Are We Conferencing Like Wesleyans?

April 4th, 2012

When John Wesley gathered with his brother Charles and his colleagues in ministry in June of 1744, it’s hard to know if they had any idea that they were starting what would become an ongoing process of “conferencing” to discern God’s will for the people called Methodist. And, yet, here we are some 268 years later and we find ourselves facing another gathering of Methodist leaders to discern God’s desires for the United Methodist Church. In the lead up to the meeting, and throughout the gathering of the General Conference of 2012, there will be regular appeals to Wesley as the guide for Christian conferencing. And yet, the form and content of the 2012 conference would be foreign to the brothers Wesley, probably leading to a harsh word or two along the way.

At that first gathering at the Foundry, a plan for the meeting was laid out. In the minutes of their time together, the leaders of the Methodist movement articulated their focus of the conversation in three questions: 1) What to teach; 2) How to teach; and 3) What to do (or as they put it, “how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.”).  Some would argue that the same is true today, however when one looks at the petitions to the 2012 General Conference, one generally sees a greater focus on the third question rather than the first two, and one must wonder what Wesley would think about our fixation on structure and practice at the expense of serious conversation on our core values and beliefs.

During the past few months, beginning with the Call to Action report sponsored by the Council of Bishops, and continuing with the work of the Interim Operations Team, the lion’s share of conversation has focused on practices of ministry which some research suggests contributes to church vitality, and the restructuring of the general church to improve efficiency and hopefully lead to a greater focus on building vital congregations. Many words have been uttered, position papers written, and even videos produced that argue for one plan or the other, and seem to think that what we do is more important that what we teach (or more accurately, what we believe). And yet, as any church revitalization expert will assure you, practices arise from shared values and beliefs, and the inability to spend time talking about, and confirming those core values usually ends with a burnt out congregation which tried and failed because the stuff that the did wasn’t energized by a common set of beliefs which provided meaning and purpose to the practices. Talking about who we are and what we belief becomes a means of creating the “forward leaning state of engagement” talked about in the Call to Action report in their definition of church vitality. And we neglect these conversations at our peril.

It’s interesting to look at the minutes of those early conversations of 1744, because they are so different in their focus than much of what we talk about today. The topics of interest represented the core of Christian belief – justification, repentance, faith, the fruits of the Spirit, sin, the relationship between faith and works, Christian perfection. For two days the leaders of our movement talked solely about the central tenets of the faith that brought them together. It was only after they were rooted in their understanding that they began to talk about points of discipline and common life.

What would it look like today if the first couple of days of General Conference were spent in conversation around the theology and spirituality of the United Methodist people? What would happen if we ignored all the trappings of being a worldwide institution and asked everyone to gather in small groups to talk about the condition of their souls, and what they understand are the core beliefs of United Methodists? Might we get closer to Wesley’s ideal of Christian conferencing (that is, the belief that God is revealed in the midst of gatherings of Christians talking about the stuff of God) if we were to take time to really think together about why God is calling the people called United Methodists to be present in the world, and what we believe that is connected to that sense of call?

Of course, it really isn’t practical to think that we could conference in that way in the modern world. Wesley’s 1744 gathering was limited to 6 people. In our current system, with some thousand representatives from all over the world, all representing different backgrounds, different contexts, different cultures, and even different ways of speaking, it seems impractical to think that we could spend time talking about the stuff of God rather than the stuff of the common institution we are a part of.

And yet, it’s those differences which make taking time to talk about what we believe so crucial – more important to our future than any structural change. Wesley could have never imagined the great rainbow of belief that our church current welcomes – a rainbow that leads to competing and conflicting visions as to where God is calling us. If we can’t figure out a means by which to sit down and truly conference about the important stuff – Christology, Soteriology, Eschatology, Ecclesiology – then we will continue to find ourselves deeply divided and spinning our wheels in the muck of practices for which there is no passion and meaning.

Wesley would likely look at us today and shake his head, for he understood that without first considering the first question, the other two don’t make a great deal of sense.  

 

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