En Route to Our Future: Asbury Theological Seminary Convocation Address

5th Convocation Address
Asbury Theological Seminary,
Estes Chapel, September 03, 2013
Florida-Dunnam Campus, September 05, 2013

Ben Meyer once wrote that “Christianity has never been more true to itself, more consistent with the message of Jesus, or more evidently in route to its own future than in the launching of the world mission of the church.”[1] From the dawn of the Abrahamic covenant when God declared that in his seed “all nations would be blessed,” to those falling tongues of fire which erupted into global worship on the day of Pentecost, to that glorious day on October 27, 1771 when Francis Asbury first stepped foot onto this continent, to the Lausanne Global Leadership Forum held in Bangalore India this past summer, and a thousand other examples which could be cited, the church, when true to itself, has always been about global mission: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Isa. 52:7; Rom. 10:15). Asbury seminary’s founding motto, “the whole Bible for the whole world” reflects in seed form this grand biblical vision. It is that vision which was made command through our Risen Lord Jesus Christ when he said, “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). We are the sent people of God – sent out as joyful participants in God’s redemptive mission in the world. The difference between a church which says to the world “come to church” versus a church which says to its own members “go to the world” is, perhaps, a more defining shift than has been fully appreciated. That movement from an attractional model to a missional model, from a seeker-sensitive model to post-seeker model, from a programmatic model to a relational model, from a Christendom to a post-Christendom is profound and, in the process, might help us to rediscover the missional nature of the church of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the very phrase “missional church” is a grammatical tautology, like the phrase, “a male man” or a “four cornered square.” The church is by nature and calling missional – an outpost of the New Creation in Adam’s world.
It is in John’s gospel that we meet the Risen Jesus on Easter Sunday night who enters into those locked and barred doors, declares his peace, shows them his hands and his side, and then commands them, and us, “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” He then breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is one of those powerful Trinitarian moments in the New Testament. Here in one passage we meet the Sending Father, the Risen Lord and the Empowering Spirit, all present and accounted for – Father, Son and Holy Spirit! Don’t be troubled that Pentecost is still fifty days away, because John does not want us to view God’s redemptive acts too separately, or atomistically, but as one grand, glorious vision of Triune redemption from sending Father, to incarnation, to crucifixion to resurrection to ascension to Pentecost to New Creation – it is all one grand, sweeping event – like a redemptive play with separate acts, but with one glorious unfolding plot. The church finds its life and vitality by becoming players in this divine drama, caught up in His mission, not ours; caught up in His purpose, not our plans, caught up in His ever extending life into the world. The only true church is a missional church because this is the route to our own future. Asbury Theological Seminary’s 2023 vision of our own future, if it is to be truly transformative for our students and our graduates, must be tied to this great missional, redemptive plot authored by God himself.

