The Future of American Methodism: 5 Predictions

Methodism in America is in the midst of change. It is not yet clear how exactly American Methodism is changing or whether change will lead to a bright future for my own denomination in particular (The United Methodist Church). But it does seem clear that it is changing.

During the three years I taught at Seattle Pacific University, I experienced life in a major U.S. city that is profoundly post-Christian. Moving from Seattle to the Atlanta metro area was a kind of culture shock, because cultural Christianity appears to be alive and well in many parts of the southeast. My sense is that within one generation the landscape of the U.S. as a whole will look much more like Seattle than Atlanta.

And so I’ve found my mind wandering again and again to this question: What is the future of Methodism in America?

Before I enter fully into these thoughts, let me assure you that I am aware of what a speculative enterprise this is. I offer these thoughts as ultimately nothing more than one person’s thoughts about the kind of Methodism that will be most likely to thrive in twenty years or so.

1. American Methodism will experience a paradigm shift as the desire to pursue cultural respectability becomes obsolete. American Methodism will slowly recognize its loss of cultural respect, eventually acknowledging it and then grieving it. Ultimately, American Methodism will emerge on the other side with a much clearer sense of its own identity, mission, and purpose and will learn to live authentically from these, even though much of what American Methodism stands for will be alien and perhaps even offensive to the broader culture(s) it is situated within. Moreover, given broader cultural changes, American Methodism will recognize that it must form people into a new worldview, and not merely a few ideas and practices that serve as self-help strategies adorning mostly unchanged lives.

2. American Methodism will recognize that the Holy Spirit has already given the people called Methodists a theology that is ideally suited for a post-Christian context. Methodists will preach the Wesleyan understanding of grace in its fullness with renewed conviction and boldness. Methodists will insist that God’s grace is for everyone, no exceptions. And Methodists will maintain that God’s grace saves us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who cancels (forgives) all of our sins. And Methodists will also boldly proclaim the audacious optimism of God’s sanctifying (life-changing) grace, which can enable us to love God and neighbor to the complete exclusion of sin. American Methodists will be known for their passionate belief in entire sanctification and God’s ability to changes lives radically.

3. American Methodism will recognize that the Holy Spirit has already given the people called Methodists a practice that is ideally suited for such a time as this. In a post-Christian context, a thriving faith community must not only proclaim the gospel, with the accents just mentioned, it must visibly demonstrate its proclamation by embodying what God makes possible. American Methodism will embrace social holiness (communal formation, especially through transformation-driven small groups) as a part of its fundamental and foundational essential practices. Participation in weekly small groups like the class meeting and the band meeting will be seen as more important than attending a weekly worship service. It will be impossible to be a member of American Methodism in the future and not regularly attend corporate worship and a small group focused on God’s work in your life.

4. As American Methodism passionately preaches entire sanctification and makes an uncompromising commitment to social holiness, it will find God’s deepest blessings through being in ministry with all of God’s children, especially those who seem beyond hope from a worldly perspective. American Methodists will not send money and resources to help those who cannot help themselves, but will be in relational ministry with them as a natural expression of their practical theology. As one example, American Methodism will recognize that recovery ministry is not something that a church lets an auxiliary group anonymously do in their building, but is something that is a core ministry of the church. American Methodists will not see this as a ministry for “those people,” but will seek complete freedom from addiction to the ways of sin and death together, by the grace of God. And many will experience the fullness of God’s amazing grace.

5. The boundaries of American Methodism will be blurred by close connection and cooperation with global Methodism. Methodist missionaries will both come to and from America. American Methodism at every level will be changed through relationships with brothers and sisters from across the globe, especially Africa, Asia, and South America. American Methodists will place significantly greater weight on the Methodist aspect of their identity than the American. Methodists across the globe will be united by a common mission to spread scriptural holiness across the globe.

There are so many possibilities for the future of American Methodism. It is impossible to predict with certainly what will be. I do know that when I think about this possible future, I get extremely excited. Come, Holy Spirit!

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.

Hillary Clinton, Do all the good that you can, and Methodist Faith

Last night Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton referenced her Methodist faith during her speech. Secretary Clinton said:

She made sure I learned the words of our Methodist faith: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”

Is this an accurate expression of Methodist faith?

Immediately after she spoke these words a close friend said, “You’re about to be cited a lot.” And sure enough I started hearing from people via text message, Twitter, and Facebook. And my blog immediately got 1,500 hits due to people searching the phrase “Do all the good that you can.”

I wrote a blog post on April 29, 2013 that pointed out that Wesley did not actually say the full quote that is often misattributed to him:

“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.”

It was interesting that my post got so much attention last night; however, because Hillary Clinton did not say that John Wesley said the quote. (Sadly, the official twitter account for The United Methodist Church did immediately publish a tweet misattributing the quote to John Wesley.) It is all too rare to see a public figure use this kind of well-worn quote with care and nuance for historical accuracy. Hillary Clinton did that in her speech last night. She absolutely got it right!

