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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.

Reclaiming strengths

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, Warner said.

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 gradual.

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.

General Rules

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.

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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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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