Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Worship and Discipleship, Part 5: Fix, Practice and "Earlier" English and American Methodism...


Leave it to a liturgy geek-- or maybe just a geek--  to come up with a weird, unlabeled diagram with far too many connections and implications to explain in a single blog post. Well, given that this diagram has actually appeared in this form several times on single slides (or pages) of some larger presentations and scholarly papers I've done on the emerging missional way and early Methodist network ecclesiology, maybe this is an improvement. No, I don't make any promise that this diagram will make perfect sense to you or to anyone by the end of this post. But I do hope it may make a bit more sense then than it may here at the beginning. Just humor me a bit, eh?

In the meantime, let me review some of the ground we covered in part 4. We noted that Finney and the revivalists had made the assertion that revivals, and in particular "The Fix" (a strong emotional and physical response to anxiety understood to be generated in and by the Holy Spirit in the context of the revival meeting itself through the "right use of measures") both were necessary to produce real conversion and real holiness in his own day because what the congregations were doing did not and likely could not produce these effects, and, further, that this had always been so throughout the history of Christianity. We noted that this charge of the disinterest, impotence or incompetence of the congregations on these matters was very likely accurate in the large, if not entirely fair, given that, in fact, congregations were neither designed nor trying in their ministries to produce such effects in most of their members for the most part, and hadn't been for centuries! But we also noted that the second claim, that "The Fix" was always the means by which God had always generated new Christians and holy living was actually a serious misreading at least of early Christianity, one that completely ignored the intense efforts at practical formation involved in the catechumenate. 

We noted there, as well, that the catechumenate, as a process, had in fact been reasonably successful and generating congregations full of real Christians who were really growing, at least as long as the intensity, purposes and processes that underlay it and surrounded it were in place. Indeed, as a number of historians have shown, by far the greatest rate of sustained expansion of the Christian faith so far occurred between about 110 (perhaps 25,000 Christians total) and 310 (estimates vary from 2 to 6 million Christians), before the legalization of Christianity in 315, an 80 to 240 fold increase in two hundred years. This rate of increase cannot be accounted for by births alone, and there is no evidence that these occurred through any "mass conversions" in this period. Instead, the vast majority of these were new converts to the faith, invited to this way of life by other Christians, and then given some intensive form of the catechumenate (its details varied from place to place, but the normal time period seems to have been established around three years by the beginning of the third century) prior to being baptized, which also meant, in many places, prior to ever seeing at all, and in others, ever participating in the entirety of "regular" Sunday worship (Holy Communion). If they were there at all, the "catechumens" were dismissed after the "service of the word" and typically before the prayers of the people while the baptized faithful remained.

By contrast, let me suggest that there is no evidence that "The Fix" has ever generated congregations full of real Christians, either before or after 375. It may certainly have "added to the number" of people within congregations who actually became and grew as committed disciples of Jesus. But it did not fundamentally alter the character or the composition of those congregations themselves, with the possible exception of those who, deeply involved in revivalism itself, split off to form their own congregations with a decidedly more sectarian and almost perpetually revivalist flavor. Even Finney wanted none of that!

To sum up all of this for the 19th century revivalist context, the realities were these. Congregations practiced and taught their members to practice "congregational" things-- public worship of God, basic Christian theology (in their particular flavor), some means of caring for each other, and being a respected institutional player in the local community (all of which were good things, but none of which created or supported the expectation that most members would live as fully committed disciples of Jesus). Revivalists, meanwhile, such as Finney, used "The Fix" in revivals in order to "stir up" the passions of people inside and outside the existing congregations to create "real Christians," i.e., those who would constantly and actively strive the follow the way of Jesus in personal life and social influence.

So in the congregations there were practices of worship being taught-- though with few exceptions, these were becoming both theologically and ritually thinner over time-- and some practices of interpretation of scripture to fit the particular confessional/denominational bent. And there was the "new measure" of the revival and "The Fix" to move some of these into more fervent action.

But almost no one, anywhere on this scene, had either a means or a method actually to train the majority of their people intensively in the practices of Christian discipleship. 

Almost no one-- but the Methodists!

Early Methodism as a Restored Catechumenate
The invitation into early Methodism was a wide open one. All it took to start the path toward becoming a Methodist-- that is a full member of one of the early Methodist societies-- was a "desire to flee the wrath to come and to be saved from sins." That desire alone with the sufficient ticket to enroll you in a "trial class meeting," a small group of 7-12 people meeting weekly, often on Thursday evenings, led by a trained leader where, for a period of at least six months, you were being taught and held accountable to live the practices commended by "The General Rules" by, in these meetings, learning and using the practices of prayer, searching the scriptures, receiving practical and scriptural teaching, and engaging in "holy conversation" about one's progress in living them out. 

Simply being in this "trial class" did not make you a Methodist, however. Not until you had been part of this group for six months and your class leader asked for you to be admitted to the society, upon his or her recommendation, and then not until the society had examined whether you had actually made sufficient progress in living out the practices of the Rules that you were likely to continue to do so, were you in fact admitted as a full member of the Methodist Society, and therefore (assuming you remained in good standing) eligible to participate in more of its life-- particularly its more "private" rituals such as the Love Feast and the Watch Nights or Covenant Ceremonies. And only then, and only by remaining in good standing by continuing to progress in living out these practices-- all of them-- could you expect to be brought into leadership in the Society or, later, the Conference. 

Some compared the rigor of this meddlesome process that messed with how people lived their lives and both required and showed them how to live differently to the novitiate of the monasteries and religious orders, and so called the Wesleys and the Methodists "papists" (i.e., in league with the Pope, hardly a compliment in 18th century England!). Others called them "Pelagians" (followers of the teaching of the ancient British bishop, Pelagius, declared a heretic by Augustine and a few others for seeming to promote the idea that people could be saved more or less by their works) for focusing so much on practices-- practical ones, devotional ones, personal ones, social ones and the fullness of the ritual practices of the existing congregations (mostly, but not entirely Anglican) of his own day. The Wesleys answered such objections often and firmly, and frequently by referring to what they were doing, actually, as "experimental Christianity." 

