Pilmore or Asbury?

When Francis Asbury arrived in America, he was distressed by the state of Methodism in the northern colonies. Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman – who Wesley had sent before – had confined their ministries to the urban centers of Philadelphia and New York and let Methodist discipline slacken.

In his biography of Asbury, John Wigger describes Pilmore as worried by the spectre of sectarian religion and reluctant to close the door to anyone. Asbury, on the contrary, thought that Methodist discipline about class meetings and love feasts were crucial to the spiritual work of Methodism. Only a disciplined society could foster the spiritual atmosphere necessary to nurture growth. Only in a love feast where all had proven their desire for higher spiritual gifts could true sharing and unburdening of hearts take place. When everyone was let in, the function of the feast was destroyed.

Pilmore looked over a church whose pews had been emptied by Asbury’s insistence on discipline and lamented the loss. Asbury said he would rather have a small but truly Methodist gathering than a large but undisciplined one.

Are we more like Pilmore or Asbury today?

(This post was original published in 2009. Question still seems relevant to me.)

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6 thoughts on “Pilmore or Asbury?

  1. Relevant in many ways. Do we push consensus so much that we find it difficult to appeal to anyone besides those for which “tolerance” is their primary value?

  2. We need to be like Asbury. Far too often we want to attract large crowds/congregations but never disciple them and the result is a lukewarm congregation which has no idea what they believe. And not knowing what they believe they are unable to evangelize. At least part of the reason the UMC is in the shape it is in is because we haven’t been discipling the people.

  3. Asbury realized that the wisdom of Wesley’s idea of Christian community linked back to the early church. The main goal of these gatherings was to create disciples. Asbury also realized there was a time and place for reaching across denominational lines. He frequently preached in the pulpits of other denominations, but wisely he knew that this gesture was not the vehicle for creating disciples it was more a community-building effort.

  4. The One who said whosoever will let him come also said, if any man will follow after me let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. Those who would only consider the later method authentic to Jesus must deal with the presence of a less than uniform sackcloth clothing standard among all who Scripture says were genuine followers of Christ. Those who would use the former as their standard must deal with the hard reality that Jesus never chased anyone or begged them to stay if they decided what he was putting out was just to hard to take. He didn’t beg anyone. But he did grieve when they chose to leave.

    What to do? What to do? Given our biforcated mission… making disciples and transforming the world, what to do? What to do? Given that the post-modern world prefers grey to black and white, the best response is probably to defer to Jesus. Some will lament the result as lax and compromised. Some will decry it as arrogant and judgmental. Oh well, they said the same of Jesus… to some he was just a frat boy, to others he was just fossil. Jesus? His take on the whole thing was simple and uncomplicated… “Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Cool.

  5. Not surprising given the religious climate in New England at the time. The Puritans after a number of generations had already morphed into unitarians.

    Two suggestions: Remove the “for the transformation of the world . . . ” or whatever it is from our mission statement. It is not for we Christians to usher in the kingdom. We are most like fools when we think we can immanentize the eschaton. Most of the time, as Paul Ramsey noted years ago, our transforming of the world looks more like the democratic party (left wing thereof) at prayer. The world is transformed when the undeniable power and presence of God in a community united in Christ through the Holy Spirit makes that community irresistible to sick sinners.

    Institute a two-tiered system of participation. Free church evangelicals utilize this method in practice. Attend one of those churches and they appear unconcerned with whether or not one joins the church. Their concern is for the soul. They want to make sure a person is saved. They also try to encourage attenders to become disciples. Only when a person seeks membership do they lay out the whole package. I.e., believers baptism, and the like.

    We don’t have to advertise it, but membership in a class meeting should be a prerequisite for full participation in the governance of the church. I know we’re tired, and we need new bodies to do the work, but committed discipleship must be a priority. The insanity of putting a bunch of clueless accountants in charge of church finances is a prime example. I once asked our pastor who was in charge of organizing prayer to support a campaign and got (once again) that glassy-eyed . . . “Oh, uh, of course everyone is praying for the church . . . .” Disabuse church members of the notion that church membership is a part of our job as disciples.

    I know the churches would be almost empty for a while, but who knows what would happen if, as the pundit noted long ago, we really tried to live what we say we believe.

    Jim Lung

  6. I truly believe that Wesley would heartily disapprove of the UMC’s current statement of “Open Hearts, Open Doors and Open Minds”. And how are we doing in trying to transform the world ourselves?

    Just this morning, I resurrected this quote from C. S. Lewis:
    “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next. The apostle’s themselves, who set out on foot to convert the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become ineffective in this one. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘Thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

    I do not claim to be a Wesleyan scholar, but I have read enough that I believe John Wesley proves Lewis’ point. Reality is Wesley did not set out to reform, change or transform anything. He set out to live a holy life centered in God, a quest that led him to unexpected places. In the final analysis, he set his own heart on heaven, ended up enabling others to do the same and England, America and the church were all thrown in!

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