Centrality of Worship: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The ninth reason I am a Methodist is because of the great emphasis on worship. Methodists sing their theology! Wesley knew that it is not enough merely to believe and to confess the great truths of the faith. We must enter into the very presence of the Triune God in worship. Music was one of the main ways early Methodists passed on the faith.

Wesley lived at a time when the standard practice of the church in worship was to sing the Psalms, often with a brief Christian doxology at the end. However, just prior to the emergence of Wesley lived a man named Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watts is sometimes known as the father of English hymnody because of his pioneer work in introducing new compositions of worship into the church which were not directly built around a Psalm or a specific scriptural paraphrase. This sparked a revival in worship which captured the life of Charles Wesley. Charles was a gifted poet and wrote thousands of new hymns to capture the great truths of the Christian faith and reinforce the grand meta-narrative of God’s redemptive story. Hymns such as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Christmas), And Can it Be? (Redemption), O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (Pentecost), Christ the Lord is Risen Today (Easter), and Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (New Creation) are recognized all over the world as powerful hymns which capture the great themes of the Christian faith. Methodism is known for excellent singing and worship. Even today, every Methodist hymnal still reprints Wesley’s original instructions for congregational singing which includes such classic lines as, “Beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”  Methodists have taken this to heart as well as almost any Christian group in the world.

Global Vision: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The eighth reason I am a Methodist is because of Wesley’s early appreciation for the possibility of what we know today as “global Christianity.” Few have given proper recognition that Wesley is one of the leading forerunners of conceptualizing the church in its full global, rather than sectarian, dimensions. In the post-Aldersgate period, Wesley’s preaching became so controversial that he was barred from preaching in the pulpits of the Church of England. Since he continued to preach in the open fields, he was charged with “trespassing” on the parishes of other ministers. He replied to this charge in a letter written in March of 1739 with what has become the most famous quote of Wesley, “the world is my parish.” In the letter he says, “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right and my bounden duty to declare, unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.”1

It is difficult for modern-day Christians to fully comprehend the radical nature of this statement. However, the territorial conceptions, as noted earlier, were so strong that it was considered heresy to preach the gospel to those outside your parish. These territorial conceptions were one of the biggest barriers to the emergence of the Protestant missionary movement. In contrast, Wesley was ahead of his time in first conceptualizing the church in its full global dimensions and only secondarily in its particularity as, for example, Methodist Christians. Wesley asked why he should not preach the gospel in “Europe, Asia, Africa or America” for, with the Apostle Paul, he declared, “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (I Cor. 9:16-19). Wesley declared that he was prepared “to go to Abyssinia or China, or whithersoever it shall please God by this conviction to call me.”2  In today’s “post-parish” world we sometimes have a difficult time recognizing what a radical ecclesiology is embedded in this vision. Wesley seemed to understand that the church of Jesus Christ is indestructible, since Christ is the Lord of the Church and has promised to build his church. However, the indestructibility of the church is not tied to any particular institutional or geographic manifestation of it. With the dramatic rise of Christians from the Majority World, many of whom do not trace their history to the Reformation, there is a need to discover a deeper ecumenism which can unite all true Christians. Wesley anticipated the future multi-cultural diversity of the church and the common experience of rebirth from above, which unites all Christians of every age.

1  Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 25, Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 616.

2 Ibid., 615.

Missional Movement – Social Consciousness: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The sixth reason I am a Methodist lies in the fact that Methodism has managed to retain its DNA as a missional movement. Historically, Methodism was born as a renewal movement within the Anglican Church. Wesley carried this missional renewal emphasis right out into the streets of his day. He brought the Gospel to broken, hurting people who had been marginalized and forgotten by the church of his time. Wesley famously declared that “the world is my parish.”1

Throughout the history of the church there has been a healthy tension between the active and contemplative traditions. The earliest monastic traditions idealized desert hermits such as St. Antony (251-356) who is often cited as the founder of monasticism. They were the forerunners of the great contemplative stream. Our minds run quickly to the great masters of this tradition such as Bernard of Clairvaux, the Rhineland mystics (e.g., St. Hildegarde or Meister Eckhart), Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila or Thomas Merton. This broad contemplative tradition has given the church many gifts, such as the Rule of St. Benedict and the lectio divina. This remains a long and wonderful tradition.

