Noll, Ch. 10: The Conversion of the Wesleys (1738 CE)

This chapter focuses on John and Charles Wesley (depicted below, center and left, with Francis Asbury), and the Methodist movement that emerged from their ministry.  The chapter opens with the discussion of John Wesley going out into the “highways and byways” to preach, rather than sticking to church buildings and Sundays. That’s not something we find troublesome nowadays, but in that time and place, as Noll says, it was working directly against notions of public order.

Wesley Wesley Asbury Stained Glass

A few other notes on things that I found interesting in the chapter:

  • Wesley was often not an innovator himself, but rather one who implemented successfully the plans, ideas, and practices of others.
  • Pp. 219-220 describe Wesley’s famous moment of self-dedication (not exactly a conversion). Many Christians have moments like this – single times that they can point to as episodes of personal dedication. But others’ experiences are more gradual. Neither is normative (or should be), but sometimes we wish we had something like what others have had.
  • Did you notice how we again see the emergence of conversations about Christendom, as was the case (among other places) in chapter 5 on the coronation of Charlemagne?
  • The section on the hymn-writing of Charles Wesley was interesting; you may not have realized how many of his songs we still sing, as Noll notes. (See also this link: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/w/e/s/wesley_c.htm)
  • The section on Pietism is interesting because of the different ways in which that movement’s ideas have influenced modern Christianity, perhaps most strongly in the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus.”

If you’d like to see some of the resources that Wesley developed for use in his small groups, check out http://www.goforthall.org/articles/jw_dscplshp.html

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. As Noll says in the beginning of the chapter, Wesley preached in places that were considered scandalous.  Where are the forbidden zones these days?  Where would it be scandalous to preach or find preachers? Are those places in “real life,” on social media, or in other online locations?
  2. One of the aspects of this chapter that may connect with many readers is his description of the small-group model that began in the Pietist movement and became mainstream via the Methodists. What has been your experience of the kind of small-group Bible study and fellowship that the Pietists emphasized? Positive? Negative? What factors lead to “good” small-group experiences?
  3. Noll describes the doctrine of “Christian perfection” that Wesley held – one that has been somewhat controversial since he began to teach it. How would you put that teaching into your own words? Did your own religious background teach this doctrine? Do you believe this teaching to be justified by the Bible? Why or why not? Do you think it is realistic? Coherent? Helpful in our modern day?
  4. Evangelicals in the 18th century were more strongly dedicated to cross-cultural evangelism than the more established “state churches” in Europe at that time. Given what you already know and have learned in this chapter, why do you think that might have been the case?
  5. Noll notes that a variety of political views were accepted among early evangelicals. Do you see diversity on political matters among evangelicals today? What topics seems to have more diversity, and which don’t? Do you think that the current state of political opinion among evangelicals as an improvement or a fall from the range of early views in evangelicalism?
  6. One of the things that studying history does is to give us more resources as we look forward into the future. Given Noll’s discussion of the Wesleys’ innovation, I wonder: what are the most effective ways people are using social media and other new technologies in the service of religion? What are things you are seeing that are working well? What things are not working well?

Image credit for the stained-glass depiction of Charles Wesley, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury, in a church in North Carolina, USA: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Wesley,_John_Wesley,_and_Francis_Asbury_(stained_glass_–_Memorial_Chapel,_Lake_Junaluska,_North_Carolina).jpg (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 11

Parachurch Organizations

When one learns about church history in the post-Reformation world, one often reads about two approaches to following Jesus that really flourished during this time: one that emphasized the head (e.g., deism, “Protestant scholasticism,” etc.), and one that emphasized the heart (e.g., Pietism).  A third approach developed in the 19th century, namely, the social option (most fully in what’s called the “Social Gospel,” but also in various aspects of mission work, anti-slavery efforts, etc.).

soupkitchen

The 19th century also witnessed the rise of a new type of church organization, one that was involved in these kinds of efforts but also in many others, namely, the “voluntary societies.”  These were groups of Christians who banded together to work on a particular project, whether Bible translation, mission work, social relief, or whatever.  Two things are particularly interesting about this development, especially given the prior centuries of Christian history.

First, these groups did not line up along denominational lines; rather, these groups consisted of individuals dedicated to a common cause, no matter their denomination.  This was a truly new approach within Christian history.  We are certainly familiar with various groups in Christian history existing apart from others, but these were usually either intra-denominational groups (e.g., Catholic orders like the Franciscans or Jesuits) or splinters from denominations as the Protestant movement fragmented after the Reformation.  The new impulse in the 19th century was that individuals from various denominations could band together but not be under the thumb of any one denomination.  Not surprisingly, this approach was quite popular at the time (although some “Back to the Bible” movements could not find this kind of individual cooperation in the New Testament, and so they rejected the impulse)..

The second interesting part of this development was that it proved especially popular among women, who had not been typically in positions of power — or even participation, in some cases.  But these new voluntary societies provided women new opportunities to participate and even to lead — again, on all types of issues, even including overseas missions efforts.  This interest on the part of women also caused some controversy, but that opposition did not stem the tide of this new, innovative, and powerful development in Christian history.

The reason it is relevant for us is that this movement didn’t just stay in the 19th century; it has influenced our own world through what we call “parachurch organizations.”  “Para-” here refers to a Greek preposition that can mean “beside” or “alongside,” and so parachurch organizations hopefully don’t compete with or serve under churches, but rather work alongside churches and denominations.  Sound familiar?  It’s the same as the voluntary society in the 19th century.

What are some examples?  Have you ever: Young-Life

  • Read a Bible in a hotel room left by the Gideons?
  • Participated in Young Life in high school?
  • Sponsored a Compassion child?

If so, then you’ve been involved with a parachurch organization.

And there are many kinds.  Various organizations focus on things like college students (Campus Crusade for Christ), teaching people the basics of Christianity (the Alpha Course), prisons (Prison Fellowship), spiritual growth (Renovare), publishing (InterVarsity Press), politics (Focus on the Family), relief (Samaritan’s Purse), and homebuilding (Habitat for Humanity).  In other words, there is an almost limitless variety of such organizations.  And they have become very important for many modern Christians, both in how they spend their time, but also in how they steward their money.

On this last point, parachurch organizations can become controversial.  When people give money to Focus on the Family, they are (at least theoretically) not giving it to a local church.  Further, if a group is not under the oversight of a particular denomination, some people wonder if the group’s doctrinal stances can be trusted.

But the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, in my mind.  Parachurch organizations can be more organizationally nimble, they can effectively meet immediate needs on a wide scale, and (like the societies of the 19th century) they can provide new opportunities for participation and leadership to women, young people, and others for whom access to traditional channels of influence can be challenging (or totally unavailable).  And as you know, it can be challenging for young people who strive to follow Jesus to find ways to express that devotion in meaningful ways that make an impact in the world — and parachurch organizations can provide just that opportunity.

Image credits: http://kaufmanc99.blogspot.com and https://sf.younglife.org/AnalyticsReports/YL.jpg

John Wesley and Small Groups

john-wesleyOne of the most influential church leaders in the “modern” era (that is, the last few centuries) is John Wesley.  His influence has, of course, been especially strong in the Methodist and other Wesleyan churches.  But his work has also influenced other churches in a variety of ways (his preaching, the hymns his brother wrote, etc.)  Perhaps his greatest influence among churches of ALL kinds, though, has been his idea of Christians interacting together in small groups.

You may know that Wesley developed an organizational structure for his fledgling movement of folks who wanted to follow Jesus more intentionally.  You may also know that he did not call his gatherings of a handful of Christians by the now-familiar name of “small groups,” but rather as “classes.”  These meetings focused on testimonies, prayer, and spiritual encouragement — quite like the small groups with which we are familiar — and they became “a highly successful feature of the Methodist awakening” (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language)  As it happens, Wesley did not invent this idea, but it was part of the influence he received from the Pietist movement in Lutheran Christianity: the Pietists had developed this mode of meeting already, and part of Wesley’s “conversion experience” occurred in a Moravian (Pietist) small group meeting.

But as is often the case in history, one person invents something, but another popularizes it.  And without Wesley, this way of interacting may never have become the phenomenon that it has.  It has persisted, becoming very important in modern American Christianity.  Whether one speaks of parachurch movements like Bible Study Fellowship (which according to its website currently boasts over 1,000 groups in 39 nations, with over 200,000 members), denominational groups, or simply “life groups” within large congregations, one finds a vast group of Christians involved in some kind of small-group life.

In fact, I often hear from ACU students about their experiences in various small groups.  Many of these students belong to the Beltway park congregation, which makes life groups an important part of its college ministry.  Others are involved with smaller congregational college ministries, which function like small groups.  What these groups usually have in common is a desire to “do life together,” as people often say, and can include things like Bible study, prayer, worship, and/or other kinds of spiritual fellowship.

small-groups

If you ask me why these groups are so important, I think that it’s the close relationships that people experience there.  It’s probably not an accident that Wesley birthed his idea in the urban settings of pre-Industrial-Revolution England.  As you may know, the rapid urbanization and depersonalization of the 19th century in Europe made life difficult for many Christians.  They were uprooted from small villages and close-knit family structures, and they had to find their spiritual way in what was functionally a new world.

Our world is not that different.  Many of us no longer live in the places our other family members do, and even at a school as community-focused as the one in which I teach, it’s impossible to be friends with 3000+ other undergraduates.  We find meaningful relationship in small groups, where we can know and be known.  You might even be thinking, “Maybe Jesus knew what he was doing when he called only 12 men to be his closest followers.”  Indeed.

If you choose (or have chosen) to be involved in a group like this, may God bless you in that endeavor.  And for all of us, when we hear people talk about their small groups — let’s remember that this is a way of living that is rooted in church history!

Image credits: http://anglicanhistory.org/wesley/jwesley.jpg and http://www.horizonchurch.tv/images/group.jpg