The Methodist revival began in earnest in the spring of 1739. Along with London, the city of Bristol was one of the early centers for revival activity. That activity was so significant that it soon became clear that land needed to be purchased and a building erected to house Methodist activities.
What would come to be known as the New Room in Bristol was the first structure built by John Wesley and his fledgling movement. He describes its beginnings in his Journal on May 9, 1739:
“We took possession of a piece of ground, near St. James’s churchyard, in the Horsefair, where it was designed to build a room large enough to contain both the societies of Nicholas and Baldwin Street and such of their acquaintance as might desire to be present with them at such times as the Scripture was expounded. And on Saturday the 12th the first stone was laid, with the voice of praise and thanksgiving.”
We can interpret the name of the new building—the “New Room”—in a couple of different ways from the standpoint of history. The most obvious is that it was literally a new thing, a building newly erected to house preaching gatherings and meetings of the Bristol bands.
The other way to interpret the New Room’s name is that it provided new room for Christian believers to practice the means of grace. It offered a space within the lives of mostly hardscrabble people to gather together that they might hear the word of God preached and share conversation and prayer about their faith journeys.
If you fast forward 275 years, then you’ll discover that there is yet a third way that New Room can be interpreted: as the name adopted by the fastest growing conference of Wesleyan Christians in the world.
Two years ago, Seedbed Publishing began hosting a three-day gathering called the New Room Conference as a way to bring together Wesleyans with a deep passion for revival, worship, prayer and mission. Seedbed’s own motto is “Sowing for a Great Awakening.” The Christian publisher knows that it can’t bring about revival under its own power, but it does believe it can plant the seeds that will provide for revival’s beginnings when God chooses to grant the growth.
The New Room Conference takes place each September in Franklin, Tennessee. As an attendee at each of the first three conferences, I can attest to its electric growth. The initial New Room in 2014 attracted a little over 300 people. In 2015, that more than doubled to almost 800 people. At the New Room Conference held just a few days ago, there were more than 1,500 people present. In just two short years, New Room has witnessed a 500 percent increase in attendance.
Why is this significant? For a couple of reasons.
The turmoil that the United Methodist Church is currently undergoing is no secret to anyone. The failure of bishops, pastors, and congregations to abide within our common covenant is threatening to rip the church apart at the seams. One spillover effect of all of this tension is that our official conferencing—in Annual Conferences, Jurisdictional Conferences and General Conference—tends to discourage more than encourage.
In short, we’ve seen very little of what Wesley meant by “Christian conferencing” in our official gatherings over the past few years. When Christian conferencing is a means of grace, it emphasizes testimony, prayer, conversations about faith and the sharing of a common witness.
What we lack in our official gatherings the New Room Conference has in spades. The preaching, teaching, prayer and worship I witnessed a few days ago in Franklin was one of the most enlivening and encouraging experiences I’ve had in 15 years of ministry.
We are at a turning point in the life of our connection. What we desperately need is new room—to rediscover our Wesleyan evangelical roots and recommit ourselves to the deeply Methodist mission with which we first set out.
No single conference is going to do all of the work needed to gain a course correction in our common life. But the New Room is certainly a start.
This essay also appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper’s October 7, 2016 edition. You can read it in the online version of the AUM newspaper at this link.