Jason Byassee: Innovation and the prudential means of grace

How a toy car, an eminent theologian, Prohibition and an 18th century book of medicinal recipes unlock a history of innovation.

I caught a glimpse recently of a new discipline that should be prescribed for every academic theologian.

We had Randy Maddox speak at our church. The eminent historical theologian, editor of the Wesley Works project, one of the top authorities on the founder of my denomination, sat beside me and several dozen kids at the children’s moment. My parishioners Johnny and Melanie Frierson’s boy handed him a #43 toy stockcar. What an image for a theologian. What could he do but accept? Randy took the car, revved it a few times on the pew, and smiled as he gave it back.

We should ask our academics -- sure, you’ve published weighty tomes. But have you played with a toy stockcar lately?

Our invitation to Randy was part of a move in our church to steep more deeply in our Methodist heritage. How do we unlock the treasures we hold but often leave locked up and out of sight?

One such treasure is our gift for innovation. After all the Methodist movement started as a few bible nerds at Oxford in the early 18th century, and by the early 20th century was the biggest church a continent away in America, building two new congregations a day. How’d we do it?

Randy spoke of what Wesley called the “prudential means of grace.” These are different from the church’s normal avenues of grace -- the sacraments, preaching, spiritual disciplines, the works of mercy. The prudential means of grace depend entirely on the church reading where it is and what the needs of its neighbors are. For example, John Wesley published his “Primitive Physic,” a book of medicinal recipes and prescriptions that graced many a home in 18th century Britain. Wesley never said Methodists should always publish books of medicine. He just noticed there was a need in his time and place. Modern medicine was emerging in Britain. Physicians required medical training and certification, so there were fewer doctors available, especially outside of London. Seeing this situation Wesley served his Methodist movement by offering his book of cures and best practices for health.

What would be the equivalent of offering the “Primitive Physic” in our neighborhoods today?

Wesley’s most important contribution to the church universal was his organization of Methodist disciples into class meetings and bands that could “watch over one another in love.” Class meetings gathered first to collect money for mission, but Wesley quickly realized that he had a means for believers to prod one another to greater holiness. Methodists would gather and ask one another, “So, did anyone sin this week?” The bands were even more committed lay-led groups dedicated to pursuing holiness with great abandon (these were later discarded as the Methodist movement grew).

Groups that have practiced small-group based discipleship most effectively in our time include such megachurches as Saddleback and Willow Creek. A Methodist treasure was left to languish until others picked it up.

Methodism as a church was a sort of on-the-fly innovation. It was meant to be a renewal movement in the Church of England. The Wesley brothers did not want to separate into their own denomination. The great growth of the “Connexion” (as we then called ourselves) in the Americas pushed the Wesleys to ordain their own preachers to offer the sacrament to the many American Methodists who were far from any Anglican priest. Our very existence as a church is owed to innovation -- not planned far in advance, but based on prudential reading of the challenges and graces before us.

One prudential judgment by early 20th century Methodists was a push to abolish alcohol abuse. We saw that working-class men drank their families’ paychecks and then went home and abused their families. So we tried to solve the problem by draining the drink before it was poured.

Perhaps you’ve heard that this did not work.

But perhaps the effort by countless little old Methodist ladies was not totally wasted. Without Prohibition we wouldn’t have had Prohibition-breaking mobsters, Al Capone, Kevin Costner movies, or a Steve Buscemi cable series. We wouldn’t have NASCAR, as southern grease monkeys tricked out cars to escape the law, and then realized fast cars were fun even without cops to chase them.

Without all that, the Frierson boy wouldn’t have had a toy stockcar to hand to one of the planet’s most eminent theologians to remind him his real calling is to serve the people of God in the pews, however small of stature.

Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.

Jason Byassee is a fellow in theology and leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference.