Recently the Call to Action Steering Team released two studies on the state of United Methodism. One, the “Congregational Vitality” study, identified four “main drivers of vitality”: (1) a mix of traditional and contemporary worship services, (2) small groups including programs for children and youth, (3) inspirational preaching and length of pastoral appointment, and (4) lay leadership.
Similar themes are echoed by Presbyterians C. Woolever and D. Bruce in A Field Guide to U. S. Congregations (Westminster John Knox, 2010). They identified ten characteristics of vital congregations: growing spiritually, meaningful worship, participation in the congregation, sense of belonging, caring for children and youth, focusing on the community (social ministry and advocacy), sharing faith with others, welcoming new people (hospitality), empowering lay leadership, and commitment and excitement about the congregation’s vision for the future.
What would John Wesley make of all this?
My hunch is that while he would affirm all four “drivers” identified in the UM study, he would like the Presbyterian list much better. This is because of what it contains that the UM list omits: growing spiritually, focusing on the community, and sharing faith.
The four “drivers” in the congregational vitality report are for Wesley more means than ends. Inspirational preaching? By all means—but toward what end? Small groups? Yes, absolutely—but engaged in what mission? Varied styles of worship? Perhaps—but only if they enable people to actually worship God.
These are not goals in themselves. The goal, said Wesley, is holiness of heart and life. It is a transformation of the heart in love, and living out that love in mission to the world.
In regard to holiness of heart (i.e., growing spiritually), Wesley insists again and again that Christ came to restore us not only to the favor of God through forgiveness of our sins, but also “to the image of God; implying not barely deliverance from sin but being filled with the fullness of God.” “Nothing short of this,” he adds, “is Christian religion” (“The End of Christ’s Coming,” ¶111.5).
This will come as a surprise to Christians who have supposed the whole point of salvation was to be forgiven so that we can go to heaven when we die. Wesley understands the point of salvation to be the reception of and growth in a new life of love in this life, which death cannot take from us.
Briefly put, Wesley understands salvation this way: We were created in God’s image, which is love. But we have fallen into sin and cannot save ourselves. Through Christ we receive grace that enables us to respond to God and invites us into a relationship with God. Forgiveness of sins (i.e., justification) is the doorway into the transformation of our hearts in love (i.e., new birth), which initiates sanctification, the process of restoring us to the divine image. The goal of sanctification is Christian perfection, when love for God and humanity fully governs our hearts and lives.
A year before his death in 1791, Wesley said that Christian perfection was “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appears to have raised us up.” (“Letter to Robert Care Brackenbury” [Sept. 15, 1790]). It is for this end we preach, assemble in small groups, and utilize lay leadership.
Holiness of heart leads to holiness of life. As Wesley’s Methodists grew spiritually they shared the good news of the promise of new life with others, often through testimony—the telling of how God changed their lives. They also reached out in love to minister to a wide range of human needs, including feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and providing education and housing. And they were encouraged to have lifestyles of personal simplicity and generosity to others.
Much of what is recommended for United Methodism is a contemporary version of Wesley’s own practices. The difference is Wesley knew, and clearly stated, what those practices were for: opening our lives to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, and participating in God’s mission to the world.