When renewal springs from unexpected places

A fledgling American Methodism boasted of merely four ministers and 300 laypeople in 1771, almost went extinct during the Revolution, and then exploded with growth into the hundreds of thousands in the span of a couple decades. Many Methodist leaders returned to England at the beginning of the war, leaving a lone, British twenty-something-year-old Francis Asbury to continue the work on the continent. [1]

I will resist the well-worn story path of the individual heroic solo-leader founding a world changing movement. Let’s be clear, Francis Asbury wasn’t alone in his work. The story of Asbury, the founding bishop of American Methodism, shouldn’t be told apart from Harry Hosier, the founding evangelist of American Methodism. Harry Hosier was an enslaved person who gained his freedom, was never formally ordained, and was known as the greatest orator in America. 

Hosier began traveling with Asbury sometime between 1775 and 1780, first as a traveling companion and assistant. But it didn’t take long for Hosier to prove himself as an equal and colleague. Hosier and other circuit riders crisscrossed the massive North American landscape planting churches as they went. 

They spread the movement from Canada to Georgia, with an army of uneducated preachers, organized in local cells and preaching circuits. By the time Asbury died in 1816, Methodism had over 2,000 ministers and 200,000 Methodist members. Between 1776 and 1850, American Methodists grew from less than 3 percent of all US church members to more than 34 percent. They became unequivocally the largest religious body in the nation. By the mid-nineteenth century, Methodists had grown to 4,000 itinerants, almost 8,000 local preachers, and over a million members.

One key to their success was how they focused on rural spaces. While early American Methodism always maintained a presence in seaports and cities, its strategic advantage was in focusing on rural and newly populated areas.

Asbury wrote in 1797, “We must draw resources from the centre to the circumference."[2]

Asbury saw that the primary calling of Methodists was to the rural places. He had a particular cultural sensitivity and could see the potential for Methodism outside the urban centers.

Another key to this missional movement was the camp meetings which often took place outside. These gatherings created a sense of liminality in which the expected social hierarchy was challenged and reimagined. At the open-air camp meetings, people of different races and genders could sit together and actively participate. 

Camp meetings facilitated the radical democratization of social relationships. People once excluded from public authority—persons of color, women, slaves, and the unlearned—now claimed leadership alongside those with positions of power. The gatherings also unified Protestant denominations. All sorts of insurgent groups were present, worshipping together, with a collective vision and missional purpose.[3]   

Camp meetings openly defied ecclesiastical standards of time, space, authority, and liturgical form. Camp meetings moved beyond the once-radical field preaching of Wesley, shifting attention from conspicuous preaching performances to congregational participation. Supernatural manifestations and uncensored testimonials by persons with no respect to age, gender, or race were normative. Public sharing of private ecstasy, overt physical display and emotional release, loud and spontaneous response to preaching, and the use of folk music were included among Methodist innovations.[4]

African Americans, both freedmen and slaves, found a spiritual home in Methodist gatherings. They participated as equals alongside White people. Sadly, as the movement began the process of institutionalization, it reverted to racist and segregationist tendencies.

Nevertheless, these insurgent forms of church left in their wake a constellation of new Christian communities, many of those located in rural areas. 

Those congregations became the centerpiece or rural life for a time. The place where people gathered not only on Sundays to hear a sermon, but to help each other work the land, break bread, and form deep relationships. The rural church was the place where they found a community that could sustain them through the joys and struggles of life with the land. In many ways, the rural church captured a core essence of the essence of church in general—to be the guiding hand to the life of a place.

Has the rural church been forgotten? Has urbanization made life outside the sprawl irrelevant? How has the COVID pandemic changed these realities? Can rural congregations struggling to survive find hope and new life? If so, can healthy rural churches actually catalyze a different future for the world? 

Available from Cokesbury

In our new book, Fresh Expressions of the Rural Church, Tyler Kleeberger and I suggest not only can rural congregations thrive in the 21st century, but we also demonstrate that God always starts in the wilderness. Renewal often springs from unexpected places. 

As a pastor serving rural congregations for over a decade, I have discovered an essential truth: 

The seeds of a church’s renewal are hidden in the soils of the local congregations.

No outsider, guru, or denominational consultant can come and fix our problems for us. We must plough our own fields. The adaptive challenge is ours to navigate. Contextualizing the gospel and forming new Christian communities with people outside the church will look different in every rural place. 

I suggest that the Fresh Expressions movement has many points of contact with the insurgent forms of Christianity that shaped the rural landscape. In the book we show that for the rural church, “fresh expressions” are not all that fresh. They bloom from the soil in which the roots of rural congregations have always grown. 

Fresh Expressions language can help rural congregations rediscover their apostolic roots. It gives “expression” and process for the kind of radical democratization that was once the hallmark of early rural ministry. It breaks down the clergy/laity hierarchy, and it releases a priesthood of all believers. It creates liminal space for people of different racial, political, and cultural differences to form true community, or what I call circles that heal. It helps reaffirm a commitment to place, but reimagines a parish as an ecosystem that requires mobilization and shared leadership. 

Like those early circuit riders, we too can utilize emerging technology and communication channels to connect people and mobilize movements. We can abandon big-box, church-growth strategies and rurally irrelevant vitality metrics, to rediscover what is healthy for us. We can stop forms of toxic charity. We can reconsider ministry “for the poor,” as ministry ofby, and with the poor.

We find fresh hope when we understand that God always starts in the wilderness with marginalized people on the edge. We can break free from the individualistic idea of evangelism as saving souls for heaven when we die, and discover a place economy and how to practice daily living in God’s realm. On a sick planet, this enables the rural church to play a vital role in creation care.  

This book collects stories from a diversity of rural contexts across the US. It lays out a fresh theology for rural life and offers principles for harnessing the potential of what some consider the forgotten spaces. Designed for teams, each chapter includes a Field Exercise—questions for discussion and suggested actions for leadership to work through together. Chapters conclude with a Field Story illustrating how the chapter’s main ideas can work in a real church setting. 

We hope you will get your team together, grab a copy, and rediscover how renewal can spring from unexpected places! 

[1] Nathan O. Hatch, “The Puzzle of American Methodism,” Church History 63, no. 2 (1994):  177–78, Hatch, 178.

[2] John H. Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 9.

[3] Jeffrey Williams, Religion and Violence in Early American Methodism: Taking the Kingdom by Force (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010), 111.

[4] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 77.

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