Tuesday, 21 November 2017

John Wesley Under the Contemporary Spotlight

Recently I had a lengthy comment on my blog post about John Wesley in Wales [1].  The comments raised so many issues that I felt it needed a long reply. So I have made the reply a blog!

The commenter was anonymous and their chief concern was that for all Wesley’s single mindedness and commitment, his approach to life is not one that 21st century church leaders would endorse.

Like many Christians today, I praise John Wesley's utter single-mindedness in his commitment to the work that God called him to do. Most of us know we fall far, far short, which is humbling. Embarrassing, in fact.

However, it occurs to me that Wesley's goals were aided by a way life that few religious leaders today would promote

I am sure anonymous is correct that few religious leaders today would promote Wesley’s way of life, or even his style of ministry. But that may say more about the poor standards of ministry in Christianity now than it does about John Wesley!

I am also wary when the “present” stands in judgement on the “past”. Understanding past beliefs and behaviours can only be sensibly done if we also examine our own in the light of scripture and history. We may misunderstand the past because we are so wrong ourselves. This is particularly true with the whole subject of revival. Our experience of outpourings of the Holy Spirit is so limited that we may view someone like Wesley as if he were experiencing what we experience. He did not – he, and the other Methodists, experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in a higher measure than us, thus we may never fully understand why they did what they did. Disapproving the way of life of a man like Wesley then becomes disapproval of revival altogether.

Then there are contemporary Christians who are so caught up by the subject of revival that they glamorise the revivals of the past, and elevate Wesley, Whitefield and the like to heroes second only to the Apostles. They then fail to see the flaws in past revivals, so that any modern claim to a revival is dismissed as it cannot achieve the standards of the pasts ones. However the “standards” used are artificial. I am afraid contemporary Christians do not make a good job of analysing the work of God in the past!

With the above provisos in mind I will attempt to deal with some of the problems with Wesley’s way of life that anonymous listed.

1. Celibacy is now unfashionable.

It is not clear that celibacy has ever been fashionable except among Roman Catholic clergy and the Shakers! Most Christians are not celibate otherwise populations would not grow. What I think anonymous means is that for Wesley the need for sexual “fulfilment” was secondary compared with preaching and building the church.

This is true, preaching and the ways of God did override all other activities – that what happens when the Spirit is poured out. It is the heart of what it means to be an enthusiast for Jesus. But the danger is to compare Wesley, and the apostle Paul, and even Jesus, with our culture that has become obsessed with all things sexual and its very public discussion. This obsession is mirrored in the Western church where redefining what is right and wrong in sexual behaviour is being radically revised. Anyone following current church affairs would think that sexual behaviour and identity are THE big issues of the moment, rather than the church’s lack of converts and the impending extinction of most mainline denominations. It is possible the modern church needs to look at Wesley and re-learn the priorities of the Christian life

2. Parents/spouses who evangelise full-time are often seen as neglectful of their families.

Wesley only married late in life, an unwise marriage according to his many biographers. Hs itinerate lifestyle meant he was unable to spend sufficient time with his wife. A similar view is held of George Whitefield. But they were the exception among the Methodists, not the norm. Most Methodist enthusiasts did not travel to the extent of these. Methodism grew through enthusiasts – the “infected” Christians who converted others – passing on the “infection” of enthusiasm in the process. It is this enthusiastic aspect of Wesley’s life that the modern church needs. It does not need itinerancy to the same extent that Wesley carried out. Enthusiasm and strong family life are fully compatible. 

3. Wesley's low level of expenditure would alienate many modern families.

It is not clear what Wesley’s actual expenditure was. A lot of money passed through his hands, but he was generous and did not need much himself. Nevertheless a glance though his journals and diaries pictures a man who was comfortable and far from “poor” in the sense of wondering when his next meal was coming from. Again I think it was priorities. When the need to preach Christ so that people are saved is a priority I doubt if there is much need for a lavish lifestyle. The opulent lifestyle of modern Christians may well be a substitute for a lack of passion for the person of Jesus and compassion on the lost.

4. Wesley didn't have a busy 9-5 (+ overtime) job alongside his evangelism.

No he did not. But most evangelism was done by the ordinary Methodists in the classes and churches that Wesley and others built up. They could easily work up to 12 hours in a day and 6 days a week, but it did not stop them witnessing and seeing converts. I find the same level of evangelism in the parts of Uganda I visit, where the time spent in work is much higher than the west. Contemporary Western Christians need to be careful that we do not make excuses for our lack of zeal.

5. Churches are desperate for money; do they want intelligent members who deliberately impoverish themselves? 

Modern churches are elaborate institutions that need money just to maintain themselves. Despite the Reformation, protestant Christianity inherited the medieval model of church as a “state” in microcosm. Thus much effort is needed to pay the professionals who minister on behalf of the people. Early Methodism was largely lay-led, like the New Testament church, thus not in need of the same degree of expenditure. Thus it did not matter to the church if people were impoverished, as long as they were spiritually alive!


6. Wesley focused on the working classes, but modern British evangelism aims at the middle class.

The more I read of Wesley’s life, and Whitefield’s, the more I realise just how much they spread themselves over all classes. Wesley spent much time ministering to the working class, that was a rarity in his day, but he did also minister to the middle and upper classes. In Wales Wesley could only minister to the wealthy as they were the only ones who could understand English! But Wesley knew the better off were key to reaching the poor, and to generating new ministers who would pastor churches in poor areas.

I understand the comment of anonymous that the bulk of church planting is done where there are a large number of middle class people, especially cities. Just think of HTB in London which can easily be thought of as ministry to the “well off”. But the same church, and its network, is generating many candidates for ministry who have a heart for the poor. Nevertheless, modern church planters can learn from Wesley how to prioritise unreached people, rather than all chasing after the same pool of “easier” people.

7. Some argue that evangelism today has to be friendship-based rather than preaching-based.

I don’t think the two are opposites. The only reason why Wesley had an audience was that people invited their friends to come and hear him. The true enthusiasts were the people in his congregation that brought others to listen.

The modern church has a real problem with preaching and seems to be in a permanent state of apology about it. Preaching is a command, not an option. The trouble is we have inherited a view of preaching that is “church building” centred. Wesley certainly broke that tradition, but it was still one man and his audience. Jesus and the Apostle Paul preached, often to an audience, but sometimes it was dialogue, sometimes it was one to one. Rarely was it in a church service! Perhaps we need to see preaching in a wider context, and I think Wesley helps point us in that direction


Anonymous finally said:

I'm not denying that the Holy Spirit can answer these (and other) problems. But modern Christians are clearly ambivalent about John Wesley; we admire his zeal, but as a role model he's highly problematic for us. Of course, that may be our fault.

I would like to thank Anonymous for their comments. Such comments help focus the mind and make us examine ourselves. Even if we do not agree, provided they inspire us to serve Jesus with more zeal, then good will result.

For me, having to take a forced break from research, it gave me an excuse to write another blog!

Reference


[1] John Wesley, Enthusiasm and Today’s Church, 20/9/17
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