Wesley’s Passion and the Renewal of Methodism

August 15th, 2017

The UMC faces an uncertain future. Membership is declining in the USA and Western Europe. It is growing in Africa and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe. The declines in the financially wealthier annual conferences place not only the church's diverse institutions under threat but also the support for the growing conferences outside the USA. The debate and divisions over LGBTQ inclusion further exacerbate the situation. It seems that no possible way forward will exclude further membership losses. Institutional and structural change will not in themselves provide solutions. What is required is the renewal of the church. A renewed vision is one that draws from the deep wells of our heritage, that includes the best of contemporary Methodism, and that creatively looks to the future. An important aspect of such a renewal is a renewed vision of who we are, a vision which inspires hope and motivates transformation. Such a vision can be rooted in John Wesley’s passion.  

However we interpret Wesley, it is clear that he was driven by a passion: a passion that motiovated him to travel thousands of miles on horseback or in a carriage in all sorts of weather; that led him to live a life of deep personal and financial self-sacrifice; that empowered him to continue to preach in the face of violent mobs; that provoked him to pour his life into the lives of communities of Methodists scattered throughout Britain; that inspired him to write a vast array of sermons, letters, books and pamphlets. We could go on. What would happen to Methodist Churches in general and the UMC in particular if the Spirit of God infused us with a similar passion?  

John Wesley’s Passion

What then was Wesley’s passion? In a word it was holiness. But holiness is, well, so eighteenth century (or maybe nineteenth). Can it drive a contemporary renewal of Methodism? While we might want to use other language, I am convinced that a recovery of Wesley’s passion is precisely what we need in contemporary Methodism.

So what was Wesley on about when he spoke of holiness? Firstly, we must distinguish it from some common substitutes. Holiness is not moralism — the following of a system of rules and regulations that condemns and ostracizes those who do not keep them. It is not social activism — the pursuit of justice in the social and political realms. It is not simplistic charity — seeking from an advantaged position to do good to the less fortunate. It is not “spirituality” devoid of theological or ethical content. At its core, holiness is a transformative relationship with God in Christ by the Spirit that liberates us from sin, and which empowers and motivates us to love God and our neighbors. A Wesleyan understanding of holiness has the following characteristics:

  • It is a life transformed and shaped by cruciform love — it is a self-sacrificial love that gives ultimate loyalty to God and seeks the integral and holistic well-being of others.
  • It is a holiness of heart and life — it includes both the transformation of our inner attitudes, motivations, and values and the transformation of our outward behavior. 
  • It is dynamic and reciprocal — a genuine inner transformation leads inevitably to outward behavioral change. At the same time, the expression of the change in concrete actions facilitates the growth and deepening of the inner change.   
  • It arises out of responsible grace — God initiates the transformative relationship but we must respond to God’s work. This leads to a spiral in growth as God in turn responds to our response.
  • It is integral and holistic — it includes and integrates personal, communal and social dimensions.

Wesley was convinced that the transformation brought about by the Spirit brought true fulfillment, for by participating in such transformation one was sharing in the goal for which God had created human beings. Thus holiness leads to happiness.  

The challenge for us today as persons, as congregations and as a denomination is to embody this in our contemporary world.

Wesley’s Passion is Missional

Wesley’s passion was missional from three perspectives. The first is that Wesley was convinced that God was active in the world to overcome sin and evil through the transformation of people who would in turn transform their communities and societies so that these would become embodiments of God’s love. Our calling is to participate in what God is doing, seeking to discern where God is at work and to direct our ministry in accordance with God’s initiating and preceding grace. Second, evangelism, as the proclamation of the good news of God’s transforming grace and calling others to participate in what God was doing, was central to Wesley’s mission. Third, because the core of Wesley’s mission was a commitment to the well-being of others, it must be expressed in seeking to address people’s spiritual, psychological and physical needs. Wesleyan mission is integral and holistic because it is an expression of the comprehensive love of God. Historically and in the contemporary, Methodism has had a transformative impact when it has placed mission at the center of its life, its conferences, its structures, its budgets and its programs.

