In his comeback article on United Methodist Reporter, Rev. Dr. Andrew Thompson argues that Wesleyanism is losing out to the Reformed tradition in messaging depth and breadth online and especially on social media.
Recently there has been a lot of talk in social media about the “visibility” of the Wesleyan message in the larger culture.
Methodists can generally expect to be heard by other Methodists. But are they being heard “out there” in the wider world? Is their message reaching the unchurched, especially? And do Methodists even know what their distinctive message is?
In making this claim of the lack of presence, he makes the following comparison:
If you look at those Wesleyan leaders in the United Methodist Church with the greatest visibility in the larger culture, you find names like these: Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Church of the Resurrection; Leonard Sweet, a popular writer on church & culture and self-described “futurist”; and Tim Stevens, the executive pastor of Granger Community Church.
Twitter is a good measure of the kind of visibility I’m talking about, because you can chart a person’s followers: Adam Hamilton (@revadamhamilton) has about 9,750 followers, Leonard Sweet (@lensweet) has 26,500 followers, and Tim Stevens (@timastevens) has around 38,700 followers.
This all sounds pretty impressive. Until you start looking at their Reformed counterparts.
I’ll offer two examples. Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, can boast of over 350,000 followers on Twitter. John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis has well over 450,000 followers.
In other words, the mouthpieces of our respective traditions are not even in a contest: the Neo-Reformed voice is far louder than the Wesleyan voice. And this is a problem for Thompson.
I agree because I find Neo-Reformed theology to be a distant eighth on my list of “life-giving theologies.” However, I’m not sure that Methodism is even structured to compete on the social media platform in the same way as the Neo-Reformed tradition.
My question is “Does Wesleyanism needs to play the popularity game at all?” Do we need to raise up a celebrity voice to compete on the social media marketplace?
The UMC resists Celebrity Culture at All Levels
If you look at it, the United Methodist Church resists celebrity culture in all levels of the connection.
- Local church – through our itinerant ministry system, clergy are moved around a lot. There’s the usual “yea we got a new pastor who can preach!” then a few years later “awww, they moved the only pastor who could preach!” and then it repeats again. Local churches do not create cults of personality around the pastors and instead are forced to make relationships with one another. While we do have 20-30 year pastors of church plants and high profile churches, they are the exception rather than the norm in United Methodism.
- Districts – again because of our itinerant ministry system, even the big-time churches get new pastors and they usually come from out-of-district. So when one pastor becomes an up-and-coming person, then they are moved beyond the district and have to start over with their contacts and connections.
- Annual Conference – Typically only elected leaders get face time at Annual Conference (especially in recent years as it has been cut down to bare minimum number of days due to budget constraints). Since chairs and leaders rotate every four years (eight years max, perhaps), then those leaders of those positions don’t have perpetual time in the sun. And with new Bishops arriving who have different tastes in leadership, those people rotate as well.
- Jurisdictions – because of the wide variety in our regions of the church, curriculum and authors don’t have the same appeal across the Connection. I’ve served in three jurisdictions, and Cokesbury had different authors they were promoting, the churches had read different curriculum…the only consistency was the children’s curriculum, if that!
- General Church Entities – Because General Secretaries have term limits, presiding Bishops over boards shift, and General Conference cuts/shifts/reallocates Board powers and duties, they do change a lot. I know there’s a lot of focus on Jim Winkler as the head of Church and Society due to the Traditionalists’ villifying of the man, but that’s a strong exception to the rule brought on by the Traditionalists themselves.
- General Conference – through our elected delegates (even the ones elected for 4+ terms), there’s enough change and demographic shifts that I can’t think of really celebrity delegates. I’ve been to three GCs now and because of the microphone situation, limited debate, and the presiding bishop’s discretion in choosing who to recognize, floor debate doesn’t become celebrity-driven. And we saw that even when Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter stood up to support a motion, it failed. So much for celebrity delegates!
We do have United Methodists who get into the news. Bishop Minerva Carcano with immigration reform. Bishop Thomas Bickerton with Imagine No Malaria. Hamilton, Slaughter, Willimon, and other Methodists without an unpublished thought. That’s fine but given the structural ways how the United Methodists resists celebrity culture and cults of personality around pastors, that’s likely the biggest it’s going to get.
[It’s possible] that we are idolizing the wrong kind of ministry. Where did we get the idea that a mega-church is necessarily doing anything at all right? Where did we fall into the trap of thinking that bigger is better? Why in the world have we succumbed to the secular criteria of relevance and efficiency?
Look at it this way: why does everybody know who Adam Hamilton is, but hardly anybody knows Lorenza Andrade Smith? See what I did there? Do you know who she is? She is an ordained UM pastor to homeless people in San Antonio. She lives on the street herself. I have no idea what her “numbers” would be, and up to this point, she hasn’t written any books. She doesn’t do any podcasts, and she has never organized any leaders’ conferences.
But she is someone to be admired. Her ministry is perhaps the most Christ-like in the entire denomination, because she is actually doing what Christ did. Why don’t we lift up her ministry for emulation? Why isn’t her work the gold standard in the UMC? Why don’t young pastors feel badly when they realize that they aren’t going to be on the streets like Lorenza, but instead will be speaking comfortably to thousands of people every week?
There are pastors like her at work within our denomination, with and without clergy credentials, who deserve to be emulated, precisely because they eschew popularity, fawning crowds, grateful applause, and offering plates full of fat checks (and I’m not suggesting that Adam Hamilton desires these things). These unknown, unappreciated, and unnoticed ministers, in fact, are actually in the process of saving the soul of the United Methodist Church.
It seems to me that at our DNA is a rejection of celebrity culture, an embrace of itinerant ministry that is adaptive to many contexts without a universal figurehead.
Collaborative Space not a Celebrity Face
Our present and future hope of United Methodism is in collaborative efforts not celebrity faces that face down the Reformed movement. We don’t have to become like the Empire to defeat the Empire, but we can do grassroots resistance in ways that highlight the strengths of United Methodism.
I like the work done by MinistryMatters and Asbury Seedbed not because they represent progressive Methodism (they don’t…and MM’s leadership is openly hostile towards progressives), but because they are collaborative and connectional. The expressed hope of the #AndCanItBe movement that Thompson mentions can be similar as the others, although with the current leaders I have zero hope of progressives being included either.
But at least it would be a connectional collaborative effort rather than an embrace of celebrity culture. And that’s at least a Methodist step in the right direction.
Perhaps our one hope is Rethink Church, which over the past year has transformed from a nice slogan to a clearinghouse of lots of creative work. It isn’t ideological–I see articles from progressives and traditionalists on it–and is way more easy to read than the above two.
But will we ever match the celebrity power of the Reformed? No. But maybe we don’t have to in order to change the world from the ground-up.