Salvationist Podcast

Wesley Studies Symposium

April 09, 2021 Season 3 Episode 5
Salvationist Podcast
Wesley Studies Symposium
Show Notes Transcript

Today we are going to talk with Dr. Joel Thiessen, Professor of Sociology, Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University, and Dr. James Pedlar, Donald N. and Kathleen G. Bastian Chair of Wesley Studies, Associate Professor of Theology, Tyndale Seminary about the upcoming 2021 Wesley Studies Symposium that is online this year. 

Link to: 2021 Wesley Symposium

Signs of Life: Catholic, Mainline, and Conservative Protestant Congregations in Canada by Bill McAlpine, Joel Thiessen, Keith Walker, Arch Chee Keen Wong
More information:

Brandon Laird:  Hi, my name is Brandon Laird, and you're listening to the Salvationist podcast. Today we're going to talk with Joel Thiessen, Professor of Sociology, Director of Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University. And James Pedlar, Donald N. and Kathleen G. Bastion Chair of Wesley Studies, Associate Professor of Theology at Tyndale University, about the upcoming annual Wesley Studies Symposium that is online this year. Welcome, James and Joel.

 James Pedlar: Yeah, it's great to be with you. Thanks for having us.

 Joel Thiessen: Good to be here.

 Brandon Laird: The first question is for you, James. Can you help our listeners understand what the Wesley Studies Symposium is, and what happens at the event?

 James Pedlar: This is an event that's been going since 2009. And it's an academic event. So people come and they share academic research. What makes it unique is it it reaches a mixed audience, I go to academic events all the time; it mostly tends to be scholars and professors. But this really engages the the local churches, clergy and lay leaders who who come and they want to hear cutting edge academic research and what people are doing. It's often students and pastors who are doing doctoral work, and sometimes some scholars, what people are doing with their research and writing, they want to engage with deep thinking on issues of importance of the church and our own history in the Wesleyan tradition. So it started with I think 12 of us went to the first one, and this year, we've got well over 100 people registered. So it's really grown. And what's nice about it is there's a community of people who've started to come to these events. Yeah, I'm really encouraged by it. Because you see that there are people out there in the churches who want to think deeply and want to be fed and engage in some deep conversations. And we always have a great, great time together.

 Brandon Laird: That's great. It seems to be a population of people who've been going for it already. You've got a community, but this year, you're going to be online. How will the experience be similar for the people who've attended in the past? And how the experience will be different?

 James Pedlar: Right, so we've got a similar schedule, a similar type of presentations that we've had in years past. So there's a keynote speaker, that's Joel this year. And then we have other people who are mostly Canadians, and from our from the Wesleyan denominations, prepared papers and each paper has 40 minutes for both for the paper and discussion. So we'll have I think there's six total other papers besides Joel's paper. And they're on a wide variety of topics, we always have an interdisciplinary focus. So it's a Wesley Studies Symposium, but we take that pretty broadly to mean, it could be research on the Wesleyan tradition, but it could also be research by Weslyans of things that are of interest to to Wesleyas. So that's all all the same same kind of content, same basic format of the day and schedule. Obviously, what's different is it's all on Zoom this year, it's all online. So we won't get the chance to talk in between the papers. And we won't get the chance to talk over lunch, which is a really important part of this event. So I'm sad about that, that that won't be happening. But on the other hand, it's opening it up to people who normally can't come. So I've already got people from around the world who've registered for this year's event who normally wouldn't be able to present. So we've got a presenter from Taiwan. And I know I've got some people registered from the UK and different different places and even different parts of Canada that normally wouldn't be able to fly into Toronto for a one-day event. So there's some pluses and minuses, I guess you could say, to this to this format. But I'm really excited to see how many people are signing up. And I know they're interested to hear what Joel and the other presenters have to talk about.

 Brandon Laird: That's great, James. Yeah, it sounds like you guys are really making the best of it under the circumstances with COVID. And yeah, it sounds like you may be broadening your, your participants from your past symposiums. Joel, can you give our listeners a brief background of your research, and how it connects to the Canadian religious context?

 Joel Thiessen: Yeah, thanks, Brandon. I'm a sociologist of religion, and I studied religion and culture in Canada. And I studied and published in three broad areas. One relates to those who say they have no religion. It's the fastest growing quote unquote, religious group in Canada. And so I published a co-authored book just over a year ago on this group that we call religious "nones." So that's a primary area of research. A second area pertains to millennials in Canada. I co-authored a book a couple years ago now, that looks at millennials in Canada. A variety of topics including religion and spirituality. And then the third area and probably the focal point of our time together this symposium is on flourishing congregations in Canada. And there's a lot of research that comes out of the US and UK and other parts of the world. Very interesting, very helpful in their own ways. But really trying to lean into what's going on within the Canadian church against this kind of broad narrative of religious decline, which my own research documents. But sometimes when we focus on declines we lose sight of where are the signs of life and vitality. And so this institute that I lead with a group of other scholars, really seeks to unpack the signs of life and vitality in Christian congregations: Catholic, mainline conservative Protestant churches, and most importantly, trying to provide empirical data as the basis of our understanding of what's happening within Canadian congregations coast to coast to coast.

 Brandon Laird: That's great, Joel, very timely, for what's happening in our Canadian context. And I've heard you speak at a couple conferences and seen some of your research, I think it'd be really of interest to all levels of people within the Salvation Army--employees, leaders, officers and our executive leaders in the organization. I think there's a lot that they could learn from your papers. Next question. This is for both you, James and Joel. I'm curious about what you were seeing during the pandemic as a relates to the Wesleyan tradition. How is the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason holding up? 

 Joel Thiessen: Okay, yeah, there's lots of directions, one could go here. And in some ways, I mean, I'm a sociologist. So I look to empirical data. And so some of the research that's coming out over the last year, certainly shows for some congregations, some signs of life and vitality, groups that are innovating and adapting and rethinking the core essence of who and what they are as local congregations. So certainly firmly rooted within the Scripture, and firmly rooted within tradition, but perhaps paying attention to how experiences are changing or evolving within this pandemic experience. So we certainly see that. I think there are others who are really struggling, who are perhaps limited by the tradition that they find themselves within. And there is always a, I want to say a danger of tradition, but sometimes when when people can't innovate or adapt to a changing cultural context and environment that we see congregations are emerging within this setting. And I would say last summer, there's lots of offshoots to this conversation. But you really find some of the polarizing perspectives from within congregations and denominations and society as a whole. I mean, the church is not immune to this, of, you know, politicized views of the role of governments and theology and rights and congregations and so forth. And so I think in and through that, it's really interesting to pay attention to how groups, theological understandings of the world play out in people's lived experiences, and how they draw upon reason or not in the process, and the ways in which we live in, you know, a posture of grace and peace with one another or not present within some setting. So I would say it's been a difficult context for some. And on the other hand, there are some who are adapting and innovating. So some of the things. Anyways, we're seeing in some of the initial data, among other interesting lines of inquiry.

 James Pedlar: Yeah, I think one way you could look at it, I guess, is almost like this is a case study in how churches are, if I'm putting on my more theological hat, how churches are using this quadrilateral, so-called, of sources and how are people navigating the pandemic? Obviously, the experience angle is really significant right now, because we're all learning as we go. And it's a huge experiment for churches. And that's really what experience means in that in that quadrilateral. I think people misunderstand it sometimes and think it's about inner voices of the Holy Spirit or something like that. And not that that's not part of it, that God could speak to you. But it's more to do with, in the Wesleyan tradition, it's been more to do with practical experience. So what can we learn from one another in our Christian life and from congregations? That's where I think we know what Joel's research is so important for us, is how do we learn from one another and what's working and where we see those signs of life? So I think in this pandemic, yeah, people are just trying to see what's going to work in these very strange conditions that we've never faced before. And but you're you're rooted in Scripture, you're rooted in your own tradition, but sometimes the rubber is hitting the road with people in terms of what they think they should be doing or could be doing, how they think they can adapt church life and worship practices and all of these things. It's sort of like a big case study, and maybe in a few years, we can look back. And it'll be really interesting to see what we've learned from it. And what we take away, but I've been encouraged to see the the level of innovation and effort and the drive of so many people, especially in the earlier part of the pandemic, I mean, we're all getting so tired now. But I was really encouraged to see the way that churches and church leaders did whatever they needed to do to try and adapt. And certainly, I'm sure some are struggling a lot more than others. But I do think there will be signs of life that come out of this as well. Because the church is always renewed every generation, or there are always those movements of renewal that are those signs of life that are springing up. And sometimes it's in the darkest moments are the times when it seems like things are furthest from where we think they should be that something surprising might happen. So we'll see. 

 Brandon Laird: Thanks for that, guys. Hey, Joel, I got another question for you. What can our listeners expect to hear from you at the symposium? 


Joel Thiessen: Yeah, I'm going to lean into some of the data and research out of our recently published book titled Signs of Life, talk a little bit of what is a flourishing congregation? How do we define it? What are some of the traits that are present there? And give some attention to some of the realities during the pandemic, some data from before the pandemic and some other research has come out since then. So, you know, looking at things like innovation, leadership development, and neighborhood involvement, what does it mean for a church to be actively involved in its community, things like evangelism in terms of an outward focus, so provide a bit of a cursory overview leaning into some Canadian data there that, hopefully will provide a sense of hope and optimism from the data to learn from some congregations across theological sectors and across regions of Canadian context, as well as provide some practical and theological reflections and tools that congregational leaders and lay members can actually take back into their congregational setting. So all grounded within empirical data, but hopefully opening up and fostering some good conversation of what flourishing might look like within a local church setting. And it very much builds on this idea that no churches is flourishing in every single way. And few churches are without flourishing in any kind of capacity. That is, almost every church has some kinds of sign of flourishing, and how do we help congregations to identify those signs, how are limited or expansive they might be, and how to actually build on those things within their own distinct calling within their church, their setting at this point in history and time. So hopefully, we'll open up some good conversation and thought-provoking data for people to consider in that thing.


Brandon Laird: So listeners of the podcast are going to want to sign up and be a part of this and be able to hear this information that Joel was just talking about, speaking about signing up, and how to register, James, how do our listeners sign up for the symposium?  


James Pedlar: Yeah, if you just go to the the Tyndale University website, and search Wesley Symposium, it will come up right away, and you'll find the the event page and get the schedule, and there's a link there to register and this year's event is free. I mean, we always try to keep it affordable. But usually we have a meal that we have to cover costs for, we don't have to worry about that this year. So it's a free event, anyone's welcome. Even if they only wanted to hear Joel or only want to hear a couple of the papers, they'd be welcome to register there and you can find all the details.


Brandon Laird: Well, thank you, James, and Joel for taking the time to connect with us today. And thanks for listening to the Salvationist podcast. Make sure you check out for information about registering for the Wesley Studies Symposium. For new episodes, be sure to visit For more Army news visit And if you would like to get the news delivered directly to your email inbox, sign up for a weekly