I think I must be some kind of Methodist “throwback” or something. But, I’m actually rather glad about it. My early experiences in the faith included Revival meetings and Camp Meeting and Prayer Groups and Evening Worship Services and Midweek Prayer Meetings, etc. They were all aids to discipleship. They were important.
But, I don’t mean that the “form” was important.
I know many of these are considered to be the evangelistic techniques of the past. It is felt that they need to be laid aside for new techniques. And, I’m fine with that. Really. I strongly believe in function over form. Times change. Strategies change. They should. Great. I’m all for new and better strategies.
But, here’s my (major) gripe about the present state of United Methodism: what has replaced the old techniques? What has served the function of the Revivals at their best? Revivalism has certainly manifested many abuses over the years. Yes, there are weaknesses to this particular effort at re-invigorating discipleship. But what are local churches doing that is better than this strategy? In most cases the answer is: nothing. Revival services were a time to be challenged, a time to invite people to hear the Gospel. They were a time to reinvigorate a lukewarm or compromised faith. It was a time to return to the basics.
And what has taken its place? The Lay Witness Mission? Around here they are now rarer than the proverbial hen’s teeth. (I understand the Aldersgate Renewal Ministries has been re-tooling and promoting it, and I’m glad about that.) The Walk to Emmaus movement? That seems to be stalling too. (I’d be glad to be wrong about that). And, it has “problems” of its own (it produces an Emmaus clique, and because it happens outside the local church, it is sometime hard for folks to integrate their “Emmaus experience” back into the life of their church). Camping? This is basically understood to be for children and youth. And, there’s been some decline there, too. I love these ministries. But, what is happening to them? Are there newer, even more vital ministries emerging? Where?
The Methodist, United Brethren & Evangelicals Association churches gave up on the old Methodist Class Meetings so long ago nobody even remembers them. And, they replaced it with (roll the drum, please): nothing!
If they’d replaced it with a better way of fostering discipleship: fine. Wonderful. But, no.
We gave up on the Revivals (really a Charles G. Finney innovation, not always well understood) and replaced it with: nothing.
Evening Services were poorly attended, and meant extra work for the pastor. So, they were abandoned. Replaced by: nothing.
Wednesday Prayer meetings were poorly attended and meant more work for the pastor. They were abandoned. Replaced by: nothing.
Now, the Annual Conference ministries that provided a niche in the Church for people who would other wise be forgotten are being abandoned because “the local church is where the action is.” I got deeply involved in the West Michigan Conference youth ministries because I was convinced they were providing a niche for young people who would otherwise not have a place in the church. And, because these ministries are not present in many local churches, they are now being essentially replaced with: nothing.
To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, it seems to me that it’s not the case that Methodism has been tried and found wanting (it was once a powerful spiritual and reformist movement).
It has been found to be demanding, and is now being left untried.