November 16, 2009

a method to the madness?

On Saturday night, I spoke with a wonderful group of people that are a part of the Brethren in Christ–a denomination with roots in Anabaptism, Pietism and Methodism. Everyone was very kind and hospitable. And my talk was well received. I spoke, in part, about the relevance of the three traditions that inform the BiC, as I mentioned in my last post.

Regarding one in particular, Methodism, I mentioned that I thought the method employed by John Wesley–who founded Methodism–had tapped into a way of organizing people for radical change which goes beyond religion. In particular, I pointed out the similarities between the organizing principles devised by community organizer and author Saul Alinsky during the 1950's and John Wesley's bands, classes and societies during the 1700's. While Wesley's work sparked a historic spiritual revival, Alinsky's sparked great social change. What both men were keenly aware of was that a method was needed in order to empower lay people in a manner that required minimal resources, 'experts' and could work within existing systems so that these people could participate in the change they wanted to see. The bottom line is that the method works.

You can talk to just about any community organizer in an urban context and find they are informed by Alinsky's principles and you can almost bet that if they are seeing change, they are employing the principles. Yet, if you talk to most Christians, let alone many Wesleyans or Methodists, and find that they are unaware of Wesley's methods and certainly aren't using them (I can say that, because I grew up in a Methodist church). Still, you can look around the globe and find movements with a similar "DNA" to what these two men taught. For example, in his book The New Creation, Wesleyan theologian, Thomas Runyon points out the similarities between early Methodism and the base ecclesial community movement rooted in the Latin American Roman Catholic Church and Liberation Theology.

Certainly, our context is much different than either of these men. But is there something to be learned from this. Should we consider how these methods would be employed in our own time and place? Do we care?