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Christian people have always organized themselves into self-conscious groups within the larger body of the church. There has been no time in the history of the church, from the earliest period to the present, when there have not been identifiable parties, followers of certain teachers, and adherents of particular doctrines. For the past five centuries, independent denominations have been the way that Western Christendom has been constituted. In the United States there are 212 Christian denominations that have provided statistics to the National Council of Churches.1 This number has declined only slightly in the past twenty-five years despite mergers and realignments. A number of denominations do not provide data, so the figure 212 is a partial count. While the various Christian churches share a common origin and most beliefs, denominations based on both theological and sociological differences will continue to be with us.

Denominations are useful organizations. They provide the vehicle for witness and ministry. They allow for social and cultural diversity among God's people, so that such diversity is not a barrier to accepting the Christian faith. The individual can, therefore, find a local church within a particular denomination in which the language and the culture are familiar. The fact that denominations persist is an indication of their usefulness. A vital church is one that affirms its denominational heritage.

Why Our Heritage Has Been Down played

There has been much negative sentiment toward denominationalism, particularly in the second half of this century. Many have accepted the notion that denominations represent a surrender to human sinfulness; eventually this sin of separateness would be overcome and all of the churches would merge into one. While this would be an evolutionary process, its inevitability was accepted by many. Interdenominational cooperation would eventually give way to organizational or organic union.

The ecumenical movement has been viewed as the way the churches would ultimately be organizationally united. It should be noted, however, that the birth of the ecumenical movement coincided with the development of big business in America. The giant corporation was seen by church leaders as an example to be emulated. The consolidation of business was made a model for the churches. Josiah Strong, a leader of the Evangelical Alliance, took a practical, rather than a theological, approach to church union. In his book, The New Era or the Coming Kingdom, Strong states, "Business, open-eyed, has seen and seized the immense advantage which lies in consolidation, organization; but the Protestant churches do not yet appreciate this advantage."2 The corporate model is still favored by many church leaders, although they tend not to be as explicit about their models as were their predecessors. Even though today's society challenges the dominance of the corporate giant (witness the breakup of the Bell telephone system), some church leaders still strive to create a religious monopoly. The creation of negative attitudes and feelings of guilt about denominations has contributed to their decline. Is it really true that our denomination is a hindrance to the gospel? Or is the particular heritage and structure of United Methodism a unique vehicle for the gospel?

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Know Our History

A vital denomination must understand its past in order to minister to its present. Methodism began in eighteenth-century England, a difficult time and place for Christian belief and Christian life. The intellectual life of England was dominated by various Enlightenment influences. Many intellectuals equated religion with superstition, an outmoded vestige that thinking modern people would soon outgrow. Deism was all the rage within the universities and among many Church of England clergy. Deism's limitation of faith to reason undercut Christian authority and proclamation. Newly discovered science was said to be the master of the future. The rational, autonomous individual became the self-assured center of intellectual and moral reality. Most people were more interested in nature than in revelation.

Coupled with this intellectual climate was widespread social deterioration, brought about by changes from a rural to an industrial society in England. Poor workers, uprooted from the security and the values of the farm, crowded into squalid cities and bleak factory towns. Alcoholism was a major social evil. Some of the rich profited from child labor in the mines, the lucrative African slave trade with the American colonies, and horrible conditions in the factories.

This was the world of John Wesley (1703-1791), a world much like our own. Whereas many of us have accepted our world as a given, a fact to be assimilated and accepted, an irresistible source of institutional decline, our spiritual forebears saw their world as something to be confronted, converted, and challenged with the love of God in Christ. Not content to see their beloved Church of England decline into a modest, backseat, vaguely civilizing influence on English culture; not willing to accept the social evil around them as unalterably given, they trusted the power of the gospel to turn their world upside down. We must follow their example. By reclaiming where we have been as followers of Wesley, we can recover new direction and energy for the future.

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Affirm Our Heritage

Great movements are dependent on great leaders (see Chapter 5), and the Methodist Revival was no exception. The brothers, John and Charles Wesley, were reared within a Church of England rectory by strong parents. John was a natural leader with strong commitments. While a student at Oxford, he became the leader of a group of devout students who followed rigorous spiritual disciplines in order to strengthen themselves as Christians. The characteristics of this little group - exact discipline, sacramental rigors, visitation of prisons, study and prayer, mutual encouragement and correction - became life-long, distinctive characteristics of Wesley's approach to Christian formation. The group was derided by scoffing fellow students, who called them the Holy Club, Bible Moths, and Methodists.

After Oxford, the Wesleys had an unsuccessful stint as missionaries in Georgia. Their work was ineffective, principally because of their rigidity and inability to work with the rough colonists and Native Americans. On shipboard, returning to England, John encountered a group of Moravians who told him of their conviction of the need for an assured, inner experience of Jesus Christ as Savior, an experience the Wesleys had not had. Their spirits were troubled until May of 1738. First Charles and then John underwent moving conversion experiences. John wrote in his Journal: "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sin, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." The event compelled Wesley to undertake his ministry afresh, risking, experimenting, organizing to "spread scriptural holiness over the land."

Wesley was a demanding, compulsive, and autocratic (by our standards) leader who subjugated everything to the new movement and expected his followers to do likewise. With immense energy, he set out to do nothing less than to evangelize his whole nation. In a straightforward, direct style, Wesley preached to the underclass around the mining pits, on the depressed edges of the cities, and in the open fields. Although he had received the best Oxford education, Wesley refused to carry on theology in the academic style. Theology, for him, was the servant of the church. He did not trouble himself about theological systems or expend energy on speculation about the existence of God or whether the divine could be made credible to modern people. He started with his own experience of the grace of God, an experience that was more real to Wesley and to the "people called Methodists" than any abstract speculation. Rational argument always took a back seat to the experience of the presence of God and to the proclamation of God's grace.

John Wesley felt a strong mandate to reach the mass of people who were unchurched and had not responded to the gospel. The first time he tried field preaching, he used as his text, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor." For the most part, he did not seek out or attempt to evangelize the upper classes. No Methodist preaching post was established in any of the five most privileged boroughs of London.

The poor heard him gladly. In his preaching and writing, Wesley returned to the source: the Bible. He intended to be a biblical theologian. Although he stressed the need for all belief and practice to be tested by experience, reason, and church tradition, scripture was the fundamental source for theology and the ultimate court of appeal in differences of opinion. The two principal resources that Wesley left to guide his followers are his Sermons and his Notes on the New Testament.

His preaching centered on the grace of God. Although he never lapsed into fuzzy thinking or mushy affirmations of theological vagaries, such as "pluralism," Wesley was determined to stress the central truths of faith and to leave divisive arguments about minor "opinions" to others. For Wesley, theology served the interest of Christian formation; "practical divinity" is what interested him. Theology was not an end in itself, but the means for transformed "holy living and dying." We are born sinners, even those whose most sincere and earnest actions are flawed. Unlike more optimistic assessors of human nature, Wesley was able to be so honest about human sin because he was so confident of the love of God toward sinners. Salvation is the free gift of God's grace apart from our good works, perhaps even in spite of our good works.

Then of what value is holy living? The tension between faith and works was the theological problem that Wesley confronted. Regeneration and new birth are given by God, but the resulting new life is expressed in love of God and neighbor. Wesley discovered that the Reformation emphasis on "faith alone" apart from "holy living" often undercut the Christian's moral life. The two must be held together. As United Methodist theologian Albert Outler has said, Wesley

evangelized the Christian ethic and moralized the Christian evangel, . . . that repudiated both human self-assertion and passivity. He turned out "rules" by the dozen - but also with warnings that even the most scrupulous rule-keeping will get you only to the state of being an "almost Christian."3