However, there were others who understood spiritual formation to occur in the world. This is the great active tradition. The mendicant orders such as Dominicans and Franciscans also renounced the world and entered into the consecrated life. However, they lived out their formation actively in the world, preaching the gospel and serving the poor. St. Dominic founded the Dominicans as a preaching order. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans as an order to serve the poor. Wesley loved both the contemplative and active traditions, but he was drawn more powerfully to the latter. Wesley formed his disciples in the context of actively serving in the world. Wesley understood, for example, that if you really want to be formed spiritually you should be eager to go out into a place of pain, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty serving the poor. While Wesley remained deeply committed to prayer and contemplation, his vision of the church existed as profoundly missional. Wesley took his new preachers out to the brick yards and into the prisons. For Wesley, not only is the world his parish, the world is God’s greatest spiritual workshop. It is on the anvil of a suffering world that God shapes and forms his disciples to understand what it means to take up their cross and follow him. Thus, the Wesleyan tradition is an active tradition, i.e., we believe that spiritual formation occurs in the context of active service in the world.

1Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 25, Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 616. I quote this from the 1980 edition because I agree that this famous letter was more likely written to John Clayton on March 28, 1739, rather than to James Hervey on March 20, 1739.

Discipleship, Catechesis in Community: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The fifth reason I am a Methodist is because of the strong emphasis on discipleship in our tradition. Eighteenth-century Oxford where Wesley studied was a place filled with spiritual apathy, deism, practical atheism, and low-Christology Arianism. In short, it was a world quite a bit like North America and Europe today. John and his brother Charles decided to gather a few students together to “observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the university.” The statutes (long ignored) required that students engage in the “frequent and careful reading of the Scripture.” The Wesley brothers decided to promote this by forming a small group for studying the Greek New Testament. It became known as the Holy Club. They were so methodical in their practice that the people in the Holy Club were given the nickname Methodist. So the very origin of the word Methodist lies rooted in a small-group-formation approach to catechesis.

Catechesis is, of course, a very important feature of the Reformed tradition. In my own experience, the Reformed emphasis on catechesis has been very effective in teaching the great doctrines of the faith. What is distinctive about the Methodist emphasis is how it seeks to go beyond simply giving correct answers to doctrinal questions. For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life (the word catechesis comes from a root word meaning “to echo”). This is a natural extension of the Methodist theme to focus not only on becoming a Christian, but what it means to be a Christian. Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model of discipleship. Normally, new believers were put through an initial instruction period prior to their baptism. This was an introduction to the Christian faith and culminated on Easter Sunday when the new believers were baptized. However, after baptism, the new Christian was put through a second phase, known as mystagogy, which brought the believer into the mystery of what it meant to be a member of the church. This was a period of instruction after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost. Wesley took this idea and united it with the community model of the early Celtic Christians. This developed an entire system of putting new believers in small groups or classes and various discipleship bands. The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care. These small groups would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins. Members in sin would be disciplined. The new Christians would also be instructed in some aspect of the Apostolic faith. They would worship together by singing a song. The meeting would be over in about an hour and everyone would participate. To this day this is still an excellent model.

Sanctification, A Reorientation of the Heart: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Fourth, I am a Methodist because of Wesley’s strong emphasis on the importance of holiness in the life of the believer and the necessity of Christian sanctification. On New Year’s Eve 1738 Wesley went to another society meeting. It was an all-night prayer vigil to bring in the new year 1739. In the early hours of January 1, 1739 something dramatic happened to Wesley. He received a sanctifying experience where God re-oriented his heart and life. Listen to Wesley’s own words:

On Monday morning, January 1, 1739, Mr. Hall and my brother Charles
were present in Fetters Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. At about
three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power
of God came mightily upon us insomuch that many cried out for exceeding
joy and many fell down to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little
from that awe and amazement at the presence of His majesty, we broke out
with one voice, ‘We praise Thee, O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.’
”1

This experience helped Wesley understand God’s ongoing work in the life of the believer. We have already seen the role of prevenient grace prior to our conversion. Then, we examined the role of justifying grace at the point of conversion. Now, we will look at Wesley’s understanding of how God continues to work in the life of the believer through sanctifying grace. Methodists have a view of God’s grace working before, at, and after conversion. This helps build on the Reformation which focused on becoming a Christian to the broader biblical emphasis on what it means to be a Christian.

