7 Questions for the New Wesleyan Movement

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“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6

John Wesley gazed to the West, across the Atlantic Ocean he had long since crossed, no doubt feeling like a ministry failure from his time in America, seeking God’s assurance in his soul. He reflected on what followed. A warming of his heart to God, an experience of spirit-filled religious zeal, preaching in fields to the working-poor, and an amazing country-transforming movement across England.

But even England could not contain the movement. Wesley’s influence would travel across the Atlantic in the other direction. No doubt he marveled at how it had spread like wildfire across the new world. God was now using other people to reach those he couldn’t reach.

He decides to write these people in his movement. It is called, appropriately, “Advice to the People Called Methodist.”

The old Wesleyan and Methodist movement is no longer a movement, but instead a fractured bunch of spin-off denominations, each of whom are doing their thing, and reporting some kingdom gains. But none are truly a movement any longer. We have institutionalized. And what about The United Methodist Church? The flagship of Methodism is in deep trouble. In response, I wrote of this dynamic and what I feel are unhelpful postures in “Strange Things Are Afoot in The United Methodist Church.”

Some are wondering if a “new denomination” might form out of the fractured UMC, or perhaps with mergers including some of the other smaller denominations (like my own).

Dr. Tim Tennent does not share that view, it seems. The President of Asbury Theological Seminary steps into this gap, this season of uncertainty for the people called Methodist, and this year proclaimed the following:

“The deepest need, in my view, is not a new denomination, but a restored covenant.  We can be faithful Wesleyans without a denomination, but we cannot be faithful without a covenant… The network will restore the discipline and covenant which has been so tragically lost.  This will not be a new denomination, but a network of churches – a marketable and holy association – which cuts across geographic lines.” (“Help is on the Way: A New Wesleyan Network in a Post-Denominational World”)

In “Advice,” Wesley offers several points that might still be applied to the situation. Note a few:

“Keep in the very path wherein you now tread. Be true to your principles. Never rest again in the dead formality of religion.”

He advises “not to talk much of what you suffer; of the persecution you endured at such a time, and the wickedness of your persecutors.” “Nothing more tends to exasperate them than this; and therefore (although there is a time when these things must be mentioned, yet) it might be a general rule, to do it as seldom as you can with a safe conscience.”

He goes on, “For, besides its tendency to inflame them, it has the appearance of evil, of ostentation, of magnifying yourselves. It also tends to puff you up with pride, and to make you think yourselves some great ones, as it certainly does to excite or increase in your heart ill-will, anger, and all unkind tempers. It is, at best, loss of time; for, instead of the wickedness of men, you might be talking of the goodness of God.”

These continue to be compelling words of advice to all the people called Methodist.

I don’t yet know what to think of all this. I only know that I have questions for this possible new Wesleyan movement. Let me just ask them to spark discussion rather than attempting to answer my questions, for I truly cannot. Time and truth will tell.

1) Are our plans “too small a thing” as in Isaiah 49:6? As the Hebrews were to become “light to the Gentiles,” what is the broader restorative aim of this new movement? We know that we want to change our church institutions and systems—but those always end up broken, even by good-hearted people. What is the “big thing” God is up to with this movement that is so much more than our squabbles? Seedbed.com says it exists for “sowing for a great awakening.” What does it mean to sow these awakening seeds, so we might water them, and God might make them grow? An awakening is not merely about branding and rulebooks and covenants, but one in which we all get caught up into something bigger than all of us combined. What thinking by us is “too small” for God’s plan?

2) Is it possible to be more than merely “post-denominational”? Are we hoping that all denominations go by the wayside? Are they to be dismantled in favor of a loosely held movement? A “connection” perhaps (which is what my denomination used to call itself). Could this movement be “inter-denominational” too? What is the role to play for holiness denominations like The Salvation Army, The Free Methodists, the Church of the Nazarene, The Wesleyan Church, and others? Will the new Wesleyan movement include the old one, or are new wineskins needed entirely? What about the late-adopters in the United Methodist Church that come to see the truth in this movement later on?

