Thanks to Steve Manskar for drawing my attention to a wonderful article on the emergent movement and United Methodism at the United Methodist Portal. The article particularly highlights the difference between the missional focus of emergent as opposed to the attractional model of many churches which offer emergent worship as a way to attract a particular demographic.
The second half of the article makes a fantastic comparison between early Methodism and what is happening in some emergent settings. Taylor Burton-Edwards is a key voice in the article, discussing his understanding of what Wesley was doing in early Methodism and what seems to have potential for Methodism today.
There are some things in the article that seem to be a bit overstated. There is, for example, a quote from Burton-Edwards that Wesley was ‘absolutely horrible as a pastor.’ This is, of course, a very subjective claim that depends on what one considers to be the traits of a “horrible” or “magnificent” pastor. From the work that I have been doing for Dr. Ted Campbell on the next volume of Wesley’s Letters for the Bicentennial Edition of Wesley’s Works, I cannot help but be amazed at the sheer volume of Wesley’s correspondence. There were certainly times when he seemed to be very blunt and tactless. Yet, he also frequently encouraged people to continue doing the work God had called them to, and to continue moving toward holiness. My guess is that the stark contrast between “absolutely horrible” pastor and “tremendous community organizer” is more the result of editing for the article, than Burton-Edwards’ view of John Wesley.
The article also states:
Mr. Burton-Edwards believes the whole system began to bog down and lose its distinctive edge when Methodists started forming congregations in America in 1784. Wesley’s rules required active participation in both the class meeting and the society meeting. But by 1850, there were essentially no class meetings left in the church.
Again this doesn’t seem quite right. The time period that is identified is almost exactly the period when Methodism saw its most explosive and dramatic growth. While there do seem to be many different things going on during this period of seventy years, some of which led to the decline of Methodism – there also seems to have been something about the way in which American Methodists formed congregations in the last years of the 1700s that has some explanatory power for why Methodism grew at such an astonishing rate. This is simply a way of saying that it seems odd to say that Methodism lost its distinctive edge during the time that it was spreading throughout America. Despite this qualm, I think Burton-Edwards is onto something crucial when he points to the decline of the class meeting in the 19th century as a loss of something particularly distinctive of Methodist identity.
This article raises many interesting questions, and it provides intriguing answers to many of these questions that are worth exploring further. I am excited to see this kind of analysis by United Methodists and eagerly anticipate more from Burton-Edwards, David Reid (who wrote the article) and the UM Reporter.
(By the way, I would like to partially remedy one major oversight of the article. It mentions that Taylor Burton-Edwards has started a blog for emergent United Methodists, but it does not provide a url or a link to the blog. The blog is emergingumc and the url is http://emergingumc.blogspot.com. I would encourage you to go there and join in the conversation if these issues are of interest to you.)
Blake Huggins said:
Thanks for drawing this to my attention. I really think there may be a book waiting to be written on this. Some of the similarities, your historical push-backs notwithstanding, are very striking. And unfortunately many “emergents” (since they come from other traditions) and many Methodists (because they aren’t familiar with emergent) don’t even realize it. It would be really interesting to bring the two into more of a serious dialog with one another.
Kevin Watson said:
Blake – What a great idea! I agree with you completely, I am constantly amazed at how Wesleyan many voices in emergent have sounded to me. And as you mention, most seem to be largely unaware of it. I would be very interested in further engagement with emergent from a Wesleyan perspective, because I think there is much that is worth exploring, and because there are some deep questions that I have about some aspects of some emergent voices based on the reading I have done.
I also want to emphasize that my post was not intended to primarily criticize the UM Portal piece. I really was very excited by it and thought it made many good points. More than intending them to be criticisms, really I highlighted them because they raised questions I want to continue to think about and explore. Especially the later question about Methodism’s distinctive edge.
Please keep me posted on your further thoughts on this.
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Taylor Burton-Edwards said:
Thanks for posting this response to the article by David Reid. I appreciate the conversation you are continuing here. And let’s keep it going!
Let me respond to a few of your responses.
First, I actually did say that Mr Wesley was an absolutely horrible pastor. His one real experience with pastoral ministry– that is, the office of vicar or rector of an Anglican parish– was in Savannah, Georgia. By his own accounts of that experience, he was ill-suited for the job. He demanded far more of his parishioners, and far more exacting attention to the canons of the Church of England and the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer than they (or nearly any congregation I know of) could stand.
Indeed, it was the latter that actually got him brought up on civil charges in the Sophy Hopkey case. Technically, according to the rubrics that all priests were to follow, Mr Wesley was entirely within his rights not to serve the new bride. The rubrics required that anyone who intended to receive communion first inform the priest at least the day before of their intent to do so, and that should they not do so, the priest “shall not serve” them. (Shall meant shall then, too). Further, it required that if there were any known sins or conflicts with persons, these must be confessed and worked out before appearing to be served, or the priest shall not serve them. Mr Wesley considered her failure to let him know about the marriage herself to be a breach of this rubric, as well, since he was under the impression that she was saving herself for him.
So he refused her at the rail.
And so the charges of defamation of character and other charges followed.
These are not the discerning acts of a good pastor.
Mr Wesley was simply not cut out to be the rector of an Anglican parish– where you have to serve “all comers” and recognize that the real standards are often more those of “cultural common sense” than the law of the church or even, at times, the way of Jesus.
But he was cut out for a ministry of spiritual direction– which is what you see in his letters and exactly what the Methodist societies essentially specialized in.
Second– I do think that the creation of the Methodist Church as a separate church, and so the repurposing of the societies (which had not functioned as “full-service congregations” but rather as specialists in disciple-formation, evangelism, and accountable missional deployment) was precisely the “beginning of the end” of what Methodism had been up to that time.
Let’s talk about this from a matter of physics for a moment. What happens whenever a larger object with greater inertia encounters a smaller object with lesser momentum head on? The smaller object (depending on its density relative to the larger object) will either be deflected in the direction the large object is already moving or it will be absorbed into the larger object and the two together will continue in the same direction.
This observation from physics is described in systems and organizations theory in the language of “institutional inertia.” There it comes out that when you have two different systems operating in the same space, the one with the longer/larger systemic inertia (typically the larger system with the longer history) is likely to overtake and repurpose the one with less institutional inertia.
This is why, often in mergers, 1+1 tends to equal not 2, but something closer to 1.5 (or less!). And also why, after mergers, within some time period, the merged organization is likely to become the size of the larger of the two entities at the time of the merger.
What happened at 1784, then, was the creation of what I call “hybrid methodism.” Methodism itself was the societies and class meetings whose members were connected to congregations (via Rule 3) but whose actions were not controlled by congregations.
Now congregations by that point hadn’t been forming disciples of Jesus Christ as a primary mission since the 6th century. What congregations had become, then, from the 6th century onward, was “the public format of the Christian faith.” Public is important here. They were intended to be for all. (Before the late fourth century, they weren’t!). And as of the 6th century, since catechesis (the intensive 3 year process of preparation for baptism) was all but dropped– since nearly everyone was presumed to be “in the church” via infant baptism, congregations weren’t doing much to form most persons as disciples. Indeed, the only serious formation process the congregations had was preparation for ordained ministry. Or, if you didn’t want that, you could also get intensive formation in discipleship in a monastery.
So you’ve got 1200 years of institutional inertia in congregations that don’t do disciple formation to speak of.
The structures of early Methodism, on the other hand, were precisely designed and tuned for the evangelism, formation, and deployment of disciples in mission. Congregations weren’t doing this themselves. But Methodists were. And these Methodists had it in their rules that anyone who wanted to be a Methodists ALSO had to be part of a congregation, including doing their public worship there– including the celebration of sacraments.
Methodism in this form– a paracongregational and very effective evangelizing/disciple-forming/missionary-deploying set of structures whose basic missional unit was the class meeting– had been in existence for less than 50 years in England by 1784, and less than that in North America.
So… you now ask these sub-half-century societies to take on ALSO all the structures necessary to be congregations– indeed transforming the societies in rather short order from societies into congregations– and whose ultimate interests will seem likely to win over time? 50 years of systemic inertia verses 1200. No contest.
Scott Kisker’s excellent little book, Mainline or Methodist, outlines the specific steps by which Methodists in North America walked away from their discipleship/missional deployment heritage to take up the banner of having the largest number of congregations and the largest political influence (for a time at least) in Protestantism in the US. He views the massive era of church planting from to 1880s to the 1820s not as a triumph of Wesleyanism, but rather a triumph of an institutionalized form of dominant American religion with a thinning Methodist veneer.
Kisker sees this transition from Methodist to Mainline as primarily a loss of heart, a loss of priorities, and a greedy sort of grasping for acceptability rather than holiness.
I see it in part that way, but more fundamentally the result of historical and systemic inevitability playing itself out over time.
It is true that in the earlier days of America’s new “Methodist Episcopal Church,” there still was vital disciple formation going on and the General Rules were still used as a basis for determining and maintaining membership. This did spread, rapidly.
But as time went on, those earlier, distinctively Methodist characteristics begin to fade out. You can see this already in the anxious questions that start to show up in the Disciplines in the 1830s about what to do about people not attending class meetings or class meetings losing popularity. The “answers'” given were essentially “Get better leaders” and “remind people if they don’t show up, they can be removed from the church.” What we also know in this period is that fewer and fewer people were being removed from the churches. Yet the anxiety about the continuing flagging of the class meetings continues into the 1840s and 1850s until they are all but gone.
And it was the class meetings that were the engine of transformation in people’s lives– not the congregations, or the societies before them. In missiological terms, the class meetings had been the “basic missional unit.” Now that was all but gone.
So my argument is not that 1784 was “the end” of missional Methodism. It is that– systemically– it marked the inevitable beginning of that end. The societies weren’t designed to be congregations. Congregations weren’t societies. The societies hadn’t been open to all– only to those who would commit and stay commited to the General Rules– to active and growing accountable discipleship lived out and encouraged especially in the class meetings. Congregations were precisely open to all and glad to accept and keep all comers on their rolls. So when societies (newer, “exclusive” structure itinerant leadership to generate the necessary churn at the top) are required also to take on the roles of congregations (a much older, “inclusive” structure needing stable leadership over time)…. you get what you get: An unstable hybrid that, within 70 years, looks and functions much more like its older ancestor than its newer one.
Let’s keep talking!
Peace in Christ,
So, by the 18th century, you had already 1200 years of systemic inertia built in to what congregations did and didn’t do.
Taylor Burton-Edwards said:
Two minor corrections to the above:
a) delete the last lines after my name– leftovers I didn’t see until I’d already hit the submit button;
b) the era of church planting should be listed as the 1880s- 1920s, not 1820s.
Kevin Watson said:
Thank you for stopping by and for taking the time to contribute so much to a better understanding of what you were getting at in the two points I raised about the article. I appreciate the opportunity for further discussion.
Here are my initial thoughts to your response:
First, that Wesley “was an absolutely horrible pastor.” I do not at the moment have time to respond point by point to the defense that you have given for this claim, but here are a few reactions: a) you have defended this claim by using one of the most obvious examples of Wesley’s failure as a pastor. Surely the incident with Sophey Hopkey (which seems to be more revealing of Wesley’s personal life… of love and jealousy that a neutral example of Wesley’s characteristic approach to pastoring) is not the best measure by which to judge Wesley’s competence as a pastor. This looks more like a straw man than a fair analysis of Wesley’s role as a pastor.
b) I don’t think I agree with the way you understand the term ‘pastor’ which you seem to equate with an avowedly apathetic Anglican ministry. It would seem to me that recognizing apathy and refusing to accept it would be an important mark of a pastor. It also think that the ministry of spiritual direction, which you give Wesley credit for, is a crucial mark of what makes one pastoral. Perhaps we just have different understandings of what makes a good pastor, but from my perspective a good pastor may be other things, but she is certainly a person who is gifted at spiritually directing her parishioners.
c) Finally, it has occurred to me that I may be thinking of the word “pastor” as more of a verb or adjective, while you may be primarily using it as a noun. I keep having thoughts like: “Wesley was pastoral in his encouragement of people to pursue holiness.” Or, “How can someone have been an absolutely horrible pastor who pastored so many people?”