The doctrine of entire sanctification is one of the most misunderstood of all Methodist doctrines. When most of us hear the word sanctification we think of it as a forensic term – i.e. sanctified means that you are divinely certified before God’s court of justice as someone without any sin in your life and, once sanctified, you will never sin again. That is not what Wesley taught or meant by sanctification. For Wesley, sanctification is not primarily a forensic term. You could be justified alone on a deserted island, but sanctification, in contrast, is inherently relational since it involves the whole of our daily interactions.

For Wesley, sanctification is what happens when we are brought fully into relationship with the Triune God. For Wesley, sin and God’s righteous judgment can never be reduced to only breaking God’s Law, i.e. forensic guilt. Our sins are, of course, never less than that. But they are also deeply relational. When we sin we not only break God’s law (I John 3:4), but we also breach a relationship. When we sin we, at that moment, elect the absence of God in our lives. Sin separates us from God himself, not just from our right standing under God’s law.

Methodists build on the Reformers’ understanding of “alien righteousness” by declaring that we must not only be declared righteous, we must increasingly live righteous lives. Luther famously declared that Christians are “dung hills covered in snow.” Wesley would not disagree, but would assert that salvation is about more than justification. Righteousness for Wesley is more than God just looking at us through a different set of glasses, i.e., we are filthy rags, but God sees us through the blood of Christ and, thereby, sees the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us. Wesley argued that alien, imputed righteousness must increasingly become native, actualized righteousness; wrought in us not by our own strength but through the power of the living God. We are marked, oriented, and re-oriented by love.

We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but we are sanctified by faith as we enter into full relationship with the Triune God. Wesley taught that we are justified by faith and we are sanctified by faith. As a relational term, entire sanctification means that your whole life, your body, and your spirit have been re-oriented. Entire sanctification means that our entire heart has been re-oriented towards the joyful company of the Triune God. You are in a new colloquy. It was, for Wesley, not the end of some long, drudge out of the life of sin, but joining the joyful assembly of those who have truly found joy. For Wesley, holiness is the crown of true happiness.

To be sanctified is to receive a gift from God which changes our hearts and reorients our relationship with the Triune God and with others, giving us the capacity to love God and neighbor in new and profound ways. The language of “entire sanctification” in Methodism uses the word entire in reference to Greek, not Latin. In Greek entire or complete can still be improved upon. It is a new orientation which no longer looks back on the old life of sin, but is always looking forward to the New Creation. It is a life which has been engulfed by new realities, eschatological realities, not the realities of that which are passing away.

Wesley also understood that holiness is not merely a negative term. It is not just about sins which we avoid. Methodists believe that even if you were to eradicate every sin in your life, you would only be halfway there. Because, for Wesley, holiness is never just about sins we avoid, it is about fruit which we produce! In Wesley, faith and fruit meet and are joyfully wed. We no longer have a view of holiness which is legalistic, private, negative, or static. It is not merely legal, but relational; not merely private, but embedded in community; not negative, but a true vision of the inbreaking of God’s rule and reign! The witness of the Spirit, which confirms faith, becomes in Wesley the power of the Spirit to produce fruit and to transform the world – to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world!

1 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Journal Entry, January 1, 1739(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 170.

Conversion through faith in Jesus Christ: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Third, Methodists affirm (along with most evangelical movements) the importance of conversion. On May 24th each year Methodism around the world celebrates one of the most famous conversions since St. Paul on the road to Damascus. On May 24th Wesley “unwillingly” went down to a Christian society meeting and there encountered a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. During the reading of Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle, John Wesley experienced a profound conversion. Listen to Wesley’s words as recorded in his diary:

About a quarter before nine, while the reader was describing the change which 
God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. 
I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that 
He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” 1

Scholars and historians still debate what precisely happened to Wesley that night. What is clear is that, at some deep level, Wesley really heard the central truth of the Reformation: namely, that we are justified through the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. We cannot add to that work. It is no mistake that Wesley’s transformation came as he listened to someone reading Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans. Martin Luther had experienced a similar conversion in his so called “tower experience” in the Augustinian Black Cloister in Wittenburg. As Luther read Paul’s words in Romans 1:17 on the way the righteousness of God is revealed through faith, he recalled: “I felt myself born anew and to enter through open gates into paradise itself!”

This emphasis on conversion was re-discovered in the Reformation, and by Wesley’s day, was a vital feature of the pietistic movement. Finally, conversion experiences became fully embedded in Methodism because of Wesley’s own experience, and later, through the strong emphasis on revival preaching and conversion in the camp meetings and in the frontier church planting work of American Methodism.

