Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the 2016 New Room Conference, along with hundreds other evangelical United Methodists alongside brothers and sisters from other Wesleyan churches. The “New Room” name comes from the first building constructed by the early Methodist movement.
With some 1,500 registrations this year, on top of the many who watched the livestream from home, this is easily the largest regular pan-Wesleyan gathering in America.
Sponsored by Seedbed, the publishing arm of Asbury Theological Seminary, these annual gatherings feature inspiring worship, robustly orthodox plenary sermons and presentations by such noted figures as Asbury’s prolific New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, communal times of prayer and repentance, and practical ministry-equipping workshops on everything from family discipleship to women’s ministry to intellectual evangelism in our present American context.
While the central Tennessee location is within driving distance for a wide range of people interested in this national conference, more regional New Room Gatherings are scheduled for early 2017 in Florida, Texas, Georgia, and Oklahoma.
But organizers intend New Room to be more than just a series of big conferences. J. D. Walt of Seedbed told UMAction that New Room is “a twenty-first century attempt at a classical Methodist movement.” He noted that the only way to become a Methodist in our movement’s early days was through smaller connections. While Seedbed is largely known as a publisher of excellent printed and online materials, Walt explained that they are convinced that content is not enough—people also need contexts. So New Room is working on setting up “micro-communities” modeled on the early Methodist classes and bands. Walt made clear that they are not seeking to start a new church or replace any existing one, but rather to help create more places of deep community for Christians to pursue and experience what the Wesleyan theological tradition has understood to be “the second half of the gospel” – the sanctification in holiness that God offers subsequent to our initial new-birth or born-again conversions. Seedbed’s very name derives from its desire to sow the seeds for spiritual awakening, a major them of this conference.
The September 21-23 conference heavily plugged the portal they have set up to promote this at www.newroombands.com
One of the final presentations of the three-day conference was Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of Asbury Seminary’s Chapel, interviewing members of such a modern-day Wesleyan band consisting of seven men in Florida, including pastors of some of United Methodism’s fastest growing congregations. They recounted how they consistently challenge each other to Christian purity and go out of their way to support each other during difficult times, including advice for major life decisions and loving the son of one member amidst this young man’s troubles with drugs, mental illness, and jail. It was striking to see as prominent a United Methodist leader as the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, one of the most well-known large-church pastors in our denomination, admit that he would have quit ministry long ago if it were not for this band. Over its many years of existence, the band has had two members leave: one because he thought its members “weren’t holy enough” (because of their honesty in sharing their struggles), and another who consistently chose to refuse to live into the group’s covenant, and so was eventually voted out after a long time of the other members trying to work with him. It was observed that when pastors have major moral failures, one consistent factor is their being isolated.
On the one hand, this gathering was a refreshing time to be together with so many solidly evangelical United Methodists, who constituted about 80 percent of attendees. It felt a bit like a big family reunion to get to fellowship in one place with orthodox United Methodist leaders, pastors, and laity from all five U.S. jurisdictions as well as overseas, from people I had last seen at General Conference to others I had previously only known through social media. For those who were interested, there were plenty of opportunities for hallway conversations about the state and direction of our denomination. The size of the gatherings, which have roughly doubled every year since the first in 2014, demonstrate how despite all of our UMC woes, God continues to work powerfully through so many places in our denomination (even isolated faithful congregations within the Western Jurisdiction!). There is clearly a great hunger within our denomination to come together to encourage one another in unapologetically orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan ministry.
As a member of the Millennial generation, it was especially encouraging that such a robustly evangelical event was about the only major gathering of United Methodists event I have attended in years (excluding ones specifically for young people) in which my presence did NOT seem to dramatically lower the average age in the room!
Perhaps the most direct talk of United Methodist struggles was in a workshop led by the Rev. Dr. Kevin Watson of the UMC’s Candler School of Theology. He drew on his expertise as a historian to trace how our denomination has come to a point in which “United Methodists are most uncomfortable when they believe something the culture doesn’t find credible” and we have become accustomed to our churches receiving a level of approval from the surrounding culture on which we can no longer count. He lamented how “we tried to build a big-tent church with a tent that’s bigger than orthodoxy.” The noted advocate of re-introducing Methodist class meetings urged the church to “get back to calling people to conversion” as “a change of a way of life,” establish “a ready-made place for new converts to have community,” collectively “embody a different way of living—a light that shines in the darkness,” and once again teach Wesleyan theology about entire sanctification.
On the other hand, organizers were very intentional to keep the “United Methodist angst” to a minimum, for the sake of being intentionally inclusive of participants from the wider Wesleyan family. Pan-Wesleyan speakers included Salvation Army officer Danielle Strickland, Anglican church-planter Winfield Bevins, and Wesleyan Church denominational official Andrea Summers. There are not too many other major places where orthodox United Methodists and others in the divided evangelical Pan-Wesleyan family reunite to mutually encourage and resource each other for mission and ministry.
United Methodist Bishop James Swanson of Mississippi cited his own background in the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American denomination which traces its roots from the Holiness movement evolving into Pentecostalism, shared his continued personal belief in supernatural healing being a gift that still exists in the church, mourned how mainline American Methodists in the 1890s “pushed holiness folk out of our denomination” because “they tried to tell us to live right and we wanted to intellectualize,” and declared that “we need to invite them back into the room!” The bishop also lamented the widespread practice of not asking for radical Christian change in individuals before they assume spiritual leadership positions and then wondering why our churches are not more effective in ministry.
Another pleasant surprise was how several of United Methodism’s more orthodox U.S. bishops chose to come participate in this conference, without even being invited to have any sort of speaking role.
The conference was also very intentional about promoting ministry beyond the USA while teaching American Christians what we can learn from our global brothers and sisters, with speakers from Cameroon, England, India, Liberia, and Nigeria. Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, a prominent Liberian United Methodist leader, shared his amazing story of how God brought him from “a large, polygamous family” through a civil war in which he miraculously escaped with his life but was separated from his family, to being reunited with his family and answering his call to ministry. Other speakers challenged us on such heavy matters as actually applying Christ’s commandment to love and pray for our enemies when Christians’ enemies enemies are violent Boko Haram terrorists who have imposed extreme violence and suffering on themselves and their families, and the need of American churches to repent on an idolatrous reliance on impressive funds, numbers, facilities, and worldly credentials for our ministries – which have been shown to no longer be effective.
UMAction Advisory Board member Ken Collins, a noted Wesleyan scholar at Asbury, gave a sobering analysis on the present state of American culture in which not only are former “cultural props for Christianity” being increasingly “stripped away,” but the culture is becoming actively hostile to orthodox Christianity. Rev. Dr. Collins noted us that “we are called to make real Christians, not culturally compromised ones,” and that “the cost of being a real Christian” is increasing in our context. Nevertheless, he cited our ultimate hope in and reliance on God, who will get the last word and is infinitely more powerful than our worldly challenges.
Whatever challenges we may be facing in the world, in our churches, and/or with spiritual warfare, the fellowship found in and through New Room helps equip faithful evangelical Wesleyans to move from beleaguered isolation to empowered community through living out the New Room motto: “band together.”