I really have to go study some German, so here are a few quick thought to your response to my second criticism: (I apologize in advance for not doing justice to your substantive comments.)
a) I think you make too close of a connection between the prior 1200 years of institutional inertia and American Methodism. The Methodist Episcopal Church, prior to 1784 literally had no history. Now of course it was not created in a vacuum. But I do think you have made too close of a connection to the MEC and the inertia of the church.
b) you talk about this 1200 years as if one thing were happening, when for more than two hundred years before the formation of the MEC many different things were happening. It seems to me that you have oversimplified things.
c) your statement that for 1200 years the church doesn’t do discipleship formation would surely be a strongly contested claim by many church historians and Catholics.
d) I share your enthusiasm for Scott Kisker’s book. It is a great book (I was actually just recommending it to a friend over lunch). However, I do not think it has much to bear on whether American Methodism becoming a church was a good thing or a bad thing. The era of church planting that Kisker discusses, and you raise, for example, is entirely after the area I thought we were talking about (1784-1850). In point of fact, there does seem to be a period of time, however short it may have been, when Methodism was a church and did successfully hold the tension between simultaneously being a church and society.
e) another way to look at this would be to look at what had happened in American Methodism prior to 1784… not much. And with the controversies that were already swirling around the sacraments, there is good reason to think that Methodism would have been seriously divided and damaged if it had not become a church where preachers were given sacramental authority.
The primary problem I have with your account is that it is not able to account for the explosive growth of American Methodism that primarily occurred after the formation of the MEC in 1784. I want to be clear, I agree with you that American Methodism did lose its distinctive edge when it began to seek respectability rather than holiness. However, at this point in what I am learning about the history of American Methodism, it does not seem to me that this occurred until sometime after Francis Asbury’s death (1816). And it does not seem to me that it occurred because American Methodism became a church, but because it began to value respectability and acceptability more than the dogged pursuit of holiness.
I hope that this has somewhat advanced the conversation. I apologize if it has not. I hope as you have time you will respond and we can continue to dialogue. I am certainly open to the reality that I may be misunderstanding your position, or understanding it and simply being wrong in my objections to it.
Taylor Burton-Edwards said:
Yes, let’s keep talking.
Re: use of the term “pastor”– I think your insight is correct. You are using it as a verb. I am using it as an office– the role of the pastor of a typical local congregation.
Certainly, spiritual direction can be one of the roles of the pastoral office, and should be. The trouble is that that really only works with people who want that. And most people in most congregations– precisely because congregations since the sixth century are “open” organizations that you really can’t get kicked out of unless you commit some societally abominable offense– aren’t interested in that. Mr Wesley seems to have expected that everyone was, or should have been.
Yes, the Sophey Hopkey case could be seen as extreme– but I actually see it as an extreme example of Mr Wesley’s typical “exacting” nature with this congregation at this time.
Here’s what I think a good pastor does with a typical congregation. She follows Jesus herself. But she doesn’t expect many of them to care much about following Jesus. She reminds everyone what that following Jesus looks like. And she looks for the “bright eyes” in her flock of those who actually are interested in going deeper, and provides guidance and support for them to do so. She night provide a link to a good Emmaus 4th day group, or a Benedictine spirituality group, or a Habitat group, or some other small group context where those who want to go deeper can do so without being constrained by those who don’t. This isn’t sending these people away from the congregation. It’s about adding new communities in their lives that can help them grow better than the congregation might be designed to support itself.
Re: American Methodism and the 1200 years of congregational life…
It’s really not the case that Methodists in America had no prehistory to 1784. They did. There were Methodist societies here, as in England, whose members fulfilled Rule 3 primarily by their participation in the Church of England congregations over here. Not all were thus also Anglican, but most were.