Francis Asbury “on Mission” with God in the Frontier

This vision of a church on mission with the Triune God is not alien to our own Wesleyan tradition. Indeed, this is our truest identity. There has never been a more successful church planting movement in America than the story of the Methodist movement which is still the only church planting movement which planted a church in every county in the country. This vision was inaugurated by none other than Francis Asbury, one of the greatest pioneer church planters in the history of the church and from whom our seminary derives its name. As noted earlier, Francis Asbury arrived from England to the New World in October of 1771. He was 26 years old. How many twenty-six year olds do we have here today? Think about it – twenty six years old, stepping onto this continent with nothing but a great vision! There are only nine Methodist preachers on the whole continent and only 316 Methodist Christians. Asbury knew that the only hope to evangelize the New World with only nine preachers was what he called “the circulation of preachers” – meaning keep them on the move, preaching the gospel and planting churches. If there was ever a missional vision – that was it –“the circulation of preachers.” Asbury from the start lived on horseback, never owned a home, never got married, never left this soil and gave 45 years of ministry to this country, preaching his last sermon the same week that he died. Like H.C. Morrison who died after preaching a revival service, Asbury died with his boots on and his horse saddled. His whole life was defined by missional themes. Asbury preached in taverns, he preached in court houses, he preached in the public square, he preached in the tobacco fields, he preached in homes, he preached in prisons, he preached under shaded trees and yes, he even preached in churches! If he had been alive today you would have seen him on YouTube and FaceBook. He would have been waiting in the parking lot outside a Lady Gage concert. Asbury averaged 6,000 miles per year; traveled over 270,000 miles on horseback, and preached over 15,500 sermons (not counting exhortations). Is it any wonder that he is portrayed on horseback on the statue as you enter Wilmore? Isn’t it amazing that there are fifteen famous figures portrayed on horseback throughout our nation’s capital – fourteen of those famous figures are military leaders from George Washington to Joan of Arc. One – and only one – is dedicated to a preacher of the gospel – Francis Asbury. He ordained over 4,000 new church planting pastors. To read the conference journals on the growth of the church is inspiring. In the first year of ministry in the New World Asbury and his preaching band had led almost 1,000 people to Jesus Christ. By 1775 there are 3,148 members reported. By 1777, 5,000 Methodists are reported, and, four years later, almost 11,000. By 1796 the church had over 70,000 members. One year, 1801, saw over 14,000 new people brought to Christ in one year, bringing the overall number to 104,070 and, from there, the growth became exponential, numbering eventually in the millions. Today there are 80 distinct Methodist movements worldwide comprising nearly 80 million people!
Now whenever someone starts highlighting early Methodist church planting it can easily get some of us off track by moving us into an overly parochial mode. So, let me be clear. I want to highlight a few snapshots from our own tradition as mere examples within a much grander canopy of God’s redemptive work. We are just a small part of what God is doing in the world. I recently returned from the Lausanne Global Leaders Forum in Bangalore India which brought together hundreds of leaders from around the world to discuss the progress of world evangelization since Cape Town 2010. One cannot sit in such gatherings without being left speechless at the global work of God in our day. We heard reports from twelve regions of the world: Entire movements of God in China and in Burundi and in Brazil and on and on which have nothing whatsoever to do with us or anything we are connected with in a strict denominational sense. Praise God. Jesus said, “I will build my church” – he said nothing about Methodists or Baptists or Pentecostals. However, all of these movements and hundreds more can become vivified when they become part of the great missio dei of God and the in-breaking of the Kingdom. Likewise, each of these movements can become fossilized when they turn into lumbering parochially minded institutions. With that backdrop, I want to briefly highlight three snapshots in our own history as way of illustrating the power of participating in God’s mission in the world.

Three Historical “Snapshots” in the Life of Francis Asbury

Snapshot #1: Asbury in Philadelphia in May 1775

The Methodists are having their 3rd Methodist general conference beginning on May 17, 1775. The famous Christmas conference at Lovely Lane Chapel in Maryland when we become an independent movement is not held for another nine years, in 1784. Here in Philadelphia in 1775 we find Francis Asbury, Thomas Rankin, Robert Strawbridge and many of the leading lights of the Methodist revival gathered in St. George’s Church planning their strategy to bring the gospel to the frontier – including, by the way, a place called Kentucky. Just two blocks away, on 6th street, Liberty Hall, at the exact time, was the meeting of the 2nd continental congress. This is the congress that would declare war on England, ratify the Declaration of Independence, and appoint George Washington as the Commander General of the Continental Army. It is widely regarded as one of the most important meetings in American history. It is unlikely that Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson and the rest would have even known that just two blocks away Francis Asbury was meeting with his preachers at the same time. But, let it be said, as wonderful as the story of America is, the more significant and lasting story is always the unfolding story of the gospel. Brothers and sisters, link your life to that great train! The missio dei trumps all other lesser narratives, doesn’t it? Francis Asbury’s meeting of evangelists and church planters at St. George’s church is surely known in the annals of heaven as the more significant meeting in Philadelphia at that time. The country was being birthed at Liberty Hall, but the kingdom was unfolding two blocks away at St. George’s church!

Snapshot #2 Francis Asbury and Harry Hoosier Baptizing

This second snapshot of history begins with one of the most important letters ever written by John Wesley. It is the famous letter which has been called the Magna Charta of American Methodism. This is the letter which Wesley wrote after America had gained her independence. Mr. Wesley took the bold step of authorizing the ordaining of Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as bishops (general superintendents), independent of the Church of England. This letter was written on September 10, 1784. Asbury had already set America on fire for thirteen years with hundreds of new churches and thousands of new believers, but all as a lay person – a lay exhorter. There were no ordained Methodist clergy to administer the sacraments and fifty thousand Christians who had received Christ, but who had not been baptized. You will recall that Wesley had recalled all Methodist ministers back to England during the revolution and only Asbury remained behind. All of this changed with the letter from Wesley. Francis Asbury was a lay exhorter as he arose on Christmas Day on Saturday in 1784. Before Christmas was over he was ordained a deacon, on Sunday he became an elder, and on Monday, he was ordained a Bishop – it was the fastest rise to the episcopacy in history – from lay person to Bishop in three days!
The day this famous Christmas Conference in Baltimore, Maryland was over, Francis Asbury got on his horse and headed out to reap the harvest. He took with him Harry Hoosier, who along with Richard Allen, became two of the earliest African American preachers in our history (Richard Allen Chapel in Wilmore / Harry Hoosier Institute on the Orlando campus). You should know that at this time 20% of all Methodists were African American. Asbury and Hoosier baptized so many people that Asbury wrote in his journal that on any given day Asbury and Hoosier would baptize more people than a typical parish minister back in England would baptize during his entire ministry. That is a missional bishop! No church wants or needs a paper pushing bishop. What we need are baptizing bishops… preaching bishops… church planting bishops! This is the route which Francis Asbury – now Bishop Asbury – is marking out for us.
I’m not sure what mental picture you have in your mind of what a missional church might look like. Perhaps your mind might run quickly to Augustine of Canterbury baptizing tens of thousands of Anglo Saxons, or Alopen (also in the 7th century) in the imperial courts of China. Perhaps you think of Bartolome de las Casas bearing witness to Muslims in N. Africa, or Francis Xavier baptizing on the coast of India, both in the 16th century, or Sung-Heun Lee, the great Korean church planter in the 18th century. But, I can’t help but believe that the picture of Francis Asbury and Harry Hoosier baptizing hundreds of new believers on the American frontier must be one of the great missional, gospel snapshots of all time.

Snapshot #3: Francis Asbury Coming to Kentucky in 1804

Francis Asbury had a great love for the frontier and Kentucky represented the real frontier, especially after Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness trail through Cumberland Gap. As early as 1786, Asbury had started a collection to “send missionaries to the Western settlements.” That meant Kentucky and Tennessee. By the spring of 1803, President Thomas Jefferson had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. You will remember that the Louisiana Purchase was a lot more land that just what we today call Louisiana. This is a vast tract of frontier land stretching from Louisiana, to all of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa, part of Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana. It was 828,000 square miles of territory. In 1804, Francis Asbury is on his way to Kentucky to preach the gospel and plant new churches. To get here he has to cross the Ohio River, not an easy task in 1804. The Ohio River, of course, runs along the northern border of West Virginia and Kentucky and the Southern border of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, making it very strategic for early travel westward. The very time Asbury arrives at the Ohio River, he sees a flotilla of boats paddling by. Do you know who is in that boat on the Ohio River? It was Lewis and Clark on their way to explore the new Louisiana Purchase and to find the extent of this continent. Two journeys met that day: the Expedition of Lewis and Clark and the journey of Francis Asbury into Kentucky. The former journey, Lewis and Clark, was dedicated to the expansion of this country (May 1804-Sept. 1806) – the vision which we know of in history as the Manifest Destiny. The latter, Francis Asbury, was dedicated to the expansion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lewis and Clark expedition is iconic in American history, but, in the light of eternity, there is no doubt which journey will go down as the most significant.
Asbury came to Kentucky quite a few times, including right through what would later be called Wilmore. There were settlers here from 1779 onward. In 1801, Asbury would have passed Rose Hill which was, at that time, only two years old, but, from the street looked about like it looks today. He would have traveled on horseback right down the dirt lane which today we call Lexington Avenue. He was on his way to Highbridge and Bethel academy which he raised $1,500 to start. Bethel Academy would be only the second Methodist school in the nation, founded in 1790, the first being Cokesbury College in Abindgon Maryland. Asbury would, of course, never see Asbury College or Asbury seminary, but exactly 100 years later John Wesley Hughes came to Wilmore and started the Kentucky Holiness School in 1890. Within a short time Asbury had its first – what I might call “University Senate” dispute. The other Methodist schools didn’t like the name Kentucky Holiness School, because, they insisted that they were just as committed to holiness as his school! Isn’t that an amazing thing to think about! So, Hughes changed the name to Asbury College, naming it after Francis Asbury who had longed for a vibrant training institution right here in the heart of bluegrass Kentucky. Bethel Academy had relocated to Nicholasville in 1803 having merged with another school and by 1890 was already in ruins. I am holding here in my hand a brick from the original Bethel Academy founded by Francis Asbury. Asbury’s planting of Bethel Academy (and Cokesbury College in Abingdon, Maryland before that ) demonstrates that he understood that theological education was crucial to the sustainability of a missional vision. Asbury knew that and we are here today because of that vision. But, I ask, what frontiers await us? What kind of ministers do we need to train for today’s frontier?

