God’s Inclusive Love Excludes Sin

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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?

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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)

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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.

Can Francis Asbury Help You Be a More Effective Communicator? (Part 2)

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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 second 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 post by clicking the first trait listed above.)

The second trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was, “his ability to connect with ordinary people” (6). John Wesley was not known for this characteristic. In fact, there are a few examples where Wesley’s interactions with people are shockingly insensitive. Asbury, however, was gifted at connecting with people he met throughout his travels, building relationships with them even during short stays.

My favorite part of this aspect of Asbury’s personality is that he was known for having a good sense of humor in a time when “Methodists didn’t generally consider joking and laughter compatible with religion” (Wigger, 6). Even better, Asbury’s sense of humor was self-effacing. Here is one particular story that Wigger relates that also shows that Asbury did not take himself too seriously:

Once, when Asbury was nearly sixty and had been a bishop for nearly two decades, he and the ‘venerable, portly’ preacher Benjaming Bidlack came to the home of a ‘respectable Methodist’ in the Genessee District of upstate New York. Seeing Asbury riding in front, the man mistook him for an assisstant and ordered him to dismount and open the gate for the bishop. Bidlack played along, and as he passed by, Asbury bowed low, offering to see to the bishop’s horse and bags. When their host realized his mistake, he was ‘mortified’ until he saw how much Asbury enjoyed the joke (6).

The way that Wigger concludes his summary of this second aspect of what made Asbury an effective communicator is particularly intriguing: “People found Asbury approachable and willing to listen to their concerns more than they found him full of inspiring ideas” (7).

Asbury was an effective communicator and leader, then, because he was able to connect with people. He could make them laugh. He could even enjoy a good laugh at his own expense. People listened to him because they liked him, largely because they sensed that he liked them.

Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?

Of course!

People will rarely follow someone they do not like or they do not believe likes them. And leaders in the contemporary church will be far more successful in leading if they are able to relate to the people in the churches to which they have been sent to provide leadership.

Here are a few quick thoughts on how church leaders can connect with ordinary people:

1. For those who are seminary, stay in contact with “normal people” (whatever that means!). Seminary is great, but it can also unintentionally become a kind of bubble, where you forget that most people would not be interested in having a three hour conversation about various theories of the atonement, the difference between imputed vs. imparted righteousness, etc. My point is not that these things are bad. In fact, they are essentially to a seminary education. But seminary can unintentionally deform you from being able to relate to the “people in the pews.” And if people who are attending seminary because they have been called to local church ministry can no longer relate to the people they will be serving when the graduate, well, that is a problem.

2. Spend time with people on their turf. When I was pastoring a church in rural Oklahoma, a significant number of men from the church would meet for coffee every morning at the co-op. Driving up to a grain elevator, walking into a room with fertilizer bags, horse troughs, and hundreds of tools I had never seen before was initially a jarring experience! But I learned to love that time. I learned more about those men sitting on folding chairs around that plastic table than I ever did within the walls of the church. I also laughed more there than any other place in that town. They are precious memories! And looking back, I am amazed at the hospitality that these men showed in welcoming me into their favorite place to spend time together.

3. Relax and don’t have an agenda. Just spend time with people because they have been created in the image of almighty God. Listen to them. Hear what they are trying to tell you. If you do this, you will be invited into people’s lives in incredible ways.

4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Leaders always win when they laugh at themselves. And they win when they share credit and build up other people.

5. Remember that more often than not people want to know whether you care and whether you can be trusted. This is a hard one for me. My instinct is to try to bowl people over by my ideas, by content. But Asbury’s example reminds us that before people can hear our ideas, they first need us to hear them – really hear them.

So what do you think? How important do you think it is for leaders in the church to be able to relate well to other people? What would you add to my list of ways that church leaders can better relate to others?

Going from preachin’ to meddlin’: This post assumes that Christian leaders do genuinely love the people God has sent them to serve. I have been surprised at how often I have encountered pastors who are not good at listening at all. It is an area where I can always find room for growth myself. Are you a good listener? Do you habitually, maybe without even realizing it, interrupt people? Before you try to get others to hear you, how can you learn to better hear them?

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Can Francis Asbury help you be a more effective communicator?

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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:

    1. legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversion experience.

    2. ability to connect with ordinary people

    3. ability to understand and use popular culture.

    4. organization of the Methodist church.

Over the next four posts, I will consider each of these traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders.

The first trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was, in Wigger’s words, “his legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversion experience” (5). Like John Wesley, Francis Asbury was nearly obsessed with growing in love of God and neighbor.

Asbury was also constantly traveling from one place to another, staying with thousands of different people over the course of his life. As a result, he had virtually no privacy at all. As his biographer puts it, “It is all the more revealing, then, that the closer people got to him, the more they tended to respect the integrity of his faith” (5) Even those with whom he had the deepest disagreements still recognized the sincerity and depth of his faith in Christ.

Asbury was an effective communicator and leader, then, because people could see that he was really “walking the walk.” People often listened to him because they knew he was a man who spent time in prayer and searching the Scriptures.

Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?

I think it would be. And it would be significant for helping build relationships with non-Christians, not just leading other Christians. Over the last past decade, there has been quite a bit of conversation about the perception by non-Christians that Christians are hypocrites. (I’m thinking of unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, for example.) The earnestness and sincerity of a Christian leader who had “legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversation experience” might help them gain credibility with non-Christians who are wary that Christian leaders are selling something that they don’t use themselves.

The words of Jesus in Matthew, on the other hand, provide a reasons for caution. In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns those who are pursuing righteousness, to “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt 6:1).

Asbury’s piety was visible because he basically had no private life. But today, privacy is such a high value that even people who travel frequently to speak in churches and at conferences rarely stay with families from the group that is hosting them.

A piety that is showy and boastful will not bring credibility. Nevertheless, it is important that Christian leaders “practice what they preach.” And Methodists should emphasize the importance of regular practice of the means of grace (prayer, searching the Scriptures, receiving communion, fasting, etc.).

So what do you think? Will a faith that is visible through basic practices in someone’s life tend to lead others to have a higher esteem for that person’s faith? And if so, how can Christian leaders appropriately make their own practice of their faith more visible or public?

Going from preachin’ to meddlin’: This post assumes that Christian leaders are spending both quality and quantity time in prayer, searching the Scriptures, etc. But this is not necessarily a safe assumption. Are you spending consistent and meaningful time with God?

When Methodist Distinctives Aren’t

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Methodists, particularly United Methodists, have a very bad habit of making sweeping statements about what makes the Methodist tradition distinct or unique. The main reason this is a bad habit is because when Methodists do this they are often claiming ownership of things that are basic to Christianity or that are at least at the heart of the values or beliefs of other parts of the Body of Christ. When Methodists do this, it makes us look oblivious at best, and obnoxious and arrogant at worst.

Since joining the faculty at SPU two years ago, I have had more interactions with Christians who are not United Methodists than I had previously. More than once, I have heard someone ask why Methodists claim something as a distinctive of their tradition when it is a basic Christian affirmation. Just yesterday, a colleague pointed out that Methodists do not have the market cornered on holiness.

I am trying to do a better job of being more humble and accurate in what I claim as a distinctive of my own branch of the Christian family tree. I have also become more sensitive to just how often Methodists make rather grandiose claims about the marvels of our own tradition.

Here are the three most common ways I have heard people describe Methodism’s distinctiveness that are not unique to Methodism.

1. Methodists believe in grace.

Asserting that grace is a distinct belief of Methodism would understandably be offensive to other Christians, because they believe in grace too! Ask your brother or sister in Christ from a non-Methodist tradition whether they believe in grace and let me know when you find someone who says no.

John Calvin talks extensively about grace in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Here is one example, that is particularly important for Methodists to read because it refers to the role of grace in both justification and sanctification:

Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life. (Institutes, III.XI.1)

Grace is very important to Methodism because it is very important to Christianity. When Methodists claim that we are distinct because we talk so much about grace, we look foolish to other parts of the Body of Christ and damage our own commitment to having a “Catholic Spirit.”

2. Methodists allow you to use your brain.

This affirmation, when I hear it, seems to do two things at once. It is a way that Methodists congratulate themselves on being so educated, open-minded, and tolerant. At the same time, it indirectly insults people whose views are less sophisticated than we perceive ours to be.

While there are some parts of Christianity that don’t affirm the role of theological education to the degree that most Methodists do, every classic Christian theologian I can think of would insist on using your mind to love God.

Faith seeking understanding did not originate with Methodism!

The way that I sometimes hear Methodists talk about our being unafraid to use our minds smacks of a kind of elitism and arrogance that is disappointing, particularly when coming from members of my own ecclesial family. And it is all the more problematic (and ironic) because it is sometimes used as a way to dismiss someone else’s beliefs without actually using one’s brain to make a reasoned argument as to why something is wrong and something else is right.

3. Methodists are connectional.

The ideas behind this are more complicated, but this is basically an assertion that Methodists are distinct because we are a church that is connected to each other in a variety of different ways (conferences, itinerant preachers, general boards and agencies, etc.).

Intentionally or not, this affirmation implies that other denominations are not interested in working together or connecting with each other. Though the polities are not the same, I imagine that the Roman Catholic Church, or the Eastern Orthodox Church, or the Anglican Church (and others) would see themselves as a connectional church in a way quite similar to Methodists.

Could it be that a distinctive of Methodism is taking credit for things that belong to the legacy of the global church? I hope not. Maybe every tradition succumbs to this temptation. As a Methodist, I have found myself wrestling with the pretension of my own tradition over the last two years.

Have you noticed the tendency of Methodists to claim basic Christian beliefs, values, or practices as uniquely Methodist? What other claims of distinctiveness that aren’t actually distinctive of Methodism would you add?

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