My Lord, give me leave to say once more, I willingly put the whole cause upon this issue. What are the general consequences of our preaching? Are there more tares or wheat? more good men destroyed (as Mr. Church once supposed,) or more wicked men saved?
— John Wesley, 1750
In this letter to a critic and bishop of the Church of England, John Wesley brings forth his ministry for examination and defense. If the bishop can refute the evidence of men and women being turned from wicked and God-denying ways of life toward lives of holiness, then Wesley will relent.
How prepared are we to put our ministry to the same test?
One of the greatest failings I feel in our denomination is that it has put people like me in a pulpit with little expectation and zero coaching about how to spread scriptural holiness. We raise up preachers to manage the system we have not to reform the church and nation by spreading scriptural holiness.
And so, by Methodist standards, we have no way to tell whether we are doing well.
The old Methodist way to do this was to look around at the state of life in a town before and after the Methodists started preaching there. Were open sinners repenting and crying out to God? Did drunkards put away their drink? Did profane men cease their cursing? Were the poor clothed and fed, and were their children put in schools?
I will confess that I don’t know how to do this in the United States in 2014. I don’t know how you get heard. I don’t know what words to use to rattle sleeping sinners awake.
But I don’t get the impression anyone actually cares that I am not competent for that work.
Will Willimon in Advent preached a sermon about John the Baptist calling the people a brood of vipers. He ended that sermon by talking about the way his church had tried to reach out to a family that lived near the church. It was a family in distress, and so they had invited them to church and tried to extend care. Nothing came of it.
Willimon said that he ran into the father of the family some time later. He was cleaned up so much that Willimon did not recognize him. The man said a Pentecostal preacher had burst into his house one day, grabbed him up beneath the chin, and lit into him with hellfire and damnation. “Anybody’s done what you done to your wife and children is going to hell.” And the man said he got redeemed right there on that sofa.
Willimon said he felt bad that his church could not do what he needed. The man said, “You Methodists were offering me aspirin. I needed massive chemotherapy.”
I can preach a decent sermon. I care about people. I pray well enough with those in distress. I listen. I can teach a Bible study lesson. These are good enough for what we seem to want and need.
The United Methodist Church will have me. But would John Wesley have allowed me to preach in his connection?