Wesley’s Passion is Counter-Cultural

Wesley’s passion was a profound rejection of cultural and nominal Christianity and a call to radical commitment to an alternative life style in the service of God who made the ultimate sacrifice for the good of humanity. In Early Methodism membership was open to all who sought a transforming relationship with God but members were expected to give evidence of this desire by following the General Rules which set out the contours of a counter cultural lifestyle in the context of eighteenth century Britain. Our contexts are different but the call to a counter cultural lifestyle remains. A renewed Methodism will have to discern carefully what such a lifestyle involves in the diverse contexts of the Twenty First Century.   

Wesley’s Passion is Sacramental

Early Methodism was a movement for sacramental renewal with Wesley strongly arguing for regular participation in Holy Communion. It was his commitment to the importance of this that led him to defy the rules of the Church of England and ordain pastors for Methodists in America. Holy Communion is of crucial significance for Wesley’s passion for participation nourishes the growth in holiness. In Communion the sacrifice of Christ is dramatically commemorated, convincing faithful participants of God’s love for them. The power of the Spirit Christ is personally present to the faithful to empower them to overcome sin, enabling them to love God and their fellows. Communion is a place for renewing our loyalty to God in Christ and to be transformed by the Spirit.  

Wesley’s Passion is Marginal

Wesley’s passion directed his life towards those who were suffering and in need rather than to those who were wealthy and self-sufficient. This is dramatically demonstrated when he accepted George Whitefield’s invitation to preach to the impoverished workers at a Bristol brickyard. Becoming, in his own words, “more vile”. Most early Methodists were from the poorer classes of society. Towards the end of his life Wesley became deeply disturbed at the way that Methodists had become upwardly mobile and had lost their passion for the poor. He saw this as precipitating the decline of Methodism. Contemporary Methodism in its various forms is to be found across the social spectrum. In many contexts social respectability and Methodism are very comfortable together and the desire for social power and influence often impacts our relationship to the broader society. To be inspired by Wesley’s passion is to redirect our ecclesial life and mission toward and in solidarity with those who are excluded from political, economic and social influence.

Wesley’s Passion is Transnational

Wesley envisaged Methodism as a transnational network in which “Methodists all over the world are one people.” This statement, written in 1791 to an American Methodist, is a remarkable given that the “the people of the United States” had recently constituted themselves as a separate nation. Wesley’s passion is inherently transnational because the ultimate loyalty to God relativises the authority of and loyalty required by national governments. Love for one’s fellow human beings in general, and to one’s siblings in Christ in particular, relativises all forms of national identity and interest. Our relational bonds with our fellow Christians ought to be stronger than our bonds with our fellow national citizens. It is as one people from diverse nations, cultures and societies that we pursue Wesley’s passion rejecting ethnocentrism, racism, and triumphalistic nationalism.

Wesley’s Passion is Communal and Connectional 

Wesley was convinced that for the best environment for people to grow in holiness was in the context of participating in small groups. These groups provided a means for the members to be mutually accountable to each other, to be supportive of each other, and work out together what the love of God and neighbor required in their context. These groups in turn were linked in further network of support and supervision designed to encourage spiritual growth and missional outreach. A renewed Methodism should recover the wisdom of mutual responsibility in small groups and transform connectionalism from being simply a matter of polity into a dynamic tool for mission.  

Wesley’s Passion is Catholic

The particular form that the Wesley’s passion takes in the context of theological diversity and disagreement is a “catholic spirit”. This is the recognition of the transforming love of God in the lives of fellow Christians, even when they hold different theological opinions, and the rejection of bigotry that refuses to recognize the work of God in groups other than one’s own. It is not indifference to issues of theology and ethics but the recognition that faithful Christians will come to different conclusions as to what it means to love God and fellow human beings. It is the recognition of one’s own fallibility and the affirmation that the strongly held beliefs of others may be an important corrective to one’s own convictions. A Methodism that is characterized by a catholic spirit will hold strongly to its core beliefs and provide space for considerable diversity on many theological issues. The challenge will be in determining what is core and where there is space for diversity.

A recovery of Wesley’s passion is not a strategy, a program or a plan of action. It is a cry to God that we might be renewed and transformed by the Spirit so that we love God and our fellow human beings.

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