Perhaps more interesting than whether Wesley did or did not say something is whether the phrase is an accurate expression of “our Methodist faith,” to use Secretary Clinton’s words. There has seemed to be an assumption online that because I have stubbornly insisted that John Wesley did not say this quote that I also do not think it is a Wesleyan sentiment. So, does “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can” accurately express Methodist faith? Of course it does!

This quote is an accurate summary of Methodist commitment to public service. The key place that I would connect this explicitly to John Wesley and early Methodism would be the “General Rules,” (though there are many ways where Wesley expresses similar sentiments) which was a short document that outlined the basic commitments that someone was expected to live by when they became a Methodist. The three rules were:

    1. Do no harm.

    2. Do good.

    3. Attend upon the ordinances of God. (This meant practice the basics of the Christian faith regularly like worship, prayer, reading the Bible, receiving the Lord’s Supper, and fasting.)

The full version of the second rule is remarkably similar to “Do all the good that you can….” The rule states: “Secondly, By doing good, by being in every kind merciful after their power, as they have opportunity doing good of every possible sort and as far as is possible to all men.” It continues with concrete acts of good: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are sick or in prison.

Outside of the context of a major political speech like Hillary Clinton gave last night, I would want to add that there is more to the second rule than acts of service to others. The second rule goes on to exhort doing good “to their souls, by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all they have any intercourse [conversation] with; trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine of devils, that ‘we are not to do good unless our hearts be free to do it.’ It also includes doing good “especially to them that are of the household of faith” and doing all of this with “all possible diligence and frugality, that the gospel be not blamed.”

Finally, the second rule concludes with this:

By running with patience the race that is set before them; ‘denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily’; submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world; and looking that men should ‘say all manner of evil of them falsely, for their Lord’s sake’.

Put differently, Methodists do all the good that we can in order to become more like Jesus. Methodists are not pursuing a general notion of goodness divorced from the particularities of the gospel. We are pursuing goodness as it is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.

Do you want to learn more about the Methodist commitment to doing all the good that we can and how this fits into the Methodist faith? Check out A Blueprint for Discipleship, which is an accessible introduction to the basics of the Methodist commitment to following Jesus by doing no harm, doing all the good that we can, and practicing our faith by committing to basic spiritual disciplines. Get it 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.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other One #UMC

Like many of you, I was waiting with great anticipation to hear what would come out of the Executive Committee of The Council of Bishops when it met last week. I have been praying regularly for United Methodist bishops, especially during this meeting. I cannot imagine how difficult being a United Methodist bishop must be in our current moment, especially as the bishops of United Methodism are as divided as the church they serve.

A statement was released by Bishop Bruce Ough, the President of the Council of Bishops, on July 25, 2016 about last week’s meeting and the Executive Committee’s plans for the immediate future of the Commission on a Way Forward. I was stunned when I read the second paragraph of the three-page statement:

We began by acknowledging the profound dissonance between what the Council had proposed to the General Conference in May and the reality within the church in July. The landscape has changed dramatically. The reported declarations of non-compliance from several annual conferences, the intention to convene a Wesleyan Covenant Association and the election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of the church have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism.

This paragraph strikes me as particularly important because it frames the rest of the work that the Executive Committee did, especially in working to create the Commission on a Way Forward. The first time I read the statement the content of this paragraph raised so many concerns for me that it drowned out the rest of the statement.

I have one relatively minor question:

Is there any doubt about the declarations of non-compliance from several annual conferences? It seems a matter of record that these declarations of non-compliance occurred. So, why are these framed as “reported declarations?” The word “reported” seems extraneous and muddies the water regarding the seriousness of what those actions mean for The United Methodist Church.

I’ll focus the remainder of my thoughts on the one major objection I had to the statement:

The statement lists three actions that “have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism.” They are, in the order they appear in the statement:

The reported declarations of non-compliance from several annual conferences

The intention to convene a Wesleyan Covenant Association

The election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of the church

My first thought when reading this list was, “One of these things is not like the other one.” More specifically, one of these actions did not violate The Book of Discipline or express opposition to the theology or polity of The United Methodist Church.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) should not have been included in the list of actions that “have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism.” Including the WCA in this list reads like a distracting and disparaging attempt to say that both extremes in The UMC are at fault for the current trajectory of United Methodism. But this is misleading.

The declarations of non-compliance and the election of Rev. Oliveto were actions taken by annual conferences and jurisdictions in direct opposition to the will of General Conference and the polity of The UMC as found in The Book of Discipline. Moreover, both acts were undertaken by bodies that constitute units of United Methodist polity.

The WCA is different in that it is not an annual conference or jurisdiction. Most importantly, the WCA has not taken any action in contradiction or violation of The Book of Discipline. From what I see on their website, they haven’t even had their first meeting, which will be in October.

I realize that there are deep disagreements related to gay marriage and human sexuality more broadly. These disagreements are genuine. People of good will can disagree with each other. I can see why Bishop Ough would want to avoid placing blame solely at the feet of one part of the disagreement because he and other bishops would worry that it would make a difficult situation worse.

And yet, the actions that have led to further strains on the fragile unity of The United Methodist Church since the Bishops’ plan was approved by the General Conference have come almost entirely from one direction. It does not help this fragile unity to ask those who started the WCA to share blame for “opening deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church” with annual conferences and jurisdictions that have explicitly and intentionally violated United Methodist polity.

Since the end of General Conference, I’ve heard from a number of evangelical United Methodists who are working hard to keep people, both lay and clergy, from leaving United Methodism. Evangelical United Methodists are considering leaving not because of a lack of support for The United Methodist Church. Evangelicals are considering leaving because The United Methodist Church is not who it says it is. And they are considering leaving because they are tired of the dysfunction of United Methodism being blamed on them, even though their complaint is that the Discipline is not being upheld.

The creation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association did not create deep wounds and fissures in The UMC. Rather, the WCA formed because of these wounds and fissures, which have resulted from years of violation of The Book of Discipline and an unwillingness by some to hold those people accountable in order to preserve a meaningfully united Methodism.

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.

Unity in United Methodism

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I’ve been following the conversations about unity during and since The United Methodist Church’s General Conference. The appeal to unity is powerful and appealing. And it is at one level effective because calling for unity is, well, unifying. I am in favor of unity. I want United Methodism to be unified, desperately. I also have a growing concern that appeals to unity in our current moment are often superficial and act as a kind of opiate to numb us to reality. We should be actively working toward unity. But we should not do so in ways that are vague, distract us from reality, and fail to either bring about meaningful unity or address the reasons we are currently divided. Here are two more specific thoughts I’ve had about unity that I’ve been chewing on since General Conference:

1. It is interesting that the value of unity is often used as a rationale for not enforcing the Discipline. One of the basic purposes of polity is to make unity possible. If you took away the presenting issues related to profound disagreements about human sexuality, I suspect one would be able to get pretty broad and firm agreement that the very purpose of polity is to secure unity within a denomination. The idea that polity is a barrier to unity, rather than part of what makes unity possible, reveals some serious problems in a tradition. I suspect that the appeal to unity as a rationale for not upholding the Discipline virtually guarantees disunity.

2. I find that appeals to unity are typically vague and lack any concrete precision when they are connected to the deep disagreements we currently have about human sexuality. Consider same sex marriage: A group of United Methodists believes that there can be no such thing as Christian marriage that is composed of two people of the same gender. Another group of United Methodists believes that not only are such marriages possible, but that it is harmful to deny people access to same gender marriages. A third group is frustrated by the inflexibility of these two groups. The appeal to unity most often comes from people in this third group. But I don’t believe I have seen someone from this group make a theological argument for why one church can be both for and against same sex marriage and how such a position would express the value of the Church’s unity. I can’t recall a theological argument from someone in this camp that argues that same sex marriage is a matter of indifference to God. As far as I can tell, the most accurate way of describing the current crisis of unity in United Methodism is precisely that people are convinced that God is not indifferent about these matters and they deeply and profoundly disagree about what faithfulness looks like. The hard truth is that, short of divine intervention, this is not going to change.

In moments of crisis, United Methodists often fall back on an appeal to unity. The appeal to unity feels good because we are fighting for the church. The litmus test for the value of an appeal to unity should be this: Does it address the reasons we are divided and offer a concrete solution that can bring about actual unity? Leaders within United Methodism need to consider whether appeals to unity that cannot pass this basic test may actually be doing more harm than good in our current moment.

Rule 44 and #UMCGC

To this point, I have seen those who oppose Rule 44 described as extremists, arrogant, leading a misinformation campaign, being afraid of their feelings or the feelings of others, and having contempt for the heart. As one who is opposed to Rule 44, these feel like personal attacks that are inaccurate projections.

Proponents of Rule 44 argue that the proposed legislation is valuable because it will enable all delegates to have a voice and to hear each other’s stories with respect and love. But the most passionate supporters of Rule 44 are not engaging those they disagree with in this way. So, why would we expect this to change when we shifted from discussing Rule 44 to discussing even more personal and contested topics?

