My Experience at Emerging UMC2: Friday Afternoon: What Happened to the Methodists?

I hope to blog out my thoughts about EmergingUmc2: Restoring Missional Methodism over the next several days.  Here is my second attempt to summarize my experience at the conference. Here is my blog post from yesterday about the conference.

After our walking/missional tour of downtown Indianapolis, we returned to the church, had lunch, and finished up the official part of our Friday at EmergingUMC2.

We spent that afternoon talking about the early Methodists and the church structure that had developed since then.  Ultimately, it was this way of doing church that got us into the ditch  that we United Methodists now find ourselves in. 

One thing is clear; John Wesley and the early Methodists were the Shane Claibornes and ordinary radicals of their time and place.  Their ministries started in prisons, coal fields, factories, in the farm fields, etc.  They spoke out against injustice like slavery and industrial reform and primarily worked through small groups called classes.  Along with the social activism and small gatherings, these early Methodists also put emphasis on personal piety and discipline. 

According to Taylor Burton-Edwards, the EmergingUMC2 conference leader, the prevailing  spirit and structure of the early Methodists started to dissipate with the creation of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, especially as the church gained economic and political power and became part of the dominant, mainstream culture by its 100th birthday in 1884. 

The numbers lie sometimes but the United Methodist church is fading.  We are about to be passed by the Mormons for third place on the largest American denominations list, continue to lose hundreds of thousands of members each decade, and now the percentage of Americans who consider themselves United Methodist  have nearly been cut in half over the last forty years. (6% in 1970, 3% today).

Burton-Edwards argument on this Friday afternoon made a lot of sense; The church as congregation model hasn’t worked out very well and its well worth looking at what those early Methodists were up to! You cannot recreate the past, of course, but there is much to learn  from the pre-Methodist Episcopal Church Wesleyan movement.  

Much more could be said, but most importantly, returning to a model that emphasises the small group/class could add the vitality needed to Keep Wesley’s hope that the Methodist movement “[would] not only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.…” He wrote that two years after the formation of the Methodist Episcopal church.  

To back this up, Burton-Edwards quoted the following in his presentation:

•GBOD research– discipleship grows and deepens  primarily through an experience or a group outside the congregation (Dan Dick)

•Missiological observation– “communitas”–a “band of brothers and sisters who have each other’s backs struggling through a common ordeal– is the environment most conducive to missional action and multiplication (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways)

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4 thoughts on “My Experience at Emerging UMC2: Friday Afternoon: What Happened to the Methodists?

  1. I heard something a little different in Taylor’s remarks, Mike. Certainly the renewal movement part is important, and that role has often been lost. But there’s also an important role for congregations, and it would be a mistake for us to think a return to class meetings and radical discipleship could be enough without attention to a congregational structure to hold it all together. I appreciate the tension in that. For those way over on the renewal movement side, it’s a reminder that there’s an institutional imperative that we need to care for. For those who get caught up in the institution, it’s a call to foster, support, nurture and allow renewal to break out anywhere and everywhere it can. It’s like the two hands; they go together.

  2. Thanks Lee. I think your right; i did not say enough in this post about the role of congregation. I should probably revist that in my next blog post.

    I would warn though as not to dissmiss the idea that United Methodists need to be intentional about rediscovering the class/society/conference model. if it is truly going to be two hands, lets not spend too much effort defending the congregation when the data and experience shows that the congregation, as taylor says, is “overfunctioning” in its role.

    The way things stand now it seems is that we only rely on our “congregation hand” without ever using our “missional hand.”

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