|Church developers learn from early evangelists |
John Wesley preaches in the meeting house
of Mathew Bagshaw in Nottingham, England,
in 1747. Art is courtesy of the United
Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
By Elliott Wright*
August 4, 2009 | EVANSTON, Ill. (UMNS)
Can Methodists learn anything about effective Christian evangelism from their denomination's founding period 250 years ago?
"Yes," says a Duke University professor, who told 600 church
developers how the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, gave rise to a
movement that swept the young United States of America.
"Early Methodism was evangelistic," the Rev. Laceye Warner explained to the 2009 United Methodist School of Congregational Development
on July 30. "When the Wesleys talked about spreading 'Scriptural
holiness,' they meant evangelism." She defined evangelism as preaching
the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ and "living it out."
One of the recurring themes at successive annual Schools of
Congregational Development, which are sponsored by the United Methodist
Boards of Discipleship and Global Ministries, is the decline in
Methodist membership in the United States (and also in Britain, where
it originated). Mission-founded expressions of the denomination in
Africa, parts of Asia, and regions of Eastern Europe are growing.
Numbers alone are not all that matters, said Warner, who holds a chair of evangelism at Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C.
Among the qualities of early Methodism that could help the
contemporary church reclaim its earlier strengths is the idea that
growth in grace is as important as growth in numbers, and preoccupation
with membership figures can become an obstacle to gospel proclamation,
The Rev. Laceye Warner of Duke Divinity School says evangelists today can learn from the founders of Methodism.
Photo by Cassandra M. Zampini.
Other relevant qualities are the beliefs theological reflection is
essential, sustained Christian practices maintain the community of
faith and wealth and material goods are meant to be shared.
The building blocks for the early Methodist movement included
"classes" and "bands" that developed after people responded to
Methodist preaching, often set in fields and other public spaces rather
than in church buildings.
Classes were groups of 10 to 12 people organized by geographic
location--neighborhoods--while bands were six to eight people who
voluntarily came together for spiritual nurture. There were two kinds
of bands: "select" and "penitential" or "over-achievers" and
"backsliders." But, when the lists of band members are examined, those
who show up on the "select" list where once themselves among the
"penitential,” Warner said.
"The experience of sanctification was expected to take place in
small groups," she continued, "but it didn't happen for all at the same
pace. We have one record of it taking someone 48 years to experience
sanctification." Growth in grace, the speaker said, was as important to
the Wesleys as expanding membership rolls. The growth was steady but
People fed one another spiritually in the early Methodist movement;
they kept personal journals that were shared. Not everyone stayed with
the spiritual and social "discipline" that the Wesleys taught and
practiced. Scriptural and "social holiness" were partners in the
Wesleyan movement. Warner indicated that membership loss started at the
very beginning among those who did not share the vision.
Methodism has three "general rules" for putting faith into practice that date from the Wesleys, Warner said.
She said those rules are to do all the good one can, to avoid evil
and to attend the ordinances of God, which include prayer, worship
attendance, Bible reading, and fasting.
The Duke professor regretted that some contemporary evangelism seems
more concerned with self-help tools than looking at the whole of life
through the lens of the Gospel.
The early Methodist movement was composed in large part of women,
the young, and the poor. Care for the poor was a major component in
Wesley's ministry, and he criticized various industries and their
owners by name for exploiting the poor and worked tirelessly to provide
economic opportunities that would bring the poor to self-sufficiency.
Yet, Warner said, he did not believe that Methodists, or Christians,
should accumulate more than was needed to care for oneself and the
family. All unnecessary spending, he held, was not only stealing from
the poor but also stealing from God, to whom everything belongs.
*Wright is the information officer of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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