In Chapter 4 of Dr. Scott Kisker’s work, Mainline or Methodist? Recovering our Evangelistic Mission, Kisker begins to discuss the “method” behind Methodism. This chapter opens with a critique of what passes for evangelism and discipleship within the UMC today. Kisker doesn’t hold back when he says most of what passes for evangelism in our denomination today,
[is] at best, a bankrupt vision of God’s purposes for creation and a truncated understanding of salvation. At worst, we find practices that are little more than thinly veiled attempts to manipulate others through politics or marketing techniques.
Our challenge is to reclaim the strong theological grounding of the early practices of the Methodist movement. Rather than trying anything to see if it works, or allowing our theology and practice to be grounded only in our personal preference or politics, we should follow Wesley’s practice of grounding our understanding of both evangelism and discipleship in the way, “God’s grace is active, working to save God’s beloved creatures.”
Kisker’s read of these practices follow Wesley’s admonition to preach Christ in all of his offices: prophet, priest, and king. The corresponding practices, are field preaching, class membership, and band membership. These also correspond to convincing (what we often call prevenient), justifying, and sanctifying grace. His summary at the end of the chapter is helpful,
With those asleep in sin, Methodism’s missional task is to minister in Christ’s prophetic office – publicly, in the open air, at the market cross – to convince people of their need for God. With those already convinced of their need for God, Methodism’s missional task is to introduce them to the one who can meet that need – to their great high priest. With those who know God’s forgiving love, Methodism’s missional task is to work to save them from the power of sin – bring every part of their lives into the love of Christ the king.
These theological and missional tasks were expressed in practices that many United Methodist congregations (and affiliated organizations) have given up: open air preaching, class meetings, and band meetings. Here is a basic description of those practices.
Open-air preaching: Wesley found places where real people gathered as part of their daily lives and introduced them to the message of God’s salvation. He preached outside the walls of the Church, many times as often as twice a day. He hoped to see people awakened to the, “hollowness of their search for happiness” in anything outside of God. Kisker challenges us to find the modern-day equivalent of the market square. In my D.Min. paper, I explore whether or not this is the virtual world of social media (Facebook, twitter, etc.), but we’ll leave that for another day. After being awakened by God’s grace through open-air preaching, people were gathered in the class meeting.
Class meeting: here, people were given opportunities for further response. People were invited to talk in smaller groups about their spiritual state and were expected to live as followers of Jesus. These groups were limited to twelve members where people experienced authentic Christian fellowship, often for the first time. Kisker cites Tom Albin’s research which showed, “the majority of experiences of the new birth happened after membership in the class meeting, at times in the meeting.” In a sense, people most often belonged before they believed. Kisker writes,
Perhaps it is not possible to recover the class meeting as it was for our present day. But if our ministry is to be effective in the present age, we must recover what they provided: small, disciplined, hospitable, caring fellowships for non-Christians and Christians alike.
In our day, I wonder if traditional Sunday school groups can fulfill this role. Kisker doesn’t seem to think so, but I think it’s possible.
Band meetings: finally, after being awakened by field preaching, incorporated into caring groups of discipline and community, early Methodists were joined in the band meeting. Band meetings were sepearted by gender and were more confessional in nature.
To be a part of a band meant being willing to shuck pretense, to be humble before a brother or sister in Christ. It meant acting as a priest one to another, acting in love toward another whose sin you know. It meant allowing someone, who knows your sin, to act in love toward you. It meant humility. It meant Christlikeness. It meant holiness.
People who participated in this methodical process often experienced “full salvation,” as they were empowered to experience healing, forgiveness, and participation in the work and ministry of Christ. At the church I serve, this can best happen through our COS group ministry. In fact, I’ve experienced this very thing with a small group of three other men that I meet with weekly. Through their encouragement, support, and accountability, I see how I’m growing in grace and loving God and neighbor more than I have in a very long time.
Together these practices, rooted in a strong Wesleyan theology, prevent us from being just a charity organization or a political rally that uses the Church and scripture to validate our own biases and preferences. They are a means God will use to form us as more passionate and dedicated followers of Jesus. In part 5, I’ll look at Kisker’s thoughts on where this conversation might lead in the United Methodist Church today.
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