By that term "experimental" they did not mean anything like "trying something out to see if it works." Rather, they meant something closer to, though not quite the equivalent of, our word "experiential." That is, what they were up to, and helping a growing number of Methodists across England and North America to do, was concretely helping people live out the fullness of Christian discipleship, really and practically, in their own lives then and there. In short, they were enrolling people in a catechumenate-- not to learn a catechesis (a list of right answers to doctrinal questions) but to learn to follow Jesus. The General Rules were nothing more and nothing less than a set of practices by which persons could put living human flesh upon and experience the Spirit's breath through the ritual "bones" of their baptismal vows. Teach people how to live these practices, and both support and hold them accountable for continuing to do so, and they will be more likely to follow the way of Christ and participating fully in the ministry of the whole church, ever growing in holiness of heart and life.

One never graduated from a class meeting, though one would graduate from the "trial class meeting" into a meeting of largely full members of the Society. Membership and participation in class meetings was, and remained, a necessary precondition for ongoing membership in the Methodist societies in England. It would also remain, at least in the Books of Discipline, a continuing precondition for both initial and ongoing membership in what became the "societies-becoming-congregations" of The Methodist Episcopal Church through the early decades of the 19th century. 

The greatest expansion of Methodism and Methodist influence in North America happened not with the "church a day campaign" of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, but rather with the multiplication of these "little cells of practiced believers" who were starting colleges, working against slavery, building hospitals, educating children, caring for the elderly and the poor, organizing labor unions, and preaching the gospel in deed and word in the late 18th and early 19th century.

These "little cells of practiced believers" were the heart, but not the whole, of the early "Methodizing" of America. The "whole" was church-- these cells, plus the societies-becoming-congregations (with the opportunities and challenges that hybrid brought!), plus all the other ministries and institutions these "practiced believers" were starting-- the network or "connexion" of all of them (see- that diagram up there does mean something!) and not any one of them alone. The fullness of the expression of church could emerge out of all of these different kinds of expressions of Christian community and ministry, each doing its own particular work well-- church as network, not simply as congregation or small group or ... revival meeting.

Now, none of this is to say elements of "The Fix"-- powerful emotional and physical responses engendered in group worship practices-- were absent from Methodist life, or not important in it. Not at all. If we are to believe the many chronicles of early Methodist leaders on both sides of the pond about what they saw occurring in society meetings, field preaching, and even the later "quarterly meetings" such times of intense emotional encounter and expression in worship were not only not uncommon, but received as signs of the Spirit's work in their midst to help promote new faithfulness. 

But the deal here is, these earliest Methodist Episcopalians (after 1784) did not rely on "The Fix" alone. "The Fix" could happen or it might not. Come what may, they were still training people to live the General Rules in weekly class meetings,  worshiping weekly as well in Society or later congregational worship ( a hybrid of society and Church of England practices), and celebrating Holy Communion as often as there was an elder present who could preside -- and the latter using a ritual only slightly altered from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. 

Why that kind of Sunday morning worship, and why that kind of "rote" sacramental practice? As the Wesley's both argued in their oft-republished tract, "Reasons against a Separation from the Church of England," it was because 

"The Prayers of the Church (i.e. the Church of England, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer)... are substantial Food for any who are alive to GOD. The LORD'S Supper is pure and wholesome for all who receive it with upright Hearts.... The more we attend it, the more we love it, as constant Experience shews. On the contrary, the longer we abstain from it, the less Desire we have to attend it at all."

So what did these early Methodists have? "Schools" for teaching the practices of the Christian life (class meetings), worship primarily as a practice or a series of practices (Sunday morning), and worship opportunities where "The Fix" could also occur (both class meetings and Sunday evening society meetings/worship). All of that. At least initially.  

But not for long... 

So... back to the period of the revivals, beginning in the late 1820s. At least in theory, if you did "come to the Lord" at an early 19th century revival, the Methodists who were part of that revival would not immediately enroll you as a full member in the church. They would instead immediately enroll you in a trial class meeting where you would learn the practices of the Christian life, the General Rules, and how to live them. They would invite you to Sunday morning worship, but you would not be admitted to communion or to love feasts until you were a full member with a ticket in hand to certify you were a member of the society (or later, congregation) in good standing. And then, again at least as the Discipline had it, if you made good progress, you might be considered for admission to the church as a member, and sustained in such membership, but only provided that you continued to live out the General Rules in ways verified by the leader of the class every quarter in which you continued to be enrolled and participate.

Except that, of course, what the Discipline stated was supposed to happen wasn't exactly what was really going on. Already by the 1830s, coinciding with the height of the revivals, there are signs that participation in the class meetings as a necessary precondition and ongoing condition of membership in the Methodist Episcopal Churches was beginning to fall by the wayside. There was still "exciting preaching" (as Finney documents!) but in essence "The Fix" and some sense of doctrinal orthodoxy were already starting to replace initial and ongoing participation in the classes as the "sine qua non" that actually got you into or kept you in membership. The six month waiting period still applied, and probably almost universally (that could be fairly easily checked and confirmed in church minutes, after all). But the actual training-- the practices? These were steadily falling away.  At least among the "dominant culture"Methodists. (The story here is very different for AME and AME Zion!).

