At the Roots of Methodism: Celebrating Wesley's Birth

May 01, 2003 03:15 PM EDT

Given the high profile of this year's tercentenary of the birth of John Wesley, it is worth reflecting on the value of celebrating this great anniversary. After all, there are many good Methodists on both sides of the Atlantic who, as yet, remain completely untouched by the current plethora of events and remembrances surrounding the founder of Methodism. So, let us ask two fundamental questions.

What is the point of celebrating the tercentenary of John Wesley's birth?

This significant anniversary provides Methodists across the world with a catalyst for remembering their denominational roots and giving thanks for the life of the man who, inspired by God, set the great movement of Methodism on its journey. Going back to our roots as a church is, I believe, not about being trapped in history; it is about moving forward with our past and being enthused once again by the story of a great movement at its genesis.

Secondly, the tercentenary reminds us of the importance of Wesley as a historic religious leader. In an age of terrible poverty, when wealth and privilege were concentrated into the hands of the few, he surely helped to avert the widespread social unrest that might have led to an English version of the French Revolution. We need to remind ourselves that, as a social reformer, Wesley was ahead of his time. His support for the abolition of slavery, his campaigns on prison reform, his provision of work for the unemployed and free education for the children of poor families, was the stuff of prophetic Christian social witness.

What lessons can present-day Methodists learn from the life of Wesley?

First, the walls of our church buildings should not restrict us. The advent of "field preaching" by John and Charles Wesley was a huge culture shock for the established church of the day. It was unthinkable, but the ordinary people-- most of whom had never darkened the doors of a church--thought otherwise and flocked to hear them preach in the open air.

We need to remember that church buildings and "religious language" did not bind early Methodism. Our churches can learn from Wesley's initiative by developing appropriate ministries --social and spiritual --that can take root in local neighborhoods. Everyone aspires to worshipping in a building, but we also need to recapture a zeal for ministry that is not confined to the safety of our churches.

Second, together with people of all faiths, we can learn from Wesley's prophetic word and the fact that he was not afraid to speak out against the social evils of his time. These included poverty, slavery, alcohol addiction, usury, violence, abuse of power, exploitation and war -- issues which, in one guise or another, are still the scourge of our enlightened 21st century.

Third, we need to think "small" in the sense of needing to recapture Wesley's genius for encouraging his people to meet and organize together in small groups. With the admirable discipline of letting everyone have their say, these "class meetings" (as they became known) in members' homes became times of mutual encouragement and support in faith and witness. It's like the Acts of the Apostles --and look what happened to them!

Fourth, if John Wesley returned today I think he would be horrified by the huge monolithic Methodist denominations that we have created around the world. He never wanted to start a new Church; he only wanted to energize and renew the existing one. So maybe we need to recapture that essence of being a "movement" rather than a Church. On the other hand, I think Wesley would surely be excited by the sheer diversity of what is now happening across the world in the name of Methodism. To see what has grown from those early beginnings would surely be unbelievable.

Fifth, and most important, we should keep John Wesley firmly in perspective. We do not idolize the man; we simply give thanks for a truly remarkable person who used his skills and energies to achieve only one thing: to point people towards Jesus as their savior. He did it in the 18th century and, by our remembering this tercentenary, he can do it now.

By John Singleton