Many Ways, but How Many Destinations?

dropsEvery year in the churches I’ve been blessed to serve, I like to begin the new year by offering a collective remembrance of baptism, coinciding with Baptism of the Lord Sunday.  We remember our baptism as we remember Jesus’ baptism.  I’ve found this time personally renewing and I believe many others I’ve served have as well.

This sense of renewal and beginning again analogous to what I’m feeling about our transition from Via Media Methodists to A Wesleyan Way.  I appreciate Stephen’s ruminations, which I would echo entirely. I only wish to add my own take.

I never thought of Via Media as some magical “middle” that was an average or Golden Mean of other varieties of Methodism on offer.  For me, it was more about offering an alternative – an alternative to the dominant voices in the church, which to my ears are more reflective of conservative or progressive ideology than anything like what I understand to be classical Wesleyan understandings of sin, redemption, the church, and ministry.  To make matters worse, in the course of the last few years the language of “center” was coopted – consciously, and self-servingly – by the moderate left.  Suddenly the radical alternative I was hoping to offer was placed, like it or not, side by side with options that were anything but new or alternative.

A friend of mine told me recently that my problem is that I don’t agree with anyone.  I’m okay with that. The truth is I want to offer a different voice because I don’t fit neatly in any of the major “camps.”  My openness to same-sex marriage and other social stances means that evangelicals perceive me as a progressive.  My penchant for real covenant (which demands accountability), combined with a serious interest in orthodox doctrine, means that progressives think me a fundamentalist.  In truth, I am a man with no country, and – perhaps it’s the only child in me – I can live with that.

Now, to look ahead a bit.

For my money, “A Wesleyan Way” indicates that we do not believe we have the market cornered on being Wesleyan.  Indeed, the current impasse in the UMC is indicative that there are many ways of being Wesleyan.  Think for a second about the different options:

  • The evangelical way, represented by Asbury/Seedbed and sympathetic folks across the connection.
  • The progressive way, indicated by networks like RMN.
  • The Anglo-Catholic way, seen in organizations like the Order of Saint Luke and liturgical/sacramental folks.
  • The old school liberal/mainline way, represented by the ‘centrists’ and found in many “First UMC” congregations around the country
  • The charismatic way, represented by Aldersgate Renewal Ministries and their allied ministries and institutions.

Are there more? Of course. Do these intersect and overlap in a variety of ways and places? Indeed.  But the point is this: these five strands, and others, each lay claim to be THE Wesleyan way – the way of the future, the way of renewal, the way of the Wesleys.

Christian Perfection via Wesley is not about shame, but love.
Papa John (Wesley).

As I reflect on the future of the church, two key insights from different seminary professors stick out to me:

  1. Dr. Maddox, a professor of Methodist history and doctrine, who noted that Wesley was a “conjunctive theologian,” holding things in tension that other Christians and sects tended to separate (Scripture and tradition, or evangelism and discipleship, for instance).
  2. Dr. Wacker, who taught me American church history, noted that Methodists in America have tended to take on the characteristics of whatever geographical region we found ourselves in. (In part, this is due to that pragmatic streak which we’ve often discussed.)

The following result seems inescapable: a conjunctive tradition that, like a chameleon, tends to blend in to its surroundings cannot help but have tensions.  Those tensions may ultimately metastasize into schism. Note that many of the expressions listed above have geographic tendencies – progressives in the Northeast and Northwest, evangelicals and charismatics in the Southeast and Midwest, Anglo-Catholics in the North and other places where Catholicism has been influential.  It’s not simply geographic, of course, but there are clear affinities for different Wesleyan expressions in different regions (though some have formalized this through a variety of Conference or Jurisdictional declarations/actions).

All this leaves me with what might be the most important question – NOT the question that is usually asked (Can these various streams coexist together?), but another, more crucial question: are these various streams aiming at the same destination?

In other words, I believe that unity is possible among different Wesleyan ways if they share similar visions of the Christian life and purpose of the church.  We may choose different roads, but if we are trying to get to the same destination, we can still be co-travelers.  You might take a connecting flight through Boston, while I have a direct flight and my friend has a layover in Chicago, but if we are trying to get to the same place we have enough in common to warrant sharing as much of the journey as possible.  On the other hand, if I’m trying to end up in Nashville and your ultimate destination is Montego Bay, we have little in common.

Do the various Wesleyan way(s) possess a common goal? Surely not.  Some are closer than others, of course.  Charismatics and evangelicals share many of the same goals, as do classic Mainliners/liberal Protestants and Progressives.  But is Aldersgate Renewal Ministries animated by the same view of salvation as Reconciling Ministries Network or the Anglo-Catholics?

Clearly, we are not simply emphasizing different means of grace and taking different paths, we are aiming at divergent goals.

I don’t presume that my vision of Wesleyan spirituality and practice is the only legitimate one, and nor do my co-conspirators.  This is A Wesleyan Way, not ‘The’ Wesleyan Way.

Will all of the ways currently holding together in the UMC stay together? I am doubtful.  We have not only different paths and different destinations, but these are undergirded by wholly different linguistic worlds.

Do you ever wonder why we can’t seem to talk to each other? It’s because we are literally speaking different languages.

But God is not done with the Methodist movement.  When Wesley had to release the American Methodists from his supervision, he left them at liberty to follow “Scripture and the primitive church.”  There are still Methodists and Wesleyan family members in America, the UK, and beyond.

Let us each pursue our own way with passion and grace.  I’d love to be proven wrong about the likelihood of us all staying together, but if I’m not, I am confident that a variety of Methodist expressions will remain in North America and beyond.

Until then, let’s follow Jesus accompanied by the Wesleys. Let’s walk beside each other as long  as we can, but let’s also examine our own hearts and honestly seek to understand other paths.  We don’t have to stay together, but if we want to, the question we need to ask is: are we trying to get to the same destination?

4 comments

  1. I would not divide Asbury, Aldersgate, and the Anglo-Catholic streams into different ways. The Methodist movement is all of them rolled into one. The other options were not a part of the original movement and their fruit shows it. There is no life in them. Go to a progressive UMC or an old, liberal style UM church and you will find a churches that are very out of touch and loyal to institution over mission. That is a generalization but it’s pretty much reality.

    I am an Asbury student-pastor and have a great relationship with Aldersgate Renewal ministries. I love those people. It’s been awesome to see God pulling all the people involving in the various groups in the UMC who love orthodoxy and want to see a revival of real Methodism (classes, bands, catechism, missions, reaching the least and the left, seeing the power of the Holy Spirit manifest, etc.). You should attend the New Room conference or have ARM come to your church and host a Lay Witness weekend.

    From some of your posts, I see that you spent time in the SBC and came to despise all the crap that goes in that denomination. I share that experience and let me say, the people in all of these groups are nothing like that. A lot of people assume that Asbury is a typical evangelical group but it is far from that. They flow in the Anglo-Catholic stream and are very compassionate and loving. I thank God that he led me to Asbury. The junk in the UMC would have burnt me out by now if I hadn’t.

    The future of Methodism (the UMC and all the other Wesleyan denoms./groups) lies in these three streams coalescing. When we in America start living in that stream fully, we will experience what our brothers and sisters in the Methodist movement around the world are experiencing: growth, life, and joy.

    1. That is the realist annoyingly of the current Methodist Church I have heard in a long time. I have been a Methodist since 2007-2008 but in the past 3 yrs it has changed allot.

  2. The division is dark, and unfortunate. I hope one day we’ll all be open & honest enough to share our stories, the stories of Jesus & God’s love for us all, from a place of love & grace.

    The division is menial, given the state of the world in which we find ourselves. We should spin ourselves in a worthier cause. And learn to listen & love each other better.

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