Mainline or Methodist (Part 5)

In chapter 5, Kisker turns his attention to conferencing in the Methodist tradition.  His description of the way annual and general conferences function is not much different than my experience with them over the past five years.  We meet as an Annual Conference every year.  We ordain a new group of Deacons and Elders, we honor those who cease active service, we remember those who have died in the previous year.  We also get to spend time in worship and in reviewing legislation that comes from various committees across the conference.  Additionally we get to reconnect with sisters and brothers in Christ that we haven’t seen much in the prior year.

Kisker believes the majority of United Methodists would be surprised that none of these activities are the reason conferencing was established within Methodism by John Wesley.  That, instead, grew out of Wesley’s oversight of the Methodist movement.  It is describes beautifully here,

In 1738, a high church Anglican, Oxford academic met Jesus for real and began acting very contrary to character.  He lowered himself to preach outside of a church and to focus his attentions not on the promising young men in the university, but on the working class men and women struggling along in early industrial England.

As a result, Wesley incorporated lay leadership and lay preaching in the leadership of the early Methodist groups.  The first conference, then, was designed to gather the spiritual leaders of these Methodist groups, those in particular who were open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, to think, talk, and pray together as they sought God’s direction.  All of their questions reflected these general questions,

  1. What to teach;
  2. How to teach;
  3. What to do; that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice

The early Methodists didn’t gather to discuss legislation that made little difference in the lives of the people they served.  Instead of meeting and using the same tactics and practices as congress, we are called to confer for only one reason,

We confer for one reason and one reason only.  Because we are called to play a part in a movement of God’s Spirit.  And that movement is big…United Methodism matters only if it is connected to, a part of, that movement.  If not, it is worthless, and might as well cease to exist.  To make sure we are continuing to be part of that movement requires discernment.  And discerning the Spirit of God requires a seeking community.

I agree wholeheartedly with Kisker’s read on the situation at this point.  Not only our churches, but any of our institutions cease to matter if they are disconnected from the movement of God’s Spirit.

After  a discussion of the steps it would take to truly conference in our world today, Kisker closes with a segment that provides hope for what could be,

It might amaze people to find out that at one time conference was a place of expectation – where revival might break out – where people might get converted to God…Conference was a place where ordinary people might find something extraordinary to pledge their lives to – a movement of God’s Spirit sweeping this world…  Many a newcomer gets converted at annual conference, but I fear it is generally not to Jesus.

I actually think this (conversion) could happen at our annual conference, if only based on the strength of our Bishop’s preaching.  He effectively offers the gospel in ways that call people to repentance and conversion.  I can picture women and men giving their lives to the extraordinary call of Christ in response to the worship that we sometimes encounter at conference – if you were at last year’s ordination service, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

However, I also sense the frustration that Kisker describes.  Sometimes we spend thirty minutes to an hour working on a piece of legislation that is basically passing a proclamation about something or another that apparently goes in a file that never impacts anything.  I still remember a piece of legislation that proposed the highest paid employee of a church couldn’t make more than a certain percentage more than the lowest paid employee.  It was poorly thought out and didn’t factor in a consideration of rural churches whatsoever, but we spent forever talking about this inane piece of legislation.  That’s the kind of thing conference can devolve into.

All in all, I think Kisker’s hope for conferencing probably won’t happen in my lifetime, and it is probably the weakest chapter in an excellent book.  In the next (and final!) installment, we’ll look at his thoughts for a way forward.

Mainline or Methodist (Part 4)

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.

Mainline or Methodist (Part 1)

For Christmas I received a copy of Dr. Scott Kisker’s book, Mainline or Methodist: Recovering our Evangelistic Mission.  After a quick read through, I saw that it was worth a second, more thorough read.  I also decided it would be a worthwhile way to start the new year here on the blog. Rather than giving a long review of the book as a whole, I thought I’d work through each chapter and share some of the ideas that really made me think.

First, Kisker acknowledges the systematic “sickness” of United Methodism, even though he refuses to make the numerical decline since 1960 his primary concern.  In Kisker’s argument, United Methodism’s problems started long before the decline beginning in the 60s.  He suggests, “the decline of Methodism began decades before the denomination experienced any numerical losses.”

