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?