I think you may also be confusing the term ‘church” for “congregation.” I do not use those terms interchangeably. A congregation is a specific FORMAT of being church. The church can have a variety of formats– congregations, larger ecclesial structures (diocese, synod, conference, etc), church-related societies and guilds, class meetings, Methodist society meetings, monasteries, convents– all of these are formats of church, of Christian community gathered for fellowship and mission in some way. Some are more intentionally inclusive, such as the congregation (historically). Others have additional qualifications for membership or ongoing participation, such as the ability to do certain tasks in a guild, or the willingness to submit to a Rule in a monastery, or the General Rules in a Methodist class meeting or society. All can be expressions of church. The congregation isn’t the only one, nor necessarily the normative one.
It’s true that the American Revolution had made the connections between Methodists and Anglican parishes very tenuous, and sometimes outright dangerous. These connections certainly could be problematic for Methodism to expect to grow quickly in the years leading up to and just after the American Revolution. And the situation of still being connected to the Church of England even after the war certainly wasn’t helped when a good number of Anglican parishes essentially lost their clergy, nor by the long delay of the Church of England ordaining anyone for over here to serve as bishop to ordain folks to make more priests for the “vacated” parishes. “Tense relationship” by 1784 in many places would have been an understatement.
But still Mr Wesley from England and Mr Asbury over here insisted that Methodists NOT try to function as congregations and that they NOT celebrate the sacraments as part of their Society meetings. As late as 1780, Mr. Asbury, upon learning that the Methodists in Virginia had themselves decided to separate themselves from the Church of England, went to their meeting place with a copy of the tract “Reasons against a Separation” (1755 and often republished– probably because it was necessary to keep making these points!) pleaded with them, and persuaded them to step back from their action.
From what I know of the history, that action by Mr Asbury effectively prevented any other bodies of Methodists from trying to do the same as long as they wished to maintain their connection to Mr Wesley through him.
(In a very real way, Mr Asbury was already functioning as a Superintendent, if not a General Superintendent, for Methodists in North America).
I do not disagree with your sense, by the way, that creating Methodism over here as a church may have staved off divisions along lines of sacramental authority. I hope you’re not hearing my argument as saying that every aspect of the decision to make Methodism in North America its own church was wrong. I don’t think that. There were gifts that came from that. Clearer organizational/institutional authority within the movement over here was one of them. If you’ll forgive the military analogy, Asbury really was the General over here, and the :”troops” here and in England needed to have that stated and enacted clearly. Mr Wesley’s ordination of Thomas Coke as General Superintendent (functionally an absentee “bishop”) and Coke’s ordination of Asbury as General Superintendent (functionally the real Archbishop of American Methodism) made that complete.
So it’s not that 1784 was entirely a mistake for us. It’s just that there were very serious problems– indeed, nearly intractable systemic problems– that would emerge from that decision as well.
To the notion that the 1200 year reference for congregations simplifies things too much…
All “models” simplify things. There are always exceptions. But I really would challenge you to show how there are significant enough exceptions about the nature of “ordinary” expectations of “ordinary” congregations through this period. If you can find them, I really would like to know.
I have actually discussed this model with a number of church historians in several traditions (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Anglican) and so far they’ve pretty much come out agreeing with the assessment overall. The Lutheran said, “Well, yeah! No kidding!” The one bit of pushback I have received was from a Methodist historian specializing in Medieval Roman Catholicism who suggested that the confessional disciplines were a serious way of forming people in the way of Jesus through that period. From what I can see (I actually did quite a bit of medieval Roman Catholic church history in college), these may have had a restraining effect on some– people were learning there clearly what not to do, and trying a bit to do some things better– but at the same time this process was essentially disempowering people from acting as disciples of Jesus in their own right. If you were a monk or a priest you might be deemed to have more freedom to do that– but not an “ordinary” layperson. One might say this process formed “holy bonds” or “holy restraints” in them; I don’t know one can say it was all that effective in forming “holy habits” or “holy hearts” that would be ready to act spontaneously in the love of Christ in ministry to others.