This became even clearer in the Disciplines of the 1840s, of which we have originals here in the Upper Room Library. In 1842, there was still a provision on the books regarding class meetings stating that persons who willingly neglected these meetings should be reminded that doing so meant they could be excluded from the church. What's less than clear, though, is that anyone would actually follow through on such accountability. In 1848 in the MEC (North), there was not only no reference to this provision for continued attendance in class meetings after the 6 month trial period, but also no identified "section" on class meetings at all. And there was also an addition made to the ways persons could become members. If they were part of any other "orthodox" church, they could be admitted with no trial period, provided they could answer doctrinal questions and "other considerations" (not clearly specified) suitably. Both of these changes are also included in the 1857 Discipline of the MECS (South). 

Scott Kisker has documented both this decline of discipline and the some of the historical forces at work that led to it in his little book, Mainline or Methodist. To his insights, I add an ecclesio-sociological one that to the degree that the former Methodist societies were living into their new identities as "congregations" like the other congregations of their era-- that is as fundamentally the public institutional expression of Christian community-- their capacity to continue to support these non-public and rather counter-cultural "little cells of practiced believers" as the norm for congregational membership-- congregations full of real Christians-- was increasingly compromised.

So, while the mix of things in the early 19th century for Methodists might look like this:
Sunday Morning (Thinning but Sacramentally Thick Practices, Some "Fix" in Preaching)
Sunday Evening: Some "Fix" in exhortation, more expressive practices overall
Thursday Evening: Small-group, face-to-face community practices of scripture reading, prayer and holy conversation

Sunday Evening: Purpose of gathering was as "mid-size group" experience to encourage and exhort people to growth in holiness and practice in their daily lives (i.e., support system for class meetings, connection to other societies)
Thursday Evening: Accountability for practices actually engaged (or not engaged) throughout the previous week, and face to face support to improve the coming week

By the 1830s, the peak of revivalism, and fully instantiated in the Discipline by the end of the 1840s, the relationships looked like this:
Sunday Morning: Even thinner, though still sacramentally "thick" practices, but worship really as a means to another end-- seeking or getting new members into the six month waiting process, if not admitting them on the spot (though this wasn't quite sanctioned!).
Sunday Evening: Mostly "fix" for those who still attended. 
Thursday Evening: Probably no longer happening.

Sunday Evening: Since the class meetings were essentially rare or non-existent, the discipleship focus of activities here began to "drift"
Thursday Evening: Not happening.
Sunday Schools: Initially to train children in literacy and Bible, but over time a variety of functions for adults and children alike 
Women's Society Meetings:  Women learning about and engaging in a variety of mission and charity-related activities

How Did We Get from There to Here?
Stay tuned for part 6-- coming soon! 


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Worship and Discipleship, Part 4: Historical Reflections on Finney, The Fix, and Practices


In part 3 of this series, I described how Charles Grandison Finney and the larger 19th century revivalist movements understood both the necessity and the role of their work in Christian discipleship. As they saw it, the congregations were not entirely irrelevant but rather impotent and incompetent when it came either to making new disciples or helping people to live the way of Jesus faithfully in their actual cultural setting. Worship and congregational life were more about trying to maintain some sort of status quo than either conversion or growth. Most people in them seemed to have little interest either in following Jesus in the first place or becoming more faithful in their discipleship to him over time. And the congregations seemed to be set up to "cater" to these "barely interested" folk rather than to be a "Petri dish" to culture, inculturate and then spread "real Christians" everywhere. Instead, they were culturing, inculturating and one might even say spreading a kind of "disinterested" or "lukewarm" or "culturally acceptable" Christianity everywhere, defending their practice on the basis of tradition. 

Since this was "situation normal" in the congregations, about the only way to "wake up" or "stir up" at least some of these people or others not yet in the congregations into actual faith in Jesus or deeper discipleship to him was to create an environment (the revival, or protracted meeting) where both the theological and emotional stakes would be raised to a prominence rarely seen in the congregations, an environment where those attending would be compelled to respond, "What must I do to be saved?" or at least "How am I called to respond to this anxiety, this dis-ease I feel so strongly inside?" Assuming the congregations were going to continue to be but mildly reformed through these efforts, though perhaps more people in them may be more thoroughly reformed, there would be no clear end in sight for the necessity of the revivals, and within them, "the fix" as the necessary precondition to conversion and growth in holiness.

In this entry, I want to consider two historical questions about this revivalist understanding of how "real Christianity" works. First, was their assessment of the disinterest, impotence, and incompetence of the congregations to produce conversion and real growth fair or accurate in the first place? And was the necessity of innovating ever "new measures" to "get the public mind," the chief of which was "the fix," actually as historically rooted and prevalent as Finney and his fellow revivalists liked to claim?

Was the Assessment of General Congregational Incompetence/Impotence/Disinterest Accurate or Fair?

Accurate, yes, at least as far as Finney (a Presbyterian) could see from his vantage point. The evidence on this point is clear from all sides-- revivalists, "Old School" or "Old Light" folk, and actual statistics. There had been a real recession in religious involvement (church attendance) and practice (churches and Christians being involved actively, because of their faith, in what we Methodists might call acts of piety and acts of mercy, personally and in society at large) since the First Great Awakening. Part of this was generated by the massive mobility and changing demographics brought about by the opening of the Louisiana Territory and the rapid expansion of the Western frontier in the early 19th century. You've got all these people on the move, taking whatever little they reasonably can with them, but you don't have "established" (Old Light/Old School) churches in that mix in large part because you don't have "established" cultures or even towns that could support that model of church well. Methodists, some Baptists and emerging new groups (Disciples of Christ, early holiness groups, and others) could flourish in such a "fluxy" environment in part because they were all institutionally "less heavy" and less dependent on public and cultural institutional supports to do what they did. Finney actually regular applauded the Methodists for just such nimbleness and flexibility!

The "Old School" and other established congregations-- those who provided the bulk of the critique of the revivals-- were simply not set up to meet this challenge. Nor were they doing much to prepare themselves to do so. That fact didn't seem to faze the "Old School" folks all that much. Indeed, they continued to defend and promote their way of doing things, and a good number of them (including their seminaries-- again most notably among Presbyterians) argued that continuing to do what they had done, even in the face of declining "vitality," was a sign of their faithfulness, not a sign of any lack in faithfulness, while the "emotional extremes" promoted by revivalism were more likely to lead to confusion, dissension and excess than longer term faithfulness to God.

So accurate, yes.

But fair, maybe not.
Finney and the revivalists seemed to expect that the congregational form of Christianity should be generating new converts and promoting real growth in holiness in their participants all the time. Their vision of the "ideal" congregation was of a body of actively engaged believers, always pressing on toward holiness of heart and life, both personal life and that of the surrounding society. 

Trouble is, congregations did not generally seem to share that set of expectations. Congregations tended to understand themselves as offering the public worship of God, decently and in good order (according to their denominational standards), teaching the doctrines of their confession, providing some means of caring for each other, and being respected institutional players as representatives of religion, intellectual and social life in their local communities. These were the four basic things congregations had been doing since Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire at the decree of Emperor Theodosius in 375, and these, and almost only these, had become the template for congregational life and work, as such (unless you lived on the fringes of the Empire, where conversion and intense spiritual formation were still on the radar screen) since at least the sixth century. 

So congregations that were doing these four things with reasonable faithfulness in early 19th century North America had, by this point, perhaps as much as a 1300 year history behind them to ratify they were basically on the right track for what they were-- that is, congregations. What congregation needs to focus on conversions when everyone is a Christian, or at least shares Christian values, more or less? And who needs to provide much effort to help people live the Christian life, to practice its practices, beyond what might happen on Sunday morning (worship and perhaps some teaching opportunity) when the surrounding culture is also more or less Christian? The congregation in its worship and teaching provides what is necessary for salvation. That should be enough now, just as it had been for all these centuries up to now.

So given those assumptions, which one still finds strong resonances of in much contemporary congregational life, for folks like the revivalists to expect congregations to be or become competent in issues related to the conversion or real growth in holiness of most of their members is sort of like expecting a normal three-lead clover patch to produce mostly four-leaf varieties. It's an unrealistic expectation, and therefore it's unfair to criticize congregations for not producing many converts or a majority of their membership actively growing in the faith. 

So accurate, yes. Fair, not so much. 

But what about historical?

"The Fix" as Historically Essential to Christian Discipleship?

One of the major claims that Finney makes for "the fix" as being fundamental to Christian discipleship in his own day is that it had always been so. He would point to numerous examples of "sudden conversions" in the New Testament and the example of what he says is every reform movement across Christian history and conclude that, yes, the adoption of "new measures" that would excite the hearers of that day and move them to different action was the common denominator in every case. The practices, and more particularly the worship, evangelistic and discipleship practices of the congregations in all these cases (Judaism in the NT, Christianity across history) had always been insufficient, in every era, to generate and then sustain "real" discipleship. Only and always "the fix" had been the answer to "save the day."

Not so fast, Mr Finney. There is an element of the life of early Christian congregations that has been either overlooked or ignored in such an account of Christian history-- the catechumenate. 

Without here trying to retrace the details of the history of the Christian catechumenate (for which one of the best resources is a volume Maxwell Johnson edited called Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, and in particular Aidan Kavanaugh's opening essay), one thing that is very evident in the ministry of Jesus, in Acts, and in the first three centuries at least of the church is that there was a strong understanding that one had to learn how to follow Jesus in order to become his disciple, and that this took real time and lots of practice. 

Discipleship to Jesus may begin with a defining decision, which may or may not be accompanied by "a fix," but the course of discipleship itself involves learning from the Master and his people what it means, practically speaking, to live the way of Jesus, bearing witness to the reign of God in this life. When Barnabas recruited Paul to help "teach" disciples in Antioch, he wasn't recruiting him to become a revivalist or a "fix artist," but in fact someone who could and would work with Barnabas over the period of the next year to help those believers in Antioch live the way of Christ in their context. That's what teachers did with disciples. It's no accident that Acts records it was these people, having undergone this intensive process of teaching with Barnabas and Paul, who were the first to be known as "Christianoi," "little Christs" (Acts 11:26). 

We also see echoes of this in a number of Paul's letters to the churches, in many of which he barely mentions "conversions" as such at all, and is instead focused much more on the practical issues of what it means to live the way of Christ in their contexts. Perhaps most notably in this regard is Paul's own statement about his ministry in Corinth, where he says he's glad he baptized almost no one, but instead devoted himself to teaching them the way of Christ (See I Corinthians 1:12-17). Paul had essentially founded this Christian community and was there for nearly 18 months (Acts 18:1-11) and baptized almost no one? Right! He wanted them to be grounded in the way of Christ first and foremost. It wasn't that baptism and conversion didn't matter to him. It's that they did! And he understood that actual conversion wasn't just the result of a fix, a sudden new perspective, but also and more importantly it was about implications for everything one did and how one lived one's life-- personally, devotionally, with others in the community and beyond, and in worship. Apollos, who followed Paul there, could then baptize them, sealing their conversions.
We see a similar pattern in the first or early second century Syrian document called "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles" (Didache, ca. 65-115 AD). The first six "chapters" of this are a "catechetical manual"-- a description of how to live the "way of life" rather than the "way of destruction" in eminently practical terms. These chapters precede the instructions for baptism in a way that makes clear that those to be baptized had already received and begun to live out the teaching of the first six chapters before they entered the cold, flowing waters of baptism.    

We see a similar pattern in Justin Martyr's First Apology (ca. 150). Here he writes that those who would be baptized had first been instructed how to pray, how to fast, and especially how to love their enemies, as well as what the other expectations of discipleship to Jesus with this community would be, because in his community, at least, they expected everyone to make a fully conscious decision to keep living this way before they were baptized. 

