Derek Cooper

14 Innovations From Wesley’s Mission Failures

A century before Methodism became the largest single denomination in the United States, it was a fresh expression on life support.

This fresh expression’s survival was not endangered by the Church of England or any other mainstream Christian organization. Instead, it was threatened by the relational immaturities, social slip-ups, and untested idealism of its holier-than-thou founder, a young Anglican priest who had bit off more than he could chew while living in the New World.

His name was John Wesley, and he was trudging through the desert years of ministry life, what author Bobby Clinton called the phase of “Inner Life Growth.”

Disaster in the Deep South

Like any leader with an Enneagram type of ONE—what we may otherwise describe as the “principled perfectionist”—John’s actions on this particular Sunday morning in the Deep South were premeditated. He had been brooding over the decision for a month, and had even broached the topic beforehand with his mentor, a German Moravian pastor named August Spangenberg.

John’s basic fear in life was being found corrupt or evil, and deep down he probably knew that the public barring from the Lord’s Table of his former fiancée—now recently married to another man—might be his undoing.

And it was.

On Sunday, August 7, 1737, the Reverend John Wesley dispassionately recorded in his journal that he had “repelled Mrs. [Sophy] Williamson from the holy communion,” for which cause a warrant was immediately issued.

Although John was fully convicted that he was in the right, everyone in town, he later wrote, believed that he “had repelled Sophy from the holy communion purely out of revenge because he [John] had made proposals of marriage to her, which she rejected, and married Mr. Williamson.” Sophy’s scandalized husband, no friend to Wesley, demanded 1,000 pounds in payment.

The situation was a disaster, and John would soon find himself on the back porch of Southern hospitality.

His ministry—at least in America—was finished. It had flopped.

From England to America

A lot had happened in the two years since John Wesley had boarded a ship called the Simmonds en route to the freshly founded colonial town of Savannah, Georgia. John’s father, also an Anglican priest, had recently passed away, and John’s seemingly rash decision to do missionary work on the other side of the world was a conscious rejection of taking up his father’s living as a parish priest in his hometown—an act that became a source of bitter conflict between John and some in his family.

It was also one of the first vocational tests that John would have to face as he embarked on the uncertain future of starting a fresh expression: turning down a reasonable living as a local pastor.

Organizing Disciples

Like many other ONEs, John was a natural leader who was constantly pushing himself and others uncomfortably into spiritual growth. Nothing less than perfection was his ideal.

Some of his most important experiments in Georgia were preaching outdoors, changing the order of church services, personally visiting with each person who took Communion, and forming discipleship groups.

Going all the way back to his founding of the so-called Holy Club at Oxford University, John had excelled in organizing people. In Georgia, he fell into a rhythm of arranging Christians into two distinct groups: a “little society…[that met] once or twice a week, in order to reprove, instruct, and exhort one another,” and “a small[er] number,” more intimate in nature, that met in John’s house every Sunday in the afternoon.

This confirms what historian Geordan Hammond recently wrote about John Wesley’s “Georgia mission”: it “was a laboratory” for experimenting with what Christianity was supposed to look like.

In his Georgia laboratory, thousands of miles away from the stagnant center of the Church of England, John eagerly experimented with new forms of spirituality. In fact, “departing from the practices of the Church, and establishing a [practice] of his own,” one older biographer of Wesley stated, was John’s calling card. Possessing the extraordinary talent of discerning the spiritually minded lambs from the halfhearted goats, John made no bones about focusing his attention on those most willing to grow.

This was an ecclesial formula John would follow years later when he grouped together the fledgling Methodists into societies, bands, and class meetings. In short, discipleship takes place best within the context of small groups that can hold one another accountable and that have a common purpose. Large groups, with little in common holding the people together, make the building of disciples much harder.

One Mistake after Another

Many years later, after he had become famous, John remarked that his experimental ministry in Georgia was the second phase of Methodism (the first was his leading of the Holy Club at Oxford). If this is the case, it means that the second phase of Methodism was accompanied by one mistake after another. Although he was honing in his vision for future ministry, John blundered his way through the early years of his fresh expression.

Overly rigid and principled to a fault, John destroyed the remaining rum caskets once his ship boarded the New World, losing the respect of many hardy colonists. On noticing the fancy hairdos and golden jewelry of some of the female colonists, he immediately went on a preaching campaign against braided hair, ostentatious jewelry, and fine clothing. He also refused to baptize the bailiff of Savannah’s child because the parents demanded dipping rather than baptism by immersion. As John coldly remarked afterward, “the child was [thus] baptized by another person.”

On another occasion, John flatly refused to spend time with someone who was keenly interested in conversing with him because John’s preferred topic of conversation—religion—was not on the agenda. As he unsympathetically stated, “I [would] rather not converse with you at all.” On still another occasion, insensitive to the nature of life on the frontier, John “deeply offended” many men when he rebuked them for fishing and hunting on the Lord’s Day rather than resting on their religious laurels like him.