For the record, as a professor at Candler School of Theology I really enjoy hearing students, colleagues, and pastors share their stories of how God has worked and is working in their lives. The major thrust of my work to translate my academic work in service to the church has been seeking to equip local churches to engage each other in small groups where they can do life in the deep places and seek profound growth in their love for God and for each other. A major emphasis of my life’s work to this point has been seeking to help The United Methodist Church reclaim actual Christian conferencing. I do not oppose Rule 44 because I am opposed to people sharing their stories with each other. I just don’t believe that General Conference is the time or place where this essential work can be done effectively. To be clear: None of the descriptions mentioned at the beginning of this post accurately describe the reasons I oppose Rule 44.

I oppose Rule 44 because I believe it is based on a deeply flawed understanding of what Christian conferencing is. The initial role out of Rule 44 made it pretty clear that Rule 44 was one of the most visible attempts to bring Christian conferencing to General Conference. I realize that the Commission has walked this back since, but based on my experience with Faith and Order and the Council of Bishops, I believe I am correct that this was the initial intent of Rule 44. Moreover, I have seen multiple people online defend Rule 44 for precisely this reason. I do not believe there is a way at this stage to separate the inaccurate understanding of Christian conferencing from Rule 44 (ie, the impression that enacting Rule 44 would be reclaiming Christian conferencing). And though it may seem irrelevant to some, I remain sincerely convinced that getting Christian conferencing right is extremely important. If it is an instituted means of grace, as Wesley understood it to be, it is the same category as Holy Communion. We would all be appalled if Holy Communion were described as all of the food that is consumed at General Conference. We should be similarly concerned when Christian conferencing is described by the Commission on General Conference as everything that happens at General Conference because it trivializes the meaning and significance of this precious means of grace.

I also oppose Rule 44 because I am convinced that it will not work in practice. We tried something similar in 2012 and it was experienced as harmful to some who participated. With current tensions and the way the debate is framed, there is just no chance that topics like human sexuality can be engaged honestly and forthrightly without someone feeling offended, silenced, or hurt. I have heard from several people who have experience with the initial attempts to introduce Rule 44. Opinion is divided on whether the practice is in fact helpful in accomplishing its own ends. Tyler Best has just written about his experience as a small group leader of Rule 44 (were it enacted). He provides concrete evidence that General Conference is too complicated and too tense of an environment to pull off the best intentions behind Rule 44.

I remain opposed to Rule 44. I realize that my way is not the only way of thinking about this and that you may disagree with me. I do not demand that you agree with me. I would ask that you recognize that I simply disagree with you and that you not attribute more sinister motives to me.

For previous posts I’ve written on this topic that develop my understanding of what Christian conferencing is and why I oppose Rule 44 click here, here, and here.

Edit: Needing a 2/3 majority to pass, Rule 44 failed to receive approval by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. The vote took place on May 12, 2106 with 356 voting in favor of adoption and 477 voting against adoption.

United Methodist Doctrine: That 70s Show?

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Yesterday I wrote a brief update on the Vital Piety Page on Facebook sharing a thought I had about Outler’s understanding of experience while reading his essay “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley.” After reading Outler on the quadrilateral, I then read the 1972 and 1988 statements on “Our Theological Task” in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. For years I’ve been struck by the ways in which the 1972 statement’s influence persists, despite its being intentionally replaced with a thorough rewrite that was adopted in 1988 and is still the version in the current BOD. Here are a few quick thoughts:

It is interesting to note the ideas from the 1972 statement that were rejected in the 1988 rewrite that are very much alive and well in popular United Methodist consciousness. The 1972 statement, for example, explicitly endorsed “theological pluralism.” It expressed a sense that the “effort to substitute new creeds for old” tends to “partisanship and schism.” And it prioritized “ethical fruits of faith” over “systems of doctrine.” Finally, it asserted, that our doctrinal standards “are not to be construed literally and juridically.”

The statement then raised the challenge, “By what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling?” (I.e., in the absence of literal and juridical standards of doctrine, how do we search for meaningful unity?) The answer is the quadrilateral! “The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within the boundaries defined by four main sources and guidelines for Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason.”

The virtue of the quadrilateral is described as follows in the 1972 statement: “They [the four sources] allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing.”

One way of understanding the creation of the quadrilateral in United Methodism, then, is to see it as a strategy for pitching a big tent and working to ensure that the tent would be big enough for anyone who might come under its cover. To that end, the quadrilateral appeared to be designed to ensure that the method would lead to a variety of conclusions or theological perspectives, not to bring doctrinal unity within a particular faith community. Some United Methodists today would see this as one of the primary virtues of United Methodism, one of the reasons we can agree to disagree and love each other in the midst of disagreement. Others would see this as one of the primary vices of United Methodism, one of the reasons we are not able to find consensus on basic theology or ethics. Regardless of whether you personally love or hate the 1972 statement’s endorsement of theological pluralism, it was intentionally removed from the current statement.