The fullest early elaboration of this pattern is in Apostolic Tradition (ca 215). Here, the period of preparation is described as being normally about three years, and the "contents" of the preparatory work included attending daily prayer with the community, and, more in particular, in learning the habits and practices of Christians. (For infants and others unable to speak for themselves, it was expected they would gain this formation by being with their parents who would be accompanying others through the process-- so these could be, and often were, baptized as infants). This phase of preparation was followed by an intensive two weeks of teaching, prayer and daily exorcism. But these persons could not enter that phase until their sponsor could answer affirmatively three questions about their way of life: "Did they live soberly? Did they show mercy to widows and the elderly? Did they pursue all virtuous things?" None of these was doctrinal, per se, and none of these was something that could be answered by "a fix." All of them reflected a pattern of life, a way learned over time by practice.

Practical practices meddling with how one lives in this world so that one began to live as a disciple of Jesus-- and an ongoing expectation as these were being taught one was becoming increasingly proficient in them-- that's what the catechumenate, initial disciple formation, was all about. Or as Malcolm Gladwell might put it-- 10,000 hours to begin to master the way of Jesus so one could follow him and serve in his name with ever-growing competence and grace for a lifetime.

Early Christian congregations, then, were filled with people who had such intense practice both in coming to Jesus initially and in continuing to grow in faithful discipleship to him. For Christian communities like this, not to expect nearly everyone to have a lively and growing faith, "true religion" in Finney's terms, would have been a very odd thing. 

Just as odd as expecting post-sixth century congregations, including most 19th (or 21st!) century congregations in America, where little or none of that practical formation had taken place, to be full of such people.

So is "the fix" historically the way that Christians are made and grow in holiness of heart and life? No. While it may have been one ingredient in the mix, here or there, for some, what had historically actually produced congregations full of Christians were communities dedicated to teaching people practically (including ritually) --and intensively-- how to live the way of Jesus in their context. In short, if you want lots of "real Christians," maybe there is some "fix," but mostly it's about practices-- lives changed not only in the emotions, but down to the bones, the blood, the lungs and the impulses.

So What Does a Presbyterian Revivalist Have to Do with 19th Century Methodism?      

Watch for Part 5... coming soon!

Image Credit: Baptistery of Ancient Nabatean City, Israel; Photo by Vad Levin. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Worship for Discipleship Part 3: Finney and "The Fix"


The gentleman pictured to the right may be familiar to some of you. This is a color portrait of Charles Grandison Finney, noted by some as the "Father of Revivalism" in early-mid19th century America, as well as the founder of Oberlin College, and a leader in the movements to abolish slavery, ameliorate harsh labor conditions, promote temperance, and increase the rights and education of women. All of these social efforts Finney saw as necessary components of Christian holiness. And Finney's approach to holiness was very much like that of at least the earlier John Wesley-- without it, one could not hope to see the Lord.  

At least in my experience, Finney's approach to revivals and revivalism has been largely mischaracterized as "competing" with the ministry of local congregations and focused primarily on "doing whatever it takes" to get "lost" people (i.e., those not regularly attending worship) to "come to Jesus," as well as almost entirely concerned with "individual salvation." At least on this last point, the list of his efforts and expectations of Christians to be fully engaged in social holiness should offset that caricature.
Still, his approach to the "use of new measures" (including "the protracted meeting" and "the anxious seat") has been particularly criticized for being manipulative in the extreme and generative of, at best, short-term emotional results.

However, if you read his writings carefully, you might see a somewhat more nuanced picture. At least, I do.

What Finney Cared About
Finney's passion was less about "getting non-Christians in" (though that was not unimportant!) and far more about reviving the faith, commitment and holiness of Christians already in the churches so they would "go out" and live faithfully in the world.  

He supported and promoted revivals-- "protracted meetings" typically outside the regular meeting places of the congregations and during the week, not just on Sunday morning or evening (i.e., not a "sermon series")-- because he saw in them an effective venue for a clear focus on conversion, commitment and amendment of life in ways that the "regular" Sunday practices of worship were generally unlikely or unable to provide. 

Finney was not suggesting that "regular" Sunday practices were either wrong or unimportant. He was not saying "Quit what you're doing on Sunday and just do revivals!" He was saying that these regular practices were not up to the task of eliciting and deepening commitment to the way of Christ in his own day.

Here's a quote from his Lectures on Revivals of Religion that addresses this concern head on:

"Without new measures, it is impossible that the church should succeed in gaining the attention of the world to religion. There are so many exciting subjects constantly brought before the public mind... that the church cannot maintain her ground, cannot command attention, without very exciting preaching, and sufficient novelty in measures, to get the public ear  (pp. 251-252).

Finney's concern was for "the public mind," that is, all the ways all of our daily lives-- those in the church as well as those not yet in the church-- are formed by the actual practices of the cultures in which we live. 
Neither morning worship nor the newly emerging Sunday Schools in most of the congregations he knew were trying to carve out a niche in that "marketplace," but rather to offer a public practice of religion for those who were primarily already in the church and whose minds were at least thought to be primarily influenced by the church.

What Finney observed was that even among those in the church, the normal round of congregational life, including its worship and educational opportunities, was at most one influence among many in their actual lives, and often not the most significant one. 

The Role and Limitations of the Revival
Finney understood and repeatedly said that revivals and protracted meetings were no replacement for congregational life. However, they were a necessary additive for the church (not just the congregation, but Christianity in America) to spread the gospel to persons who had not received it and to help those who had received it actually to live the way of Christ. 

