining membership in UM churches are undeniable, both "official" and "non-official" histories of our movement and recommendations for ways forward right now are deeply invested in reclaiming a golden age in some way.
I'm not critiquing the practice of establishing a "justifying meta-narrative."
There are some folks who do-- saying we can't say there has ever been a golden age nor will there be, and we should just focus on dong the best we can in the present. There is some truth in the notion that the golden age is an illusion. No one ever got things entirely right ever. Period. And the flows of what happened next can sometimes make it literally impossible to recover previous states exactly or in some cases in any meaningful way as they were then. At the same time, I think that what one can say is that there are plenty of examples of community practices that were far more effective or faithful than current ones in the past, and that at least for some of these, there really is no significant cultural or historical impossibility of recovering them, even though they will inevitably be built of different materials in our changed circumstances. So I tend to think that the strategy of rejecting meta-narratives, and in particular meta-narratives of a golden age, tends to cut off both the future and the past, as well as to cut off hope, and is less likely to be a compelling or fruitful way forward.
So, what I'm asking is which of the current "golden age" meta-narratives is more helpful for understanding ourselves in Methodism as a missional people.
I think Scott's book, like The Forgotten Ways and many others that latch onto periods of intense disciple formation and missional deployment, has set out a compelling historical and even in some ways moral argument that for Methodism, the more helpful golden age meta-narrative is not that of the mainline church systems it later became and now is. It is rather in the discipline, doctrine and spirit-- the deep coaching and mutual encouragement and admonition that early Methodists (and to a significant degree, African-American Methodists for a much longer period of time) could give to each other and did through the class meetings and societies which were not mainline, and not "inside" the "established" congregations. Hirsch would call these class meetings-- when they were functioning as they were supposed to-- examples of "communitas."
What Mainline or Methodist lays out, then, is actually two meta-narratives-- the more missional one of early Methodism, and the later (but rather quickly forming) "mainline" narrative that has more or less become the official justifying narrative among us. And he argues, I think correctly, that the earlier one is more compatible with making many more disciples of Jesus Christ who live his way than the latter.
Scott's book looks at these two metanarratives from the perspective of what happened to evangelism along the way. (Scott was the evangelism prof at Wesley for several years-- he's now in the church history department). But the analysis can be extended to gain an appreciation for what happened to an even broader range of the practices of missional living-- living the way of Jesus-- among Methodists as well. That, it seems to me, is one of the significant tasks we have as we seek to be missional and Methodist ourselves-- both in terms of how we frame our own stories as Methodist and missional Christians (I don't think adding Methodist hurts-- but rather describes a set of relationships that we can work from and with as we seek to live this out), and in terms of how we tell those stories to others in ways that may help (or in some cases, perhaps, challenge!) them to consider which kind of meta-narrative they're operating from.
What gets measured as indications of "success" is a good way to tell which meta-narrative, or combination of meta-narratives, is being promoted by whom.
Do we measure membership, or signs of growth in grace and holiness? Do we measure worship attendance, or community impact? Do we look for more or larger Sunday School classes, or do we look for signs that people are engaged in God's mission everywhere in their lives?
Which meta-narratives are you living from as a Methodist follower of Jesus? Which ones are you helping others embrace?
Peace in Christ,