Parallel Frontiers: The Leadership of Francis Asbury

This post is an excerpt from my master’s thesis, “Parallel Frontiers: Looking to Early Methodist Circuits in America for Insights on Church Multiplication in a Post-Modern Culture.”

Francis Asbury was an incredible leader, one who likely changed the shape of American religion more than any other leader. It has been said that Asbury may have traveled more of the United States than any person until his time.[1] Asbury’s leadership success was a result of his entrepreneurial spirit, compassion heart, and organizational acumen.

Entrepreneurial Spirit
One of the most significant aspects of Asbury’s leadership style was his entrepreneurial spirit. Trained as a metalworker, Asbury learned to be an artisan, much like the people to which he would minister.[2] Although he was never trained with a formal seminary education, he devoted much of his life to personal educational pursuits. His insatiable passion for itinerant preaching was likely related to his exposure to the skilled arts in which he was trained as a youth. Unlike Wesley or Coke, Asbury was a common man for the common people. While the other two leaders could relate to the public, Asbury was able to do so in an incredible way. Asbury’s exposure to a highly successful commercial market in England led to his success in the religious market of North America.[3]

In the last several decades, the concept of the five-fold ministry has gained significant traction in church multiplication circles. The principle based on Ephesians 4:11 implies that there are five types of ministry leadership roles: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors (shepherds), and teachers. While the origins of this concept are difficult to discern, it gained traction in recent years. I am uncertain that the Paul’s intent in his letter was to create a church polity system, but there is some merit in the fivefold ministry model. In this model, the apostolic role would be defined as a person with an entrepreneurial spirit.[4]

In this sense, we need apostolic leaders in postmodern society to help plant more congregations. These leaders must understand how engage with society, much like marketers in a commercial setting. I want to be careful to point out that we cannot market or sell our faith in the ways that commercial marketing does. Instead, I am proposing that we understand that we can learn from businesses when communicating the gospel, but we should never cheapen or lessen the message to emulate the values of the world.

Compassionate Heart
John Wesley and Thomas Coke also had gifts of compassion, but Asbury’s compassion was unique and distinct. He had a compassionate heart that sought to help others in need to point of personal poverty, following the example of John Wesley. Much of the money that Asbury had went to help other people.[5] Asbury’s greatest strength in his leadership was largely his ability to connect with common people and this was also seen most evidently in his compassionate way of living.

The church of today has an opportunity to continue being a church that cares about all people. While the church has not always embraced compassionate care for the less fortunate, our history has included many great leaders who were servants with compassion hearts. We can look to inspirational people like Asbury to encourage us to find ways to contextually care for people today. The church in a postmodern society recognizes that it has a responsibility to assess the needs of a local community and find ways to holistically share the gospel with the community.

Organizational Acumen
One of Asbury’s greatest strength’s was has organizational acumen. Not only was he an entrepreneur, but he also had great compassion. The combination of these two traits created an incredible gift for management that led to such great success. While I want to be careful to not point all of American Methodist success at Asbury, I do believe that an essential part of their success was due to his ability to organize and administrate such a complex movement. Referring to reflections from Peter Cartwright, Wigger indicates that Asbury’s success was greater than that of any merchant of the 19th century.[6] The Methodist model of the circuit was not Asbury’s design, but certainly saw its accomplishment achieved under the leadership of Asbury.

One of the greatest challenges of Asbury’s organizational acumen was simply that he often did not know when to stop. He had such a fervent ambition for expanding the gospel into the frontier that he and his circuit riders worked tirelessly. This would later lead to the recognition that the circuit model was not sustainable. While a movement could be developed on this system, it could not keep up with its growth and changing demands.

The church in the midst of postmodernity must be founded on the truth of the gospel, but must also be aware of how to operate best organizationally. In my opinion, this means having leaders who can lead like Asbury did. This includes leaders with compassionate hearts, but also with gifts in administration. While some may be hesitant to say that administration is essential in postmodern culture, I argue that it is essential, so long as it is genuine and authentic. In the commercial world, people are choosing a brand that resonates with them on an ethical, personal, or emotional level. However, these brands still require significant administration—especially in order to be able to communicate these values to the customer. While postmodern culture should not be viewed as the potential client-base for the church, we can look to these businesses to learn how to communicate our values similarly to the ways that they are communicating and leading change in the world.

[1] Wigger, John H. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 3.
[2] Ibid., 23.
[3] Ibid., 21.
[4] Hirsch, Alan. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006, 173.
[5] Wigger, John H. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists, 12.
[6] Ibid, p. 8.

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