John Wesley gets paraphrased a lot in United Methodist circles. For those who read and study Wesley’s works, the things that get said about him are often cringe-worthy, which is a shame because so much of what he wrote could be of such value to our work today.
Here is a quotation from Wesley that I do not see very often in United Methodist commentaries or hear very often from the lips of our bishops.
It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord.
Wesley did not believe that preaching alone could transform hearts and lives. In fact, he knew from hard experience that preaching was not sufficient to the work.
Here are some thoughts on the necessity of visitation from house to house taken from the minutes of the earliest Methodist conferences:
For, after all our preaching, many of our people are almost as ignorant as if they had never heard the gospel. I speak as plain as I can, yet I frequently meet with those who have been my hearers many years, who know not whether Christ be God or man. And how few are there that know the nature of repentance, faith, and holiness! Most of them have a sort of confidence that God will save them, while the world has their hearts. I have found by experience, that one of these has learned more from one hour’s close discourse, than from ten years’ public preaching.
I don’t know what stands out for you in that quotation, but here is the line that grabs me: “Most of them have a sort of confidence that God will save them, while the world has their hearts.”
How little the human heart changes despite the passage of time. How many of our people in our churches could that statement describe? How many of us know our people well enough to have a good sense of whether it applies to them or not?
There is some comfort in the realization that Wesley struggled with the same things that plague our churches these days. Elsewhere in the minutes of the early Methodist conferences, you can find reports of disguntled leadership and complaints about new programs or ministry ideas. Ministry was messy then as it is now.
As I read through Wesley’s program for visitation among the people, I am struck by how animated his work was by a clear mission: to save souls. That mission determines the shape of his work.
For instance, as he describes what a good visit to a house of a Methodist would entail, he includes the following:
Next inquire into his state, whether convinced or unconvinced, converted or unconverted. Tell him, if need be, what conversion is; and then renew and enforce the inquiry.*
Just reflect on that a moment. How many times have you asked such questions of members of your congregation? How many times have you as a church member had a pastor ask such questions of you?
They are uncomfortable questions and Wesley knew this. His advice on the matter includes acknowledgement of the resistance and discomfort such inquiries produce, but he always came back to whether such questions could be avoided if our aim is to save souls.
And so this somewhat rambling blog post comes to an end with this lingering question: Am I eager enough to save souls to let that mission shape my work? Are we?
*Note for those who think Wesley did not believe in “conversion” that here he seems to discuss quite directly.