missional Methodist spiritual practice(s)...


If you go back into the presentation I shared at emergingumc2, on slide 14, you'll see a sketch that lists the worship and spiritual practices early Methodists would have encountered and engaged in in the various forms of Christian community in which they would have most regularly gathered on a weekly basis (congregation, class meeting, society meeting). All of these forms of gathered community engaged scripture, prayed in some way, and engaged in some sort of practice of affirming their faith (testimony and preaching in the societies, conversation around the General Rules in the class meetings, the Creed and to some degree preaching in the congregation). The larger forms (societies and congregations) also would have regularly involved sung and spoken acts of praise to God. (It is possible the class meetings did as well, but the record isn't as clear on how regular that would be).

Perhaps the chief difference between the Methodist practices and the congregational ones would have been the degree of personal engagement and expression each expected from participants. While all would have said the creed in the congregation, for example, it is likely that would have sounded more loud (since everyone was saying it at once) than particularly "heartfelt" or "expressive" of the thoughts and feelings of each person present.

That is no critique of the congregational practice of a more "impersonal corporate" recitation of the creed. It's just a way of denoting the difference in the tenor of the spiritual practices between the two kinds of communities (societies and congregations). Congregations were there to be a public voice of the Christian faith. Societies were there to encourage each one present, individually and with the support of their class meetings, to practice "acts of piety" personally. Congregational spirituality was about passing on and sustaining an imprint of the Christian faith handed down through the ages. Society spirituality was about expressing and helping each person express what that faith meant in their lives in the here and now. Both have significant value for missional Christians, even if the latter seems to have a more immediate relevance to the form of life Methodists were expected to take on.

Those "additional" Methodist practices have deep parallels both to some of the patterns of practice we know of in pre-4th century Christianity and in what later "broke off" and developed as the monastic offices of prayer. If you take a look at those offices, or better, start praying them, you can begin to see how they still retain, across centuries of development, some elements of scripture, confession, prayer and praise that corresponded to a particular need of the community or its members to support and continue their work in mission throughout the day. So it's not surprising to me that a good number of missional communities, not just neo-monastic ones, look to these offices to provide the forms of prayer for their daily life as well. In fact, The Simple Way folk are working at collecting a set of worship resources for their community (a breviary) for just this purpose. You can contribute resource suggestions for their prayer book if you like.

At the same time, I have to confess I find a lot of the language and concerns of these prayers, as they have come down to us in a variety of ways, to be more than a little off-putting. They don't seem quite to connect with the realities of our lives (or at least the reality of my life and the lives of persons with whom I've worked as pastor or in extension ministries over the years!). Surely, it's good to have a connection to older traditions even if only for the sake of the connection. But it seems to me that that wasn't the major reason the offices were developed in the first place. They weren't created primarily as a means of enshrining the old, though they do that, too. They were really developed as a means of helping missional communities encounter scripture and offer confession, prayer and praise in ways that would help re-center them on the reign of God and the people and the work before them for each day.

So I find myself wondering two things.

First, have the offices (the seven "hours" plus Vigil), as we have them, outlasted their usefulness as a means of spiritual practice for 21st century missional communities? If so, what sort of practices might we develop and commend that fit our missional context and needs for spiritual practice better?

Or, second, do the offices still basically work, but what is needed is a freshening of their shape and language to reflect more closely how each relates more immediately to the time and context of its offering during the day?

Wesley's answer, of course, was essentially to ditch the offices. He retained morning and evening prayer on Sundays, but on no other days, and also deleted the daily office lectionary in the Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. Perhaps he reasoned that if each of the class meetings were functioning to hold each other accountable for "searching the scriptures" and "family and private prayer" (General Rule #3), you wouldn't need a prescribed way of doing these things daily. But of course, what we know is the class meetings fell by the wayside within a few decades and there was no real process in place, after that, to help folks be grounded in scripture and prayer in ways that were both connected to the historic church and relevant to their daily lives.

So assuming that Wesley's answer turned out not to work, but that his instinct (in Rule 3 and via the class meetings) that we all needed SOME way for such daily spiritual practices with clear missional grounding, what might that begin to look like where you are?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards