About our guest writer: Reverend Walter Edwards was a United Methodist pastor for over 50 years. He graduated from Asbury College, where he studied History, Greek, and Psychology. He earned his Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology and served as the district superintendent of the North Central District in the Florida Conference of the UMC. Now retired, he serves as a “Master Yoda” to young clergy like Michael Beck and others. Well-versed in all things Wesley, you can visit his blog here.
Early in my walk with Jesus, I realized the lack of parental figures in my life had caused some significant holes in my formation. Fortunately, God blessed me with a big, messy, blended family called the church. God has supplemented those deficient areas with incredible mentors, who have walked beside me throughout my spiritual journey.
One of those mentors is Rev. Walter Edwards. About ten years ago, I began meeting with Edwards weekly for lunch. Sometimes our time was a barrage of my questions about God, ministry, marriage, parenting, and so on. Edwards always seems to have some simple spiritual gem for every question I formulate. His patience and commitment have had a powerful formational effect on my soul.
Walter is John Wesley redivivus! Often, the group of us clergy that he mentors, jokingly say that we will never get closer to sitting down with Wesley than Walter Edwards. He embodies a profound sage wisdom, saintly holiness, and missional fervor, hence his identity as our “Master Yoda.” Walter has been dedicated to the study of Scripture and Wesleyan history/theology most of his life. He is a spiritual Paul to many Timothy’s, of which I am blessed to be one.
Throughout my apprenticeship with Walter, I have sought to apply his incredible wisdom to the new missional frontier. It was truly an honor to collaborate with him on this piece and we hope you enjoy it!
Methodism: Looking Back
Edwards: In 1738, the returned missionaries, John and Charles Wesley, were in demand as preachers in London. They were preaching their own experience of the rediscovered power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Reared in a minister’s home with a mother who was the intellectual and spiritual equal of her husband, the brothers had practiced the habits and learned the disciplines of the Christian life. They grew as serious churchmen through their University education, and with their father’s encouragement, both were ordained in the Church of England. They became ministers to the colony of Georgia, founded by James Oglethorpe.
While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and living the rough life of the New World, their inherited faith proved unable to give them freedom from fear in storms of the ocean and their conflicts with people. John was even sued in court over conflict about a pastoral decision. At the same time they were experiencing the shortcomings of their traditional religion, they encountered Moravian Christians who demonstrated supernatural calm in the storms and testified to a faith in Jesus Christ.
This faith gave them the assurance that their sins were forgiven, and gave them victory over sin.
Further, the Moravians taught these dutifully practicing Anglican ministers, that assurance and victory are given by simple faith, not through pious habits or acts of charity. The Wesley brothers had always worked hard at their religion. Now they were being told that the freedom they worked for in their religion could be had as a free gift. “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find…”
Wesley’s Next Steps
John has left a careful record of his response to the Moravian teaching and witness. (1) Show it to me in the scripture. (2) OK, I am convinced that it is in the scripture, but it can’t have been meant literally. (3) I admit that the scripture does mean what it says, but does anyone, here and now, experience it? (4) Peter Bohler introduced Wesley to some people who claimed to experience this assurance and victory. (5) Observing and questioning them, he was convinced, and resolved to seek it with his whole heart.
For days he felt nothing but heaviness of heart. On May 24, 1738, he opened his Bible to the words, “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4). Then just before going out he saw, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” In the afternoon he went to St. Paul’s where the anthem was Psalm 130, “Out of the depths have I cried unto you, O Lord.” There is mercy with the Lord, forgiveness, and plenteous redemption from all sins.
That evening at a society in Aldersgate, he heard the reading of Martin Luther’s comments on the book of Romans. What Paul wrote and what Luther had learned about salvation by faith, opened John’s heart to “the love of God poured into his heart by the Holy Spirit.” He felt trust, assurance of forgiveness, received the power to pray for his enemies, and was able to conquer temptation by crying out to God. He shortly received word that Charles had come to the same great experience. Charles wrote a poem about it, part of which we still sing:
“O, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise…”
And John wrote in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”
Assurance of Forgiveness Leads to Action
They went about London from church to church, preaching the good news of assurance you can feel, and victory over sin you can experience. Many were shocked that this good news is not found in “being religious,” but by asking and receiving out of a needy heart. However, this faith also gave hope to others. Many of those who heard rejected their message, and the Wesleys were told they would not be allowed to preach again in certain churches.
