What Happened to the Missional Impulse of the Methodists?

By Steve Manskar

Wesleyan leadership what happened to missional
John Wesley

I attended the Exponential Conference that was held at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida April 26-29. I went for two reasons: I wanted to hang out with missional-minded people and I wanted to meet Alan Hirsch and Kim Hammond from ForgeAmerica. I accomplished both goals.

Exponential is the largest annual gathering of church planters in North America. Over 4000 people attended this year’s conference. The theme of the event was “On the Verge”, which also happens to be the title of a new book by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson. Hirsch is the founder and director of ForgeAmerica. He is also the author of several books, including The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. Ferguson is lead pastor of Community Christian Church in Chicago. Many of the leading voices in the missional/incarnational church movement were speakers and workshop leaders at Exponential.

The one big take away from this event for me was the fact that none of the speakers identify themselves as United Methodists or Methodists. All of them identified John Wesley and the early Methodist movement as source and inspiration for their practice of missional/incarnational leadership and ecclesiology. In other words they are employing many of the same practices of early Methodism in growing, vital missional churches/communities. Practices that were jettisoned by American Methodism over 100 years ago are helping independent evangelical and Southern Baptist church planters start and grow vital churches.

What practices?

  • Field preaching – the contemporary version being effective use of the internet and social media to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Intentional Christian formation. Congregational leaders expect and provide the means for members to become and live in the world as disciples of Jesus Christ. Their goal is to make disciples who make disciples.
  • Small groups that provide catechesis, formation, and sending for mission in the world. In these congregations small groups are often called “missional communities.” They are very much akin to the early class meeting. 8-12 people who live in close proximity to each other agree to meet weekly for Bible study, prayer, exhortation, and accountability for discipleship. In addition, they identify something they can do to make their community more a reflection of the coming reign of God and find ways to witness through service. In many of the communities I encountered, participation in small groups/missional communities is one of the conditions of membership. They are how members live out their baptismal/membership vows.
  • Evangelical preaching that points people toward Christ and the reign of God that is breaking out in the world now and that is coming.
  • Holy Communion is celebrated in worship every week.
  • Churches are expected to plant new churches. I heard this over and over again: Healthy churches make new churches. One of the important things healthy bodies do is to reproduce. When a body stops reproducing it stagnates and dies. How can a church be the “body of Christ” if it does not reproduce?

Most of the people I met would identify themselves in the Calvinist/Reformed tradition. Very few would say they are Arminian or Wesleyan. While they likely disagree with Wesley theologically, they fully embrace his practices.

United Methodists, on the other hand, sort of embrace the theology and neglect or outright reject Wesleyan practices. Why is that? That’s a question I heard from a few of the people I met at Exponential.

When I introduced myself to Alan Hirsch I told him I am the director of Wesleyan Leadership for the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. His face lit up and he said, “I love the Methodists! Of all the denominations you have the best missional impulse. But you’ve forgotten it.” To which I replied, “Yes. That’s why I’m here talking to you.” Unfortunately time did not permit us to continue the conversation. But I suspect Hirsch would encourage me to help my denomination re-discover both the theology and the practices that produced the Wesleyan missional impulse.

That’s why I have started the annual Wesleyan Leadership Conference. I hope you will join me October 13-15, 2011 in Nashville. You will find details and registration at the web site: http://www.gbod.org/wesleyanleadership