John Wesley spent much of his time in London during 1738 helping to form a religious society that became known as the Fetter Lane Society. Religious societies were organizations of like-minded Christians who sought to encourage one another toward spiritual health and maturity. They met once a week for prayer and mutual accountability.
By the fall of 1739, there were growing divisions in the Fetter Lane Society over various points of faith and practice. In November, Wesley had preached outdoors to seven or eight thousand people at the former site of a cannon foundry that was dilapidated and in disrepair. The building was purchased and renovated and would become the home of Methodism in London for the next thirty-eight years. A new society was founded at the renovated building, now known as the Foundry.
At the Foundry in the 1740s, the Methodist works of mercy saw new expressions. Wesley started a fund to make small loans, akin to today’s microlending, and the fund made loans to 250 people in the first year. On Fridays, the poor who were sick came to be treated and were provided basic medical care. In 1747, Wesley published a book on “easy and natural” methods for “curing most diseases.” Wesley and the Methodists at the Foundry leased two houses for poor and elderly widows and their children. And they started a school for children who roamed the streets.
For Wesley, evangelism and ministries to the poor were inextricably linked; you could not have one without the other. It was this linkage that I found so exciting when I first visited a United Methodist church during my freshman year in college. I was eighteen years old and had been a part of a wonderful church that sought to help me grow in my love for God. I had been taught to read and memorize Scripture. I had attended worship on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. I had taken part in outreach and mission, which for us was to tell others about Jesus. I had learned to care for others in the church. But I had heard little about serving those in need outside our church or embodying the presence of Christ in the community to meet the needs of others.
In the United Methodist church I visited, by contrast, members were busily engaged in serving the poor, repairing houses for the elderly, and visiting prisons. They hosted food pantries, medical missions, and support groups for people who had never been to the church but nonetheless needed support. I found their efforts inspiring and compelling.
Jesus spoke a lot about the kingdom of God. In one sense that kingdom is all of creation, and God is the “King of the Universe,” a phrase my Jewish friends use to address God. But human existence has been marked by rebellions against God. So when Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God, he is usually articulating a vision not of what life is but of what it should be. Through new birth and the sanctifying work of the Spirit, we seek to reflect that kingdom in our lives.
Unfortunately, in the twentieth century there was a tendency to separate the two sides of the gospel. “Liberal” churches focused on doing amazing work to serve others but often forgot evangelism. Wesley believed that the poor needed not just food and clothing but assurance that God loved them and that God’s grace could pardon their sins and make them new.
In contrast, “conservative” churches preached and taught personal salvation and invited their members to accept Christ and grow in their love for God, but often left aside the social gospel and the call not just to pray for God’s kingdom but to work actively toward achieving it. They cared for the poor among their membership but were less engaged in ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice in the surrounding community.
This wasn’t the only split between two sides of the gospel. Some churches focused on the intellectual faith that was so important to Wesley, but they overlooked his emphasis on experiential faith, a faith of the warmed heart, as though passion and fervor were a bit embarrassing to them. Conversely, other churches retained the spiritual fervor and enthusiasm of the early Methodist movement but downplayed intellectual dimensions of the faith, as if afraid that intellect would sap them of spiritual vitality. One sign of this split was that some Wesleyan traditions that valued the intellect required their clergy to have a master’s degree from an approved seminary, while those that valued the heart were often willing to ordain people with no formal education, even believing that seminary might douse the spiritual fire of their clergy. As with the liberal-conservative divide, the head-heart dichotomy left each side with only half the gospel.
Wesley’s approach to the Christian faith is sometimes described as dialectical—holding in tension two things that appear to be opposites and forging a synthesis of the two that makes for a stronger and more complete faith than either side had alone. Once again, this is what we see in Jesus’ great commandments to love God and love neighbor.
Today's post is an excerpt from Revival.