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Embracing Wesleyan Spirituality

By  Steve Harper

Every religion has a spirituality, because spirituality simply means our capacity to relate to God through certain established ways for doing that. Moreover, there are varieties of “spiritualities” within religions. For example, we can speak about Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant spiritualities. And we are able to further sub-divide them, with expressions that speak more of their origin (e.g., Reformed) or of their emphasis (e.g., Contemplative). The ability and necessity of speaking about spirituality in precise ways brings us to an exploration of the features of Wesleyan spirituality. In this article we will look at some selected features of it.

First and foremost, we must remember that early Methodism was a movement, not a denomination. Christians who affiliated with Methodism were usually members in other churches. As such, the Wesleys did not want to separate from any legitimate expression of the Body of Christ. When John Wesley wrote “The General Rules of The United Societies” in 1744, he made that very clear. From the beginning, Methodism was an ecumenical movement, as well as a reforming movement within the Church of England.

With respect to Wesleyan spirituality, this means we do not define or describe it with any intent of separating ourselves from the rest of historic, orthodox Christianity. In fact, John Wesley said on multiple occasions that God had raised up the people called Methodist to revive primitive Christianity. Nothing that we will talk about in this article should be used to isolate ourselves from any other Christian. But at the same time, Wesleyan spirituality is not so generic as to be vague or useless in establishing the life of discipleship. Again, as John Wesley put it, the aim of Methodism was to make “real Christians,” not “almost Christians.” What we call Wesleyan spirituality is at the heart of how he and others sought to do that.

We begin with the message of Wesleyan spirituality, which means that we begin with theology, as all valid spiritualities do. Unfortunately, spirituality has been caricatured by some as shallow, experienced-based, and even “touchy-feely.” But that is not true, and it reflects more upon the misperceptions of critics than upon true spirituality itself. On the contrary, Wesleyan spirituality emerges from sound doctrine informed by Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

The heart of holiness

At the heart of Wesleyan spirituality is holiness. Wesley’s conscious choice to place Methodism in the historic holy-living tradition is a reflection of his discernment regarding the centrality of holiness in historic Christianity. We cannot go into detail about holiness in an article like this, but there must be no doubt that it is at the core of Wesleyan theology. Wesleyan spirituality is about making disciples who are holy in heart and life—men and women who live in formative community that is developmental in nature (personal holiness) and missional in purpose (social holiness).

Furthermore, Wesleyan spirituality—as a theology of holiness—is also a spirituality of grace. God invites us to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2). But this can only happen by grace and in response to grace. So, Wesleyan spirituality speaks of prevenient grace, converting grace, sanctifying grace, and glorifying grace. These are not four different kinds of grace, but rather the singular grace of God as it intersects our lives at different points along the human journey. God’s grace comes to us as we are and where we are, and that’s why we are able to speak of it in different terms.  But grace is not either imposed or irresistible; we must respond to it and interact with it.

In terms of spiritual formation we can summarize it this way. Through prevenient grace, we “awaken” to God. Through converting grace, we “attach” to God. Through sanctifying grace, we “abandon” to God and “advance” in God. And finally, in glorifying grace, we make the transition from earth to heaven, where we “arrive” in heaven to forever glorify God and experience our final Sabbath rest.  Underneath these broad descriptions we go on to describe the grand doctrines of Christianity and are thus enabled to see our life “in Christ” in its detailed manifestations and overall magnificence.

This brings us to the means of Wesleyan spirituality. We have already noted that grace is not given apart from God’s desire for us to respond to it. We do so with what many have called the spiritual disciplines—what John and Charles Wesley called “the means of grace.” Before looking at each of the means, we must emphasize what the Wesleys emphasized, that the stated disciplines are means, not ends. They are never “proofs” of our spirituality, but only the practices in which we engage to receive and nurture it. Many mistakes have been made in Christian history by those who have tried to make their practice of the disciplines “badges of honor” and ways of elevating themselves above others who are not as devoted as they appear to be.

Instead, the means of grace are the usual channels through which God conveys grace to us. The means are not the Water of Life, but only the pipelines through which it flows. But as we drink of that Water, we find that the means promote both personal and social holiness. The Instituted Means of Grace promote personal holiness (piety) and the Prudential Means of Grace promote social holiness (mercy). Taken together, they establish and advance inward and outward holiness, and they do so both with respect to individual formation and life together in community.

Instituted Means of Grace

The Instituted Means of Grace are so named because we can see them firmly established in the life and ministry of Christ himself: prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and conferencing. These are practiced privately and collectively, and they establish and advance “the mind that was in Christ” (Philippians 2:5)—which was one of John Wesley’s favorite descriptions of true Christianity. Again, it is not possible to go into these five means in detail. I have written more extensively about them in my book, Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition: A Workbook.

Suffice it to say that prayer is the singularly central means of grace. John Wesley called it the “chief means of grace.” He also said that we could not make up for a lack of prayer by using the other means. In every way he could, he showed that the Christian spiritual life is established and maintained by prayer, precisely because it is the means by which we relate to God—and Christianity is, at its heart, a relationship. With that relational base in place, we are then given the additional means of the Bible, the Lord’s Supper, Fasting, and Conferencing to strengthen that relationship, which is essentially described in the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor.

Prudential Means of Grace

This leads directly to the Prudential Means of Grace. The term comes from the emerging belief by the church that inward holiness would lead to outward holiness. The word “prudent” is a word that bespeaks action—putting our faith into practice. And Wesley commended three Prudential means of grace: doing no harm, doing good in every way possible, and attending the ordinances of God. Bishop Rueben Job has revived their practice through his excellent little book, Three Simple Rules. John Wesley would say that the Prudential means of grace are the primary ways we express our love for God and neighbor.

Again, we cannot go into each of these in detail. In “The General Rules of The United Societies” John Wesley gave specific examples for practicing the Prudential means of grace. Some illustrations do not fit life today, but they make the point that spirituality is specific. It does not “dangle in the air,” but rather “puts feet” to its convictions. The conviction to “do no harm” means that we never consciously do anything we know will damage someone else. We make this commitment in both our personal conduct and also in our collective life (e.g. business, industry, politics).

But the Prudential means of grace also remind us that the Christian life is not simply a matter of what we avoid; it is also what we engage ourselves to accomplish. So, we “do all the good” that we can. In our elimination of evil, we move to replace it with goodness. The ethic of elimination becomes one of contribution. As the old saying goes, we leave the world better than we found it. Hence, Wesleyan spirituality is supportive of and engaged in all the efforts to improve life on this planet, and the life of the planet itself.

The “ordinances of God” are those things which enable us to do this. They are the acts which keep us attuned to God, so that the Spirit can speak to us in all the ways we have just described. The ordinances were often thought of as the Instituted means of grace practiced in community, but they could also be more widely described as any of the ways we keep positioned, so that God can get our attention and work through us for the good of others. So, what we have in the means of Wesleyan spirituality is a comprehensive exposure to the grace of God—an exposure which establishes and deepens holiness of heart and life.

The method of Wesleyan spirituality

We come now to the methods of Wesleyan spirituality. After all, John Wesley accepted the name “Methodism” to describe the movement, so there must be a “method” somewhere! And indeed there is. It is a structure which helped to manifest each element of grace and invite a response to grace.

• The United Societies (the largest Methodist meeting) reflected Prevenient grace by inviting people to “flee the wrath to come” and give serious attention to God.

• The Class Meetings (groups of a dozen or so) reflected Converting grace by bringing people to the point of profession of faith and the sustained development of that initial commitment.

• The Band Meetings (groups of three to five) reflected the need for more-personal attention, where the group “watched over one another in love” week after week, advancing sanctifying grace.

Together with the Church, the Methodist movement was present and in ministry to the dying, thus relating to glorifying grace. This is one of the geniuses of early Methodism: there was a ministry structure for each element of grace.

In addition to the formative structures for participants in general, there were two additional groups: one for strugglers and one for those who were experiencing special growth at the moment.

• The Penitent Bands were the place where the discouraged could go for support and hopefully, reactivation of faith.

• The Select Societies were the place where people who were “on fire for God” in particular ways could receive support and counsel commensurate with their experience.

