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United Methodist Church Developers Urged to Learn from their History

by Elliott Wright

The Rev. Dr. Laceye Warner is a Duke University professor.
Wake up to Wesley: The Rev. Dr. Laceye Warner opened the second day of the 2009 School of Congregational Development with a lively call to return to Methodism's evangelistic beginnings.
Image by: Cassandra M. Zampini
Source: GBGM Administration
This bronze statue of John Wesley by Marshall Daugherty stands in Reynolds Square, Savannah, Georgia.
This bronze statue of John Wesley by Marshall Daugherty stands in Reynolds Square, Savannah, Georgia. Dedicated in 1969 on the probable location of Wesley's home, it depicts the founder of Methodism wearing his Church of England vestments during his time of ministry in Georgia (1735-1738). John Wesley wrote, "The first rise of Methodism was in 1729 when four of us met together at Oxford. The second was at Savannah in 1736 when twenty or thirty persons met at my house...."
Image by: Nancy A. Carter
Source: GBGM Administration

Evanston, Illinois, July 30, 2009--Can Methodists learn anything about genuine, effective Christian evangelism today from their denomination's founding period 250 years ago?

"Yes," says a Duke University professor, who held an audience of 600 church developers spellbound at 8:30 a.m. on July 30 with a lively look at how the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, gave rise to a movement that profoundly affected England, then swept the young United States of America.

"Early Methodism was evangelistic," the Rev. Dr. Laceye Warner explained to the 2009 United Methodist School of Congregational Development. "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 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

Dr. Warner, a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference, is an historian who holds a chair of evangelism at the Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. She set forth four qualities of early Methodism that could help the contemporary church reclaim its earlier strengths. Neglect of the four, she said, raises obstacles to evangelism. The four are:

  • Growth in grace is as important as growth in numbers, and preoccupation with membership figures can become an obstacle to gospel proclamation.
  • Theological reflection is essential.
  • Sustained Christian practices maintain the community of faith.
  • Wealth and material goods are meant to be shared.

She developed each of these and described how they become stumbling blocks to evangelism when neglected. She used Wesleyan language familiar to virtually every self-conscious Methodist but unfolded the Wesleyan story with a freshness that led to gasps of "Aha!" and "I see…" in the ballroom of Evanston's Orrington Hotel.

The Warner presentation anticipated a question that Bishop Scott Jones of the Kansas Area would ask later in the day in a workshop for church leaders: "Can you take a declining church in a denominational setting and turn it around?"

Achievers and Backsliders

In discussing her third point, sustained Christian practices, Dr. Warner described the "classes" and "bands" that served as building blocks for the early Methodist movement after persons 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 6 to 8 persons who voluntarily came together for spiritual nurture. There were two kinds of bands: "select" and "penitential" or "over-achievers" and "backsliders." But, said the speaker, when the lists of band members are examined, those who show up on the "select" list where once themselves among the "penitential."

"The experience of sanctification [perfect life and righteousness] was expected to take place in small groups," she continued, "but it didn't all happen for all at 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. Dr. 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" that date from the Wesleys, not rules for achieving salvation but, rather, for putting faith into practices. These, in shorthand form, are:

  • Do all the good you can.
  • Avoid evil.
  • Attend the ordinances of God, which include prayer, worship attendance, Bible reading, and fasting.

Members of the young Methodist societies were expected to engage in works of "piety" and "mercy" as means of experiencing grace.

The beliefs and doctrines of early Methodism, Dr. Warner said, were conveyed primarily through the hymns of Charles Wesley, but that serious theological reflection was encouraged and taught. "The Wesleys were very well educated but they could convey the gospel in ways people could understand," she stated. "A Methodist has the love of God shed abroad in one's heart."

The Duke professor regretted that some contemporary evangelism seems more concerned with self-help tools than looking at the whole of life through the lenses of the gospel.

Sharing of Wealth

On the issue of wealth and material goods, John Wesley had a three-part approach:

  • Earn all you can.
  • Save all you can.
  • Give all you can.

As he indicated in one of his final sermons, Wesley noted that if people worked hard and were careful with their earnings, they would get rich. In that respect, Dr. Warner said, he shared certain similarities with Adam Smith, who is considered the father of modern capitalism.

But, she said, whereas Smith saw the accumulation of wealth as a means of getting richer, Wesley understood it as a means to help the less fortunate and he worried about the impact of wealth on the Christian heart and soul. Wesley and Smith may have started with similar thoughts, but they ended up in different places.

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. John Wesley 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 he did not believe that Methodists, or Christians, should never 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.

Today, an emphasis on the selfless use of money may seem like a detriment to church growth, but the focus shifts when the objective is clear. To the Wesleys, to Methodism at its best, as Dr. Warner unfolded the story, the goal is to introduce as many people as possible to God's grace and love in Jesus Christ, and to prepare Christians to live daily in ways that reflect God's grace.

The School of Congregational Development is sponsored by the United Methodist General Boards of Discipleship and Global Ministries. Go to School of Congregational Development for more news and features.

Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.

Contact: Elliott Wright, Telephone: 212-870-3921, General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115



Date posted: Jul 31, 2009