In other words, Finney believed and taught that revivals should supplement rather than replace congregational life and worship.  Indeed, he warned that over-reliance on protracted meetings was as dangerous and foolish as avoiding them altogether. He wrote:

"Some churches have got into a morbid state... Their zeal has become all spasmodic and feverish... When a protracted meeting is held they will seem to be wonderfully zealous, and then sink down into a torpid state until another protracted meeting produces another spasm" (p. 246).  

Such congregations, we might say, had become "revival junkies," addicted to the revival itself as its core spiritual practice, always and ultimately only looking for the next "fix."  

Was "the Fix" the Only Real Way to Generate Discipleship?

Finney never argued that the only way to generate initial or rededicated discipleship was through revivals, per se. What he noted, instead, was that the revival or protracted meeting appeared to be a very effective means to move many people from no faith to faith and from lukewarm commitment to deeper commitment to the way of Christ. He would also note the revivals were far better at that kind of "advancement of religion" than "regular" church life and worship in his day.

However, if you look at his detailed descriptions explaining why and how revivals worked on the human mind/soul, in the end, it is for him all about "the fix."  Having a strong emotional and physical response to a call to come to Jesus or surrender to him in all or a particular matter of life was, in his view, the necessary precondition to actually coming to him in the first place or becoming a better disciple of his. And having such strong responses on a regular basis was in the end the only way to ensure an advance in holiness, an actual "revival of religion." 

"A revival will decline and cease, unless Christians are frequently re-converted. By this I mean, that Christians, in order to keep in the spirit of a revival, commonly need to be frequently convicted, and humbled, and broken down before God, and re-converted. This is something which many do not understand, when we talk about a Christian's being re-converted. But the fact is that in a revival the Christian's heart is liable to get crusted over, and lose its exquisite relish for divine things; his unction and prevalence in prayer abates, and then he must be converted over again. It is impossible to keep him in such a state as not to do injury to the work, unless he pass through such a process every few days" (p. 262, emphasis Finney).

In saying this, Finney is not arguing that Christians have to get "the fix" every few days of their lives, but rather that they do need to get this every few days during a protracted meeting. If not, that meeting will not have done its intended work and the Christian will not have been revived enough to continue to grow in grace and holiness in the days until the next protracted meeting.

Still, the message is clear: no salvation or growth in holiness without "the fix." Only "the fix" such as can be generated through the right use of the "new measures" can generate or sustain "true religion." The regular practices of the congregation generally do not and cannot.

Worship and Discipleship: Historical Reflections on Finney, The Fix, and Practices... coming in part 4!

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards


Friday, June 25, 2010

A Crosspost from emergingumc: Where are the Prophets? How Shall We Hear Them?


Here's a piece I wrote about a little while back for another blog I host-- emergingumc. It seems relevant to the stream of conversations we might have here as well. 

So this will be the first of what I expect may be a number of crossposts-- items I or you (if you become an author on this blog) may decide to share with the umcworship audience as well.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Where are the Prophets? How Shall We Hear Them?


Those of us in the northern hemisphere who use the Revised Common Lectionary for worship planning and study in our settings are now in the midst of a "summer of prophets." This is one of those occasions where the lectionary may seem more suited to the southern hemisphere at this time of year, where a "winter of discontent" seems to be a more fitting backdrop to much of what we will be hearing in these months.

That's because the readings we get from the prophets during these months aren't the "foretelling" of better days to come, but rather the forthtelling of inevitable judgment and destruction. These are the prophets in full apocalyptic array. Read their words, and you might think (in our culture, at least) that someone has gone off his meds, or now needs some new ones, desperately. And maybe a week or two under close observation at Bellevue.

And it leads me to wonder-- as the worship planning helps I've been working on to accompany these texts this summer occasionally reflect-- is such a voice as what these prophets bring something we have any capacity to hear anymore? Does our immediate, culturally reinforced, visceral reaction to consider these folks out of their minds and potentially a danger to themselves and others make us, in essence, immune to any truth they may have to convey, then or now?

I find myself wondering this particularly in light of the ongoing destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, a sea turning to blood, earth's blood, more and more every day for the past two months. I find apocalpytic language of judgment about the only way to express the immensity of the tragedy of what's going on there. 

And yet, in so many places I look, when folks actually "take that tone" they are "shot down" by the more "mainstream" or "progressive" among us, including some of us who identify with the emerging missional way. The content of the critique is pretty much predictable. Such people are "backwater fundamentalists" or "crazed extremists" or "biblical literalists." 

We have all sorts of ways of defending ourselves or fending off words like the following I just received in an email this morning:

My Little One, do you see what I have done? Do you see? For, I have taken My axe to a dry tree and I have hewn it down!I have taken My axe to an unproductive tree and I have hewn it down!  Great is the fall of this tree, a place, where many dark and evil, black birds have nested!

Wickedness and gross wickedness has continually spewed forth from this tree until it has killed itself; for the whole tree has made itself a haven for what is evil and abominable in My sight! A foul stench has continually come up into My face from the wickedness of this evil tree; and I have hewn it down!

My Lord, what is this evil tree and where is this evil tree?

My Little One, this evil tree is the whole coastal region of the Gulf States! This tree is but one offshoot of a greater tree; and this greater tree is the whole of the United States of America! What you do not see from this vision is that this hewn tree is but one very large branch of a large tree; but to you it will surely appear to be a very great tree!  And, it is a tree, unto itself, but still a branch of something much larger!

Okay, so I'm not buying this as a genuine prophecy, either. (It goes on and gets weirder!). 

But I have to admit, the kind of language used here is completely consistent with that of the biblical prophets. It sounds just like the "almond tree" or the "plumb line" discourses in Amos. The interaction between prophet and the voice of YHWH is in the same mode as we see in Jeremiah, Exekiel, Amos, parts of Isaiah, Daniel and Revelation. And the almost sarcastic wrath in the "voice" of God is about the same, too. 