1 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Journal Entry, May 24, 1738 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 103.

The Role of Worship: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 8

This blog completes an eight part series on the distinctive of Wesleyan catechesis.  These blogs on catechesis are actually part of a larger project I am exploring through my blogs as to how we rebuild the meta-narrative in the church today.  One of the earliest writers to recognize the collapse of modernity as we in the post-Enlightenment world understood it was the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 article entitled, The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge.[1] In the article, he coined the word “post-modern” (the term had actually been used by several others even in the 19th century, but not in the way it is used today) and stated what has now been observed by dozens of writers in the subsequent years and that is that the fundamental reality of our time as Western civilization is a growing crisis of truth.  In the modern world there was a belief in an overarching truth – whether informed by a Christian world-view or even a secular belief in progress and the perfectibility of humanity.  Lyotard argued that modern societies produced order and stability by generating what he called “grand narratives” or “master narratives.”  In America, for example, one “grand narrative” is that democracy is the most enlightened and rational form of government and that implementing of democracy will lead to universal happiness.   In contrast, the Marxist “grand narrative” posited that capitalism was collapsing in on itself and that, in time – and spurred by revolution – a utopian socialist world order would evolve.

In the post-modern context, we are only on a virtual voyage where one explores self-created worlds.  Post-modernism marks the movement away from claims to objectivity and a greater emphasis on fragmented forms and discontinuous narratives.  In short, the very notion of truth as Truth has begun to collapse.

Christians know that the only true “grand canopy” of meaning is found in the great redemptive work of God in the world.  However, tragically, today’s church can all too easily become co-opted by the self-referential, consumer driven, emotive oriented forces which are present in the wider society.  Nowhere has this become more evident than in contemporary worship.  There are, of course, some wonderful, truly wonderful, new choruses and hymns being written today.  There is also quite a bit of chaff in the midst of the wheat.  We must recognize afresh that the “worship wars” is not a struggle between hymns versus choruses, any more than in Wesley’s day it was over Psalms versus hymns.  The struggle must be focused on the fact that we worship the living God and all worship is a response to His revelation.

This is, of course, the crowning piece in Wesleyan catechesis: The centrality of Worship.  Wesleyans sing their theology!  Wesley knew that it is not enough merely to believe and to confess, we must enter into the very presence of the Triune God in worship.  Worship is one of the main ways Wesley forged the great meta-narrative of God’s redemption into the lives of new disciples.  Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns to capture the great truths of the Christian faith.  If we are to engage in serious catechesis today we must not neglect the renewal of worship.  Our worship must be Trinitarian, theologically rich, memorable and, most of all, faithful to the entire meta-narrative.


[1] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge (MN:  University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

The role of Doctrine in Wesley and Wesley’s global perspective: Wesleyan Catechesis, Part 7

We are exploring the role of doctrine in Wesleyan catechesis.  For Wesley, theology arises out of a response to God’s prior initiative, lest it become a dead letter of endless intellectual speculation un-tethered from a vibrant, warm heart.  The third and final aspect of this we will call, The World is My Parish

This third and final feature of Wesley’s theology as it relates to doctrine was his early appreciation for the possibility of what we know today as “global Christianity.”  However, few have given proper recognition that Wesley is one of the leading forerunners of conceptualizing the church in its full global, rather than sectarian, dimensions.  In the post-Aldersgate period, Wesley’s preaching became so controversial that he was barred from preaching in the pulpits of the Church of England.   Since he continued to preach in the open fields, he was charged with “trespassing” on the parishes of other ministers.  He replied to this charge in a letter written in March of 1739 with what has become the most famous quote of Wesley, “the world is my parish.”  In the letter he says, “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right and my bounden duty to declare, unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.”[1]

It is difficult for modern day Christians to fully comprehend the radical nature of this statement.  However, the territorial conceptions, as noted earlier, were so strong that it was considered heresy to preach the gospel to those outside your parish.  These territorial conceptions were one of the biggest barriers to the emergence of the Protestant missionary movement.  In contrast, Wesley was ahead of his time in first conceptualizing the church in its full global dimensions and only secondarily in its particularity as, for example, Methodist Christians.  Wesley asked why he should not preach the gospel in “Europe, Asia, Africa or America” for, with the Apostle Paul, he declared, “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel (I Cor. 9:16-19).  Wesley declared that he was prepared “to go to Abyssinia or China, or whitersoever it shall please God by this conviction to call me.”[2] Wesley seemed to understand that the church of Jesus Christ is indestructible, since Christ is the Lord of the Church and has promised to build his church.  However, the indestructibility of the church is not tied to any particular institutional manifestation of it.  With the dramatic rise of Christians from the Majority World, many of whom do not trace their history to the Reformation, there is a need to discover a deeper ecumenism which can unite all true Christians.  Wesley anticipated the future multi-cultural diversity of the church and the common experience of rebirth from above which unites all Christians of every age.