Facing our Missional Frontier             

We, like Francis Asbury over 240 years ago, face a great missionary challenge, right here in N. America, as well as around the world. The challenge to spread scriptural holiness is just as urgent today as in his day. Asbury faced many dangers and perils, and this seminary named in his honor has experienced its own share of trials and difficulties. Sometimes storms can serve to define us, even shaping our destiny, for good or for ill. The resignation of Claude Thompson and the subsequent loss of our accreditation from 1948 to 1952 has undoubtedly left a lasting imprint upon Asbury. We have gone for decades with a lingering angst about our relationship with the United Methodist church and how we are seen by the University Senate. This fear has also shaped us as an institution. The crisis of 2006 has left its marks on us, as well as the 2008 economic collapse. Each of these events, and I am sure that others could be added, serve to shape us, form and inform our perspective and our own identity and they are milestones which can define our collective memory. Sometimes our most painful experiences in life personally, or as an institution, can drown out our capacity to hear our deepest calling and our truest identity. We can so easily let lesser narratives drown out the call to the vibrant future we are in route to.
In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the defining epics of Western civilization, you will recall that Odysseus planned a strategy to resist the effects of the deadly alluring song of the Sirens. It involved strapping Odysseus to the mast of his ship and plugging all his sailors’ ears with wax. But the sound of the Sirens was too great and only through great agony did Odysseus pass the strait. Jason, on the other hand, in the adventure of the Argonauts, decided on a different strategy. His approach was to not plug his ears with wax to drown out the Sirens, but, instead, to have Orpheus, the Greek God of Music counter the song of the Sirens with an even more compelling song, the music of heaven. Jason survived the Sirens by listening to an even greater song. This is our task today. We must link ourselves with a bigger story. We must cast a larger narrative. We must sing a better song.
You see, Francis Asbury’s life story could be as easily told through other lenses. If you read Asbury’s journal he, at times, lost sight of his participation in the grand unfolding missio dei. He was distracted by the painful schism with James O’Kelley – and if you haven’t heard of that early Methodism schism, then it makes my point. There was a greater story going on. Asbury could have focused on the pain of the American Methodist split with Mr. Wesley when we refused to ordain Rev. Whatcoat. Asbury could have focused on his own health problems. Most of his ministry he was plagued with serious physical problems as well as major bouts of depression. Asbury could have focused on the sacramental controversy with Robert Strawbridge and Thomas Rankin. You see, during any period of ministry you can focus on all the problems and challenges and miss the grand, unfolding story. From this perspective, none of those things really mattered because there was a greater story unfolding, a greater song being sung. It was the unfolding of the great work of God.
Brothers and sisters of Asbury Theological Seminary, we must listen to a better song. We don’t need to be intimidated by the scholarship of any other school, or sector of evangelicalism. We don’t need to fear the deliberations of the University Senate. We don’t need to waste our God given energies criticizing Pentecostals, or Reformed Christians or Baptists, or any other group. We must sing the song that God has given us to sing and allow our own God-given grand vision of spreading scriptural holiness throughout the world shine forth! We must recognize that the 18th century divide between Reformed and Arminian Christians which has dominated western Christian discourse for the last 200 years will not be the defining points of the next 100 years. It doesn’t lessen the importance of those debates, but it does put them in a new context. The divide between the Global North and the Global South will be far more determinative. The divide between churches forged in the fires of Christendom and those churches birthed in the context of other religions – that will be far more determinative. The Western churches moving to the cultural margins and the majority world churches moving to the cultural center will be far more determinative. A whole new Christianity is being re-discovered by the global church – one that is more apostolic, more missional, more prophetic. It will be a church less domesticated than the one most of us have known. If we are humble enough we just might see how nominal we have become. There is a difference between a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christianity. The world is re-discovering a gospel which is beyond much of our experience of it, and in the light of a re-energized apostolic faith, we will come out of this better Wesleyans than we are now. That is the amazing thing about global Christianity – it breaks you of your parochialism, but, in the process, returns to you an even better particularity than you ever had!