Regarding the 200 years prior to Wesley– yes, congregations were doing many different things. Presbyterians in England (and on the continent) had formed their own version of the class meeting for accountability– called “the classis”– before Mr Wesley did. Baptists were creating whole congregations bound by a single covenant that all were accountable for holding all to– and would regularly dismiss and admit members, based on their adherence to the covenant in their Sunday evening services (in England and America– again before Mr Wesley did this in the weekly Sunday night Society meetings). Quakers were innovating in two directions at once– the worshiping assembly as the ecstatic gathering of active prophets of the Spirit (a la Fox in England) and as silent meetings until the Spirit moved one to speak (a la Woolman in North America). Mennonites, among whom Nachfolge Christi (the following of Christ) was a hallmark, meanwhile tended to form and live in entirely separate communities rather than integrate into larger cities or “mixed” contexts.
The classis movement was dead in Presbyterianism by the early 19th century. Baptists essentially gave up trying to live under covenants by the mid-19th century (except for some splinter groups who tried to keep this up, and, among Southern Baptists, those who would be identified with the Landmark Movement). The “ecstatic” version of Quakerism never caught on much beyond Fox, and Quakers really weren’t congregations but, as their name implied, “Societies” of Friends. (Part of Fox’s whole point was that NOT everyone belonged in the church, and for sure the hypocrites in the “steeple houses” were heading straight to hell!). Mennonites remained separate for the most part until well into the early 20th century, and have been struggling with how their congregation can actually form disciples well in contexts where they live in non-communitarian contexts ever since (I did a second graduate degree at a Mennonite seminary– they’re still serious about discipleship, but equally acknowledging the struggle of life outside “the sacred canopy”).
So, basically, unless they were at the fringes of cultures or movements, the capacity of congregations to function as more or less exclusive disciple-forming entities, in the mainstream, even among these groups in the 200 years prior to Wesley, didn’t last.
Perhaps what feels discomforting about my thesis is that it suggests that systemic inertia and historical trajectories can and indeed is most likely to trump the good efforts and intentions of individuals inside those systems. Historically, there have been four responses to this apparently reality: insurgency/revolution, long-haul change from within, acting outside the system but proximate enough to it to effect it, or opting out.
Insurgency assumes the current leadership needs to be overthrown and the insurgents should take over. It doesn’t necessarily change the system itself. It often only changes the people at the top. The American Revolution was an example of an insurgency that didn’t try to take over the system, but rather topple the existing one to establish a very different one.
Long-haul change from within can be approached from two angles: tinkering with the machinery to optimize it over time, or working to alter the DNA of the organization. The first requires and creates no systemic change. The second can create very deep change, but does need a very long time and therefore sustained time in powerful enough positions within the organization to pull off.
The last is the equivalent of schism. It presumes the existing system is entirely wrong or so broken as to be beyond repair and the only answer is to get away from it and start over with a new system. One might consider the American Revolution to be an instance of schism (from England’s perspective) rather than insurgency (from the perspective of the Revolutionaries). “Reasons against a Separation” was written by the Wesleys precisely to keep Methodists (in England and America) from breaking from the Church of England to establish their societies as sufficient “congregations” or even “churches” in their own right.
The third is the option the Wesleys took in the Methodist movement in England and America. People who take this option don’t see the value or efficacy of trying to change another system from within, but they don’t write off that system, either. Instead, they create new “facts on the ground” that altar the environment in which the other system operates. The reform of the Church of England that early Methodism was undertaking was not, thus, an attempt at insurrection, change from within , or schism. It was rather a way to create differentiated systems in the general environment of the existing systems that did what they did– evangelize, form disciples, and deploy them in mission– while then also “injecting” these very same people back into the existing system to receive from it the good things it offered (public worship, basic doctrine, pastoral care, institutional connections) while carrying with them also the “contagion” of lives being made holy in love. People didn’t generally GET this virus from the congregations– they got them through the Methodist structures. One might thus also call this an instance of “change from within”– but certainly not of the same kind or operating by the same tactics of the more usual approaches. The bottom line was that without the paracongregational structures functioning as they did OUTSIDE but also connected to the congregations, the virus would not have transferred and multiplied in people, and the contagion would not have spread into congregations and the culture at large.
