How to Be Exclusively Inclusive

June 15th, 2013

If you listen carefully to Jesus, then you realize that no one ever opened a wider door of hope and love to the human race. As you continue to listen, you understand that the door is so narrow that you must strip yourself to life’s core in order to pass through.

“Come to me,” Jesus said, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). No invitation could be more inclusive, more welcoming. Those who customarily feel most shut out are told that there are no barriers here; the very issues that weigh against them elsewhere are votes in their favor in Christ’s kingdom.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus sounds a very different note. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). When some apparently sincere people volunteered to join his team, Jesus abruptly discouraged them. To a scribe—the kind of trained religious leader that would have added some muscle to Jesus’ generally ill prepared group—Jesus warned that there was no future with him: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). So too was the case with a man who was already a disciple but who wanted now to join the inner circle. When he asked permission to bury his father, Jesus quickly advised him that his interest level wasn’t enough for true discipleship (Matthew 8:21-22).

The point was clear, even if confusing. Jesus’ invitation was all-inclusive; “whosoever will may come.” Those who came found that if they were to stay, to go with Jesus all the way, they must be dead in earnest.

The Methodist movement caught this inclusive-exclusive policy better than any expression of Christianity before or since. Theologically, early Methodism was fiercely inclusive. I use the word “fiercely” intentionally, with no sense of exaggeration. As Wesley preached out of doors, in the fields and in the village centers, his location itself indicated that he wanted anybody and everybody. The conventional church or meeting house waited for persons to come; Wesley and his fellow preachers went where the people were. In a sense, he sought no converts. There were no cards to sign (a high percentage of his listeners couldn’t write), no altar at which converts could kneel. He invited any who were interested to visit a group for further inquiry. The only requirement was that they desired to “flee from the wrath to come.” That is, that they wanted to escape the fatal judgment.

Wesley’s theological position was vigorously opposed to the Calvinism which was so strong at the time. The Calvinists argued that a person could be saved only if he or she belonged to “the elect”—that is, those whom God had already chosen. The Wesley brothers considered this a “damnable doctrine.” In a typical Methodist hymn, Charles Wesley taught the Methodists to sing,

Help us thy mercy to extol,
  Immense, unfathomed, unconfined;
To praise the Lamb who died for all,
  The general Savior of mankind.

The world he suffered to redeem;
  For all he hath the atonement made;
For those that will not come to him,
  The ransom of his life was paid.
(“Father, Whose Love Everlasting,” 1741)

I have italicized words in this hymn as the British theologian Philip S. Watson did. Watson explained that he did so because “we may suspect it was written with a consciously anti-Calvinist intent.”1 Charles Wesley wanted every lost soul to know that the door was open wide, wide enough for the worst sinner. Christ had died even for “those that will not come to him.” Wesley considered himself as part of the group for whom the gospel door must be mercifully wide. He wrote his hymns with a fine sense of his own need of a Savior. Most of us would see Charles as a person of exemplary conduct, but he saw himself as a person who needed a Savior as badly as the person maligned and condemned by common society. He was confident of the same saving grace. This was a theology that embraced all, including those who might not want to be identified as being in need—though, of course, they would eventually have to admit their need, else they wouldn‘t accept the gracious offer.

Jesus said the kingdom of God was like a farmer who sowed his seed broadcast—some on the roadway, some on hard soil, some in the midst of weeds, and some in good soil. The farmer wasn’t scientific about it; in truth, he seemed quite reckless and wasteful as if every kind of soil deserved a chance. The Methodists were like that. They didn’t seek out “good prospects” or “interested people.” As I have already indicated, they preached in the public square or open fields or mine entrances. Nobody was too poor, too ignorant, too indifferent, or too lost to be outside the range of their seeking and caring. They preached in a rigidly stratified social culture and insisted that everyone, regardless of their rank or learning or wealth, was in need of a Savior, and that this Savior welcomed everyone at the same wide-open door.

When we come to the story of Methodism in America, we will see that this radically inclusive approach was made to order for the American dream (indeed, in a sense, it probably helped to shape the dream) and that, as long as the Methodists reached out with such democratic abandon, they grew. More often than not, those who came to America were people who were looking for a chance that the more stratified social structure of Europe didn’t offer. Many of America’s first settlers were Puritans who saw themselves as elect, but the immigrants who later followed in droves had no such estimate of themselves. Thus the Methodist message of “whosoever will” fit their social, economic, and spiritual status exactly.

John and Charles Wesley and the group that grew around them saw something else in the common soil of the human soul. They believed that the hunger in every soul was such that they could make grand commitments to Christ and that it was theirs to do. At this point, the system showed its exclusive side. It was easy to get in, but it was hard to stay. The door was wide: “all who would flee from the wrath to come.” Then it became demanding because the goal was perfection. Methodism was in the business of making saints. If you stayed around, you discovered that you were becoming, of all things, holy. And this is exclusive territory. The air is thin up here!