Brothers and sisters, Asbury is well positioned to negotiate these new realities. We will lead in on-line Extended Learning. We will lead in demonstrating how to unite sound learning and vital piety. We will lead in living out the vital link between soul care and creation care. We will lead with our commitment to a residential renaissance. We will lead in our faithfulness to biblical authority and biblical preaching! We will lead with our Hispanic initiatives on our Orlando campus. We will lead the way in finding that important balance between contextual sensitivity and prophetic clarity. We will lead with our joyful engagement with the global church, not as Methodist Christians trying to extend or aggrandize our own little groups, but as the people of God who, by the way, happen to embody a joyful Wesleyan vision, who will join with Christians from around the world in bearing witness to Christ and the in-breaking New Creation. We will lead in training a whole new generation of church planters. We cannot afford to let this opportunity slip away from us. Like Asbury of old, we are looking out on a whole new frontier. It is a frontier which looks a lot different from the one Asbury faced, but is no less daunting. We must unleash new networks of church planting movements. We will lead in the empowering of women for ministry around the world; women who are anointed by God and committed to historic faith. We will lead in providing resources for the church here and around the world, with our state of the art scanning technology, coupled with our Seedbed platform and our global relationships fostered by our global partnerships, as well as our budding connections to the Lausanne movement, there is no limit to what new horizons we can extend. This is the future we are in route to. It is a missional vision, with a global impact, in the Wesleyan spirit. That’s the summary of the future we are en route to: a missional vision, with a global impact, in the Wesleyan spirit.
We are called to be the people of God on mission with the Spirit in the world. Asbury is on route to its own future. Our goal is not to balance our budget, or to see men and women walk across stages and receive degrees. Our goal is not to plan the perfect curriculum, or to have the most beautiful campus. None of those things appear in our mission statement. Our goal is always the training and sending forth of spirit filled and sanctified men and women into ministry. The greatest hermeneutic of the gospel is the community of believers themselves as we embody the gospel in the midst of a fallen world. You are to be outposts of the future in the present age. There is no better hermeneutic of the gospel than that. Ravi Zaccharias once said, there are actually five gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the lives of Christians, and most people will never read the first four. This is our great calling: embodied holiness on mission in the world. It is, therefore, in the end, not about what we do, but about what He is doing and our joyful participation in His mission. The devil wants us to orient ourselves around what he is doing in the world. The gospel calls us to orient ourselves around what the Triune God is doing in the world. That choice is before each of us this day.


On July 4th of this year I was in Baltimore, Maryland and I visited the Mt. Olivet Cemetery. I stood in the presence of three graves. Francis Asbury, the great Apostle of American Methodism is buried here; Robert Strawbridge the organizer of the first Methodist class meeting is buried here, and here is E. Stanley Jones, the great Methodist statesman and missionary to India is buried there, all three lined up there at the same place. I prayed a simple prayer in the presence of these faithful witnesses. I said, Lord grant us here at Asbury Theological Seminary the following future: grant us the evangelistic, church planting heart of Francis Asbury, the great impulse for discipleship, training and catechesis of Robert Strawbridge and the passion for the world as seen in the heart and life of E. Stanley Jones. For, if we are granted this triune vision, we will be found faithful in our time and, in the process, discover afresh that glorious route to our own future. Amen.

[1] Chuck Van Engen, People on the Way


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