The Main Business of the Church

I pulled George G. Hunter’s book The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement off my shelf the other day. As I was flipping through the pages, the following paragraphs stood out.

I spent almost a decade serving in and among Methodist believers. Theirs is a rich history. One that I believe is sometimes is not reflected upon enough. But, that is a story for another time.

While you may not agree with every point of theology offered by Hunter or Wesley, the thrust of the following comments resonate with me. I feel them as compelling and as a call to a simpler understanding of the Church’s mission and purpose. At the very least it is worth considering.

In Contrast to the policy of the establishment Christianity that regarded every baptized member of the parish as a Christian, early Methodism was an extravagant expression of missional Christianity. What the Anglicans saw as a parish full of Christians, the Methodists saw as a mission field—filled with many people who had not understood the gospel, had not yet experienced justification, were not yet Christ-followers who lived by the will of God. Wesley perceived that a very great many people across England were “brutishly ignorant of the Christian faith. They give us no reason to believe that the faith that is not in their heads is in their hearts.” Most of them, he observed, were not atheists; they were Deists. He regarded Deism as “a plague spread far and wide.”

John Wesley redefined Christianity’s main business. He taught his leaders, “You have nothing to do but saves souls.” He carefully explained what he meant:

By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy and truth.

John Wesley, preaching from the Acts of the Apostles, defined “Scriptural Christianity, as beginning to exist in individuals; as spreading from one another; as covering the earth.” He believed that the ministry of evangelism to pre-Christain people, rightly understood, is the normal work of the whole church, all of the time, unless it has ceased being the church of Jesus Christ. Early Methodists understood that they were an ecclesia—the called out people of God; and they were also an apostolate [sic]—the sent our people of God.

What is especially distinctive in John Wesley’s understanding of apostolic ministry is his understanding of how we help people become new Christians. Albert Outler called it Wesley’s “Ordo Salutis.” The Order of Salvation was not a theory only; it was also the practical model that informed Methodist outreach. They observed a process, involving four steps, in the typical conversion experience:

  1. Peopel are first awakened to the fact of their lostness, their sins, their need for the grace of God and their need for a new life.
  2. Awakened people were then enrolled in a class (and, in three months—if they continue the quest—they were enrolled in a Methodist society). Their ongoing experiences with the class and the society will keep them awakened and prepare them for justification and second birth.
  3. You teach awakened and enrolled people to expect to experience their justification. You help people expect that they will experience, at a time and manner of God’s choosing, God’s forgiveness and acceptance and the gifts of faith and new life.
  4. You then teach justified people to expect to experience their sanctification in this life. They now expect that God will complete the work begun in their justification; the Spirit will free their hearts from sin’s power, restore them to the people they were born to be, and free them to live their life in love by the will of God.

Wesley’s preachers had an apostolic function, and public preaching was certainly an indispensable form of communicating the gospel. However, the salient purpose in much of the preaching, especially field preaching, was more to awaken people and begin the process, rather than to convert people on the spot—though, if that happened, it was welcomed! 1

This article provides some definitions for what a “Class” and “Methodist Society” were. You will also find some information about how they were run.

What do you think? Where do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments.

  1. George G. Hunter, III, The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011), 17-19. 

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