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   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.