Tony Jones is a prominent emergent church blogger, speaker and author based at non denominational Solomon’s Porch church in Minneapolis. This past week he served as “scholar in residence” at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria. Aldersgate has had other emergents such as Scott McKnight and Brian McLaren as its previous scholars. Sunday evening Jones spoke on “Why Is the United Methodist Church So Screwed Up?” He was careful to explain the topic was assigned to him by the pastors.
Calling himself a “pretty harsh critic of denominationalism,” Jones said John Wesley would be “kicked out” of the Methodist church today for ordaining people on the frontier and upsetting Anglican bishops. “He didn’t leave the Anglican Church, he was kicked out,” for spreading a “virus” of spiritual renewal, Jones recalled.
Jones seems to have conflated Wesley with circuit riding Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury, since Wesley never really was on the “frontier,” having visited America only briefly as a young man and never returning. And Wesley never left the Church of England. But Jones rightly explained the overall spirit of early Methodism.
Unlike the early Methodists, Jones noted that today’s young ordinands have to “jump thru hoops of burning fire” to enter the United Methodist ministry. He said the Twitter feed among younger clergy was “disheartening” during the recent General Conference because the old guard “won’t relinquish control.”
Jones lamented that church bureaucracies fail to trust the Holy Spirit, and modern evangelicals surpassed Mainline Protestants by their lack of institutionalism and reliance on the Spirit. Evangelicals were entrepreneurial and started new churches, while Mainline Protestantism “doesn’t value entrepreneurship.” The “negative side” is that the evangelical world is “almost all male” dominated with “loud white guys like me,” Jones said. Methodism was able to impose female pastors on churches that otherwise may have resisted. But the church needs to value more “entrepreneurial systems.”
United Methodist clergy are “completely beholden to the denomination even if you aren’t,” Jones told the mostly lay audience. And most lay people are no longer deeply devoted to their denomination’s theological distinctions. He bemusedly suggested a “coup d’état” by especially young clergy against a static institution.
Jones said “some of us are trying to encourage progressive elements of American Protestantism to find salvific elements” in our message. Evangelicals outflanked progressives in recent decades. “We have a message problem telling people about Jesus and gospel,” he admitted. Jones described his own local church having exchanged its pews for couches to emphasize reconciliation through socialization. “You have to euthanize some things to make room for gospel,” he observed. In the current era of “broken relationships” the church needs to focus on reconciliation.
In the audience, Episcopal author Diane Butler Bass told Jones he was too pessimistic about the possibility of institutional revival. “You Methodists aren’t alone,” she said. “Institutional Christianity is all in trouble. [But] we might be on the verge of a great awakening.” She said “real hope” will come from the “fringes” and not the “center.” Jones responded by explaining that “it’s hard for progressives to think of revival,” which in recent history has been conservative. He also surmised that growing socially conservative global south Christianity is “almost incompatible” with progressive Christianity.
After Jones’ talk I had the pleasure of meeting him and also Butler Bass, who smilingly insisted she is both a nice person and a sincere Christian, despite what my writing about her might have implied. I assured her I never intended to imply otherwise! We had an enjoyable conversation, and I said I would read her new book.