Yet my immediate, visceral response, is to dismiss this as crazy-talk. 

Which leads me to wonder how it is that I do not dismiss the biblical words of  prophets themselves, who say almost exactly the same kinds of things in the same kinds of ways, as crazy-talk, too.

Or how anyone really listening to them but with no prior exposure to such speech and no pre-disposition to consider what is in scripture as in any way authoritative for their lives or anything else could come to any conclusion other than, "These people, and their God, are dangerously insane!"

Maybe this is part of why we needed a canon-- a container as it were, that could protect such wild speech, which is all over the prophets and even attributed to Jesus at times,  from utter dismissal? 

I'd be interested in your thoughts on this-- if this matters to you. (It is mattering a lot to me at this time, as I suppose this post makes clear!).

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship for Discipleship: Fix or Practice Part 2


The first of my posts in this series was essentially about putting my cards on the table, being clear about the ways my own experience and study of worship in a variety of traditions (especially Baptist, Episcopal and United Methodist) may reflect the perspective I bring to this question about worship as "fix," "practice" or both (though in different contexts).

As I mentioned in Part I, this series was born out of reflections during preparation for a sermon on this coming Sunday's gospel lesson, Luke 9:51-62, which ends, perhaps grimly, "Whoever puts hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God."

What got my mind to my own experience, and so to the revivalistic hymns and my own "come to Jesus" moment was Jesus's expectation in this story that people respond to him and start following him immediately. The time he gave them really was "now." Follow me, or don't. Come with me, or live your life. He would admit no excuses-- not family, not friends, not economics or job. He was expecting people to say, "I Surrender All."

And not one of them did. 

The disciples who had chosen to follow him had done this, though. They had dropped nets, left boats and tax booths, and it appears in some cases started following Jesus without any notice to their families. They heard the call to start following Jesus, to be one of his disciples, and they said Yes.

And more importantly, they kept saying yes, day in, day out.

The pressure of the call at the moment-- what I have called "the fix" --got them started. It got them into position to become disciples of Jesus. Indeed, it was the necessary precondition. You can't be someone's disciple from a distance. You either live with the master-- and in those days, and in many places in early Christianity, quite literally share the same dwellings-- or neither you nor the master can legitmately claim that you are a disciple. A fan, maybe. But not a disciple.

So "the fix" got them started. But it wasn't the answer to "Now what?" It was just the first yes in what my colleague, Kwasi Kena, calls the "long Yes" of discipleship. Or as I might put it, it was the first yes in the ongoing series of Yeses that would enable them to become not just followers, but full partners in the mission of  God in Christ.

Coming back to this week's text, what we see, as on so many occasions with these followers, is that they have not yet quite gotten what Jesus was trying to teach them into their bones. When some of the Samaritans hear that Jesus is headed for Jerusalem and want nothing more to do with him, James and John ask, "Lord, do you want us to say, 'Fire from heaven, come down and consume these people!?'" (verse 54). Such a question might not seem so completely off the mark had not Jesus just corrected John for a similar impulse in verses 49-50. John said,  "Master, [which here might be better translated something like, "O Established and Exalted leader!"], we saw a man casting out demons in your name and we got him to stop!" To which Jesus replied, "Don't get people to stop that! Whoever is not against us is on our side!"

What we're seeing here is that James and John, and likely the others as well, may be followers of Jesus, but they're still being formed by him. They've got the right idea in staying with him, but his way has actually not yet gotten into them. Their first impulses-- ones they're even proud to talk about here-- aren't yet his.

A "fix" may have gotten them to follow him in the first place, but it was going to take long practice for their way of life, all the way down to their first impulses, to become like him.

No "fix" or series of "fixes" was going to address that.

It was going to take practice-- trial, error, correction, trial, error, correction, trial, trial... repetition-- practice.

So what do we have in this larger text? We have Samaritans who won't have anything to do with Jesus, now. We've got disciples who are more committed to control or revenge than to following their Lord. We have three more people in a row who give all sorts of reasons why they won't start following Jesus. It looks like sheer failure everywhere-- a bad day for the mission of God.

But we also have Jesus who won't be stopped by any of this. He's got disciples, and he'll keep working to teach them, to get the way of God's kingdom into their bones, their blood and their breath. He's got a mission, and he'll keep plowing away at it. He's put his hand on the plow, and he's not looking back. He'll keep with his practice-- plowing that field until the work is done.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Worship for Discipleship-- "Fix" or "Practice" (Or maybe some of both?): Part I


In preparing a sermon based on the gospel lesson in the lectionary this week (Luke 9:51-62) I found myself pondering anew the call of Jesus and the sort of things it takes to respond to that call.

This is a first in a series of articles that flesh out some of those ponderings in light of that text and early Christian, early Methodist, revivalist, and especially the contemporary United Methodist contexts in which we find ourselves and our stated mission as a church to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

I begin this series with a bit of personal testimony.  

Having been raised Southern Baptist, the call of Jesus was most often translated to me in my youth, especially in invitational hymns,  as happening in the context of a highly emotionally charged action of "walking down the aisle" to "come to Jesus" while an invitation hymn, such as "Why Not Tonight," or "Why not come to Jesus now?" or "Why not, why not, why not come to him now?" was being sung. My "conversion experience" (which I would still claim as valid) occurred on January 2, 1972 when I "went forward" on the first verse of the "Why not Tonight." I was just about 7 1/2 years old at the time, and was subsequently baptized, by immersion, two Sundays later on the evening of my half birthday.

"O do not let the word depart,
or close thine eyes against the light.
Poor sinner, harden not your heart!
Be saved, O tonight!"