In reading the 1972 statement of “Our Theological Task” in connection with the 1988 statement, one has the impression that the 1988 statement was a significant rejection of much of what was in the earlier statement. Theological pluralism is no longer in the statement at all. The arbitrary assertion that our doctrinal standards cannot function as standards in any meaningful way is also removed. While “serious reflection across the theological spectrum” is encouraged, the statement makes clear that “the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process.” The statement goes on to affirm that, “We are a Church with a distinctive theological heritage.” It continues: “In our diversity, we are held together by a shared inheritance.” The impatience with systems of doctrine in order to get to ethical living is also much less present in the current statement of “Our Theological Task,” which seems to have a more clear recognition that theological reflection is an essential precondition for ethical Christian living.

The main place where the current statement is worse than the 1972 statement, in my view, is in its understanding of experience. I’ve previously written on Albert Outler’s understanding of John Wesley’s understanding of experience. The 1972 statement says the following about experience:

Experience is to the individual as tradition is to the Church as a whole: the personal appropriation of God’s unmeasured mercy in life and interpersonal relations. There is a radical distinction between intellectual assent to the message of the Bible and doctrinal propositions set forth in the creeds, and the personal experience of God’s pardoning and healing love… This ‘new life in Christ’ is what is meant by the phrase ‘Christian experience.’

This definition bears the clear mark of Outler’s hand. The 1988 statement generally keeps this understanding, but adds to it. Wesley “looked for confirmations of the biblical witness in human experience, especially the experiences of regeneration and sanctification, but also in the ‘common sense’ knowledge of everyday experience.” In the specific section on experience, much of the material cited above from the 1972 statement is kept, but it is also added to in ways that are in tension with Outler’s understanding of what Wesley meant by experience as a source for theological reflection. The current statement, for example, says “We interpret experience in the light of scriptural norms, just as our experience informs our reading of the biblical message.” On my reading of Outler, he would have serious concerns about the second half of both of the previous quotes.

In rereading both statements of “Our Theological Task,” I am struck by the persistent influence of a statement that is obsolete. It is difficult to change understandings of doctrine overnight. It also seems problematic when a discarded understanding of the theological task is still influencing and informing the current popular United Methodist understanding of theology. Even worse, the 1972 statement at times seems more influential than our actual doctrinal standards, particularly when neither statement of “Our Theological Task” has ever been understood as a standard for United Methodist doctrine.

United Methodist doctrine exists. But whether it is owned by rank and file United Methodists is, regrettably, an open question.

For much more information on the 1972 and 1988 statements on “Our Theological Task” see Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church, edited by Thomas A. Langford.

Pursuing Social Holiness Now in Paperback

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Pursuing Social Holiness: The Band Meeting in Wesley’s Thought and Popular Methodist Practice is now available in paperback! This is good news because it means the book is much more reasonably priced. The book was initially published in a hardcover edition that was listed at $78. And many of you let me hear about it!

Because of the initial price of the book, I have tended not to promote it too much when I speak within the church. Now that it is available in a more economical format, I want to let you know about it. The retail price for the paperback edition is $35. I know this is still not cheap, but it is about as good as it gets for an academic book. Right now you can save 30% off the paperback edition. Click here and use the promotional code AAFLYG6.

This book is a revision of the work I did for my PhD dissertation and is the product of several years of research and writing on the band meeting in early British Methodism. The book is the only study of meaning and significance of the band meeting in Methodism that has been written.

I’ve been speaking quite a bit over the past few years on the role of Christian conferencing, social holiness, the class meeting, and the band meeting in a variety of contexts. I have focused on the class meeting in my recent writing for the church because the class meeting is the most appropriate entry point for transformation-driven small groups for people who don’t have much experience with them. My recent focus on the class meeting does not mean that I don’t think the band meeting was important too! The band meeting, which was focused on confession of sin for the sake of growth in holiness, was crucial for early Methodism and its mission to “spread scriptural holiness.” Methodists need to know this history and wrestle with its potential relevance for contemporary Christian formation.

Here’s a summary of the book from the back 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. Watson explores how Wesley synthesized important aspects of Anglican piety and Moravian piety 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.

Here is what some noted scholars in Methodist Studies have said about Pursuing Social Holiness:

This is a brilliant study of one of the foundational institutions of eighteenth-century Methodism…. 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, author of American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists

This groundbreaking study offers the most detailed account to date of band meetings in early Wesleyan Methodism…. Highly recommended.

– Randy Maddox, William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies, Divinity School

Watson’s work on the band meeting is the definitive history of this practice of small-group confession within eighteenth-century English evangelicalism…. This is a must-have for scholars of Methodism and eighteenth-century religious history.

– Scott Kisker, Associate Dean of Residential Programs and Professor of Church History, United Theological Seminary

I hope you will consider picking up a copy of this book in order to learn more about one of the core practices of early Methodists in their pursuit of social holiness.

Thoughts on #UMCGC and Christian Conferencing (Part 2)

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In my previous post, I discussed my concern with the imprecise use of Christian conferencing in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate and the push to reclaim Christian conferencing at the General Conference level. Recent reporting on Christian conferencing leaves me with the impression that the discussion around Christian conferencing has taken a significant step back over the past year. These two UMNS articles [1] [2] have very different understandings of Christian conferencing. Curiously, there is no indication of an awareness of tension between the two or commentary on the shift.

More broadly, I’m not sure United Methodism is currently operating with a collective understanding of either grace or the means of grace that is sufficiently robust. If we aren’t clear about either of these, we cannot hope to be clear about what concrete expressions of means of grace like Christian conferencing ought to look like. Richard P. Heitzenrater’s “The Exercise of the Presence of God: Holy Conferencing as a Means of Grace” is a helpful starting point for a Wesleyan understanding of grace, means of grace, as well as parsing “holy conferencing” and “Christian conferencing.”

While I am discouraged by the recent direction that the discussion of Christian conferencing seems to have taken, particularly as seen in the Advance DCA, I continue to be eager to see The United Methodist Church return to an authentic retrieval of Christian conferencing. So, how can we do a better job of articulating what Christian conferencing is? And where are the best places to work toward a return to this practice?

Andrew C. Thompson’s recent book The Means of Grace offers a substantive and accessible introduction to the means of grace in general, as well as to Christian conferencing more specifically. In his chapter on Christian conferencing, Thompson points out that “fellowship” and “Christian conferencing” are synonyms in Wesley’s writing. For Thompson, “There’s a deeply spiritual component to fellowship, in Wesley’s mind, that makes it centrally about the work of transformation…. Christian believers were gathered together with their hearts open to the work of the Holy Spirit and with a desire to receive God’s grace” (90). Considering the way that conferencing is used in Wesley’s writing, Thompson writes, “Christian conference… is about believers coming together to focus on their faith: to pray, to share their experience of God, to seek advice and to offer counsel, and even to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness” (90).

The recent work of Methodist historians like Heitzenrater and Thompson provides a good foundation for working toward a coherent collective understanding of Christian conferencing at the General Conference and Annual Conference level. Again, because of the current lack of clarity and precision in defining Christian conferencing, the best approach is to focus on teaching on this practice at General Conference and Annual Conference, not implementation. In our current moment, attempting to go straight into practice at General Conference is premature, will most likely waste time, and comes across as trying to manage or control the conversation to people from nearly every perspective.

The best place to begin working toward reclaiming Christian conferencing would be at the district level where you could offer workshops and training. The key place of implementation is the local church, where ongoing relationships are present. Among Methodist historians, there has been a general consensus that the class meeting is one of the best concrete examples of what Wesley had in mind by Christian conferencing being an instituted means of grace.

I have been encouraged by the momentum I have seen building for a retrieval of a contemporary expression of the class meeting. This past Sunday, it was announced at the church I attend that 150 people had signed up to join a new small group ministry that is an intentional reclaiming of the class meeting (and 85 people have already been actively involved in similar groups). This is only one example of the broader interest I am seeing in not just talking about transformation-driven small groups, but in experiencing them. A return to something like the class meeting is something laity are ready for and are responding to in contemporary Methodism. The time seems to be ripe for a deeper engagement with not only Christian conferencing as an instituted means of grace, but also the class meeting and the band meeting as prudential means of grace for “the people called Methodists.”

The specificity of the class meeting as an example of Christian conferencing is helpful for a host of reasons. First, Christian conferencing is a means of grace for everyone, not just General Conference delegates. The primary emphasis for reclaiming this practice needs to be at the local church level and not the General Conference to be sure that all are invited into a practice that is at the core of what it means to be a Methodist.

Second, the class meeting’s focus was answering the question: “How does your soul prosper?” This question reminds us that the key focus of Christian conferencing in early Methodism was on God and peoples’ experience with God, or their search for a deeper experience with God’s presence and power in their lives.

Third, the class meeting was a small group that was intended to meet together for the long haul, not a few times over a couple of weeks. Christian conferencing can occur in isolated meetings, but I do not think that should be seen as the normal experience of Christian conferencing. Christian conferencing is most likely to occur in the context of ongoing community.

One of the reasons I find this to be a difficult topic is because Christian conferencing can occur in a variety of contexts. In thinking about Christian conferencing more over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that I have to say that it is theoretically possible for Christian conferencing to happen at General Conference. It cannot be defined restrictively as a particular type of small group meeting. And yet, I am as convinced as ever that it is foolish to have General Conference be the primary point of emphasis, or the starting point for reclaiming Christian conferencing, in our current moment. Based on the past several General Conferences, we simply do not have good reason to think that genuine Christian conferencing is likely to happen in Portland.

