In his exceptional biography of Francis Asbury, John Wigger describes the characteristics that made the father of American Methodism an effective communicator. These four traits were:
1. legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversion experience.
2. ability to connect with ordinary people
3. ability to understand and use popular culture.
4. organization of the Methodist church.
Over the next four posts, I will consider each of these traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders.
The first trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was, in Wigger’s words, “his legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversion experience” (5). Like John Wesley, Francis Asbury was nearly obsessed with growing in love of God and neighbor.
Asbury was also constantly traveling from one place to another, staying with thousands of different people over the course of his life. As a result, he had virtually no privacy at all. As his biographer puts it, “It is all the more revealing, then, that the closer people got to him, the more they tended to respect the integrity of his faith” (5) Even those with whom he had the deepest disagreements still recognized the sincerity and depth of his faith in Christ.
Asbury was an effective communicator and leader, then, because people could see that he was really “walking the walk.” People often listened to him because they knew he was a man who spent time in prayer and searching the Scriptures.
Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?
I think it would be. And it would be significant for helping build relationships with non-Christians, not just leading other Christians. Over the last past decade, there has been quite a bit of conversation about the perception by non-Christians that Christians are hypocrites. (I’m thinking of unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, for example.) The earnestness and sincerity of a Christian leader who had “legendary piety and perseverance, rooted in a classical evangelical conversation experience” might help them gain credibility with non-Christians who are wary that Christian leaders are selling something that they don’t use themselves.
The words of Jesus in Matthew, on the other hand, provide a reasons for caution. In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns those who are pursuing righteousness, to “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt 6:1).
Asbury’s piety was visible because he basically had no private life. But today, privacy is such a high value that even people who travel frequently to speak in churches and at conferences rarely stay with families from the group that is hosting them.
A piety that is showy and boastful will not bring credibility. Nevertheless, it is important that Christian leaders “practice what they preach.” And Methodists should emphasize the importance of regular practice of the means of grace (prayer, searching the Scriptures, receiving communion, fasting, etc.).
So what do you think? Will a faith that is visible through basic practices in someone’s life tend to lead others to have a higher esteem for that person’s faith? And if so, how can Christian leaders appropriately make their own practice of their faith more visible or public?
Going from preachin’ to meddlin’: This post assumes that Christian leaders are spending both quality and quantity time in prayer, searching the Scriptures, etc. But this is not necessarily a safe assumption. Are you spending consistent and meaningful time with God?
I often say to students (actually, anyone who will listen), “We lead with our lives.” I am always convicted by the honest transparency of a wise witness like Asbury. Thank you in advance for this series.
@stephenrankin your encouraging words remind me of Parker Palmer in “The Courage to Teach.” He suggests that whatever the subject matter, more than anything else, we teach who we are. This is far more true than we sometimes like to realize, but it is a very helpful reminder.
Al DeFilippo said:
For Asbury, people were more important than things. It’s a simple thought, however, a thought that requires a revisit for many in the 21st century church.
Andrew C. Thompson said:
Great thoughts (and challenges) for us to think about today. Thanks for highlighting this. Wigger extracted some of this material and published it as an essay in a book Hal Knight edited a couple of years ago on the confluence of Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal views. His provocative title for that essay was, “Where have all the Asburys gone?” I used it in a couple of different classes last academic year as an example of how Christian leaders in earlier historical periods can shed light on leadership in our own context—even when that light exposes our own shortcomings.
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Thanks for this, Kevin, and I’m looking forward to the rest of this series (and am now wanting to read Asbury’s biography).
You rightly caution us with Jesus’ words in Matt 6:1. What do you make of the converse of that in Matt. 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”?
Perhaps it is all a matter of the heart (as it generally is)? What is motivating us to do this or that – is it to bring attention to self or to glorify God?
Regarding prayer and time in Scripture, I think it is good for church leaders to let their congregations know what they are doing with their time in this regard – not to boast, of course, but to set an example. Paul was bold enough to say, “Imitate me!” I desire to have that same sort of faith that can humbly make such a claim.
Kevin Watson said:
Thanks for the comments. For those who aren’t aware, Steve Rankin has written an excellent book that is a great resource for growing in one’s faith. The title of his book is Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life. Here’s a link: http://amzn.to/YuiPYk
Chad, thanks for lifting up the scriptural aspect of Steve’s encouragement to “lead with our lives.” I did not intend for my post to be a comprehensive survey of what the Bible says about this. Rather, I was trying to anticipate an objection I have seen lately that is suspicious of expressions of faith that are too showy. I agree with what you have said and find it to be a helpful accent on this aspect of what made Asbury an effective communicator. In fact, Wesley and the early Methodists insisted that a person’s practice of their faith would be evident and visible to others (“The General Rules” are an example).
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Emil Ghiurau (@EmilGhiurau) said:
For people today is about ‘image’ and ‘reputation’. They want to be on their ‘best game’ when preaching, when being in public and that is received by being in solitary surrounding. I think we all need a desolate place as Jesus had and also in Matthew Jesus said “when you pray, close the door behind you and pray in secret”
At the same time, I appreciate this article to see other man, like Asbury, living a life in community with no privacy, having others see weaknesses, shortcomings. This is of much value in today’s age where privacy is so high valued. Thank you for posting this and challenging me to live a life of perseverance and integrity in my faith no matter the circumstances.
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