Worse still, John once flatly refused to offer Communion to one of the German-speaking pastors since he wasn’t baptized the Anglican way. It was only years later that John realized how tightly wound he was: “Can High Church bigotry,” he scolded himself, “go farther than this?”

Hitting Rock Bottom

After two years of experimental ministry in Georgia, John had worn out his welcome. Although he turned to the counsel of his mentor Spangenberg on the matter of repelling his former fiancée from the Communion Table, the latter was not well versed enough in English politics to be of much assistance.

Besides, John had dug himself into a ditch with the English-speaking Christians, and he was clearly in over his head. His brother Charles, cut from the same moral cloth, had gotten into even more trouble than his older brother, and was forced to flee Georgia within six months of arriving.

In this emotionally unhealthy state, Ennegram ONEs like John become intractably bent on intolerance, pious self-righteousness, and petty retaliation. This is exactly the type of behavior John exhibited at his most vulnerable hour of discipleship—when he was far away from home, heartbroken, under attack, vocationally frustrated, and burned out.

If this seems like a recipe for disaster, that’s because it was.

Although many in the community turned against him, John stood firm, claiming possession of a higher moral ground than the others. He refused to back down to the ten indictments leveled against him, and many of the jurors, who were Dissenters rather than Anglicans, held personal vendettas and religious prejudices against him.

It’s not surprising that John began asking his friends whether they thought the Lord was calling him elsewhere. His friends confirmed that God was leading him back home. Informing the magistrate of his intentions to set sail for England even though the charges against him had not been legally resolved, John coldheartedly gave the following public notice to the community he had attempted to oversee spiritually for two years: “Whereas John Wesley designs shortly to set out for England, this is to desire those who have borrowed any books of him to return them as soon as they conveniently can.”

The unbridled naiveté John showcased in his journal on the way to Georgia was only surpassed by the absolute failure he felt on the way back to England. Little did he know when he boarded the ship for Georgia as a man of the cloth that he would be leaving Georgia as “a prisoner at large,” in defiance of the published edict of the magistrate (who happened to be the guardian of the girl John barred from the Lord’s Table).

Rising from the Ashes

Failure or fugitive aside, however, this would not be the last of John Wesley. Although he was deeply wounded from his missional experiment in Georgia, he was in the process of learning many valuable lessons about life in ministry. Based on his journal and the personal comments he made later in life, here is what John learned during the Georgia mission:

  • that you don’t have to preach in the established way—in a church—to reach people for Christ;
  • that the true mission field isn’t abroad preaching to the “heathen,” but right in your back yard among people just like you;
  • that the Established Church has many gaps that can only be filled by thinking in more creative ways;
  • that it’s important to distinguish between essential practices and non-essential ones;
  • that church guide books—for John the Common Book of Prayer—had to be contextualized depending on the setting;
  • that women are vital to ministry—in fact, it’s possible that Wesley was training certain women as lay pastors or deaconesses;
  • that lay leadership is central to a healthy church;
  • that you can’t advance in ministry without making mistakes;
  • that tradition is not a value in and of itself;
  • that holiness is achieved in community rather than through solitude;
  • that the inner testimony of the Spirit is real and attainable;
  • that new styles of worship are necessary to touch people’s heart;
  • that organizing Christians into small groups is one of the best tools for discipleship; and
  • that being ordained without being attached to a local church is the secret to fresh expressions.

Of these many realizations, Geordan Hammond argues that “Wesley’s extensive use of lay leaders was perhaps his most innovative practice.” In a similar way, Hammond believes that “the most radical aspect of his Georgia ministry was his extensive use of women in lay leadership within his religious societies.”

The significance of these innovations, however, did not come to Wesley at once, fully formed from the heavens. He had been thinking about them for years before experimenting on them in Georgia within the confines of a believing community.

And even though many of these practices would eventually become the secret of his ministry success on his home soil, John was haunted by his failures for almost two unrelenting months while returning to England on boat. Alone, with nothing but an endless sea, a racing mind, and a broken spirit, he questioned not only his calling but his very salvation. He was, from our historical vantage point, going through what one author has called a “profound spiritual depression.”

All this is to underscore that John Wesley, one of the most successful cultivators of a fresh expression in all of church history, was a like a seed that had to die and fall to the ground before it sprouted. As one biographer candidly wrote of John, “the marvelous results that were to follow…[him] all over England…could never have been predicted from his work in Georgia.”

Perhaps the same will one day be said of you when your darkest days of ministry are compared to your brightest ones.

Bibliography

The Works of John Wesley.

Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development.

Richard Rohr, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective.

Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America.

Robert Southey, The Life of John Wesley.

C. T. Winchester, The Life of John Wesley.

A. S. Wood, The Burning Heart: John Wesley, Evangelist.

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Derek Cooper

Derek Cooper

Derek Cooper is associate professor of world Christian History at Biblical Theological Seminary. He’s the author of several books, including Exploring Church History and Twenty Questions That Shaped World History.

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