When we apply this to spiritual formation, we see that Wesleyan spirituality had established methods to care for the “day in and day out” development of faith. But it also had structures to care for those who were in decline and those who were making exceptional progress. So, the “highs and lows” were provided for in the larger context of ongoing community formation.

“Ecclesiola en ecclesia”

Before we leave the methods, we must make it clear that Wesleyan spirituality’s highest peak is the church. Again, the Wesleys and the early Methodists have been caricatured as malcontents who were just waiting for the chance to “jump ship” from the church. But an accurate reading of the early Methodist movement reveals just the opposite. Methodism was seen from beginning to end as an “ecclesiola en ecclesia”—a “little church within the big church.” It was intended to develop disciples who would be the finest church members imaginable.

Despite it deficiencies, John Wesley never ceased to call himself “a Church of England man.” He rejected all views of Methodism as a substitute church, and for much of his life he even forbade the Methodists from meeting at times when meetings at the church were held. It was only later, when Methodists were deprived of the sacraments by the Church of England, that he saw “the handwriting on the wall” and began to lay the groundwork for a movement that would eventually become its own denomination in the United States and elsewhere. The point of mentioning this is that Wesleyan spirituality never condones any Christian life that degrades the church or denies the need for it.

The message, means, and methods of Wesleyan spirituality bring us to the final point: the mission. Without this feature, any spirituality becomes consumeristic—what Walter Trobisch described as “spiritually bloated.” The legitimate turning inward in the spiritual life is never the final act. Every turning inward is for the purpose of “re-turning” outward. It is an oversimplification to say what I am about to say, but it makes the point. Membership is lived inside the walls, but discipleship is always for life outside the walls. Membership has to do with the offices and tasks we perform for the good of the church; discipleship has to do with the way we practice our daily vocations for the sake of the world.

Wesley clearly understood the Methodist movement this way. The Class Meetings had not been in existence very long before the leaders were required to go house to house, inquiring about the spiritual wellbeing of the members. But as they did so, they were to collect a penny a week and a shilling a quarter. This money was designated for ministries that would provide relief to the poor and oppressed—missional spirituality. This specific practice was fueled by a larger, threefold vision: the regeneration of the lost, the renewal of the church, and the reform of the nation.

Directed into mission

In other words, every facet of early Methodism was eventually directed into mission. Different Methodists would express their spirituality in one of the three areas more than the others, and there was never a “one size fits all” definition of “a good Methodist.” Variety and specificity always characterized the mission. But every Methodist understood that he or she was commissioned by Christ and sent by him into the world, to witness and to serve in some way. Institutionally we may have a category called “inactive members,” but no such category exists in Wesleyan spirituality.

One of the surest signs that Wesleyan spirituality is taking root in a life or in a community is when we understand that we are not only called to have the mind and heart of Christ, but we are also called to do the work of Christ. To be sure, that work is empowered by the Spirit, but it happens! It is impossible to claim to have the mind of Christ without having the motivation which emerges from that mind. We cannot claim to have the heart of God without having the redemptive and restorative impulses that beat in that heart. When a homemaker does her home-making for Christ, when a teacher teaches for Jesus, when a doctor practices medicine for the Lord, when a farmer grows crops for God—when each of us “fans out” Monday through Saturday to do what we normally do, but do it in Jesus’ Name—that is when we know we have embraced Wesleyan spirituality to the fullest extent.

There are multitudes of Wesleyan Christians who practice the kind of spirituality I’ve described briefly in this article. But there are also multitudes who have yet to embrace it. For more than thirty years, I have described it this way: many of us need to stop studying the journeys of Paul in Sunday school, and start studying our own journeys. In other words, we need to receive the “faith once delivered to the saints” in all the ways we can, but then we need to respond to the singular implication which eventually comes to each of us: live by Christ, in Christ, with Christ, and for Christ! When we do this, we have embraced Wesleyan spirituality.

 

Steve Harper is Professor of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies at the Florida-Dunnam campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando. He has authored 12 books and co-authored six others. Dr. Harper’s latest book is Talking in the Dark, Praying When Life Doesn’t Make Sense.


 

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