John Wesley and Missions

Jim Ramsey

Jim Ramsey

By Jim Ramsey –

“The world is my parish.” This well-known quote of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, demonstrates his understanding that ministry should never be provincialized. Beyond that, we don’t often give a lot of thought to Wesley and missions since he did not write extensively on the topic of international missions. He himself did go as a missionary to the colony of Georgia. That did not go so well for him, although a statue of Wesley in Savannah attests to that part of his life that set him on the search that culminated in his heart-warming experience at Aldersgate. However, some of the emphases of Wesley’s understanding of the faith have significant implications for Christian mission. There are three that are most significant and much-needed approaches in global mission today.

Prevenient Grace. This is the term Wesley gave to the grace which acts in a person prior to his or her acceptance of Christ. It is the grace that allows us to breathe, that keeps the planets spinning, and, most significantly, enables us to respond to God’s invitation to salvation. While the usual application of prevenient grace is to the individual, if applied to cultures, it has a major impact on how we approach missions. If God’s grace is already active in a culture prior to the sharing of the gospel, then we should expect to see signs of that already embedded in the culture. So a key missionary task is uncovering where God’s grace has been working and allow that to be the starting point for expanding on what the full gospel means in that cultural context.

A fellow mission leader once told of a T-shirt he had seen of a mission team which stated, “Taking Jesus from Texas to Costa Rica.” If we think we are taking the gospel or even God himself to another culture, we are apt not to look for where God has already been at work. We need to remember God’s prevenient grace has been active long before we got there, giving witness to himself. The job of the missionary is to identify and work within the currents his grace has already created. Urban missiologist Ray Bakke encourages people to first look for “signs of hope” when entering any new culture or community.

Holistic Gospel. Missions of the 20th century was often characterized by an unfortunate dichotomy in the thinking of Western Christians between social concerns and evangelism. Mission groups tended to focus on one or the other exclusively and even disparaged those who focused on the other. Throughout his life, Wesley demonstrated no such dichotomy. His movement was characterized by evangelism – unapologetically calling people to repentance and to faith in Christ. But it also included a commitment to the poor and marginalized.

Wesley wrote, “The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.” Missions with a Wesleyan understanding suggests that we cannot restrict our concern only to the salvation of souls, but must also be seeking for full transformation of the culture, addressing social issues such as poverty and justice. Social transformation should be a natural outflow of personal repentance and commitment to Christ. At the same time, an emphasis only on justice issues without recognition of the need for repentance and the power of the Holy Spirit is also incomplete and will not bring about the true transformation that only the gospel can provide.

All Can Know Christ. Wesley agreed with the understanding that, while God is fully sovereign, he chose to give humankind free will. Christ died to make salvation accessible to all people, and his prevenient grace gives all the possibility of responding positively to this offer. It is not just offered to the “predestined elect.” This understanding impacts the motivation for mission. Are we serving in missions simply due to a duty we have to fulfilling God’s predetermined purposes? Or has God invited us into his mission and heart that “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4)?

He calls us to be the conveyers of this good news. His ultimate purposes will be accomplished, yet our obedience to his call does make a difference in the lives of people. When one considers that nearly one third of the world’s population – about two billion people – have yet to even hear the name of Jesus, one can’t help but wonder what the cost of disobedience to that call has been over the past 2,000 years.

Those of us in the Wesleyan tradition have a great legacy and great opportunity in Christian mission. We are motivated by God’s desire that all should have the opportunity to respond to him. This sends us into the entire world, looking for places that have yet to hear. We expect to see where God has already been active in the culture and connect that to a full understanding of the gospel. And as people encounter Christ, we work with them, expecting to experience transformation of their individual and community lives as evidence of God’s kingdom breaking in.

Jim M. Ramsay is Vice President for Mission Ministries at The Mission Society. 

 

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