3) Are we returning to our roots for the purpose of bearing fruit? There’s no sense in doing so if it will not bear fruit for the kingdom. What is the great fruit God is calling on us to reap in this age, together?

4) Will the new Wesleyan movement be a holiness movement? Are we helping clarify what holiness means for a new generation that still hasn’t bought into our dusty tomes from seminary? Are we going to be in the business of life-transformation and victory over sin in this movement? Are we going to “be made new in the attitude of [our] minds; and . . . put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” Eph 4:23-24 NIV?

5) Will the new Wesleyan movement be an evangelistic movement? Yes, some evangelism needs to happen pew to pew these days, not merely door to door. But is this going to be a mission-sending movement? A church planting movement? A “droves of people coming to Jesus” movement? Are we going to revive personal evangelism so that millions might sing with us, “my chains fell off, my heart was free”?

6) Will the new Wesleyan movement be a lay movement? So far it seems to be the ordained clergy who are most concerned with this. Are our events and conversation about this going to continue to be participated in and led by clergy alone? Where are our lay voices? A movement is not a movement until the laypeople move it.

7) Will the new Wesleyan movement be future-focused? Surely, our vision for the future is not just a veiled reference to the depressing past: “We’re not your father’s Methodist Oldsmobile.” What does the future look like for the people called Methodist and the new Wesleyan movement that might spring up from it?

I’m eager to discuss the questions others have about this new movement, along with my own questions, at the “New Room Conference (sponsored by Seedbed) on Wednesday September 16 through September 18th, 2015. Dr. Tennent says that Friday afternoon will offer conferencing around this network and its possibilities. I’ll be there. Will you? Let’s see what God might be up to.

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David Drury is the author or co-author of a half-dozen books and serves as the Chief of Staff to Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church. He previously served as a local church pastor in five congregations in the midwest as a church planter, solo pastor, or staff pastor in urban, suburban, and rural settings. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Indiana Wesleyan University.

18 COMMENTS

  1. David, these are great questions, ones I’ve been asking myself. As an orthodox United Methodist pastor I’ve heard a lot about what we’re against but not so much about what we’re FOR. Talk of schism is everywhere, but no one seems to be sharing what happens after that. What is the “promised land?” Is it simply “winning” the denomination (a dubious prize given its bloated structure and decline), or is it leaving to become yet another generic evangelical denomination with more Reformed tendencies (a characteristic of some of the churches who have already left the UMC). Neither of those options appeal to me. I’m interested in being part of a fully engaged, cross-denominational/post-denominational Wesleyan movement that is focused on disciple-making and “holiness of heart and life.” I will be at the New Room Conference and am very interested to hear Dr. Tennent’s proposal. It’s an intriguing idea.

    A couple of questions I would add: 1) Will this new movement get down to nuts and bolts, like encouraging the rebirth of small group discipleship in the tradition of the class and band meetings? 2) Will we have common doctrinal commitments grounded in the Wesleyan tradition? Will we ban the use of the term “quadrilateral” once and for all and give primacy to Scripture once again? 3) How will the movement be led and how will decisions be made?

    These are just a few questions and I’m sure there will be more. Thanks for your reflection and raising some good questions!

    • I like this statement: “I’m interested in being part of a fully engaged, cross-denominational/post-denominational Wesleyan movement that is focused on disciple-making and “holiness of heart and life.””

      Nice.

      I like your questions, although I’m less adverse to quadrilateral thinking than you are it seems (although coming up through the Wesleyan stream, we have experienced its benefits not it’s weaknesses)

      Your #3 is a key interest–although I’m always keen on how movements never really reach final clarity on “who is in charge”… denominations, organizations, yes. But movements? No, they are led by many, and rarely positionally. That’s why I’m interested in people like Dr Tennent, who has a position already. Those of us in positional authority in other capacities might “lend credibility” to the movement and lead, but a true movement will be led by the likes of many. I’m interested to see this led by people who aren’t looking to get a job out of it, and already have one. 🙂

      I’m eager to see what might happen.

      • Yes, I do think tradition, reason, and experience are important lenses, but in the UMC the quadrilateral has often been used as a leveler in which, “all things being equal,” experience (particularly whatever experience is new) trumps or reinterprets Scripture to fit postmodern paradigms, hence my comment.

  2. View from a UMC pew:
    Yes, there are laity “out here” very interested in this movement and see it as a much needed answer!
    You are absolutely right about there needing to be evangelism “pew to pew” within the church. After a lifetime of being a “very good Methodist”, I ended up being so confused, lost and broken that I did the unthinkable: distanced myself from all things church, rumbled around in the Wesleyan Methodist camp, finally stumbled into the Calvinist camp and learned what all I did not know and understand about basic orthodox Christianity–a strange assortment of Calvinists from the communion of saints past and present introduced me to a God worth worshiping. While my local UMC was trying to become more “relevant”, I experienced the power and relevancy of the plainly told story of God created; humanity sinned/took control and continues to sin/take control; God redeemed and is redeeming us through Jesus Christ. I never envisioned that I would come to a full understanding of what it means to be a Christian with a Wesleyan accent with the help of Calvinists. I now have a favorite young Calvinist, Kevin DeYoung, because of his ability to take the very old Heidelberg catechism and write about Christianity in The Good News We Almost Forgot in an enthusiastic, passionate, yet modern way without once losing the “Wow” factor. It was a stunning moment when I realized that basic orthodox Christianity had not been clearly nor consistently taught within the UMC during my lifetime. I was 59 when I finally found myself standing in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace, wondering where this teaching had been all of my life! Christianity went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable!
    With all due respect, I recently read this analogy about the church: Amateurs built Noah’s Ark, professionals built the Titanic. There is, first and foremost the very early church which was all laity. More recently there was the emergence of early Methodism which was very much laity focused and laity driven. Then there is also the Heidelberg Catechism: It, in conjunction with another book about it, Body & Soul continues to be my “go to guide”. Turns out, it was not the product of any specific church. It came into being because a government official in 1600’s Germany wanted to keep the peace among the differing Protestant factions in his region. I think the catechism is so effective because it was not the result of the institutional church hammering out its specific set of “I believes”, but rather the result of different clergy coming together to jointly help their parishioners understand the high points of Christianity they had in common.

    • My tradition (The Wesleyan Church) has a history born in a huge abolitionist lay movement within the larger methodist movement that sought, in the new Wesleyan Methodist Connection–to embed a lay representation that was equal with the clergy for these very reasons. This is part of why I strongly push on the lay participation in any “movement” as it’s not really one without a strong lay representation and leadership.

  3. David, thank you for some thought provoking questions. I appreciate Dr. Tennent’s perspective and as I look forward to the New Room Conference next week, I too have ponderings …

    Does Christianity done “decently and in order” even necessitate a denominational construct?
    Just how paramount are the doctrines and traditions we espouse? To what extent have they (Calvinist, Wesleyan, Orthodox, et al) all arisen out of social and personal and cultural and even political influences and experiences? And for all their merit, are any but a few of them truly indispensable?
    Are Word and Spirit not sufficient to lay and maintain a catholic foundation for the Church — an indefatigable dogma that is recognized and proclaimed by all who walk worthy?

    I was raised in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and have experienced fellowship and served in ministry with a variety of non-Wesleyan denominations and traditions. Denominationalism carries no luster or intrigue for me. And associations need to be wary of espousing doctrines so exclusively as to forbear fellowship and ministry with those of differing persuasions. That being said, I could not be more thoroughly convinced that Holy Love is the calling of God in Christ Jesus upon every believer.

    Reading God’s entreatments and promises given by His prophets and of their fulfillment in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles I’m drawn to conclude that the most desperate needs of every believer today are contrition and confession and petition — perseverance in prayer until the Spirit of Holy Love fills and anoints us so completely that the thought of denominationalism will be the most foreign concept we could conceive or that others would ever associate with us. The packaging and labeling of the work of the Holy Spirit had nothing whatsoever to do with the life and growth of the early Church — we would do well to be severely cautious of implicating a need for any human construct that only serves to distract us from and interfere with and grieve and quench the Divine.

  4. I am a retired United Methodist pastor who is now serving two small churches part time. I sympathize with some of the theoretical concerns that I read in this article and the comments. However, I have been very concerned from the first time I read about this “movement.” I shall use a bit of sarcasm or harsh statements, but I hope readers will understand that I am writing from a heavy heart. This Wesleyan Network is “billed” as the answer to the present crisis in the UMC–or at least that is my impression. I have great respect for the people who are heading it up. Yet, I must say that I am disappointed in what I see so far. What concerns me is how this idea is going to work itself out in a practical way. The first practical issue is the matter of publicity. I have done what I could to keep informed about developments in the crisis, especially through Good News and the Confessing Movement. Yet, it was almost by chance that I learned about this movement. It may have considerable more traction in the Southeast Jurisdiction, but it does not seem to be well known elsewhere. It seems like people have to go looking in order to find this thing. And then, when you find it, you’re kind of scratching your head wondering what it is. There are thousands of lay people–and many clergy–who are sitting in a sort of Babylonian captivity in the pews of the UMC. They know they are hungry for something, but they don’t have much of an idea of what it is. I dare say many have no idea or only a vague notion of the issues that will come up at General Conference. It is difficult for me to see anything but a painful fracturing of the denomination in the aftermath of that Conference. Those lay people are going to be in terrible confusion–like sheep without a shepherd. Some will likely follow whatever shepherd is close at hand. They are not going to get on Google and try to find a Wesleyan movement that will lead them into wise doctrine and vibrant Spiritual awakening. So, the issues of visibility and audibility are critical in any sort of “answer” to our crisis. Leadership always carries with it the responsibility to stand tall enough so people can see.
    The second issue is a the matter of definition. As I have read the very brief statements of what this organization is all about, I have not learned much. How can people commit to an unknown? It seems there needs to be strong doctrinal statements as well as some statements of organization.
    Related to definition is a strategy for General Conference and what follows. The website information that I have read to this point seems to point to some sort of free lance, do-your-own-thing. You may quit the UMC and join with us, or you can stay with the UMC and be associated with us. What will be the advantages of these options?
    Finally, I want to let you know that time and budget constraints (as well as some unknowns about scheduling) prevented me from signing up for the conference. I am sure if I had gone, some of these questions might have been answered. Thank you for allowing me to post.

    • Hello, Bill.
      Perhaps what is happening causes the kinds of concerns and questions you have. By their nature, movements are hard to contain, describe, or lead. There really is no “organization” or “leader” to this right now anyway. It truly is a conversation that is happening in reaction to the current situation. So, you’re right, this is hard to describe.

      That can be exciting, threatening, concerning, and empowering… or all of the above depending on who you are and where you are coming from.

      For these reasons, as a non-UMC minister, but someone in the broader Wesleyan tribe, I am really interested in what’s up, and ready to bring what I hope is a helpful posture of prayer, support, and encouragement.

  5. As a church planter, this holds HUGE implications and vital information for me in this article alone and I had hoped this would become an area we address. I am not a life long Methodist, but a reformed one. My first experience in church was a church committed to Aldersgate Renewal and it shaped a huge part of my faith. Practice Love. Dwell in the Spirit. Christ and him crucified seemed to be the cornerstones of our movement at the time and the emphasis of the work of Holy Spirit. I personally think this is a great time to be a Wesleyan Methodist and that a great awakening is upon us. Here in Franklin, Tn this morning.

    • inspiring words here

      Praise the Lord for how he has moved! You’re right this is a great time to be a Wesleyan Methodist and perhaps another awakening is upon us. Let’s be ready and invested!

      On the way to new room now (don’t worry, I’m not driving)

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