We have now completed the doctrinal aspects of Wesleyan catechesis.  In the final blog we will explore Wesley’s crowning feature of catechesis.  It is an element we are best known for. Stay tuned!


[1] Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 25, Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1980), 616.  I quote this from the 1980 edition because I agree that this famous letter was more likely written to John Clayton on March 28, 1739, rather than James Hervey on March 20, 1739.

[2] Ibid., 615.

The Role of Doctrine in Wesley’s “catholic spirit”: Wesleyan Catechesis Part 5

I have been exploring the multi-faceted strands of the genius of Wesleyan catechesis.  So far, we have explored the role of God’s prior action in prevenient grace (part 1), Wesley’s notion of “waiting in the means of grace” (part 2), the role of the community in spiritual formation (part 3) and the missional ethos of Wesleyan catechesis (part 4).  Today, in part five we explore the role of doctrine in Wesley.

John Wesley’s reluctance to produce any precise doctrinal formulation for the “people called Methodist,” along with his “catholic spirit” have led many to wrongly conclude that Wesley was indifferent about the core doctrines of historic Christianity.  It is not unusual to hear Wesley’s famous dictum taken from 2 Kings 10:15: “If thine heart is as my heart, give me thine hand” as a kind of theological “blank check” to endorse the most bizarre departures from historic Christianity as long as it is done with a “warm heart”.  However, Wesley was fully orthodox and fully ecumenical in a way which should inspire us today.  On the one hand, Wesley was able to embrace considerable diversity among Christians who held different convictions than his on various points.  On the other hand, Wesley frequently found himself embroiled in various controversies with Roman Catholics, Anglican bishops and Calvinist thinkers. He held strong theological convictions and firmly upheld all of the historic Christian confessions.  Wesley would have been dismayed at the erosion of orthodoxy in mainline churches due to the increasing embrace of secular ideologies and a post-modern epistemology.  Wesley was both ecumenical and orthodox; he held firm convictions and had an irenic spirit and warm heart towards those with whom he disagreed.  How was Wesley able to embrace both of these so ably?  The key is to understand how Wesley understood theological enquiry.

There are three key features which together form the broad outlines of Wesley’s understanding of doctrine in the catechesis of new pastors and believers.

Unity and Diversity

First, Wesley makes a firm distinction between the theological unity which is necessary to our identity as Christians while, at the same time, allowing for broad diversity in the non-essentials of the faith.  Historically, this has been expressed through the terms kerygma and adiaphora.  The word kerygma comes from the Greek word meaning “proclamation.”  It refers to the core essentials of the Christian faith as expressed, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  Wesley was firmly committed to the historic core of Christian proclamation.  The word adiaphora comes from the Greek word adiaforus, which as used by the Stoics, meant “things indifferent.”  Thus, the adiaphora refers to those differences held by Christians which “are not sufficiently central to warrant continuing division or dispute.”[1] In Wesley’s day there was a belief that Christian belief and practice should conform to the larger national identity.  In other words, if someone lived in England, they should follow the faith and practice of the Church of England (Anglican).  If someone was born in Scotland, they should follow the faith and practice of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian).  This meant that Christians in a particular geographic region were compelled to reach agreement not only on the broad essentials of the Christian faith, i.e. the kerygma, but also they had to agree with all the diverse particulars (adiaphora) of whatever national church was in place.  However, Wesley forcibly rejected this territorial understanding of Christian identity.  In Wesley’s sermon, Catholic Spirit, he says,

I know it is commonly supposed, that the place of our birth fixes the Church to which we ought to belong…I was once a zealous maintainer of this; but I find many reasons to abate of this zeal.  I fear it is attended with such difficulties as no reasonable man can get over:  Not the least of which is, that if this rule had took place, there could have been no Reformation from Popery; seeing it entirely destroys the right of private judgment, on which the whole Reformation stands.[2]

