Our work as theological educators, whether as professors in higher education, preachers in the pulpit, or leaders in Bible studies, band meetings, and youth ministries is ultimately about inspiring change and transformation. The transformation we seek is deep seated and central to Christian faith and discipleship. Placing our faith in the redemptive power of Christ, we participate with God’s grace that seeks to captivate us entirely, growing and maturing us in faith into the fullness of Christ. To seek Christlikeness is to experience ongoing, deepening, lifelong transformation.
In an earlier post, I described the ubiquity of transformation and as an idealized good in contemporary culture and in Christian faith. The idea of transformation is appealing because it touts the promise of cutting-edge innovation, advancement, and improvement. But buying into the idea of transformation comes with a cost: relinquishing the ways to which we are enculturated and accustomed. Old habits, to put it simply, are hard to break.
For adults, the process of transformation presents a challenge as it requires persons to evaluate what they have long assumed about the world. Far more than a mental exercise of being open to a new perspective, the transformational process can tax the emotional, spiritual, behavioral, and relational domains. Transformation, even when it is not explicitly Christian transformation, is never a passive process. It is worth remembering that in contrast to transformation, the process of formation occurs at the unconscious level, often through implicit ways in which we experience the world. Transformation is a deliberate activity that each person — at some conscious level — must choose to engage.
Educators contend the transformational process is precipitated when persons encounter an event that challenges and disrupts what they believe and think about the world. (Seminal research in the area of Transformational Learning Theory includes the bodies of work by Jack Mezirow and Edmund O’Sullivan. Among others, key figures contributing to the field include Stephen Brookfield, Patricia Cranton, and Jim Dirkx.) Yet, merely encountering a circumstance that disrupts preconceived notions of the world does not constitute transformation. It is, after all, possible to assimilate or ignore events so as to maintain the status quo. A discrepant event merely prompts the possibility of undergoing transformation, if the person chooses to deliberately engage it in such a way that it reorders how they understand and participate in the world.
For the Christian, the world as it is constitutes a discrepant event. As Christians, we have a holy discontent with the way the world works. We yearn for God’s transformative grace that restores, heals, and renews, delivering us from slavery to self and captivity to culture. We desire to see God’s intended goodness for humanity and all creation lived out. Wesley and the early people called Methodist characterized their motivation to resist the formative forces of the world in order that they might “flee the wrath to come.” Their conviction of sin in the world and desire for redemption constituted a discrepant event they chose to consciously engage by formulating The Nature, Design and General Rules of the United Societies (for the 1743 version, see The Works of John Wesley, vol. 9).
The General Rules provided a template by which persons could seek a holy, Christian lifestyle that not only sought to secure salvation now and in the life to come, but had ramifications that further sought to alleviate the ravages of sin in this world. The first general rule — doing no harm and avoiding evil — meant Methodists would not participate — or even be complicit — in the misery and suffering of others. Not only did persons avoid unseemly habits and offensive behavior in their personal conduct, but early Methodists refrained from investing in certain profitable business and commercial ventures that caused and perpetuated degradation and suffering within God’s creation.
By following the second general rule — doing good and extending mercy to others — early Methodists did more than simply alleviate suffering by providing for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of those less fortunate. This second rule demanded that Methodists seek out opportunities to advance good, addressing conditions so persons might live fully and flourish.
And finally, by attending on the ordinances of God, the third general rule, Methodists demonstrated that any agency they had in the transformative process was through their reliance on God’s grace. They were not humanitarians operating by will power alone. Methodists regularly practiced the instituted means of grace — demonstrated in the life of Christ — by reading and studying Scripture, participating in prayer, fasting, and corporate worship — which included the Lord’s Supper. These means of grace, when intentionally and authentically sought out, placed persons in positions of reliance and dependence upon God. Through these postures, they sought to receive divine grace as they knew their own human frailty would eventually fail them. In summary, The General Rules constituted a conscious, deliberate decision that challenged the ways in which the world operated.
Formulating and instituting The General Rules did not, in and of themselves, bring about the desired change and transformation Wesley and early Methodists sought. But it was an important component by which Christians could begin to seek and participate now — during this life — to help inaugurate God’s kingdom. In a further post, I will explore how the people called Methodist structured and ordered their lives to support, nurture, and challenge each other that they might experience change and transformation in their lives and within their spheres of influence.