For us in so-called mainline Methodism, our “mainline” identity is killing us and we must surgically remove it if we are ever to regain our health.  When we became “mainline,” we stopped actually being Methodist in all but name.  Real Methodism declined because we replaced those peculiarities that made us Methodist with a bland, acceptable, almost civil religion, barely distinguishable from other traditions also known as “mainline.”

“Mainline” means little to nothing.  Kisker uses the example of both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush belonging to the UMC as evidence that, “United Methodism has become simply a reflection of the middle and upper middle class world around it,” instead of the amazing movement of God captured when the Wesley brothers were, “an embarrassment to the Anglican communion and mainline society.”

This is easily seen in the 19-20th century practice of Methodists hoping to influence society,

We even began to assume we deserved to determine the shape of American society, not through conversion, a process of repentance and new birth, but through the political process and our own lobby, located in a fine white building across the street from the U.S. Capitol.

Kisker then describes the movement we see in John Wesley’s life from respectable member of the Academy and elite Anglicanism to tireless evangelist to the common people.  This is epitomized by Wesley’s field preaching, taking the gospel outside of his comfort zone into the industrial working class quarters of society.  Wesley previously shared an aversion to this new model for sharing the gospel,

“I left London and in the evening expounded to a small company at Basingstoke, Saturday, 31. In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”

Four days later, John Wesley began sharing the message of Christ in the same way,

At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.

Instead of following Wesley’s lead, Kisker suggests we may well resemble more the Anglicans Wesley hoped to revive than our own Methodist founder,

We are educated well beyond the majority in our society.  We pay our clergy, as distinctly mainline, beyond the majority in our society.  If we are to recover Methodism, freed from its addiction to the American mainstream, it will require the kind of  conversion Wesley experienced that day in Bristol…For such a recovery, we must humble ourselves before almighty God, trust in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and expect a blessing through a miraculous anointing by the Holy Spirit.

Over the next few posts, I’ll look at Kisker’s suggestions about the way forward.

A Blueprint for Discipleship

If you are interested in the unique gifts Methodism and the Wesleyan tradition has to offer the world, then you’ll definitely want to pick up Kevin Watson’s A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley’s General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living.  He does a great job of offering a simple yet challenging description of Wesley’s General Rules and the Methodist “method” for discipleship in a way that can help Methodists understand the beauty of intentional growth in grace.  

The book is well-written, easy to read, and includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter.  This makes it perfect for leading a group of laypeople through a class to help them understand the rich discipleship tools we carry in our “Methodist tool-belt.”

YouTube Experiment

Kevin Watson at has started an experiment to see how much social capital Methodist bloggers have. This experiment was prompted by the feeling among some Methodist bloggers that United Methodism does not always do as good of a job as it could at getting the Wesleyan message out there, particularly on-line. So, he wants to see how many views a YouTube video can get if Methodist bloggers work together to promote it. The experiment is to see how many hits the video will receive in two weeks.

If you want to participate you can: First, watch the video below. Second, copy and paste this entire post into a new post on your blog and post it. Third, remind people about this experiment in one week.

Based on the results of the experiment, Kevin will get in touch with the folks at Discipleship Resources and let them know the ways in which Methodist bloggers are often an underused resource.

Here is a link to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ISKTrScpzQ

Appointment Watch ’08

It’s that time of year again. Earnest hobbyists across the denomination have their highlighters and conference journals mapping the annual migration of the United Methodist Elder. Ahh, the sweet smell of spring, U-hauls, and the itinerancy.

After three years of watching this annual migration, I’ve decided it’s a good idea to announce the appointments as soon as they are set. With a quick Google search, I’ve found several conferences who are doing this very thing: Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa. I’m sure there are several others, but I didn’t take the time to look them up.

Even though I’m curious about the reasons these conferences made the move to public announcements prior to Annual Conference, I still think this is a good idea.

This kind of openness in the process can’t help but limit some of the speculation that goes on. It also seems that lay people might want to have access to this information in order to keep track of clergy who’ve served their congregation or even those who answered the call from within their congregation. Finally, most of this stuff ends up making the rounds anyway. It seems that making it public as soon as it’s announced to the churches is just the next logical step.

Any potential problems with doing this?