In recent years, there has been quite a bit of energy around returning to the practice of Christian conferencing in United Methodism. Christian conferencing is often referred to as “holy conferencing,” undoubtedly a more evocative phrase. Wesley, however, did not use the phrase.
At the risk of oversimplification, there have been three phases in the recent emphasis on Christian conferencing. At first, the phrase was mostly used to encourage more civil discourse when discussing controversial topics. Next, there was a period where people (myself included) pointed out that the origin of Wesley’s use of Christian conferencing was more than polite conversation, or agreeing to disagree. Currently, there seems to be a shift from a fairly thin account of “holy conferencing” to one that is much more robust and eager to discern how to reclaim the best of our own heritage.
In hopes of contributing to efforts to reclaim a robust understanding and practice of “holy conferencing,” the remainder of this post engages Wesley’s inclusion of Christian conferencing as an instituted means of grace. Locating “holy conferencing” as an instituted means of grace was a very important move by Wesley and provides a crucial starting point for reengaging this practice.
What is an instituted means of grace?
First, what is a means of grace? Wesley defined means of grace as “outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end – to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley, “The Means of Grace” II.1.).
So, what is an instituted means of grace? For Wesley, instituted means of grace are specific practices that have been designated by God as channels of grace for all Christians in all times. In the “Large Minutes” Wesley identified five instituted means of grace: prayer, searching the Scripture, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and Christian conference.
The instituted means of grace are the most basic practices of the Christian life. Wesley believed that all Christians should be committed to them because they were ways that God had committed to give grace to us. God may work in other ways, but has promised to meet us in these practices.
What is Christian conferencing?
Few Christians would be surprised to see prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, or even fasting (though it is perhaps the least practiced of these) on a list of basic practices of the Christian life. We might be more surprised to see Christian conferencing included on such a list. And we may not even be sure we know what it is! Here is the passage where Wesley included Christian conference as an instituted means of grace:
Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers? Do we not converse too long at a time? Is not an hour at a time commonly enough?Would it not be well to plan our conversation beforehand? To pray before and after it?
(For additional reading, see “The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley,” vol. 10 “The Methodist Societies: The Minutes of Conference,” 856-857.)
It is a bit confusing that each of the above statements are in the form of a question. I think they can accurately be read as rhetorical questions, or questions that assume an affirmative response. The passage could be rephrased: “We are convinced that it is important, though difficult, to order our conversation right. It should always be in grace. Seasoned with salt. Suitable to minister grace to the hearers. We should not converse too long at a time. An hour at a time is usually enough. We should plan our conversation beforehand. We should pray before and after it.”
The challenge with the above passage is that it is so broad, even a bit generic. One of the reasons that “holy conferencing” has been seen as polite disagreement, or something to that effect, is because the above is the only passage where Wesley uses the phrase “Christian Conference.” And the paragraph I have cited is everything he says about it in that passage.
Wesley wasn’t more specific because it was obvious to him that Christian conferencing was not generic conversation. It was piercing conversation about our lives with God, our experience of God, and how to live as a result. Dr. Randy L. Maddox, William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School, put it this way in an email exchange I had with him about a year ago (quoted with permission): “When Wesley refers to Christian Conference as an instituted means of grace, I think the class meeting is the best example of what he has in mind. This is particularly the case if we assume his primary focus in ‘means of grace’ is sanctification.”
What does it mean for Christian conferencing to be an instituted means of grace? If Christian conferencing is an instituted means of grace, then it is one of the essential practices that should be adhered to by all Christians. It is something the Church should see as a being on the basic list of concrete practices it offers to people who are seeking to grow in their faith in the Triune God.
If Christian conferencing is an instituted means of grace, helping people talk about the state of their souls and learn to give voice to their experience of God in supportive and accountable Christian community must be on the short list of essentials for any local church.
Wesley would later define the class and band meetings as prudential means of grace. By this, he meant that the classes and bands were the particular ways that God had led Methodism to so effectively practice one of the instituted means of grace – Christian conferencing.
What does this mean for the church today?
Contemporary Wesleyan/Methodist faith communities must wrestle with Wesley’s assertion that Christian conferencing is one of the means of grace providentially instituted by God. It is one thing if we conclude that Wesley is incorrect about this. To date, I do not recall seeing anyone argue that Christian conferencing should not be seen as an instituted means of grace. Instead, I have more commonly seen people assume that Wesley was correct and move forward.
If Wesley was right, if “holy conferencing” is an instituted means of grace, the Church needs to get much more serious about making this practice available to the faithful and to those seeking a relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If Wesley is right, we need to look at where the church invests its best time, energy, and resources. Do these things prioritize the essentials, the most basic practices of the Christian life? Or, is it time to make some changes?
Francis Asbury, the first key leader of American Methodism, certainly thought this practice was essential. Asbury and Coke wrote in the annotated 1798 “Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church” (pages 147-148):
It is the thing itself, christian fellowship and not the name, which we contend for. The experience of about sixty-years has fully convinced us of its necessity; and we ourselves can say that in the course of an extensive acquaintance with men and things, and the church of God, for about twenty or thirty years we have rarely met with one who has been much devoted to God, and at the same time not united in close christian fellowship to some religious society or other [meaning a small group like the class meeting]… We have no doubt, but meetings of christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages. But the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart. We there-fore confine these meetings to christian experience, only adjoining singing and prayer in the introduction and conclusion. And we praise the Lord, they have been made a blessing to scores of thousands…In short, we can truly say, that through the grace of God our classes form the pillars of our work, and, as we have before observed, are in a considerable degree our universities for the ministry.
If Christian conferencing is an instituted means of grace, then we should not be surprised that something like the class meeting was a pillar of Methodism. The means of grace, particularly those instituted by God, should be the pillars of every church.
Listing Christian conferencing as an instituted means of grace is a big move that has major implications for what the church should prioritize with limited time, energy, and resources. Was Wesley right? Is Christian conferencing an instituted means of grace? If so, what does it mean for contemporary Wesleyans? What do you think?