It was an experience that, even almost immediately after it happened, I looked upon with some ambivalence. There was great pressure in the congregation and pressure (or support) in my family to help this moment happen. One of the reasons I had not walked the aisle, frankly, was that I didn't know how to swim and I was terrified that I might drown during baptism. I had shared this with my parents, and during that fall vacation, my father tried to teach me a bit how to swim, or at least how to tread water and hold my breath underwater so that I might be less frightened about what would happen when the pastor (rather than he) would at some point plunge me under water for all the congregation to see.

Since my father had done this with me in the fall, I couldn't fall back on being afraid of drowning as a valid excuse not to go forward anymore. Sunday after Sunday after that, both in the morning and especially at night, these "invitation hymns" were being sung and the pressure inside ("the conviction of sin" was the name used to describe this) kept mounting. I was very certain I didn't want to go to hell when I died. And it was clear from the preaching and from these songs both that the remedy to that was to "come forward" and "receive Jesus" and to do it, "now."

And so, on that night in January, I didn't wait even for more than the first word of that song, "O," to be sung before I was on the move down the aisle.

I remember a very strong sense of surrender in this. (I Surrender All!). And there was an equally clear sense of relief that accompanied this concrete ritual action of surrender-- this action of walking down the aisle, taking the preacher's hand, hearing him ask me what I was seeking and saying, quite simply and truthfully, "I want Jesus."

I believe Jesus honored that desire at that moment.

But in fact, I also observed that nothing happened-- nothing changed except that now I had said this, publicly, and so the pressure to do so was off. All that remained now was "to follow my Lord in baptism" (understood in that community of faith as an ordinance-- something we do because Jesus said so-- rather than a sacrament-- something God offers as a means of grace to make us new creatures). And then to follow him-- whatever that might mean-- for the rest of my life.

But I repeat-- nothing had changed. Family and church folk were expecting me to report some sort of unspeakable joy in all of this. Or perhaps to give some sort of testimony to what Christ had just done for me. Thankfully, the pastor didn't try to put me on the spot to do that. He just welcomed me as a brother in Christ. Had he tried to put me on the spot, I would have actually had nothing to say, honestly. I felt relief-- and not much more. Instead, there was more like a question-- "Now what?"

In that community, "now what" meant primarily that I was given many opportunities to study the Bible and take on a variety of leadership roles-- including assistant librarian beginning in the 4th grade, and librarian (with a budget for new books!) beginning in the sixth. They taught me well-- in both roles. They cultivated in me a strong love and respect for scripture, supported me in seeking to learn more, and even gave me opportunities to teach. It was as part of that community that I heard, loudly and clearly, at age 19, a call to ordained ministry-- but a call I recognized, even at that point, needed further clarification. Teaching, writing, speaking, preaching, maybe pastoring-- I wasn't sure exactly what-- but yes, this kind of thing, full-time.

Meanwhile, in college, in a small town in Ohio where I was the only practicing Southern Baptist around for many miles, I began attending the Episcopal Church on campus and encountered worship in a very different mode. The biggest underlying difference wasn't that it was "liturgical" and followed a "prayer book" and a lectionary and that communion was practiced weekly with real wine and was open to all baptized persons present (and those were all huge differences!). The biggest difference I observed was that worship there didn't always lead to a highly emotional moment where people were called to give their lives to Jesus. Instead, worship there was a more or less ingrained and embodied (crossing, bowing, kneeling, forming a line to receive communion) practice of those who participated in it. Among my friends (students, faculty, staff and townspeople) who were part of that congregation, worship wasn't something they went to to see folks saved or to rededicate their lives to Christ, but something whose words and actions seemed to imbue their whole lives in many ways. The repetition of the ritual and its basic forms over time that were part of this practice of worship meant that those who stayed with it got all of this into their bones, their blood, and even, quite palpably through the incense, their lungs. 

Both of these forms of worship-- the one leading to an emotional response (Baptist) and the one getting into the bones (Episcopal) have continued to be deeply formative for me. I see and have known value in both. And it's a large part of the reason that I am United Methodist-- because in our heritage we have, as Methodists, from the beginning been people who knew and practiced the value of both. Sunday nights in the early Methodist societies were very much about moving people to commit more deeply and in emotionally palpable ways to the way of Jesus, to holiness of heart and life.  Sunday mornings, whether for those earliest Methodists in the Church of England or one of the other options available at the time, were about participating in worship as a practice that got into their bones in a way that gave substance and support to what happened on Sunday night in Society meetings and Thursday night in the smaller, more face to face environment of the class meetings where they could help each other learn how to live out General Rules that equipped them to be disciples of Jesus transforming their world.
But I find myself worrying a bit about where I think I'm seeing many of our congregations and some of our leaders heading with worship these days. We seem to be polarizing about whether worship functions as practice (the "liturgical renewal" or "traditional" folk) OR as a "transformational experience" (perhaps most notably in "contemporary" or "relevant worship" circles) OR even as a kind of mixture of the two in a single service ("blended worship")-- each as the "one right way."

Our earliest forebears at their best didn't pick one or the other or try to combine the two into one. The did both-- each one in a different time, a different place, and according to the purpose for the assembly.

So some questions for us to consider...

1) Which of these approaches actually best characterizes the purpose and practice of worship on "Sunday morning" where you are-- "fix" or "practice" or "blend of the two"? Why is that? And how is that working for you?

2)  Do you have ways or means to encourage people in your worshiping community to experience each approach to worship in its own integrity ("fix" for more "intentionally persuasive" contexts-- like the early Societies--, "practice" for more "ongoing development" contexts-- like the congregations and perhaps even the class meetings early Methodists also attended)? Or are you implicitly underwriting the notion that "just one" of these is a sufficient environment for all of our "worship needs" to be met-- or rather all of the ways we need to offer ourselves to God in worship to be achieved? 

I look forward to further conversation on this-- and on the next part of this reflection coming soon!

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards