Did Wesley Really Say That? (Here’s How to Find Out)

Did John Wesley really say that? The purpose of this post is to help you be able to find out for yourself, usually relatively quickly, whether Wesley really said that (whatever “that” is).

Of all the things I have written on this blog over the years, my series of posts on things commonly attributed to John Wesley that he did not actually say are among the most popular.

Because of these posts, I now fairly regularly receive questions from readers through email, facebook, and twitter asking me if Wesley did say something that they’ve come across. I really appreciate these questions, because they show that people really do care about being good stewards of their tradition. Preachers don’t want to unintentionally misquote Wesley in a sermon or church newsletter. I also can’t help but smile when someone says something like, “I read this attributed to Wesley online, but it doesn’t sound like Wesley to me.” It gives me joy to see evidence of people reading Wesley for themselves and starting to get a feel for his literary voice.

One of the deep goals of this blog and my work as a scholar, teacher, and pastor is to equip people to better engage their own tradition for themselves. While it is great to have people ask me to confirm a quote from Wesley, it is even better to help people gain confidence in finding out for themselves whether Wesley did or did not say something. (Note: This basic approach can be used for any historical figure.)

So, here is how to find out in about five minutes whether John Wesley really said something:

Imagine you are playing a game called “Did Wesley Really Say That?” (This could be a best seller!) There are two ways to win the game. First, find the quotation in a scholarly edition of Wesley’s works. (Examples of scholarly editions of Wesley’s works that count are any of the volumes in this series, or this, this, and this. Of course, there are others. A book of quotations like this does not count.) If you find a quote in a scholarly edition of Wesley’s sermons, Wesley did actually say that. You win!

Second, find a scholarly article that states that Wesley did not say this. Professor Richard P. Heitzenrater of Duke Divinity School has published a number of pieces that draw attention to quotations commonly attributed to Wesley that he did not actually say – or at least that cannot be demonstrated to have come from him. My favorite is an article he wrote in this book. If you find a scholar in the field of Wesleyan/Methodist studies saying that Wesley did not say that, you win! You are safe assuming that Wesley did not say it.

The quickest way to get to win is by doing an internet search for the quotation followed by a comma and then John Wesley. If Wesley said it, you will usually be able to fairly quickly find a link to a trustworthy internet source. Not all online sources are trustworthy, in fact most aren’t (for more on what sources are trustworthy, see below).

Let’s take two different quotations commonly attributed to Wesley as a way of illustrating each way to win.

An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.” Did Wesley really say that?

The picture below shows the way the search should be entered, with the first results.

Ounce of love, Wesley

Remember that winning is not finding any webpage that attributes the quote to Wesley. In the image search, the Wikiquote page is good because it has an actual citation to a scholarly edition of Wesley’s letters. You can also use the date of the letter to look up the letter in the Telford edition of Wesley’s letters, which is currently the most comprehensive scholarly edition of Wesley’s letters. So, you win! Wesley did say that.

To illustrate the challenge of the internet, the second link, goodreads.com, is not a good source. If you click on the link, none of the quotes have any citations. And, not surprisingly, they include many things Wesley did not say. Towards the bottom of the first page on the Google search, there is a link to the Wesley Center Online site, which is a reliable online source. It is also always a good sign when you get the specificity of a letter written to a specific person on a particular date, in this case to Joseph Benson on November 7, 1768.

Let’s try one more.

I set myself on fire and people come from miles to watch me burn.” Did Wesley really say that?

The picture below shows the way the search should be entered, with the first results.

Set myself on fire, not Wesley

The first link on Google “John Wesley Quotes (Author of John Wesley’s Sermons)” initially looks promising. But it is again from goodreads.com, and you will not find a citation at all. So, this is not a reliable website. The second link is a blog post I wrote four years ago saying that Wesley did not say this. A blog post should be considered to be suspect. However, a blog post by a PhD in the field of Wesleyan/Methodist Studies gives you very good evidence that Wesley did not in fact say it. A scholarly article like the one I mentioned by Professor Heitzenrater is even better. Of course, if you can find a citation in a scholarly edition of that person’s writings then you are entitled to say he or she did in fact say this. In this instance, you will not find a citation to a scholarly edition of Wesley’s writings because there is no evidence that he said this.

Things that do not count as winning:

Any kind of commerorative or decorative item. I would guess that Cokesbury has sold thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of items that attribute things to John Wesley that he did not actually say. Just because you bought something at Cokesbury store with a quotation attributed to John Wesley does not mean he actually said it.

A book of quotations. These are notorious for not having good citations. Their primary goal, to inspire with short pithy sayings, makes them notorious for misquoting historical figures.

Any non-academic book. A non-academic book should site the source of any direct quotation. They often do not. If they do, they also often still do not site a scholarly edition. Citing a quote from another book that is still citing it from another book means you are still playing the game. To win you must find it in a scholarly edition of Wesley’s works.

Let me say a bit more about the internet. Finding the quote on the internet may or may not count as winning. Think of the internet as being like paper publications. Blogs and other forms of social media are like pen and ink publications (journals, letters, etc.). You would not ordinarily consider these to be authoritative in an academic sense. However, a handwritten letter by Frank Baker (who edited the first two volumes of the best scholarly edition of John Wesley’s letters) to Albert Outler about a Wesley quote would be very good evidence, precisely because of the specific person who wrote the letter.

If the website is a respectable academic or ecclesial website that is making Wesley’s works available online, then, that counts. You win! Wesley did actually say that. (You can find a few examples here and here.)

If the website is a personal website, facebook, twitter, or anywhere else online, the safest approach is to say that it does not count, especially for demonstrating that Wesley did say something. You still have to get to a scholarly edition of Wesley’s works. I have been amazed (and exasperated) at how misquotes of Wesley absolutely thrive on twitter.

Another option is a draw. If you cannot find the quote by Wesley in a scholarly edition of his works, then you neither win or lose. In this instance, do not attribute the quote to Wesley. You should only attribute a quote to someone when you have a primary source citation that shows the person actually said that. In this case, you don’t have it.

The final option is to lose. How do you lose the game? You lose by saying that Wesley said something that he did not actually say. Being as careful and accurate as we can be with our heritage matters. When you say that Wesley’s self-professed evangelistic strategy was to “set myself on fire and the people come from miles to watch me burn” you misrepresent and distort the tradition, because Wesley did not really say that.

I hope this helps you find out for yourself whether Wesley really said “that.”

Wesley Didn’t Say It: “Be present at our table, Lord…”

“Be present at our table, Lord, be here and everywhere adored.”

The so-called “Wesley Grace,” according to Methodist historian Richard P. Heitzenrater, did not originate with John Wesley. It was created by one of the early preachers in early Methodism, John Cennick. Heitzenrater indicates that it is possible that Wesley used this poem, but it is certain it did not originate with him.

The common misattribution of this quotation to John Wesley is discussed in Heitzenrater’s recent chapter, “The Wesleyan Tradition and the Myths We Love” in A Living Tradition: Critical Recovery and Reconstruction of Wesleyan Heritage, edited by Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore (Kingswood Books, 2013). The chapter discusses a variety of ways that the history of John Wesley’s life has been distorted or invented by Wesley’s biographers (and increasingly through careless repetition of inaccurate information through the internet). It is one of the best academic pieces I have read in some time for a variety of reasons. I highly recommend it.

In any event, Wesley did not create the “Wesley Grace.” We can add it to the list of things he did not say:

“holy conferencing” [Original post here.]

“personal and social holiness” [Original post here.]

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” [Original post here.]

“I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” [Original post here.]

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.” [Original post here.]

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

Personal Update: Exciting News!

I have news I’d like to share that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

I have recently accepted an offer to join the faculty at Candler School of Theology at Emory University as Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies. I am honored to join with the faculty at Candler and thrilled to be able to teach Wesleyan/Methodist studies at one of the flagship United Methodist seminaries.

The majority of my teaching at Candler will be teaching the Methodist History course required of all candidates for ordination in The United Methodist Church. This is the first class I taught as a PhD student at Southern Methodist University. And it is my favorite class to teach, so getting to teach it regularly is a dream come true! I am also looking forward to teaching other courses in Wesleyan/Methodist studies as well as in the History and Interpretation of Christianity and Contextual Education.

I am eager to get to know my colleagues at Candler and to learn from them. The welcome I have already received has been wonderful. I am also looking forward to connecting with folks in the North Georgia Conference of The UMC, as well as other Annual Conferences in the region.

As excited as I am, there is also sadness. I am sad because I will deeply miss colleagues and students at SPU, which has been a fantastic community to be a part of the past three years. It is hard to step away from what is happening at SPU, particularly Seattle Pacific Seminary, because I am certain its best days are still to come. My family will miss the relationships that have blessed us these past three years, particularly through church. We will leave Seattle aware that we are leaving a part of ourselves behind. And we will take cherished memories with us.

Many times over the past few days, I’ve remembered the clear sense of calling I had that led me to apply to PhD programs: I felt called to pastor seminary students who were preparing to become pastors. This calling has always been particularly directed towards the church in which I am ordained, The United Methodist Church. And my academic focus is on the history of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. Candler provides an incredible opportunity to live into these different aspects of my vocation.

I am humbled by this opportunity and grateful to God for providing it!

God’s Inclusive Love Excludes Sin


, , , ,

Do you ever read something and find yourself actually nodding your head in agreement, or responding to the author out loud? My friends and family will be relieved to know that I very rarely do this. Last night, however, I would have responded out loud when I read James Bryan Smith’s chapter “God is Holy” in The Good and Beautiful God. The only reason I didn’t was because I was reading the book while giving an exam and my students would have shushed me.

As I read this chapter, I found myself wishing that I could have every single Christian read it. The piece is excellent, not because it is new or edgy, but because it states basic Christian truth with profound clarity.

In the previous chapter, “God Is Love,” Smith emphasizes the scandal of God’s grace. God loves sinners “as they are, and not as they should be” (98). He further argues that it is not sin but self-righteousness that separates us from God (102). The chapter does a great job of emphasizing the good news that God’s love for us is constant, whether we are worthy of it or not. And this applies to everyone. (By the way, I highly recommend the entire book, as well as the other two books in the series.)

In the next chapter, Smith addresses a misunderstanding of the truth that God is love, and loves sinners with reckless extravagance: “God does not care about our sin” (116). Smith writes, “In our day you are just as likely to hear a person tell you that their god is a cosmic, benevolent spirit who never judges, does not punish sin and sends no one to hell. This ‘teddy bear’ god has become a very fashionable alternative to the wrathful god of days gone by” (116). The problem is that “the cushy, fuzzy god is neither biblical nor truly loving.” Here, Smith cites H. Richard Niebuhr’s well-worn phrase from The Kingdom of God in America, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

Smith then points to some of the inadequate theologies that follow from a desire to avoid a wrathful God. I will let one of the most piercing passages in the chapter speak for itself:

Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) did not like the notion of a wrathful God. Ritschl concluded, ‘The concept of God’s wrath has no religious value for the Christian.’ So he reinterpreted the meaning of wrath. Wrath is the logical consequence of God’s absence, and not God’s attitude toward sin and evil. A lot of people liked this because it depicted a god who is above getting angry. This passive-aggressive god just gets quiet. (119)

We need God to care about sin and evil. If God simply becomes distant, then we are hopeless when faced with the enormity of sin and death.

The basic argument that Smith makes is that our understanding of both God’s love and God’s wrath are primarily derived from the most emotive and irrational connotations that these words have. For Smith, God’s love is more like a parent’s love toward a child than a teenager’s infatuation with a peer. And “in the same way that God’s love is not a silly, sappy feeling but rather a consistent desire for the good of his people, so also the wrath of God is not a crazed rage but rather a consistent opposition to sin and evil” (120).

Smith repeatedly emphasizes in the chapter that God is both “kind and severe. We cannot have one without the other” and that this is “very good news” (118). It is good news because God loves us so much that he is completely opposed to anything that harms God’s beloved people. God loves us without condition, but hates sin because sin threatens and eventually brings our destruction.

He makes an important distinction between God’s love and wrath. “Wrath is not something that God is but something that God does. While it is correct to say that God is holy, it is not correct to say that God is wrathful… Holiness is God’s essence… Wrath is what humans experience when they reject God. And it is a necessary part of God’s love” (123).

Smith suggests that we should not want a god who says, “‘It’s cool. Don’t sweat it. Everybody sins, just do it without the guilt, dude. Guilt stinks. Just have a good time!’ This god does not love me. Being soft on sin is not loving, because sin destroys. I want a God who hates anything that hurts me. Hate is a strong word, but a good one. Because the true God not only hates what destroys me (sin and alientation) but also has taken steps to destroy my destroyer, I love him” (125).

Finally, Smith brings his conversation back to the beginning – God’s unconditional love for us. He considered a conversation he had with a woman who heard a sermon he preached on God’s scandalous, unconditional love for us exactly as we are right now and she understood his sermon to mean that sin did not matter and she could simply continuing sinning without feeling guilty. Here is how Smith concludes the chapter:

It occurred to me that perhaps she needed first to hear that she was loved unconditionally before she could address the issue of sin. This is counterintuitive, but I believe it is right. We assume that wrath comes before grace, but that is not the biblical way. God’s first and last word is always grace. Until we have been assured that we are loved and forgiven, it is impossible to address our sinfulness correctly. We will operate out of our own resources, trying to get God to like us by our own efforts to change. God’s first word is always grace, as Barth said. Only then can we begin to understand God’s holiness, and ours. (127)

This is the gospel! Our efforts to change are not enough and can never secure God’s approval. But the good news is that God already loves us. God already offers us forgiveness, healing, and redemption.

Appreciating the relationship between God’s unconditional love and God’s utter opposition to all that harms us is essential for all Christians. It seems to me that United Methodists are currently failing to adequately maintain both sides of this good news. It is not sufficiently Christian to be in favor of either a god whose inclusive love is incapable of excluding sin and evil or a god whose holiness leads people to live in shame.

I’m not sure that these actually represent the positions of any significant groups of United Methodists. Rather, this is how United Methodists (and many other Christians) misrepresent each other’s positions. One side accuses the other of failing to offer the world a God whose love is radically inclusive of all people and is not full of anger and judgment. Another side accuses the other of failing to offer the world a God who has standards for right and wrong actions and attitudes.

I do occasionally hear these views expressed by students and pastors. Much more frequently I hear people simply talking past each other. In general, I think if you pressed people on both sides of the theological spectrum, you would find that most believe that God loves creation, and particularly those created in the divine image, with reckless abandon, perfectly. And I think most people believe that God wants to free us from the things that bind us to the ways of sin and death. The disagreement is about whether particular actions, ideas, or attitudes constitute sin.

The problem is not that one side is in favor of sin in order to be more inclusive, while the other side is in favor of exclusion in order to protect God’s holiness or our own. The problem is that neither side does a good enough job of emphasizing both God’s radical love for broken, hurting, and sinful people as well as God’s complete rejection and opposition to sin and evil, whether it is expressed through outward actions or inner dispositions, or individually or structurally.

1 John, to give an example from Scripture, only makes sense when we hold both God’s inclusive love together with God’s complete rejection of sin:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
– 1 John 1:5-2:2

God’s love towards each one of us is unconditional. Have you allowed that truth to sink into every corner or your life, or are you still trying to clean yourself up for God, to earn your acceptance? Are you willing to be desperately dependent on God’s grace and not your own goodness?

God hates sin because God loves us. Are you allowing God’s grace to free you from everything that keeps you from the life for which you were created? Will you allow the amazing grace of God to forgive you of the ways you have sinned and are sinful? Will you allow God to break the power of those canceled sins?

God is holy. God refuses to make compromises with sin and death. And God is able to make us holy. The offer of holiness is not a threat. It is a precious promise.

What Is the Purpose of Seminary?


, , , ,

Seminary did nothing to prepare me for ministry in a post-Christian context.

This comment, which was an aside in a conversation I had with a pastor today, has gnawed at me all day. Several hours after the conversation, I tweeted:

The response was slow at first, but gathered momentum throughout the day and into the evening. (In hindsight, I really wish a hashtag had been created to help track the conversation. It has gone in several different directions and is difficult to trace now.)

Here are the main things I heard in the conversation: Some people are happy with their seminary experience and feel that it prepared them well for ministry in a post-Christian context. Others were frustrated with their seminary education and felt that it did not prepare them adequately for basic pastoral ministry. But what stuck with me the most was a general confusion about the purpose of seminary. One person tweeted: “I have heard more than once that it is not a theological school’s job to prepare people for ministry.”

This raises several questions for me: What is ministry? How ought one be prepared for it? If a theological school is not focused on preparing people for ministry, what is the purpose of a seminary education? And why would it be required for ordination? To what extent should the church and academy be connected to one another?

My hope in this post, then, is to continue the conversation with a broader audience and without the 140 character limit.

What do you think the purpose of a seminary education ought to be?

For those of you who have attended or are attending seminary, what are your thoughts about how well it prepared you for ministry?

To what extent should the church and academy be related or interdependent?

Now Available: Pursuing Social Holiness


, , ,

Over the past several years, many of you have asked me when my dissertation would be available in print. I am pleased to announce that a revision of my dissertation, Pursuing Social Holiness: The Band Meeting in Wesley’s Thought and Popular Methodist Practice, has been published by Oxford University Press. Here is a summary of the book from the cover:

Kevin M. Watson offers the first in-depth examination of an essential early Methodist tradition: the band meeting, a small group of five to seven people who focused on the confession of sin in order to grow in holiness. Watson shows how the band meeting, which figured significantly in John Wesley’s theology of discipleship, united Wesley’s emphasis on the importance of holiness with his conviction that Christians are most likely to make progress in the Christian life together, rather than in isolation.

Demonstrating that neither John Wesley’s theology nor popular Methodism can be understood independent of each other, Watson explores how Wesley synthesized important aspects of Anglican piety (an emphasis on a disciplined practice of the means of grace) and Moravian piety (an emphasis on an experience of justification by faith and the witness of the Spirit) in his own version of the band meeting. Pursuing Social Holiness is an essential contribution to understanding the critical role of the band meeting in the development of British Methodism and shifting concepts of community in eighteenth-century British society.

OUP’s listing has more information about the book, including the Table of Contents. I think that readers of this blog will be particularly interested in the book’s description of Wesley’s understanding of holiness and how his emphasis on the importance of community is connected to sanctification. I also think readers will appreciate the extensive use of primary source materials from early Methodists, giving insight into the popular practice of communal formation in early Methodism.

OUP did a great job with this book. I am very please with the layout and production quality. The main factor that may keep many people from buying the book is the price. The book is listed at $74 (though it is currently available on amazon for $62.90), which will unfortunately price it out of many pastor’s personal libraries. For those not familiar with the world of academic publishing, I would note two things: 1) Authors do not determine the prices of their books. 2) Believe it or not, it could have been much worse. Hardcover academic monographs like this one often cost $150! All that to say, I completely understand if you are not interested in spending that much money on a book.

Here is what some reviewers have said about the book:

This is a brilliant study of one of the foundational institutions of eighteenth-century Methodism. Early Methodism was at its heart a community event. The bands, along with the class meetings, were what bound Methodist societies together. Anyone who wants to understand the rise of Methodism should give this account careful consideration. This is a book we have long needed.
John Wigger, Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri

Watson’s work on the band meeting is the definitive history of this practice of small-group confession within eighteenth-century English evangelicalism. Watson not only demonstrates the importance of this practice for the revival and the Wesleyan notion of ‘social holiness’ in the eighteenth century, but also outlines the reasons for its decline in the nineteenth century. This is a must-have for scholars of Methodism and eighteenth-century religious history.
Scott Kisker, Professor of Church History, United Theological Seminary

This groundbreaking study offers the most detailed account to date of band meetings in early Wesleyan Methodism. Watson first demonstrates the distinctive synthesis of Anglican and Moravian precedents in John Wesley’s mature model for the bands. He then engages a range of primary sources to provide a richly textured account of the practice of bands through the eighteenth century. Highly recommended.
-Randy L. Maddox, William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan Methodist Studies, Duke Divinity School

Now Available: The Class Meeting


, , , , ,

Life has been hectic the last month and a half! My thoughts recently turned to this blog and I realized that I had not announced here that The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience is now available. The book can be purchased in print directly from Seedbed at the previous link. (It is only available in print directly from Seedbed.) It can also be purchased electronically through a variety of e-formats, including Amazon Kindle. This link will take you directly to Amazon’s Kindle listing for the book.

Seedbed has created a page for the book that has much more information: http://classmeeting.seedbed.com/

Seedbed has also included a page that contains links to reviews written online: http://classmeeting.seedbed.com/reviews/

My previous post included several of the advanced reviews that the book received.

Finally, I wrote a post for Seedbed.com that was published on the day the book was released. I also did a video interview that they published. You can view the post here and the interview here.

I am encouraged and grateful for the enthusiasm I am seeing for reclaiming the Wesleyan class meeting. Thank you for your support!

Almost Here: New Book on the Methodist Class Meeting


Over the last few months, many of you have asked for updates on the progress of my book, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. The book is an introduction to the central role that the Wesleyan class meeting played in early Methodism, as well as a guide to reclaiming this kind of small group today.

I wrote this book because I have personally experienced the blessing of being in a class meeting and I believe that the Holy Spirit will continue to use this small group practice to help women and men grow in faith in Christ if we would only return to it. I believe the Wesleyan approach to small groups is one of great gifts that God has given to the “people called Methodists.” In many ways, writing this book is an attempt to test whether I am correct in my discernment that God wants to bring renewal to the Methodist/Wesleyan family through a return to this practice.

Here are a few practical details about the release of the book: The Class Meeting has gone to the printer and will be released on November 15 of this year. The list price for the book is $16.95. There is a 20% discount for all preorders of the book before November 15.

Seedbed has created a page that has quite a bit more information about the book, classmeeting.seedbed.com. If you want to read the first chapter of the book now, they will send you the first chapter if you enter your email address. If you are considering using the book in a group (which is my hope for the book), you can find out information about discounts on bulk orders here as well.

I am grateful for the support the book has received from people I admire and respect. Here are some of the things people have said about the book:

Kevin Watson has given us a wonderful gift. He has resurrected an historic Wesleyan practice—the class meeting—and given it fresh meaning, showing its relevance for the church today. Kevin shows us how the class meeting may be a perfect means for church renewal, a gift of God, through the Wesleyan movement, for such a time as this.
Will Willimon, Bishop UMC (retired)
Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry
Duke Divinity School

Kevin Watson has written a fresh new guide to the theory and practice of the Wesley Class meeting, an essential element of truly Wesleyan spirituality. As an experienced participant and initiator of class meetings in academic and congregational settings, Watson is a faithful guide. I highly recommend this book to clergy and congregations who are looking for ways to develop deeper discipleship and reconnect with our own, rich Wesleyan heritage.
Elaine A. Heath, Ph.D.
Southern Methodist University
Co-Founder, The Missional Wisdom Foundation
Director, The Academy for Missional Wisdom

Kevin Watson’s new book is a clarion call to recover the Methodist class meeting as a vital means of grace with an eye on the renewal of the church in the twenty-first century. Rightly balancing the
historical and the practical, Watson invites readers to embrace not only the generous value of the class meeting in the past but also to participate in what promise it holds for the present and beyond in raising up disciples of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Kenneth J. Collins
Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies
Asbury Theological Seminary

As the United Methodist Church struggles to redefine itself and its mission for the next generation of disciples, Kevin Watson has managed to reconnect us to a timeless practice that has the potential of “revitalizing” our denomination—the Class Meeting!
With so much emphasis on declining membership and loss of relevancy, we are invited to rediscover what made Methodism and the Wesleyan movement so vibrant for over a century. Could it be that we’ve been looking in all the wrong places for the right answers? Watson reminds us that the class meeting is not an end in itself, but it has the ability to bring together and transform core groups of people who “are willing to invest in each other’s lives and who are desperate to grow in their relationship with Jesus.”
What I treasure most about this book is the way Watson traces the history of the class meeting, shares the basics of what should/should not take place within the group, and defines for us the role and qualities of the class leader. In other words, this is not a history book that simply tells us what happen then. Instead, it is a modern day road map that points us in the direction of what can happen now! If you are one of those Christians seeking to experience the height, depth, length, width and breath of God’s purpose and meaning for your life, you need to know you can discover it in a
place we’ve yet to look—the class meeting!

Robert Hayes, Bishop UMC

Like other key aspects of Christian living, the Wesleyan class meeting is often talked about today but seldom really practiced. For Wesley the class meeting included, but was much more than,
“small-group fellowship.”
Kevin Watson understands this, and he writes out of both research and personal experience. The strength of authentic Wesleyanism is that it denies the sharp distinction between head knowledge and heart experience. Rather, it unites them. We find that strength here in this practical book.
To be effective today, the class meeting must be re-contextualized (that is, made workable) without losing its essential dynamic as gospel-based accountable community. I commend this book as a useful tool that, if put into practice, can achieve that goal.

Howard A. Snyder, Ph.D.
Author, The Radical Wesley and Patterns for Church Renewal

We want to know and be known. We need to hear each other’s stories. Watson’s compelling case for reinventing the Methodist class meeting recognizes that holy living must be rooted in confession, accountable community, testimony, and gentle shepherding.
Stan Ingersol
Denominational Archivist, Church of the Nazarene

Dr Kevin Watson has given every church and pastor a gift! The gift is the reclaiming of the Wesley Class Meeting as the primary disciple growing tool. Any church willing to use this book as a guide will experience what I experienced at Christ Church United Methodist in Ft Lauderdale, Fl. I was there when
Wesley Fellowship Groups began and I had the honor to watch an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. If this is a hunger in your heart, then this book by Dr. Watson will be a “must read” for you.

Richard J. Wills, Jr., Bishop UMC (retired)

Dr. Kevin Watson’s emphasis upon renewing the Methodist movement takes a pragmatic approach. The intent of this book is to be practiced, not merely read.
Tom Harrison, Senior Pastor
Asbury United Methodist Church
Tulsa, Oklahoma

This powerful practice must be reclaimed, but not just for adults, for all ages. Do your youth pastor a favor and give him/her a copy of this deeply-rooted and thoroughly-practical book!
Jeremy W. Steele, Next Generation Minister
Christ United Methodist Church
Mobile, Alabama

Can Francis Asbury Help You Be a More Effective Communicator (Part 4)


, , , ,

In his exceptional biography of Francis Asbury, John Wigger describes the characteristics that made the father of American Methodism an effective communicator. These four traits were:

This is the final post in a four-part series that considers each of the traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders. (You can view the previous posts by clicking the traits listed above.)

The fourth trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was his organization of the Methodist church (8). According to his biographer, Asbury was “a brilliant administrator and a keen judge of human motivations” (8). As Asbury travelled constantly, he also paid careful attention to a variety of administrative details related to the Methodist Episcopal Church. Wigger further describes the significance of this aspect of Asbury’s leadership:

The system Asbury crafted made it possible to keep tabs on thousands of preachers and lay workers. Under his leadership, American Methodists anticipated the development of modern managerial styles. No merchant of the early nineteenth century could match Asbury’s nationwide network of class leaders, circuit stewards, book stewards, exhorters, local preachers, circuit riders, and presiding elders, or the movement’s system of class meetings, circuit preaching, quarterly meetings, annual conferences, and quadrennial general conferences, all churning out detailed statistical reports to be consolidated and published on a regular basis (8).

Wigger also highlights the importance of intinerant (travelling) preachers for his system. Interestingly, maintaing this system was also one of the major challenges of Asbury’s career. He fought to maintain it; however, because he was convinced of its significance for the success of American Methodism.

A “less obvious, but equally important” part of Asbury’s systemt was the “necessity of a culture of discipline.” Here, the early Methodist class meeting is discussed, including Asbury’s continuation of the requirement that in order to be a member one had to participate in a weekly class meeting.

Finally, Asbury realized his own limitations and delegated authority to others. He did this at a variety of levels, the most visible being traveling preachers and class leaders.

Asbury was an effective communicator because he instilled a culture of discipline in Methodism that allowed for a sense of cohesiveness throughout a rapidly growing church, and also ensured that membership in the newly constituted Methodist Episcopal Church actually meant something.

Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?

Absolutely! In fact, of the four traits that Wigger identifies, I think this might be the most pressing need in twenty-first century American Christianity.

United Methodism puts a significant amount of time, energy, and resources into administrative functions and details. When I was the pastor of a local church, for example, I remember being almost overwhelmed by the number of reports I had to submit throughout the year. This was sometimes a frustrating experience because the reason for the reports was not always explained to me, and it wasn’t usually inherently obvious.

Contemporary United Methodism also has an array of boards and agencies that engage a wide variety of aspects of Christian ministry.

Outwardly, when one compares the structures of Asbury’s Methodism and the structures of contemporary United Methodism, there is quite a bit that looks similar. There is, however, one major change. The purpose of Asbury’s administrative work was to keep the Methodism movement going in the same direction, to cause there to be a recognizable unity among the “people called Methodists.” Oversight in early American Methodism played an important function because there was clarity about what the goals of Methodism (individually: justification by faith in Christ, the new birth, followed by holiness of heart and life; corporately: spreading scriptural holiness). In the contemporary context, I fear we have kept a passion for counting attendance, members, etc., without the common sense of purpose that originally made these things valuable.

My sense is that this aspect of Asbury’s leadership style would be most easily appropriated by local church pastors. At the level of the local church, someone can cast vision, delegate authority and responsibilities, and articulate expectations for those involved in the life of the church (and hold people accountable for meeting those expectations).

So what do you think? Is being an excellent organizer and administrator important for leaders in the church today? If so, how have you seen this done well? And, since this post concludes this series, what quality or characteristic would you add to being an effective communicator that Wigger did not discuss?

Going from preachin’ to meddlin': In your own sphere of influence, do you pay attention to the details of how an idea can actually come to reality? Does your church hold members accountable for keeping their membership vows in any meaningful way? If not, what are the implications of people making promises to God in the presence of the entire church and not keeping them?

If you have enjoyed this series, be sure to subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss future posts. You can subscribe via e-mail by clicking here or via reader by clicking here.

Can Francis Asbury Help You Become a More Effective Communicator? (Part 3)


, , ,

In his exceptional biography of Francis Asbury, John Wigger describes the characteristics that made the father of American Methodism an effective communicator. These four traits were:

This is the third post in a four-part series that considers each of the traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders. (You can view the previous posts by clicking the traits listed above.)

The third trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was his understanding and use of popular culture (7). If the second aspect of what made Asbury an effective communicator marked a difference between he and John Wesley, this is a trait that Asbury and Wesley shared. Wigger described the way this trait function for Asbury, particularly with regard to his relationship between John Wesley and Americans:

Asbury acted as a mediator between Wesley and common Americans. Wesley and Asbury came from significantly different backgrounds, but they shared a realization that the dominant religious institutions of their day were failing to reach most people. The great question they both addressed was how to make the gospel relevant in their time and place. The audience was never far from their minds (7).

One of the major challenges Asbury faced as a mediator between Wesley and the average American was which parts of popular American culture to embrace and which parts to reject. Asbury embraced the revivalistic atmosphere that was inseparable from early nineteenth-century camp meetings. As a result, American Methodism embraced the camp meeting early on, while many other denominations hesitated. Asbury initially took a firm stand against American Methodists holding slaves. However, he ultimately compromised on this stand.

The camp meeting and American slavery show the tension in engaging popular culture. Wigger ultimately argues that “this mediating impulse, transmitted from Wesley through Asbury, became a trademark of American Methodism” (7). It was certainly not without complication, but it is one of the reasons American Methodism grew exponentially during the decades that Asbury was the bishop of the newly created Methodist Episcopal Church.

Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?

Yes, but the same tensions alluded to above are an unavoidable part of any engagement with popular culture. Wigger’s discussion of the broader implications of religious movements engaging the surrounding culture provides a helpful framework for thinking about the contemporary relevance of this aspect of Asbury’s leadership style:

All religious movements interact with the prevailing culture of their adherents. Popular religous movements like early American Methodism exist in a tension between religious values and the values of the dominant culture, alternately challenging and embracing the larger culture around them. To either completely accept or reject the larger culture is to cease to be either religious on the one hand, or popular on the other. Leaders like Asbury understand this tension and work within it (7).

Early American Methodism provides a fascinating example of a Christian tradition both changing the culture and being changed by it. Among other things, this example ought to chasten religious leaders or institutions that talk about cultural engagement in overly static or one-directional ways. If a person or institution succeeds in understanding and using popular culture, they will almost certainly be changed by that culture.

The very fear of being “converted” by popular culture has led some to avoid engaging popular culture at all. To use Wigger’s phrase, this is to cease to be popular. Wesley and Asbury were both unapologetically in favor of gathering a large audience.

The desire to be relevant (or sometimes for contemporary American Methodism to be popular once again) has led some to embrace popular culture with no hesitation. To the extent that this has happened in American Methodism, I think it is at least in part because there was a time that being American and being Methodist were nearly synonymous. Contemporary American Methodists who feel this temptation would do well to heed Wigger’s warning that to completely accept the larger culture is to cease to be religious, or more importantly, Christian.

Wigger argues that the success of any religious movement “hinges on maintaining contact with the culture around them” (7). I think he is right. The Church needs leaders who know Jesus, are committed to practicing their faith in consistent daily ways, can connect with ordinary people, and understand the culture around them and who seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance for how to best engage that culture.

[Note: I think Wigger's description of culture could be a bit more nuanced. The idea that there is a popular culture (as opposed to a more complicated network of cultures that intersect in a variety of ways) that a community of faith decides to engage or not engage is a bit too straightforward.]

So what do you think? In order to be effective, does a leader in the church need to understand and use popular culture? Why or why not? How have you seen church leaders do this well? How do you think it could be done better?

Going from preachin’ to meddlin': My guess is that most people tend towards one of the extremes Wigger discusses, either embracing or rejecting popular culture uncritically. Do you tend to embrace or reject popular culture? How might you be able to engage popular culture more faithfully for the glory of God?

If you are enjoying this series, be sure to subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss the next post. You can subscribe via e-mail by clicking here or via reader by clicking here.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,226 other followers