While stressing that we are indeed sinners, that God's love in Christ is our only path to redemption and happiness, Wesley also stressed "Christian perfection," perhaps his most controversial assertion. "Christians are called to love God with all their heart and to serve Him with all their strength: which is precisely what I apprehended to be meant by the scriptural term perfection," said Wesley.4 The stress on perfection was congruent with Wesley's intention to link faith and works, salvation and ethics. Christians are those who constantly examine every area of their lives and order each affection, each desire, and each act in accordance with divine will. In stressing sanctification - Christian formation - Wesley wedded the Protestant stress on justification with the Roman Catholic stress on holy living. Instantaneous new birth is followed by a lifelong process of sanctification. John Wesley asserted the value of regular participation in the corporate worship of the church through prayer, Bible reading, fasting, Christian conference, and the Lord's Supper. This is in contrast to some Protestants of his day (and our own), because these "ordinary means of grace," as Wesley called the sacraments and the church, strengthen and perfect us. The Wesleyan stress on Christian formation, education, attack on social evils and destructive personal habits, the duty of constant communion, and the necessity for membership within a supportive group of fellow Christians can all be attributed to his emphasis on perfection.

If Wesley had only been a great preacher or a popular writer, we would have had no United Methodist Church. He organized his followers because he knew that no one can sustain the Christian life alone - the Christian faith must be institutionally embodied through creative political, social, and structural arrangements that enable us to be transformed into the new creations that God intends for us to be. Wesley formed his people into "societies," large groups that assembled for preaching and spiritual instruction, and "classes," small, disciplined groups of about twelve persons who gathered for prayer, mutual support, and study. Even smaller "bands" of four or five persons met for closer spiritual direction. The formation of these small groups was the organizational stroke of genius of Methodism. Not content simply to gain enthusiastic converts who could point to some vague emotional experience as the source of their discipleship, Wesley organized people into a structure whereby they received the support, correction, and encouragement they needed to live as Christians in a society that operated from a set of assumptions other than the gospel. Confident that they had experienced a reality greater than that of the world, these Methodists sought to embody and to inculcate the Spirit of Christ, to make people who, in their daily living, resembled Christ. Wesley knew enough about human nature and the nature of the gospel to know that no individual alone can sustain this hope, can embody the Christian life-style. Therefore, he created structures of corporate life, which enabled the Methodists to produce the sort of disciples they believed the gospel deserved. In salvation, God takes the initiative in reaching out to us in Jesus Christ. But we must respond through a concrete, communal embodiment of our response to God's initiative. Wesley, as well as Asbury, Otterbein, and Albright, really believed that Christians are "called to be saints," called to "perfection" - that is, maturity of thought and faithfulness of life-style. In other words, Wesley was convinced that the church is in the business of producing Christian character.

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Recovering Our Heritage

Some time between then and now, we succumbed to the notion that the church is in the business of character affirming rather than character producing. Somehow we bought the idea that the task of the Christian life is adjustment to what is, rather than conversion and sanctification into what ought to be. Lacking confidence in our ability to specify the exact shape of Christian character, we ceased trying to form distinctively Christian life-styles. One of our current sources of membership loss is our inability to retain our young people, after their maturity, in our church. When they become adults, too many of our children leave The United Methodist Church for other denominations, while others drop out of the church altogether. Decades of haphazard Christian education, the ethics of cultural accommodation, non-biblical preaching, and neglect of the task of formation have left us with a bitter harvest. Our theology succumbed to the same individualism, feel-good-do-your-own-thing morality, and narcissistic attitudes as the rest of American society. You don't need a church when there is little distinction between the Christian way and the American way.

Yet there is reason to be optimistic about future possibilities for our church because the Wesleyan heritage, if we recover it in our church life and thought, makes United Methodists uniquely suited to the challenges of our time. Increasing numbers of people long for meaning in life, meaning beyond their own selfish interests, meaning not of their sole creation, meaning that gives their lives significance by joining them to some project greater than themselves. Millions of our fellow Americans have not heard the gospel or seen it enacted in such a way as to call forth their commitment. Millions more have earnestly tried to live the Christian life on their own, but have become frustrated and defeated because they have sought to be Christians in a way that Wesley knew was impossible - on their own, without a supportive, connected, disciplined community of fellow believers.

