Why April 2nd is Methodism’s real birthday?
On April 2nd, 1739 John Wesley submitted to “be more vile” and preach outdoors. Influenced by his friend, George Whitfield, he saw how people who would not darken the door of their parish church flocked to hear the message of hope proclaimed in the streets. How they sought to flee the “wrath to come” and embrace faith in Christ as a way of life. We celebrate Aldersgate day as the nd is when the awakening spurred action and Methodism became a missional movement.
|Methodism Becomes a Movement|
On April 2nd Methodism became missional; it moved beyond the doors of the church. Wesley wrote that before April 2nd he would have “thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” When he witnessed the spiritual hunger of the people, coming out by the thousands, to hear Whitfield proclaim the gospel it quickened his soul. Wesley realized that the parish churches had all but abandoned those beyond their doors. Whole segments of the population would face a Christ-less eternity, and a spiritually destitute life were the gospel not shared with them where they lived and worked. If these people would not come to the seats of the sanctuary, then the gospel had to be taken to the streets of the cities and towns. When chastised by the bishop of Bristol, Wesley rebutted with the now famous quote, “the world is my parish.” Not only did Methodism become missional that day, it became a movement.
On April 2nd Methodism became a movement; it started a spiritual revolution that would change the course of history. By moving beyond the doors of the sanctuary and preaching to the masses Wesley faced another challenge. How do you move people from preaching to practice? We know that a decision, no matter how heartfelt, does not make a disciple. Surely Whitfield stirred the hearts of the masses, but it was John Wesley who created a system to help those whose hearts were warmed to become faithful followers of Christ. Setting up class meetings and societies, Wesley’s systematic, methodical way of thinking and practice (that’s why we are called Methodists) created processes and procedures to encourage disciple making. Accountability structures were put into place, expectations of behaviors were established, and before long the
|The spot in Bristol where Wesley spoke to miners.|
But there is a problem with every movement. Every movement has the tendency to become a monument. When the initial wave of euphoria passes and the initial momentum slows, there is the tendency to begin building monuments to celebrate the glory days of old. Buildings are built or bought, maintenance slows the movement, and eventually an institution arises and the once flexible and agile movement becomes bureaucratic and complex. Toward the end of his life, Wesley was concerned about this very thing when he wrote:
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist
either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a
dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly
will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with
which they first set out.”
On this, the 275th anniversary of Methodism the question we must now answer is has modern Methodism become a monument to a past movement or “are we yet alive?” It is rather ironic that in the Methodist family has become sanctuary bound. Both of Methodism’s primary founding fathers had their most significant spiritual experience in somebody’s home. John Wesley the organizer and theologian had his “heart strangely warmed” on that fateful day in May at Aldersgate Street. Charles Wesley, the hymn writer, three days prior gave witness that he had received assurance that he was saved by grace in the parlor of a friend. They had their most significant spiritual experience in a home but now we rarely share the gospel on our couches, preferring the anonymous nature of the pew to the accountable environment of our home. Somehow we have left the living room and moved to the sanctuary for our spiritual experience. John and Charles spent their lives in church. Sitting under the teaching of their father Samuel at St. Andrews in Epworth, studying theology at Oxford, and becoming priests in The Church of England. Church was not what created the movement. The movement came when they shed the stone structures of their sanctuaries for the cobblestones of the streets and began living and sharing their faith in the community not just in the church. Real revival is birthed beyond the walls of the monuments we build to the faith. It is birthed in the hearts of people sharing their lives together and pointing others to Christ. It is time for the people called Methodists to leave the comfort of our seats and engage the people on our streets. To serve those in our communities most unlikely to ever give back to the church but who need the God of the Church in their lives. We must look less at demographics and more at people. We must return to the roots of our revival that include fearless faith sharing, embracing the hurting and hopeless, and caring for those least cared for. It is time for Methodists to revisit their methods and escape the shackles of our sanctuaries to reach the corners of our communities that need us most.
That is why today, April 2nd is really the birthday of Methodism. Happy Birthday! May we yet live again. I remain:
Consumed by the Call,