Christian conferencing is a precious part of our heritage as Methodists. It is too important to trivialize or gut of its power as a means of God’s transforming grace. It is not everything that happens at General Conference, as has been suggested by conversations around the pre-General Conference meetings in January. In a time when United Methodism is desperate for renewal, we should absolutely look to our past for guidance. We should struggle to discern where God has been at work in the past in hopes of being renewed in the present. I am all for retrieving Christian conferencing. In fact, my recent book The Class Meeting is an attempt to provide a practical resource for retrieving the most basic aspect of this practice within the local church.

My worry is that we are currently on a course that will disillusion the key leaders of our church with the value of one of our most basic practices. Recent appeals to this practice have not resulted in what I would consider to be Christian conferencing. Instead, there seems to be a persistent tendency to (mis)use Christian conferencing as a way of sanctifying decisions after they have been made that is self-justifying.

To be clear on where I come down on Rule 44: I do not think Rule 44 represents a faithful expression of Christian conferencing. I do not believe Rule 44 would facilitate Christian conferencing.

If we continue in the directions suggested by the Advance DCA, I fear that those who would be most poised to advocate for churches to return to the authentic practice of Christian conferencing will come to have a very negative connotation associated with the phrase. Many already do. The consequence could well be that our key leaders become apathetic to Christian conferencing entirely. Even worse, they might actively oppose attempts to reclaim Christian conferencing based on negative experiences at General Conference that were not actual experiences of the practice.

Much is at stake for the ongoing vitality and coherence of Methodism. May God grant us wisdom and discernment as we continue to work towards reclaiming a practice that is essential for authentic Methodist identity and practice.

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.

Thoughts on #UMCGC and Christian Conferencing (Part 1)

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I was invited by the Committee on Faith and Order to speak to the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church on “holy conferencing” at its November, 2014 meeting in Oklahoma City. The invitation was very encouraging to me, particularly because the working documents that Faith and Order shared with me on their work on the topic were quite strong. I had previously expressed concerns about misuses of the term holy conferencing, where one of only five instituted means of grace in the Wesleyan view had been distorted so that it had become little more than trying to be nice to each other when we disagree. In contrast to previous misuses of the phrase, Faith and Order was working on an account that was more theologically substantive and engaged more robust practices. As I recall, nearly every document they shared with me identified the early Methodist class meeting and band meeting as the most concrete expression of Christian conferencing in early Methodism.

I went to the Council of Bishops meeting with a real sense of optimism. I felt that I was being given the chance to build on this positive momentum and encourage the leadership of United Methodism to reclaim an authentically Wesleyan approach to Christian communal formation. In this spirit, I began my presentation by asking the bishops to consider what would be “one thing that United Methodism could do today that would be most likely to bring deep renewal and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to our church?” My answer was “reclaiming an accurate understanding of holy conferencing in contemporary United Methodism.” But I was quick to add, “everything hinges on getting right what holy conferencing is.”

My basic advice was for there to be preaching and teaching on the concept of Christian conferencing at the General Conference and Annual Conference levels. I suggested that the most productive place to seek to return to this practice would be at the district level and especially the local church. (You can read the manuscript I used in my presentation here.)

I don’t think reclaiming the practice of Christian conferencing should start at the General Conference level because it is asking people to do something that most of them have never done with people they do not know. I don’t think you can take it for granted that people know what Christian conferencing is in contemporary United Methodism. General Conference is not the wisest place to implement Christian conferencing. Rather, it is a prime opportunity to teach people what it is so that they can begin working towards a return to it on the ground at the local church level.

As I read reports of the pre-General Conference meeting in Portland last month, I was initially encouraged to see that the Commission on General Conference featured Christian conferencing prominently in its work. The shift away from “holy conferencing” to “Christian conferencing” is a positive move. The desire to lift this practice up at General Conference is also laudable. However, the more I read about the use of Christian conferencing in the Advance DCA, as well as reporting on it by UMNS and other places, the more I fear that we are in for another General Conference that reinforces the distortions of one of the most distinctive practices of the Methodist heritage.

The Advance Daily Christian Advocate contains guidelines for Christian conferencing, especially with “A Few Sentences on Christian Conferencing” on page 22. There are also several places where there is a proposed language change from “Conference business” to “Christian conferencing”. Perhaps most significant is “Rule 44,” a proposed rule change to the “Rules of Order” that would allow for a group discernment process instead of the usual parliamentary procedure, which observes Robert’s Rules of Order.

In reading through the references to Christian conferencing in the ADCA, my impression is that this phrase is being used to try to have a better conversation about controversial topics. The sentences from The Committee on Faith and Order appear to be a combination of past misuses of the phrase with some corrections and more responsible interpretation. In reading through the sentences, I had a kind of déjà vu experience. Some of it sounded like it came from the manuscript I used when I spoke to the Council of Bishops. Other parts seemed to reaffirm what I critiqued or rejected. In its current form, the document could be used either to support a robust theological vision for reclaiming Christian conferencing or to support a gross distortion of the practice. There is simply not enough precision to rule either out.