So, in general, I stand by my thesis that congregations hadn’t been seriously forming most people in them as disciples of Jesus for 1200 years by the time of Wesley, and that the mainstream expectation of them was that that wasn’t really their “thing” to do anyway. What congregations were doing during that time included offering public worship, teaching basic doctrine (via the creeds), creating some process of pastoral care (in some eras via the confessional, in others more informally via societies), and some way of “playing well with others” in the institutional life of the local community. Those with “bright eyes” (and a good number without them!) were sent off to the monasteries or set apart for training for the priesthood or pastorate, with few exceptions.
We’re still doing the latter now, aren’t we. Every time we speak of “the ministry” as a shorthand for “ordained ministry” we are reflecting the notion that the only “real” disciples– or the truest form of ministry– is what priests/rectors/pastors, and as of the 19th century in Protestantism, missionaries do. “They’re” the expert disciples. “We’re” not necessarily expected to be, unless God calls us to that.
That expectation privileges the congregational format of Christian faith as the sine qua non of Christianity itself, and its ordained leadership as the crème de la crème.
As for the explosive growth of Methodism in the US after 1784– the fact is many Protestant religious groups were growing rather rapidly in that same period, as was the population. Methodists did have perhaps the most effective organization on the ground to deploy people quickly and so to follow folks on the move as the country’s population rapidly spread out– the itinerant system of the leadership for its societies. No one else could match the deployment or redeployment speed (early appointments averaged 3 months!) the Methodists had become accustomed to producing for their societies– even before they were churches.
The speed and efficiency of this system was a tremendous strategic advantage for STARTING new Methodist congregations. But once these congregations really were congregations in a community, and not “societies” (i.e., sects, as it were), they would (and generally did) continue to function more and more like congregations (like all the other congregations that would eventually get there) and less and less like Methodist societies (as the Holiness folk who were also already breaking away from the Methodists were ready to attest as soon as the late 1830s).
I would agree that Mr Asbury’s death in 1816 was pivotal in what followed– and followed rapidly. The AME pulled out in 1816, (the story told at Old St George’s is that Richard Allen intentionally waited for Asbury to die before taking this step) and when it did, it retained more of the society form than the remaining ME churches would do. AME-Z followed, and followed the same pattern as AME. Appointments in the MEC became– necessarily, at the demand of the congregations– longer and the number of charges on a circuit fewer. Asbury had been a chief advocate, and I think one of the linchpins, for allowing the unstable blend of “hybrid Methodism” to retain some cohesion and its peculiarly Methodist flavor as long as he lived. Methodist Churches were, through his “episcopate” functioning in some ways as BOTH congregations AND societies.
My point is that this early and apparently successful “synthesis” was systemically bound to unravel in the direction it did– toward greater “congregationalism” and less “Methodism”– and not just because Methodists came to value respectability over holiness (though that was certainly one symptom of the situation!). By 1850, that unraveling was all but complete in the non-African Methodist Episcopal churches, North and South.
But my overarching point is that we know from our won history– and from loads of examples from missiology generally– that the Wesleys “third way” of forming effective evangelizing/disciple forming/missionary deploying structures alongside of but not controlled by congregations really does work. It can in fact (because we know it did in fact) work rather quickly. But it requires of us that we abandon the notion that congregations are both the center and ultimate destination of Christian community. And it calls us to a more nuanced, networked understanding of ecclesiology in which different formats of Christian community– some more open, others more exclusive– act symbiotically, or in network, to help the church (not just congregations) be the fullest embodiment of the body of Christ we can be.
We need congregations to be good congregations.
We also need “societies” and class meetings to evangelize/form disciples/deploy them as missionaries well.
We need both– each to do what each does well– and each to refer folks to each other regularly for those things the other does better.
The vision here is not merely critical– but ultimately constructive.
Peace in Christ,
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