In 1748 John Wesley tried to explain the amazing growth of his Methodist movement. He had created a remarkably effective model of small group community, and they were growing fast. What was the secret?
The whole thing took them by surprise, he said.
“…they had no previous design or plan at all; but everything arose just as the occasion offered.”
It is hard to believe, actually. Success by flailing around? Success by just sort of trying one thing and another?
By his death in 1791 the Methodists would be a global movement of effective evangelism, renewal, and church planting. Over 70,000 members in England and over 40,000 in the new United States — and other mission stations as well.
What was Wesley’s secret? Frankly he had a lot of them. He was a powerful preacher, and an organizational genius at building Christian community. I look at early Methodism and I see someone who was deeply concerned with conversion, but equally committed to placing his converts in small groups to build lives of discipleship.
I’ll be exploring Wesley’s model of Christian community in future posts. It is a key example of how community life can blossom into mission. And it could hardly be more different from the Benedictine monastic model of community I’ve been posting on of late.
But before looking at any of the details of how he organized his groups, I wanted to look at how he said he came to it all.
According to his own testimony, Wesley’s secret was
- Trying new things.
- Seeing what worked.
- Ditching things that failed.
And if you read his “Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” you see it was true.
- He started by meeting with all of them in a big group every Thursday for advice and prayer. Too unwieldy.
- Then the followers decided to gather for prayer over dinner on Fridays. Helpful but not sufficient — some were too far away.
- They organized groups of twelve, the leader of each group visiting the members each week.
- Soon it seemed better for the groups to actually meet together.
- They tried smaller demographic groupings — single men, married women, whatever.
- They tried various leadership roles including stewards and visitors of the sick.
- They experimented with homes and schools or the poor.
It looks like Wesley was willing to try anything if it would help people bind together to grow in Christ and serve the world.
He and his organization were nimble. They were flexible.
That is not what a lot of churches are very good at. Inside many congregations the leader has to work against a classic set of obstacles:
“We’ve never done it that way.”
“We’ve always done it this way.”
“What if Someone doesn’t like it?”
“What if it doesn’t work?”
What if, like Wesley, we committed ourselves to try anything that might draw people together to follow Jesus
“…following only common sense and Scripture…”?
What helps a Christian community become nimble?
What encourages innovation in life and ministry together?
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