I am encouraged by the opportunity before us to steward and share our faith in Christ as Methodists in these days. John and Charles Wesley were used greatly by God to share the social and evangelical gospel with a culture similar to ours today, ripe with similar challenges in 1700’s England. The Anglican Church had become cold, irrelevant, and ineffective. It was an institutional body that had lost its fire and its connect with the common man. It was populated with an academic community that had migrated from a Christological focus to a form of pluralism that naturally diffused the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. The emphasis had gravitated to serving and perpetuating the institution. Wesley however, started with a handful and lived with a vision that by growing that group towards just 100 he could change the world. People were fed, clothed, trained, nurtured, and discipled by a movement of God that was alive and well with little institutional or political assistance.
The early Methodists were difference-makers for God. Wesley later wrote:
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” John Wesley (‘Thoughts Upon Methodism,’ 1786.)
Why did Methodism as a movement work both in England and America? John Wesley had a way of communicating the Gospel that drew people close to God and into the movement because people experienced and witnessed the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Wesley’s system of inviting people to discover both personal sanctification along with community compassion and global mission was the recipe for sharing Christ that now numbers 40 million people from all over the world who embrace the Wesleyan tradition. The Methodist movement was in its genesis a great spiritual move of God among the people, but not an institutional church movement.
His relationship with the Anglican Church was such that Wesley found himself without a local parish, but yet, he was not deterred as he proclaimed, ‘the world is my parish.” People encountered God and each other in primitive third space environments such as the street corner, the pub, the foundry, the open field, and businesses. Classes and bands for the purpose of growing in relationship with God and discipling people towards spiritual maturity met in homes, schools, and wherever there was an opportunity to gather.
The church structures, buildings, and programs came in due time and they came by the thousands, but only as a result of the exploding move of God. And yet this fact remains, the root strength of the movement was a nimble and mobile move of God through itinerant disciplers of Jesus who didn’t require an institution or a building to live as disciples of Jesus Christ making disciples. So we remember his words: doctrine matters, discipline matters, and the spirit matters greatly as we live out our faith in Christ. Lord, may it be so for us in these days ahead!