Let me excerpt some lines from John Wesley’s counsel. For those who wanted God to work in their lives, Wesley urged that they “fly from all sin as from the face of a serpent; carefully avoid every evil word and work; yea, abstain from all appearance of evil. . . . Be zealous of good works, of works of piety as well as works of mercy; family prayer, and crying to God in secret. Fast in secret and ‘your Father which seeth in secret, he will reward you openly.’ ‘Search the Scriptures’; hear them in public, read them in private, and meditate therein. At every opportunity, be a partaker of the Lord’s Supper. . . . Let your conversation be with the children of God; and see that it ‘be in grace, seasoned with salt.’ As ye have time, do good unto all men; to their souls and to their bodies. . . Deny yourselves every pleasure which does not prepare you for taking pleasure in God, and willingly embrace every means of drawing near to God, though it be a cross, though it be grievous to flesh and blood. Thus when you have redemption in the blood of Christ, you will ‘go on to perfection.’ ”2

He had a method for this. The Methodists didn’t exhort in generalities; they provided a plan and a way. It had to do with social religion. John Wesley had little, if any, confidence in private piety; he believed that we need one another and that it is important that we come together to strengthen, confirm, and correct one another. Thus it was that he set up a system rather like what he and Charles and their fellow Oxford students had known in their student days, a system in which they watched over one another’s souls.

In November 1738, when John Wesley’s own Aldersgate experience was still very fresh, the experience began to take form as a movement, though I doubt that Wesley had such intentions at that point. Nearly thirty years later, Wesley recalled the story for his annual conference of Methodist preachers. He recalled that several persons came to him in London, asking him to “advise and pray with them.” Wesley answered, “If you will meet on Thursday night, I will help you as well as I can.” The group increased into hundreds; these were hungry souls, who took their new faith seriously. Wesley continued, “The case was afterward the same at Bristol, Kingswood, Newcastle, and many other parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland.”3

This was the beginning of what came to be known as Methodist societies. In a sense, they were similar to other such groups of Quakers and Moravians. The state church, the Church of England, was at the time more a formality than a living commitment, and it was groups such as these in numbers of dissenting bodies that met the needs of earnest believers, people who wanted a transforming reality in their lives.

The Methodist societies grew much more dramatically, however, than did the others, and the difference was in the discipline and structure that the Wesley brothers provided for their societies. John Wesley said that a Methodist society would consist of “a company of men [Wesley used the term generically; women were part of the program from the beginning] having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their own salvation.”4 I wonder what would happen in contemporary Methodism if each congregation, or indeed each adult or youth group, were to make such a statement their reason for existence: seeking the power of godliness, united to pray together, receive exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, with the goal of helping one another work out their salvation. Does the language seem quaint? Perhaps it is not so quaint as it is clear, basic, and demanding. Perhaps we wish it were quaint so we could avoid its demands.

Even as I write I think I can hear someone say, “If we dared to institute such a standard, we would soon lose two-thirds of our group, if not more.” Here it is that the inclusive invitation becomes exclusive. Wesley wasn’t fascinated by statistics. Mind you, he watched over every soul with singular concern, but he found no solace in sheer numbers. So he pared away at the rolls, seeking always for excellence in living and high levels of commitment.

The secret was in what we would now call “the small group” program; Wesley called it the “class meeting.” He divided the societies into groups of about twelve with a leader responsible for the group. The leader conducted the weekly meeting which was the occasion for inquiring into the state of soul of each person in the group. He was an exhorter in both word and spirit, encouraging the faltering, stimulating the marginal, and correcting the indifferent. The goal was holiness of life. Those first Methodists believed it was worth pursuing, and they realized it was not easy to attain.

The format for the weekly meetings was not glamorous nor was it for the faint of heart. There was an opening hymn; with Charles producing new poems almost daily, there was never a shortage of something to sing. Then a season of prayer and then Bible teaching from the leader. Whatever the content of the lesson, it was inclined to sound like an exhortation because, whatever was studied, the ultimate goal was a deeper, more consistent Christian walk. Then came the time of soul-searching.

In our day, many would probably see this activity as group therapy. It was much more than that, and it was by all odds a test in earnestness. The basic question: “How is it, brother/sister, with your soul?” The first answer might easily be general and predictable, but the leader rarely left matters at that level. He would probe away like a dental technician on the hunt for a cavity. The leader knew the group and they knew one another, so he would inquire at how the individual was doing with what the Bible would call his or her “besetting sin.” Vague answers weren’t sufficient.

Nevertheless, members were allowed to keep private what they felt should be private, and at its best, the group was caring and supportive. Obviously, it wasn’t a perfect system, and if I know human nature, leaders were probably ineffective at times and unduly aggressive at other times. I would presume that fellow members of a class sometimes divulged private matters outside the meeting, but the general tenor was wholesome and nurturing.

By rule, if a person was absent from three consecutive meetings, he or she lost the “ticket” that was necessary for admission to the quarterly meetings of the society. Clearly, there were no Easter/Christmas members in early Methodism. The movement was not a membership to be listed in one’s obituary; it was a way of life. It was an honor and an achievement, but the Methodists prized it primarily because, by way of the class meeting, they hoped to make their calling and election sure.

For a time, the Methodists also had a small group known as “bands.” These were usually made up of persons of one sex which made it easier for discussion of more intimate matters. The bands never gained the prominence or the practical effectiveness of the class meetings, and over time, they ceased to exist. The class meetings, on the other hand, were probably as important to the growth and quality of Methodism as its preaching and its singing, and in some ways, even more important.

Eventually, however, the class meetings fell by the wayside in the British Isles and later in America. Perhaps the reason was simply the principle by which all methods and systems have their day, then lose their appeal. Perhaps new generations found it hard to maintain what had meant so much to their forebears. Perhaps, too, the rise of the Sunday school movement and later of youth programming filled some of the purposes of the class meeting. I am convinced that some adult classes, led by sensitive and capable persons, got some of the nurturing quality of the class meetings, and so too with youth groups in instances of particularly effective leadership.

Several times within the last sixty years, Methodism in America has tried to revive the class meeting via the “small group” movement, but these efforts have rarely taken hold in any strong or continuing way. Perhaps this failure is because the modern and postmodern small group efforts have been seen as programs for denominational growth, whereas, in the early days of Methodism, the goal was spiritual nurture, a method for leading believers into a vital Christian life. It seems clear that we will not bring ourselves under the kind of discipline that the class meetings espoused unless the goal is attractive enough to merit the discipline. That is, one must believe that the Christian life is worth the trouble. The early Methodists had no doubt about this. I fear the present generation is not so deeply convinced.

When you and I read of the demanding quality of the class meetings and the strict discipline of the Methodist societies, we may see our spiritual ancestors as a terribly earnest lot, so set on heaven that earth was a burden. There’s no doubt that they were terribly in earnest; this was part of their DNA. But it was no burden. The early Methodists were among the happiest of souls. As John Wesley famously said, “Sour godliness is the devil’s religion.”5 When seekers and critics alike asked Wesley, “Who is a Methodist,” an early part of his answer ran like this: “God is the joy of his heart, the desire of his soul. . . . He is therefore happy in God, yea, always happy.” Having found redemption in Christ, “he cannot but rejoice, whenever he looks back on the horrible pit out of which he has been delivered . . . [and] whenever he looks on the state wherein he now is ‘being justified freely, and having peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ ”6

It proved to be so for those who gave themselves fully to this new faith. They were a people who saw a door as wide as the love of God, open to any who would choose to enter, but with a path so narrow in its demands that only the truly convinced would pay the full price. It was a way as inclusive as the love of God and as exclusive as the readiness of the human heart to follow on. This was Methodism as its founders dreamed and as they expected it to be. Like most great dreams, it is difficult for succeeding generations to perceive, to understand fully, and to live out effectively. 

Is such earnestness possible in our day? I’m confident that we humans are as God-hungry as ever. But our lives are complicated. When we read that every sixth house in London was a grog shop, we know that distraction was near at hand. At least in their day, they had to walk out of the house to give in to the distraction. In our day, the distraction is in several rooms of the house, with ever-larger screens. And worse, now it is in hand, like a super-extension of nature’s arm. We’ll have to care enough to flee from some of our distractions if we’re to get an eye and ear and heart intent upon God.

The human soul still wants more of the Spirit of God. Perhaps we need simply to say more clearly, “Here is the widest of doors; everyone is welcome”—and then to say, “Here is the most demanding—and exciting—of ways. Welcome to the challenge!”

Discussion Guide

Chapter 3: How to Be Exclusively Inclusive

  • What do the words inclusive and exclusive mean to you?
  • There is an inherent tension in being a disciple of Jesus—you are welcome as you are, but you are not welcome to stay that way. How do you experience this tension in your own journey of discipleship?
  • Methodism began as a “movement” and not a “church” because the Methodists met people where they were and didn’t wait for the masses to come to them. Do you see this happening in The United Methodist Church of today? If so, how? If not, how could we be doing this in our own contexts?
  • John Wesley cared more for the condition of the souls under his care than he did the raw numbers. Do you think the church of today has maintained this focus? Why or why not?
  • In reading the description of the early Methodist societies, what stands out to you? Do you see similarities and/or differences between the societies and your own Sunday school class or other small group? Give some examples.
  • John Wesley’s discipline was extremely rigid, which we might find off-putting or even offensive today. But the early Methodists found these high standards invigorating, not discouraging. Why do you think this is?
  • Is there a place for “class meetings” in our own day and time? Why or why not? How might they be similar to or different from the class meetings of Wesley’s day?
  • Do you agree with the author’s assertion that people are as “God hungry” today as they ever have been? If so, how do people express that hunger?

1 Philip S. Watson, The Message of the Wesleys (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964), 39.
2 Excerpts from a sermon by John Wesley, "On Working Out Our Own Salvation," Sermon 90.
3 From The Essential Works of John Wesley, published, 1791, a section titled "Minutes of Several Converstaions."
4 D. Michael Henderson, John Wesley's Class Meeting (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 1997), p. 84. Henderson is quoting from John Wesley, Works, VIII, 269.
5, p. 3 of a collection of John Wesley quotations.
6 John Wesley, "The Character of a Methodist," printed in pamphlet form by Discipleship Resources, Nashville.

excerpt from: Being United Methodist: What It Means, Why It Matters by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright©2012 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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