Wesley goes on to argue that Christians should be able to dwell together in harmony even if they disagree about basic convictions such as the forms of church government, the modes of baptism, the administration of the Lord’s Supper, and so forth. However, Wesley makes an important distinction between “catholic spirit” and “latitudinarianism.”  The latter refers to those who wish to engage in endless speculation about the essentials of the gospel or wish to remain indifferent to holding a particular conviction.  In contrast, Wesley argues that “a man of truly catholic spirit” does not have the right to set up his or her own form of religion.  Rather, a Christian should be “as fixed as the sun in his [or her] judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.”[3] He calls on his hearers to “go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.”[4] Wesley’s ecumenism was built on the foundation of a shared theological orthodoxy concerning the historic essentials of the Christian faith.

Well, this blog is going on too long, so let me complete my other two points on Wesley’s understanding of doctrine in the days ahead.


[1] John Westerdale Bowker, The Sacred Neuron (New York:  I. B. Tauris, 2005), 120.

[2] Catholic Spirit, 496.

[3] Catholic Spirit, 502.

[4] Ibid.

“It’s about Community”: Wesleyan Catechesis, part 3

In the introduction to this series (March 28th post entitled “Catechesis is the first step in ‘making culture’”) I noted that we encounter a wide array of models for how the church passed the faith on to the next generation.  I briefly highlighted the catechumen-mystagogy model of the Patristics, the monastic/service  model of the Celtics, the Longer and Shorter catechisms which emerged at the Reformation, and so forth.  My overall argument (which is taking quite a few entries to unfold!) is that the Wesleyan model draws strengths from each of these earlier models.  I am hoping that some of my thoughts might stimulate a renewed appreciation of the Wesleyan model.

I think that the best current book in print on catechesis is Teaching the Faith – Forming the Faithful by Dr. Gary Parrett and Steve Kang.  The good news is that it is a GREAT BOOK.  I had the privilege of teaching alongside of both Parrett and Kang for many years and can testify that they are insightful, generative, theologically sound and have a deep heart for catechesis in the church.  My one criticism of the book, however, is that this landmark book makes no reference to Wesley and the genius of Wesleyan catechesis at all.  Thus, I think it is fair to say that there are huge swaths of Christian humanity out there who have no idea that Wesley is actually one of the great genius’ of catechesis.  If there was ever a leader who knew how to teach people to “echo” the faith, it was John Wesley.  This is why I thought it was worth a few blog entries.

So far, we have explored the role of prevenient grace (part 1) and waiting “in the means of grace” (part 2) which were both important building blocks to a fully Wesleyan understanding of catechesis.  The third genius of Wesley was his profound appreciation for the importance of small groups in spiritual formation.  In other words, catechesis happens in community.  The default idea in the mind of many people suggests that the best spiritual formation occurs when we are “in retreat” or in some solitary place.  As we will see today and in another blog entry in the future, Wesley challenges this notion on several fronts.

18th century Oxford was a place filled with spiritual apathy, deism, practical atheism, and low-Christology Arianism.  In short, it was quite a bit like North America and Europe today.  John and Charles Wesley decided to gather a few students together to “observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the university.”  The statutes (long ignored) required that students engage in the “frequent and careful reading of the Scripture.”  The Wesley brothers decided to promote this by forming a small group for studying the Greek New Testament.  It became known as the Holy Club.  They were so methodical in their practice that the people in the Holy Club were given the nickname, “Methodist.”  So the very origin of the word “Methodist” is rooted in a small group formation approach to catechesis.

Catechesis is not merely learning the correct answers to doctrinal questions or saying “yes” to a particular Christian formula for salvation.   For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life.   To put it bluntly, it wasn’t just about becoming a Christian, it was about being a Christian.   Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model (this was the instruction after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost which brought you into the mystery of the church), but he united the idea with the community model of the early Celtic Christians.  Later Wesley developed the entire “class system” which put all believers into small discipleship bands.  The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care (Yes, there were all female groups with female leaders, there were all male groups and there were mixed groups as well).  They would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins.  Members in sin would be disciplined.  They would also be instructed in some aspect of the Apostolic faith.  They would worship together by singing a song.  Everyone would participate.  The meeting would be over in about an hour.  It is still an excellent model.  Wesley was an expert organizer.  But, there are other features of Wesleyan catechesis which are even more remarkable which I will explore in the days ahead.