Here are the unique aspects of our heritage, which are our legitimate birthright as the heirs of Wesley and which need to be reasserted and reclaimed in our day:
  1. The experience of the grace of God is the central fact of the gospel Wesley affirmed "think and let think" in matters of tangential and extraneous Christian opinions. He did so, not because he affirmed "pluralism" (a polite, contemporary way of saying that we are hopelessly fragmented in our beliefs) or because he thought that theology doesn't make any difference.5 He was determined to keep his followers focused on the central, irreducible, non-negotiable theological affirmation of the Christian faith. Christians are those who have all their thoughts, affections, actions, and efforts transformed by personal experience of the grace of God. Our church has become distracted in a variety of competing and contradictory theologies of this and that and have raised a number of extraneous "opinions" to the level of doctrine. In his evangelistic efforts, Wesley never tried to be all things to all people or to accommodate the Christian witness to the intellectual fads of his day. In fact, his revival was an assertive challenge to the most widely accepted and enthusiastically held social and intellectual values of the eighteenth century. United Methodists must take a cue from Wesley and reassert the biblical bedrock of belief.
  2. Christian formation is the central purpose of the church and the goal of the Christian life. Wesley indicated that God's design in raising up these preachers called Methodist was to reform the nation, more specifically, the church, and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land. For us, the Christian faith is more than a noble philosophy of life, more than a warm, individual emotional experience. The Christian faith has to do with the making of holy people who are so formed by the love of Christ that they know the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay. Failing at formation, we either try to make the Christian faith credible to every thinking, sensitive American, or we make generalized political pronouncements to the society as a whole. The recent bishops' statement on nuclear arms, for instance, calls for discussion and debate among United Methodists and for action by Congress. But it never speaks directly to how contemporary United Methodists might risk forming our lives in such a way that we become witnesses for peace. Holy living and dying require self-discipline, cost, risk, and sacrifice; perhaps that is why we have forsaken the Wesleyan call to perfection in favor of pronouncements. Yet, our people are as hungry for order, adventure, and meaning in their lives as were the Bristol coal miners who heard Wesley.
  3. The gospel demands to be preached and lived before all. Contemporary United Methodists know enough of the story of our origins to be shocked that our church has basically abandoned the task of evangelizing our society and has settled down to keep house within our own churches. We have switched from an evangelization-mission mode of operation to a maintenance mode. Some of our leaders have accepted the decline in membership as an unhappy fact of life, blaming it on irresistible forces of secularization. Rather than to evangelize the rapidly exploding ethnic minority populations in our country, we have decided to subsidize and to be content with the small proportion of ethnic churches we already have. We have trained our clergy so well that few of them seem able to lead in the evangelization of the poor and the oppressed, ill equipped as they are to preach the gospel and to form churches among those whom Oxford-educated Wesley saw as the chief recipients of the gospel. Wesley's fear that his "people called Methodist" would become wealthy and complacent, custodians of great buildings and guardians of the status quo, has become a reality. Yet, we have, in our heart of hearts, the memory of a church that once transformed English society and moved across America, not by intending to transform society, but by proclaiming God's gracious Word to all. We are, therefore, encouraged by recent calls to rekindle the fire of evangelism and growth. We believe that growth lies, as it did for Wesley, in the creative formation of new structures that turn our intentions into institutional realities.

The Wesleyan revival took hold and continued, even increased in momentum, after Wesley's death, in great part because Wesley channeled the spiritual energy that was ignited through his preaching into an effective, efficient, and functional organization that knew what it was doing and had the structure to do it. By taking seriously the perennial tasks of Christian formation, care, and accountability, Wesley bequeathed to us a heritage that gives us the means of revitalizing today's church.


  1. Constant H. Jacquet, Jr., ed., Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), p. 244.
  2. Josiah Strong, The New Era or the Coming Kingdom (New York: Baker & Taylor Co., 1893), p. 296.
  3. Albert Outler,"The Place of Wesley in the Christian Tradition," in The Place of John Wesley in the Christian Tradition, ed. Kenneth E. Rowe (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1976), p. 22.
  4. John Telford, ed., The Letters of the Reverend John Wesley, 8 vols. (London: Epworth Press, 1931), vol. 3, pp. 120-21.
  5. Mark Horst, "The Problem of Theological Pluralism", The Christian Century, vol. 103, no. 33, November 5, 1986, pp. 971-74.

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Copyright© 1987 By Abingdon Press

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