A movement is held together by a common cause. That's why movements find it so much easier to adapt their methods to the needs of the hour. In eighteenth century Industrial Britain, John Wesley considered it a sin for anyone to get saved in anywhere but a church. When he was excluded from preaching in various churches, George Whitefield challenged him to preach in the open air. Eventually he succumbed and preached to thousands. Thirty-three years later, having preached to tens of thousands of the unchurched in open-air field preaching Wesley could still confess ‘to this day field preaching is a cross to me. But I know my commission and see no other way of “preaching the gospel to every creature”’ (Journal, September 6, 1772).“
Wesley’s brother Charles was a cultured poet and musician with high church aesthetic tastes. Yet he laid aside his preferences and wrote hymns to the tunes of the common drinking songs being sung in England’s pubs!
John Wesley wrote, ”I love the rites and ceremonies of the Church. But I see, well-pleased, that our great Lord can work without them.“ Alongside his ministry in open air preaching Wesley developed a system of Methodist societies, bands and cells. He organised his converts into societies and accountability groups. Wesley and Whitefield were great evangelists. Unlike Whitefield, Wesley left the legacy of a dynamic movement.
Wesley picked up the idea of open air preaching from Whitefield. The idea of accountability groups came from the Pietists via the Moravians. It was Wesley’s genius to unite these concepts, add some elements of his own such as his circuit riders and form a mass religious movement.
Wesley was fond of saying, ”I will not strike a blow (preach) unless I can follow up the punch (organise people in societies and groups).“ Wesley was not interested in manifestations of the power of God unless he could channel them into a lasting legacy through effective means and functional structures. At the same time he would not tolerate church structures and tradition that impeded the outpouring of God’s power for salvation. Across the Atlantic, Methodists in America ignored class distinctions and empowered ordinary people to express their faith in their own way. The Methodists proclaimed the message of individual freedom, autonomy, responsibility and achievement. As a result, more African Americans became Christians in ten years of Methodist preaching than in a century of Anglican influence. Methodism did not suppress the impulses of popular religion—dreams and visions, emotional expression, preaching by blacks, by women, by anyone who felt the call.
It was under Methodism that religious popular music—white and black spirituals—prospered. Common people, rather than college-educated gentlemen, eagerly volunteered to become ministers. They rejected the standard sermon—a read theological discourse—and crafted sermons that were audience-centered, in the language of the people and spontaneous.
This capacity for variety and adaptability within Methodism as it spread throughout Britain and the rest of the world, was one of its most remarkable features. As Methodism swept across rural areas, towns and cities it was able to adapt to appeal to sections of the populations whose interests were at times opposed to each other.
How about for you? What wins? The cause or the the way we've always done things around here?