In my view, the Advance DCA fails to offer a clear definition of what Christian conferencing is. How do we know when we are doing it? How do we know when attempts to Christian conference are falling short of what ought to be considered an instituted means of grace? Reading through the ADCA, I feel a bit like we are hoping that if we say “Christian conferencing” enough that somehow it will happen. I’m also left with the impression that we still lack a coherent and compelling articulation of what it in fact is.

Clearly defining Christian conferencing is a real challenge, and all the more so because Wesley himself did not offer a clear definition. The one time he refers to Christian conferencing, all he offers are a series of rhetorical questions that could be used to support misuses of the practice.

The need for a deeper understanding of Christian conferencing is one of the main reasons my advice to the Council of Bishops was that General Conference and Annual Conference would be the appropriate contexts for preaching and teaching on Christian conference and the role it has played in our tradition –not trying to engage in the practice itself. If we are not crystal clear on what the practice is that we are trying to reclaim, then we don’t seem to have much hope of succeeding in practicing it at General Conference – the most highly politicized and stressful expression of our collective life together.

Stay tuned: The next post will point towards a clear articulation of what Christian conferencing is and ways to reclaim this practice in contemporary Methodism.

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.

A Substantive and Accessible Intro to the Means of Grace

One of the many highlights for me from the 2015 New Room Conference was picking up a copy of Andrew C. Thompson’s brand new book The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice in Today’s World. The book is a substantive yet highly accessible introduction to the basic habits or practices that Wesleyans have insisted are essential for growing in Christian faith and maturity. John Wesley referred to these basic practices as means of grace.

The book begins with a chapter that defines grace and discusses its integral role in the Christian life. The book is organized according to John Wesley’s s understanding of the means of grace as instituted, prudential, and general. Thompson discusses these as what we learn from Christ (instituted), what we learn from our context (prudential), and what we learn by contemplation (general).

The book is appropriately weighted towards the instituted means of grace, those practices that are based on the teaching and example of Jesus. A full chapter is dedicated to each of the instituted means of grace: baptism, searching the Scriptures, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and fellowship (or Christian conference). Each chapter provides a strong introduction to the Biblical foundation of the particular practice, as well as its connection to Wesleyan spirituality and our daily discipleship. A particular strength of the book is Thompson’s comfort with both the theological significance of each of these practices and his ability to suggest practical ways to more fully integrate each practice into the rhythms of daily life.

Part II of the book focuses on the prudential means of grace, or what we learn from our context. A chapter is dedicated to “Classes, Bands, and Arts of Holy Living” (my favorite chapter!) and Works of Mercy. Part III focuses on the general means of grace, or what we learn by contemplation. And the book concludes with a summary of the significance of the means of grace for Christian discipleship and an exhortation to enter into a disciplined practice of this disciplined way of life. Thompson concludes by reminding us that the means of grace are intentionally ordinary practices that are “meant to be used in everyday, ordinary life. The promise that they hold for us is that they will show us the way from an ordinary to an extraordinary kind of life” (138).

Thompson is uniquely qualified to write this book because he is both a scholar and a pastor. Moreover, both his scholarship and his pastoral work focus on a thoroughly Wesleyan approach to Christian discipleship.

As a scholar, Thompson wrote his ThD dissertation on Wesley’s understanding of the means of grace at Duke Divinity School, studying with two of the giants in the field of Wesleyan/Methodist Studies, Richard P. Heitzenrater and Randy L. Maddox who have written two of the basic texts for United Methodist ordinands on the history of Methodism and John Wesley’s theology. Thompson also taught the required courses in Methodist history, doctrine, and polity at Memphis Theological Seminary for four years prior to being appointed by his bishop to one of the largest local churches in his home Annual Conference. Simply put, Andrew could not be better prepared intellectually for writing this book. And yet, Thompson also has a deep commitment to the local church and clear giftedness for local church ministry, as is evidenced by his recent transition to the senior pastorate. Thompson’s commitment to the local church and to helping laity grow in faith in Christ is clear throughout The Means of Grace.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a deeper understanding of the Wesleyan approach to Christian living. The practices this book introduces have been tried and consistently found to be used by God to draw people more and more deeply into the life that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share with each other. There is simply no more reliable path to Christian maturity.

You can get a physical copy or e-copy of The Means of Grace directly from the publisher here, or from amazon here.

[Disclaimer: Andrew Thompson is a personal friend and The Means of Grace is published by the publisher of one of my books. However, I have received no compensation for writing this review. I chose to write this review because I think this is a great book and I hope you will read it!]