Yesterday I received a copy of John Wigger’s new book American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists. I am only 45 pages into the book, but so far I would highly recommend it. The book contains the scholarly apparatus that I expected from an Oxford University Press publication (i.e. it contains extensive citations and interaction with previous academic work). However, what has been a pleasant surprise is how accessible Wigger has made the book for educated lay audiences. For example, when he introduces Asbury’s involvement in class and band meetings Wigger gives a very helpful summary of what the class and bands were and how they functioned.
In this post, I wanted to highlight one particular discussion that occurs in the Introduction. Wigger argues that “Asbury wasn’t an intellectual, charismatic performer or autocrat, but his understanding of what it meant to be pious, connected, culturally aware, and effectively organized redefined religious leadership in America” (13).
Wigger fleshes out each of these four qualities. He shows that Asbury was remarkably pious, and that people actually came to a deeper appreciation for his piety the better they got to know him. Asbury also had a remarkable ability to connect with ordinary people, which was accented by his sense of humor. Wigger argues that Asbury served as a mediator between Wesley and common Americans. It was Asbury’s sensitivity to American culture, for example, that causes him to enthusiastically embrace camp meetings. Finally, Asbury was a gifted organizer. Wigger seems to see Asbury as the near perfect implementor of Wesley’s organization and discipline.
Wigger argues in the Introduction that these four characteristics came to influence religious leadership in America. As I read the Introduction, I wondered: If Wigger is right, can contemporary Methodists learn anything from Asbury’s example? Initially, it strikes me that the four qualities that Wigger has identified which made Asbury such an effective religious leader, would be just as important for effective Methodist clergy today. An emphasis on piety suggests that Methodists ought to “practice what they preach.” However, the need to be connected and culturally aware both recognize that our message is most likely to reach people when it is rooted in genuine love for the people we are communicating to, and when it is communicated in a way that considers their cultural context. Finally, though organization and discipline are never the ends, they are a very valuable means to the end of continued growth and progress in the Christian life.
What do you think? Are these four qualities of Francis Asbury’s leadership and ability to communicate a helpful model for leadership in United Methodism today?