John Wesley’s Secret for Building Community

Gary Neal Hansen

Gary Neal Hansen

By Gary Neal Hansen –

By 1748, John Wesley had created a remarkably effective model of small group community, and they were growing fast. What was the secret? Remarkably, Wesley said that the whole thing took them by surprise. “They had no previous design or plan at all; but everything arose just as the occasion offered.”

It is hard to believe, actually. Success by flailing around? Success by just sort of trying one thing and another?

By his death in 1791 the Methodists were a global movement of effective evangelism, renewal, and church planting with more than 70,000 members in England and more than 40,000 in the new United States — and other mission stations as well.

What was Wesley’s secret? He had a lot of them. He was a powerful preacher and an organizational genius at building Christian community. Early Methodism was deeply concerned with conversion, but equally committed to placing converts in small groups to build lives of discipleship. It is a key example of how community life can blossom into mission.

According to his own testimony, Wesley’s secrets were 

• Trying new things

• Seeing what worked

• Ditching things that failed

• Innovation

In his Plain Account of the People Called Methodists these innovations are definitely present. He started by meeting with all of them in a big group every Thursday for advice and prayer. But the big group ended up being too unwieldy. Then the followers decided to gather for prayer over dinner on Fridays. That was a helpful idea, but some were too far away.

Eventually, they organized groups of 12, with the leader of each group visiting the members each week. Soon it seemed better for the groups to actually meet together. The early Methodists also tried smaller demographic groupings such as single men, married women, whatever. They also tried various leadership roles, including stewards and visitors of the sick.

Wesley was willing to try anything if it would help people bind together to grow in Christ and serve the world. He and his organization were nimble. This is an area where many churches struggle. Inside many congregations the leader has to work against a classic set of obstacles: “We’ve never done it that way.” “We’ve always done it this way.” “What if someone doesn’t like it?” “What if it doesn’t work?”

What if, like Wesley, we committed ourselves to try anything that might draw people together to follow Jesus?

The early Methodists were flexible, ready to try new things and leave behind anything that didn’t work. To those who didn’t like his changes and innovations, Wesley said: “continually changing one thing and another, is not a weakness or fault, as you imagine, but a peculiar advantage which we enjoy.”

However, it would be a very serious mistake to think that there was no method to this aspect of Methodism. They didn’t just flip things around to do something new. That would have made the movement tumble down.

Wesley said, “There is only one condition previously required in those who desire admission into this society, — ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’” Wesley had absolute clarity about who aspired to be a Christian. He was also definitive about this being a requirement to join his movement. You had to want to be holy.

Each tweak to his meetings marked an effort to help people grow more like Jesus. Leadership emerged from within the groups because everyone involve shared this same grounding conviction.

• They were all there to grow in the life to which Jesus calls us.

• Each needed the help of others to grow in that life.

• As they grew closer through helping each other, they developed the gifts and the passion for the process.

Wesley set up a high barrier to entry. His members had to be eagerly seeking to grow in Christ; to “flee from the wrath to come.” If they didn’t show that in their lives, they weren’t allowed to continue with the group. The system of regular meetings and loving oversight created processes of discernment.

“Many disorderly walkers were detected,” Wesley wrote. “Some turned from the evil of their ways. Some were put away from us. Many saw it with fear, and rejoiced unto God with reverence.”

It’s important to note the distinct lack of apology. They just weren’t Methodists, so they couldn’t be allowed to keep their membership. I cannot help but contrast this to churches I’ve known that are so eager to gain members that they seem to hide the demands of the Gospel.

The early Methodist experienced amazing growth. Their shared commitment to holiness grounded them while they were willing to experiment with an array of changing programs.

Gary Neal Hansen is a professor of Church history and theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and the author of Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers (InterVarsity Press, 2012).



  1. So much can be learned from this. I feel that many times our hunger for order keeps us in a planning stage therefore not allowing us to move into a “trying” stage. The problem is that we are afraid of failure, and if we are afraid of failure, we are carrying the burden of “successful church” on our own shoulders. The truth is, Jesus does most of the work, we just need to keep trying to glorify him and communicate his love to all people. We can afford to take risks because the Gospel of Jesus doesn’t fail, even if our humanity does.
    Great article. You could write a lot of articles that deal with church membership in and of itself. Sometimes I think our world measures success by the amount of production you can achieve. The question with ministry is what are we producing? The fact is, if it isn’t measurable by numbers how else do we measure a minister’s production? Are there new members? New baptisms? New ministries? New visitors? etc… It’s a dangerous place to be when consistories and congregations allow themselves to be so taken by the world’s way of measuring success that we’ve completely forced our ministers to abandon the difficult demands of the Gospel and turn to opening the flood gates in the name of production. Of course, we would never “say” that is what we are doing. After all, Jesus’ love is for everyone…


  1. […] I was also grateful for United Methodist friends who helped get the word out on my Wesley posts, and thrilled to find the UMC Good News Magazine wanted to turn two of the posts into an article. […]

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