This is part 2 of a 3 part series. Click here to read part 1.
Put on a fresh pot of coffee because today we have a history lesson!
Last week, we introduced a topic dear to the heart of the Replicate staff and, indeed, Jesus Himself: the formation of a concrete, prescriptive method of discipleship. What do you know of John Wesley? That he was a founder of the Methodist movement? That he was one of the most prolific preachers in history? That’s a good start. But what Wesley spent years developing and searching for may surprise you.
A Man with a Mission
John Wesley certainly had a zeal for the lost and desired nothing more than to preach the gospel to as many could hear it. Preaching more than 44,000 times in his life, Wesley averaged an incredible three sermons a day for fifty-four years. In doing this, he traveled more than 200,000 miles by horseback and carriage, which amounts to about 5,000 miles a year (in a time when there were no airlines or greyhound busses!). He was devoted to the Lord his entire life, even repeating the words of Isaac Watts’ hymn, “I’ll praise my maker, while I’ve breath,” before he died. However, it does a great disservice to the man to focus only on his accomplishments as a preacher: his life is a testament to grace, faithfulness, and intimate connection with other believers.
Prolific doesn’t really even begin to describe Wesley’s preaching legacy.
John Wesley was the fifteenth child in a family of nineteen children (Let’s hope they had more than one bathroom in their home) and his family was far from ordinary in England. Both parents, Samuel and Susannah, were held in high esteem, which afforded him the opportunity to attend both the Charter House School and Oxford University, regarded as two of the finest institutions of his day.
When he was ten years old, Wesley entered the prestigious Charter House School in London. Even at a young age, he felt deeply convicted about his inward Spiritual life and even recalls these years at Charter House as his “rebellious phase.” So, wanting to deepen his walk with Christ, he left London at the age of 16 to attend Oxford University.
The Holy Club
It was at Oxford that Wesley immersed himself in the readings of spiritual writings and that he felt his life changed dramatically. Read his own words on this new perspective on ministry:
In the year of 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age, I met with Bishop Taylor’s, Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying. In reading several parts of this book, I was exceedingly affected by that part in particular, which related to ‘purity and intention.’ Instantly, I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts, and all my words, being thoroughly convinced there was no medium but that every part of my life must either be a sacrifice to God or to me.
This period of life change inspired him to start the “Holy Club” at Oxford with his brother Charles and good friend George Whitefield. The club was quite fond of Thomas a Kempis, Jeremy Taylor, and William Law’s writings. In addition to reading the classics, members of the Holy Club engaged in long periods of prayers, seasons of fasting, daily time for Bible reading, confession of sins, and routine observance of the sacraments.
Club members were expected to follow certain religious precepts and practices, such as visiting prisons, evangelizing the lost, comforting the sick, and serving others in order to avoid being called “Pharisees” and to keep the inward and outward experiences of their spirituality consistent. In essence, to this Holy Club, faith without works was lifeless.
The disciplined nature of the club caused outsiders to begin referring to the group as “Methodists” because of their methodical approach to the Christian life. The somewhat sarcastic “Methodist” label stuck and eventually became embraced by Wesley and other members, for they felt the club defined the common principles of Christianity and, in turn, exemplified what the Christian life should look like.
From Georgia State to Aldersgate
In July of 1735, Dr. John Burton, Trustee of the Georgia Colony in the United States and patron of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, noticed the activity of the Holy Club and invited them to Georgia to assist local missionaries in reaching the Indians. Wesley accepted the offer in September. His ministry was officially mobile!
“Wesley’s motive for going to Georgia,” says Wesleyan biographer Stephen Tompkins, “was simple: to save his soul. In the back-to-basics society of the settlement, away from the demands of modern life and the distraction of womankind, he would have a chance to pursue the goal that eluded him in Oxford—the unhampered practice of holiness and the holy molding of others.” The same distress Wesley felt at Charter House was present still, despite all of the things he and his group were doing.
While in Georgia, the team fasted often and spent long seasons in concentrated prayer. Unexpectedly, however, Wesley fell in love with a woman named Sophie Hopkey. This relationship, which was something Wesley intended to avoid, failed and greatly affected his focus. Finally, after three long years in Georgia, he sailed back to England.
On the voyage back to England, Wesley was downcast because of his seemingly unsuccessful attempt at ministry. His ambition to convert Indians had resulted merely in conversations with them, which caused him to question his own purpose and calling in life. After returning to England in February, he was approached again to return to the States, but declined.
Wesley’s struggle with his calling grew into a struggle for assurance of his salvation. Peter Bohler, someone he met on the trip to Georgia, identified faults in Wesley’s faith, insisting that a works-based salvation was insufficient for attaining eternal life. These conversations opened the door for Wesley’s true salvation experience on May 24, 1738.
Wesley listened to the reading of Luther’s preface to the Epistle of Romans at St. Paul’s Cathedral located on Aldersgate Street. All it took was hearing the words “the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ” for Wesley to experience Holy conviction and put his complete trust in Christ as Savior. Wesley himself believes he was assured of his salvation at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Aldersgate Street, although he was converted years before.
“Judged by the products of Wesley’s life,” comments Basil Miller, “Aldersgate stands by far as the brightest spot in his life or in the life of anyone of his century. Before Aldersgate, he was a bungler; after Aldersgate, he was a lion in God’s kingdom who knew no defeat.” Until that moment in St. Paul’s Cathedral, his preaching was uninspired and unsuccessful. All points afterwards, however, were reflections of Wesley’s fire lit by his profession of faith in Christ.
Wesley’s newfound Fire eventually led him to become a founder of a prescriptive approach to disciple-making, which was partially adopted from a somewhat unlikely source.
A quite spectacularly named man, Count Zinzendorf, had created a community of disciples in Moravia, just to the East of former Czechoslovakia, on the principle that Christian organization had to be in the form of small renewal groups within the larger body as a whole. This ministry sent disciples around the world with an alarmingly high success rate.
Wesley caught wind of the successful missionary mobilization and it resonated in his spirit because of his own failed missionary expedition years before. He traveled to meet the Count shortly after coming to faith in Christ with the sole purpose of evaluating the community operation, which at the time had been functioning for almost eleven years.
The trip opened Wesley’s eyes to what Biblical community looked like. Wesley documented the different groups represented in the Moravians: “The people [were] divided…
- Into five male classes and five female classes
- Into eleven classes, according to the houses where they live. And in each class is a helper, and overseer, a monitor, an almoner, and a servant.
- Into about ninety bands, each of which meets twice a week at least, but most of them three times a week, to “confess their faults one to another, and pray for one another, that they may be healed.”
It was the Moravians who inspired Wesley to be involved in a group dynamic that moved people closer to Christ, which in turn helped Wesley develop his own three-step disciple-making process. Wesley’s process still stands, largely intact, today.
Without Wesley’s personal, ministerial, and professional failures, without the movement already set in motion by the Spirit, and without the constant mindset of bettering himself and his ministry, just how much less effective Wesley’s ministry would have been we really cannot even begin to know.
What does Wesley’s model look like today? Now, that’d be too easy. Next week, we look at just how this years-developed and time-tested model exists today, and we will see just how powerful it can be.
Click here to read part 3.