T he Wesleyan movement was, and in some parts of the world continues to be, successful for many reasons. It started as a movement that was doctrinally informed but focused on practices. John and Charles Wesley did not sit down and write a theological treatise as the starting point of the movement. Rather, the Wesleyan movement started with practices that were grounded in theological beliefs and informed by various traditions. Four key practices characterized Wesleyan evangelism: proclamation, community, service, and witness.
The Greek word kerygma is often used for proclamation. In Romans 10:14, Paul wrote, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” The key is the ending where Paul says, “And how can they hear without someone preaching to them” or in some translations “proclaiming to them.” This is the meaning of kerygma.
I am not a New Testament scholar, but I prefer to translate the term as “proclaim,” because Paul is not talking about preaching as a professional occupation. He is talking about someone willing to share the good news verbally. When we interpret kerygma as something only done by professionals, it lets most of the congregation off the hook. I believe Paul is arguing the opposite—that all of us are called to proclaim the good news so that someone might hear it.
Too often individuals believe we pay the pastor to proclaim so we do not have to do it! In the Wesleyan tradition, verbal sharing of the good news is important. During John Wesley’s time this was often done through testimonies at a love feast. It also took place in classes where individuals shared weekly with one another. People were not afraid of telling the good news of how God was working in their lives. The impact of this sharing was one of the factors fueling the Wesleyan movement.
I believe that as we grow more comfortable in our congregations we tend to share less. For many reasons, the relational work of learning what is going on in someone’s life and how God is transforming that person does not really interest many of us. As a result, fewer of us are proclaiming the good news. We leave that to the “professionals.” This is a departure from a key practice of the early Wesleyan movement, which was founded on all believers actively taking responsibility to proclaim.
The Greek word for community is koinonia. The best model of Christian community is found in the Trinity and the way in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make room for each other’s gifts. The three-in-one God models for us what is possible when we are willing to share our gifts with the community and make room for others’ gifts. It is a community constructed on love, trust, and accountability.
John Wesley structured the Methodist revival around societies, classes, and bands because he understood the importance of community. John Wesley knew that preaching was important, but getting people in community with one another was essential to personal transformation. The foundation of the Wesleyan communities was love, trust, and accountability. Individuals came together to explore their love of God and neighbor. It required trust because of the deep sharing that occurred. They held each other accountable in love. They invited others (proclamation) to join them in these communities.
Many congregations have tried to copy the Wesleyan community model through small groups with mixed results. One reason the results are mixed has to do with a cultural shift in regard to how we practice accountability today. Another reason is that we have tried to copy the form of small groups while ignoring John Wesley’s rationale for connecting people. His goal was not simply to create small groups, but to connect people in an authentic way that engendered love, trust, and accountability. Our evangelism efforts today need to focus on connecting people in authentic community and not just copying a certain model of community. When we feel genuinely connected to others, we can move toward a trinitarian model of community.
The Greek word for service is diakonia. In Ephesians 3:7, Paul used a form of diakonia when he talked about being a servant of the gospel. The idea of being in service to something or someone is challenging in our culture because of the history of slavery. However, the language of servanthood is prominent in Paul’s letters, particularly the idea of being a servant to Jesus. Paul understood his role as carrying on the work that Jesus started, and we are called to do the same.
To be in service to Jesus means engaging in holistic ministry that addresses someone’s entire being, body and soul. Jesus provides for those in need while sharing the transformative power of the gospel. If, on the one hand, we simply respond to physical needs, we are merely providing a social service. On the other hand, if we are simply sharing the gospel, then we are not addressing the concrete challenges of our sisters and brothers. Holistic ministry in Christ’s service is always both/and.
John Wesley understood the importance of a holistic approach and encouraged both acts of mercy and acts of piety. The Holy Club did not visit the disenfranchised simply because it was a kind thing to do. They did so because it was an opportunity to engage the physical and spiritual needs of others. The idea of serving is never disconnected from an expectation of spiritual transformation.
The struggle we have today is that we have disconnected service from an expectation of transformation through Christ. In an effort not to offend, we do things for people and hope they figure out our Christian motivation. I am not suggesting clubbing people over the head with the gospel, but a holistic understanding of service must include sharing the transformative power of Christ. What makes the Church different is its commitment to being an alternative community that seeks to love God and neighbor. Too many congregations ignore the importance of letting others see the ways in which the love of God intersects with loving one’s neighbor. John Wesley stood firmly at the intersection between loving God and neighbor, and this was a unique characteristic of the people called Methodists.
The Greek word for witness is martyreo. It is the root of the word martyr. The truth is, when we hear the word martyr, we immediately think of someone dying. A martyr literally gives his or her life for the gospel. We are not often required to die to witness for Christ. In Acts 1:8 we find a form of martyreo that is not about death. It reads, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem . . . to the ends of the earth.”
A martyr or witness is someone who gives their whole being to something. It is more than proclamation, because one’s entire life becomes a sign pointing to God. In Acts 1:8, Jesus requested that the disciples devote their entire being to telling His story. What Jesus did not want was a halfbaked effort. The disciples were to dedicate themselves to the work of witnessing. The Wesleys dedicated themselves to witnessing. They witnessed through field preaching, visiting, class meetings, music, and other ways. They expected that others would also dedicate themselves to this work. In what is now the United States, Francis Asbury gave everything he had to witnessing. Witnessing was not a technique that the Wesleys and Asbury used to grow the Church. Witnessing was a part of their DNA. They believed Jesus was talking to them when He said, “Be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.”
For many of us, witnessing has become a technique rather than an expression of our spiritual identity. We see it as a means of getting people to our congregation. Many times when we “witness,” people are not hearing about God’s transforming love. They hear “come to my church.” The Wesleyan movement was successful because witnessing was a part of the DNA and not merely a technique. We need to reclaim this dimension of witness.
All four of these practices should work together in an integrated, synergistic way. Proclamation, community, service, and witness can inform and enhance each another. Too often today, we have pulled them apart and made them separate things, and in so doing, we have lessened the overall impact of our evangelism.
Reclaiming the power of the Wesleyan movement is not about copying exactly what the Wesleys did, but it is about figuring out how to exercise these practices meaningfully and authentically within our own contexts. It is not about employing just one or two of these practices, but letting all four practices work together. It is about a holistic approach to evangelism that shares the gospel in a way that moves us closer to God and neighbor.