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.
This is the third post in a four-part series that considers each of the traits that made Asbury an effective leader. I will also consider whether these traits are relevant for contemporary church leaders. (You can view the previous posts by clicking the traits listed above.)
The third trait that made Asbury an effective communicator was his understanding and use of popular culture (7). If the second aspect of what made Asbury an effective communicator marked a difference between he and John Wesley, this is a trait that Asbury and Wesley shared. Wigger described the way this trait function for Asbury, particularly with regard to his relationship between John Wesley and Americans:
Asbury acted as a mediator between Wesley and common Americans. Wesley and Asbury came from significantly different backgrounds, but they shared a realization that the dominant religious institutions of their day were failing to reach most people. The great question they both addressed was how to make the gospel relevant in their time and place. The audience was never far from their minds (7).
One of the major challenges Asbury faced as a mediator between Wesley and the average American was which parts of popular American culture to embrace and which parts to reject. Asbury embraced the revivalistic atmosphere that was inseparable from early nineteenth-century camp meetings. As a result, American Methodism embraced the camp meeting early on, while many other denominations hesitated. Asbury initially took a firm stand against American Methodists holding slaves. However, he ultimately compromised on this stand.
The camp meeting and American slavery show the tension in engaging popular culture. Wigger ultimately argues that “this mediating impulse, transmitted from Wesley through Asbury, became a trademark of American Methodism” (7). It was certainly not without complication, but it is one of the reasons American Methodism grew exponentially during the decades that Asbury was the bishop of the newly created Methodist Episcopal Church.
Would this characteristic be significant for contemporary church leadership?
Yes, but the same tensions alluded to above are an unavoidable part of any engagement with popular culture. Wigger’s discussion of the broader implications of religious movements engaging the surrounding culture provides a helpful framework for thinking about the contemporary relevance of this aspect of Asbury’s leadership style:
All religious movements interact with the prevailing culture of their adherents. Popular religous movements like early American Methodism exist in a tension between religious values and the values of the dominant culture, alternately challenging and embracing the larger culture around them. To either completely accept or reject the larger culture is to cease to be either religious on the one hand, or popular on the other. Leaders like Asbury understand this tension and work within it (7).
Early American Methodism provides a fascinating example of a Christian tradition both changing the culture and being changed by it. Among other things, this example ought to chasten religious leaders or institutions that talk about cultural engagement in overly static or one-directional ways. If a person or institution succeeds in understanding and using popular culture, they will almost certainly be changed by that culture.
The very fear of being “converted” by popular culture has led some to avoid engaging popular culture at all. To use Wigger’s phrase, this is to cease to be popular. Wesley and Asbury were both unapologetically in favor of gathering a large audience.
The desire to be relevant (or sometimes for contemporary American Methodism to be popular once again) has led some to embrace popular culture with no hesitation. To the extent that this has happened in American Methodism, I think it is at least in part because there was a time that being American and being Methodist were nearly synonymous. Contemporary American Methodists who feel this temptation would do well to heed Wigger’s warning that to completely accept the larger culture is to cease to be religious, or more importantly, Christian.
Wigger argues that the success of any religious movement “hinges on maintaining contact with the culture around them” (7). I think he is right. The Church needs leaders who know Jesus, are committed to practicing their faith in consistent daily ways, can connect with ordinary people, and understand the culture around them and who seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance for how to best engage that culture.
[Note: I think Wigger’s description of culture could be a bit more nuanced. The idea that there is a popular culture (as opposed to a more complicated network of cultures that intersect in a variety of ways) that a community of faith decides to engage or not engage is a bit too straightforward.]
So what do you think? In order to be effective, does a leader in the church need to understand and use popular culture? Why or why not? How have you seen church leaders do this well? How do you think it could be done better?
Going from preachin’ to meddlin’: My guess is that most people tend towards one of the extremes Wigger discusses, either embracing or rejecting popular culture uncritically. Do you tend to embrace or reject popular culture? How might you be able to engage popular culture more faithfully for the glory of God?
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