The Form and the Power

The need to make disciples and not just Christians is one of the Key lessons we need to learn from John Wesley, says Mark Williamson.

John Wesley has a lot to teach the Church in the 21st century. In many ways this should be obvious – that the founder of our denomination has wisdom and principles that we can still learn from today. And yet, somehow, so much of our church seems to have forgotten the legacy he gave to us.

I’m not arguing we should slavishly follow everything he did. He was far from perfect and many of his practices should definitely remain in the 18th century: his experiments with electricity as a means to cure a whole host of diseases, ranging from headaches to stiff legs, should not be attempted or repeated by Methodist clergy! But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are still huge lessons we can learn and apply from his life and ministry.

In particular, Wesley has much to teach us in the area of discipleship. Many church leaders today are struggling with the question of how we take church members and turn them from pew warmers into committed, mature, holy followers of Jesus. Wesley was an expert at this. He recognized that there were other gifted evangelists within the early revival movement, and encouraged his brother Charles, or George Whitefield, often to take the first evangelistic preaching tours when Methodism began in a new place. But Wesley would often take the subsequent follow up tour; he was the discipleship specialist within the movement and he took the initiative in making sure the Methodists were a people constantly growing in their relationships with the Lord.

So what was his discipleship secret? Ever the methodical person, he created a system of meetings designed to push people through a progression of spiritual maturity. Methodist members were expected to attend all of the meetings listed below. Failure to do so could result in either Wesley or the local assistant removing people from membership:

  • Field Preaching: Regular open air preaching in public places, where all people could hear the gospel message. Wesley emphasized 5am on a weekday morning, to allow workers the chance to hear the message before they began the day’s work. Field preaching also occurred in the evenings, and at weekends in public parks. 

  • Society Meeting: A weekly evening meeting for all society members, with hymn singing and preaching. Converts from field meetings were encouraged to join the local society meeting. 

  • Anglican Church Attendance: Wesley wanted Methodism to be a renewing movement within the Church of England. Therefore all Methodists were expected to attend their local parish church services on a Sunday – even if the local clergy were anti-Methodist – for fellowship, and to take communion. 

  • Class Meetings: A weekly Bible study for small groups of twelve members, which also featured asking each other a variety of accountability questions. Class leaders were pastorally responsible for the members of their classes. 

  • Band Meetings: Weekly meetings for around three to five people of the same sex, who would ask each other further accountability questions. 

  • Watch-Night Services: Monthly prayer meetings, usually held on the Friday night nearest the full moon, so people had the moonlight to help them make their way home in the dark. They usually lasted around four hours, from 8pm to just after midnight. 

  • Love-Feasts: Usually held every three months, where society members gathered to share bread and water, and then testify about what God was doing in their lives. 

The kind of accountability questions people were encouraged to ask each other during class and band meetings included:

  1. What sins have you committed since our last meeting?
  2. What temptations have you met with?
  3. How did you overcome them?
  4. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?
  5. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying or self-justifying?
  6. Did the Bible live in me today?
  7. Am I enjoying prayer?
  8. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  9. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?

In my experience, many churches emphasize some parts of this progression, but have forgotten others. Most churches offer a weekly worship meeting and some form of small group/ bible study structure. This fulfils the role of the Wesley Society meeting, Anglican Church attendance and Class meeting. Churches may also have regular prayer meetings that take the role of the Watch-Night meetings. But this only covers the middle section of Wesley’s discipleship structure. In particular, most churches have nothing that covers the role of Wesley’s Field-Preaching or Band meetings.

Field-Preaching is probably the easiest of these to write off as outdated. Preaching on street corners, or on commuter trains, to harangue people on their way to work, is unlikely to bring many people to church. But the point here is that Wesley regularly went out to the community and shared the gospel message in a culturally relevant way, that resulted in people getting interested and coming to the society meetings. What are the ways our churches can present Christianity in a relevant way to our communities? I don’t think there’s one solution here. It can be any and all of a combination of mums & toddlers groups, arts groups, service to the community etc. The question is, are there regular, ongoing opportunities for church members to meet others in the community, build a relationship, and then invite them to church services? Is the church visible in the community?

On the other side of Wesley’s discipleship structure, accountability groups or relationships have disappeared from many churches. And yet these were a key part of Wesley’s methods. Without them, people were more likely to plateau or grow cold in their spiritual life. When small friendship groups have grown sufficiently close to pray together, and ask each other the sorts of questions listed above, spiritual growth can be explosive, and contagious.

Of course, another famous (and often controversial) aspect of Wesley’s discipleship was that people had a real goal to be working towards. Wesley passionately believed in the reality of perfection being attainable here on earth, i.e. for believers to be so consumed by the love of God that they no longer sinned. This couldn’t come about through just human effort. Wesley emphasized that perfection, like salvation, was a gift from God, resulting from his grace. But the goal gave a real purpose to his discipleship movement. Wesley believed the Methodist church had been raised up by God to spread “scriptural holiness” across the British Isles, and the belief in perfection in this life, whether many people actually attained it or not, gave an impetus and goal towards all of his discipleship work. By expecting perfection from people, Wesley saw far more scriptural holiness from people than had he placed the bar lower.

So I believe there are three lessons we can learn from Wesley on discipleship: community engagement, accountability and perfection. How is your church doing in implementing these three?

Interestingly, throughout his ministry, Wesley had five main frustrations with his societies that he constantly had to warn them against: 

  1. Stopping Field-Preaching: This was always Wesley’s number one fear for the societies. If preachers no longer had the heart to get up early enough to preach the gospel message to workers, then how did they expect to continue to grow as a Christian movement?
  2. Stopping Band or Class Meetings: Without the fellowship and accountability these meetings provided, individual members would quickly become cold in their relationship with God.
  3. Stopping Church Attendance: Wesley believed that taking Holy Communion regularly was an important means of grace. He also believed in unity within Christianity and therefore wanted his followers to remain faithful in Anglican Church attendance.
  4. One Preacher Staying Too Long at One Society: This would result in the congregation becoming bored of the sermons and would therefore reduce their missionary zeal.
  5. Not Preaching Perfection: Without this goal to live towards, members could plateau, or even go backwards, in their spiritual growth.

All of these relate to discipleship, and at least three relate to the points made above. What does your church need to do to develop its structure for discipleship?