The Wesleyan Operating System

When visioning the way forward for the church, sometimes it’s helpful to first go “back to the future…”

wesley with bible

John Wesley, who sought to form a people who strived for “holiness of heart and life.”

We have just finished a process to discern God’s unique vision for Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church, and we’ll be revealing the full scope of that vision in a few weeks. A team of ten laity and I used Will Mancini’s excellent Church Unique resources to drill down on what this church’s unique contribution to the kingdom in our region might be. The operating question Mancini uses in his process is this: “What can this church do better than 10,000 others?”

We have a lot of great discussion about that in our meetings, but the overall sense of the team was that our uniqueness is bound up in our Wesleyan/Methodist heritage, theology, and practice. There are lots of United Methodist churches, but very few are actually intentionally Wesleyan in doctrine and practice, while the vast majority of churches in our region come from the Reformed tradition. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that– the Body of Christ is a mosaic of different emphases and skill sets. Indeed, to be Wesleyan is not to be a completely unique kind of Christian. In his sermon The Character of a Methodist, Wesley said that Methodists aren’t marked by any outward appearance, unique practice, or unusual set of Christian doctrines. To be Methodist, in other words, is to embrace the historic, apostolic, and Scriptural Christian faith. Wesley remained an Anglican all of his life and thus the doctrinal statements of Methodism were essentially the doctrinal statements of the Anglican Articles of Religion (with some modifications).

But there is something deeply unique about our Methodist DNA that speaks to a very specific purpose for the church–an emphasis on making disciples of Jesus in an intentional, systematic way using a particular “method “ (or operating system). It’s a tradition that takes both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Though Wesleyan theology differs on some points with other traditions, we have traditionally been about the goal of building people into Christian disciples. AsWesley put it in The Character of a Methodist, a disciple of Jesus will demonstrate:

“…the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;” one who “loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!”

The love of God and neighbor, Wesley would say, is something that doesn’t come naturally to our sinful nature. We therefore need to be reborn and, in a very real sense, re-trained for the life of a follower of Christ who is becoming more like him every day. To put it another way, many Christian traditions will tell you how to be born again. Methodists have traditionally wanted to tell you and show you how you can grow up as a mature disciple of Jesus Christ!

One of the members of our vision team described this as the “Wesleyan Operating System.” Just like a computer needs an operating system in order for the user to produce results, so the Wesleyan emphasis on discipleship provides a framework upon which the church helps people grow to maturity in Christ. To that end, I thought it would be helpful to take a look at some of the main points of the Wesleyan OS as we prepare to talk about God’s vision for the church, along with posing a few questions for consideration.

Here are just few of the aspect of the Wesleyan OS:

An emphasis on “holiness of heart and life.” That’s the phrase that Wesley used to describe the life of a disciple of Jesus. Holiness of heart (inward holiness—the love of God) and life (outward holiness—the love of neighbor) were the product of a life that is being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, enabling us to grow more and more into the image of Christ, the image of God we were created to be from the beginning (Genesis 1:26-27; Colossians 1:15-23).

Another term Wesley used for this was sanctification or “going on to perfection.” We think of that word “perfection” mostly in terms of performance, where perfection equates to flawlessness. Wesley used the term more biblically, where the Greek word teleos is translated variously as “perfect, mature,  complete, holy.” In Matthew 5:48, Jesus tells his disciples to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” but note that this comes right after a treatise about loving one’s enemies. The “perfection” or teleos that Jesus talks about here is perfect love not perfect performance. We should strive to do our best to avoid sin, of course, but Wesley’s major focus was on the development of Christ-like, mature, perfected love in believers. Love, after all, more than anything else, reveals the character of Christ. Wesley wanted the Methodists to engage in the lifelong pursuit of holiness, loving God and neighbor as Jesus does.

An emphasis on spiritual discipline. That love, however, doesn’t happen by accident or osmosis. It takes a serious effort to love God and an even more serious effort to love our neighbors, especially those who may be unlike us or may be our enemies. Wesley thus recognized that developing holiness of heart and life would involve a commitment to engaging in means of grace that help connect people to God and each other. We learn to love God by engaging in private and public acts of worship and devotion: Studying Scripture, prayer, conferencing with other Christians. We learn to love others through  public and private acts of justice and compassion: caring for the needy in soul and body and working toward eliminate oppression and injustice.

Indeed, Wesley developed three General Rules for the early Methodists to follow that would keep them on a disciplined and fruitful spiritual path toward holiness. The General Rules are these:

1. Do no harm.

2. Do all the good you can.

3. Attend to the private and public ordinances of God, which include:

  • The public worship of God.
  • The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.
  • The Supper of the Lord.
  • Family and private prayer.
  • Searching the Scriptures.
  • Fasting or abstinence.

Left to our own devices, we’re less likely to engage these ordinances, or means of grace, since our sinful nature is always pulling us to take the path of least resistance. We need others who are “going on to perfection” who will help us keep growing, which is why Wesley also stressed:

An emphasis on accountable community. The early Methodists met together to check in on their adaptive challenges toward becoming people who love God and neighbor through holiness of heart and life. The Methodist class meeting was the primary method in which people in the movement checked in with each other weekly to support one another, pray for one another, and encourage one another to stay engaged in their spiritual disciplines. The class meetings used the General Rules as a guide for discussion and exhortation, as well as the ministry of a Class Leader who became a lay pastor for the group of 12-15 persons. Most small groups today are Bible studies or affinity groups, which are not bad in themselves. The Wesleyan Operating System, however, uses these groups not only to impart information and gather for fellowship, but as an intentional gathering for making disciples. As Wesley scholar David Lowes Watson puts it, the class meetings were not where discipleship happened, it’s where the members made sure that it happened during the rest of the week. As we think about vision, what kinds of groups and gatherings will be most helpful for us in growing mature disciples of Jesus Christ?

An emphasis on lost and hurting people. The process of the class meeting, however, wasn’t just intended for the members themselves. What they were learning and doing was meant to be shared with others who were broken by sin, in physical need, and living lives apart from God. The internal “method” of Methodism was merely a means for building disciples who would, in turn, bring others to Christ and holiness of heart and life. In other words, the method in Methodism was, and is, all about training people for frontline engagement with the places where the world hurts and where the kingdom of God is coming near. Methodism has traditionally done this in several ways:

Field preaching. The bulk of ministry in early Methodism took place far from any established church. John Wesley went from preaching in Anglican churches (which, because of his emphasis on growth in grace, got him thrown out of most churches) to preaching in the fields, the marketplaces, the coal mines, and anywhere people gathered. Wesley’s lay preachers rode circuits, preaching in towns all over England and on the American frontier. Methodism has traditionally always gone where the people were rather than the usual model of building a church and hoping the people come. When Methodism became more “settled” in the 19th century, the field preaching largely stopped and the church became stagnant like the Anglican Church it sought to reform.

One of the interesting statistics we learned about the Tri-Lakes region is that only 20% of people in our neighborhoods consider faith to be an important part of their lives. There are lots of folks out there needing the good news of Jesus Christ. As we think about vision, what would it mean for us to reengage this field preaching aspect of the Wesleyan operating system, given our somewhat isolated church location?

Ministry with the poor.  The Wesley brothers and their Holy Club began their ministry by working with the poor and those in prison while they were students at Oxford. Methodism spread mostly among the poor in England and America, and Wesley was focused on easing both their spiritual and physical plight. Wesley established hospitals and dispensaries for the poor (his best selling book, in fact, was A Primitive Physick—a book of remedies for illness). The Methodists established schools for the education of the poor—an education which was unavailable to them otherwise. Indeed, many historians believe that England avoided the kind of class warfare that sparked the French Revolution in the late 18th century because the spread of Methodism gave the poor hope, education, health care, and status that was not available in other societies. The Salvation Army, which began in England in the 19th century, has its roots in the Methodist movement. What does ministry with the poor look like in our area today? How might we make that a priority in our church like it was for the early Methodists?

Education. As stated above, the early Methodists established many schools for the poor. John Wesley, however, was also an advocate for education on a grand scale. He wrote many books and pamphlets on a variety of subjects and encouraged his lay preachers to read at least five hours per day. He established the Kingswood School in 1748 as a public school for children, and many colleges in both the UK and America bear Wesleyan roots today. In an area where many people are involved in the public school system, how might this aspect of the Wesleyan Operating System be part of our vision for the kingdom here in the Tri-Lakes region?

Church and Ministry Planting. When Methodism came to America, under the leadership of Wesley associates Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, the frontier ministry of the circuit riders began planting Methodist societies in small towns and villages where no other church existed. The first church I served in Carlisle, PA, for example, was planted by Francis Asbury in 1789 after he did some field preaching on the steps of the county courthouse. John Wesley never desired that the Methodists would become settled in large station churches, like the Anglican Church in England. This is the primary reason why all Methodist preachers were circuit riders and why Methodist preachers even today are still itinerant—it’s a missional strategy designed to take the good news of Jesus into areas where people need to hear it and also have a community in which to be formed as disciples. The trend in the last few centuries has been to build bigger churches and hope that people will come to them (and support them financially). Recapturing this entrepreneurial vision of the Methodist movement can teach us something about a more flexible and responsive movement of the gospel into our neighborhoods. This is something that a church born in a truck stop can relate to!

There are other ways Methodism has focused on lost people and our postmodern world offers even more possibilities as communication technology has moved beyond the circuit rider’s horse and saddlebags. The Wesleyan movement changed English society and it was largely responsible for the U.S. becoming a culturally “Christian” nation. It was said, in fact, that more people in the original 13 colonies would have been able to identify Francis Asbury’s picture than that of either George Washington or Thomas Jefferson—the result of Asbury’s 250,000 miles on horseback preaching the gospel and planting churches in America.  I’m excited to think of what it might mean for us to be part of a resurgent Wesleyan movement that is not only changing people’s lives in our region for Christ, but affecting our society for the kingdom as well.

These are just a few of my thoughts on the Wesleyan Operating System and what it might contribute to our discussion about visioning God’s future for TLUMC. Watch for more on November 10 as we share the results and recommendations of the Vision Team and Church Council.


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