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.)