But people whose hearts were heavy or empty, and people who felt the wrath or absence of God, heard what the Wesleys had experienced, and realized it was what they had been missing, too. Some of them asked for help, so John started meeting with a few people.
When they found that same love, joy, and peace, they told others what happened to them, and it multiplied.
Soon there were too many people for John to help personally, and a plan developed for them to be divided into neighborhood groups. These were groups of about twelve, each having a leader, trained with other leaders, by Wesley. They watched over one another in love, bore each other’s burdens, prayed for, encouraged, and strengthened each other’s faith.
To be able to confess their sins to one another, and pray for one another to be healed, smaller groups of men only, and women only, were formed. The confidential sharing and prayer, led to deeper spiritual progress, and empowered the search for Christian Perfection, which is loving God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself.
Hearts Set Ablaze
Beck: With a heart set ablaze by the Holy Spirit, John Wesley observes that the Anglican Church he loves and serves, is largely failing to reach most people. Wesley sees a growing disconnect between the church and the people the church is supposed to be reaching. There is a sense that the institutional bureaucracy of his day, had become rigid, unyielding, and lifeless. Wesley’s passion to connect with people outside the reach of the current structure of the church, drives him to innovate.
Wesley was led to preach for the first time outside the confines of a “parish” or “pulpit” on April 2, 1739. He writes in his journal that day, “At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation…” Against the derision of his colleagues and superiors, Wesley begins to take it to the fields, the miners camps, the debtors prisons, street corners, and tombstones.
While it doesn’t earn him many fans in the inherited church, thousands of people begin to respond to the Gospel, and accept Jesus for the first time.
Wesley held the missional passion to reach not-yet-Christians, together with a structural genius to offer a discipleship process of transformation. He took new believers from first encounter with Christ, through a life of sanctifying grace, seeking perfection in love.
Three Ministry Structures to Consider
He did so primarily by connecting theological content to three major ministry structures: societies, classes, and bands. These different associations were an expression of the “way of salvation.” While Wesley did not understand God’s grace as divided, he believed it was experienced in primarily three waves.
For each one of the waves of grace, there were corresponding gatherings to connect people to that grace. To represent prevenient grace, Wesley used the united societies. Any one was able to participate, Christian or not, the only requirement was “a desire to flee wrath to come.” To promote justifying grace, he developed the class meeting. To advance sanctifying grace, he emphasized the band meeting. This reveals an immediate need for dedicated leaders. Overall, the early Methodist movement was sustained by the so called “laity.”
Once Methodism spread over to the United States, it took on a life of its own. While many undergirding principles remained the same, the movement had to respond and adapt to the new missional frontier. It did so in ways that Wesley was not always pleased with, but nevertheless, it ultimately became institutionalized as the global organism we call the United Methodist Church.
Methodism: What’s Happening Now
Get ready for some déjà vu! Once again, a missional movement that began in the United Kingdom, has found a home in the United States. The inherited church is not connecting with the larger population or engaging the culture in transformative ways. So, a group of primarily Anglicans (and some others) in the United Kingdom organized to create a report describing a counter force of the Holy Spirit beginning to disrupt the decline of the church in the West. In my opinion, in their work, they “submitted to be more vile.”
They were observing this phenomenon of incarnational and contextual gatherings meeting throughout England, realizing the Holy Spirit was once again up to something out in the fields. They ultimately produced the Mission-Shaped Church report, bringing an awareness of a cross-denominational movement, tethered too, but beyond the institutional church.
Taking the Good News Outside Church Walls
Once again, the “glad tidings of salvation” are being “proclaimed in the highways” and the fields. Now those fields and highways have taken the form of the “flows” of a networked society. Flows describe a culture that is now mobile, moving along a complex web of interconnected networks. The flows connecting these networks are described as the movement of people from one node to another in social space, around bundles of dynamic practices, connected across space and time through structured flows of information and media. Flows are the means through which these movements and connections occur.
People connect over hobbies, passions, and practices, across geographic barriers. Planting fresh expressions amid communities gathered around these practices, involves an incarnational approach that ultimately transforms the practices themselves. The pioneers lead the group to begin intentionally exploring the Christian faith. This occurs through a mixture of both formal learning (intentional conversations) and social learning (simply sharing in the rhythms of life together). More mature believers may begin to form mentorships with younger apprentices, spending time outside the group, discipling them through the messy relational process.
Fresh Expressions is not about simply gathering in cool spaces to play church.
Very real disciples are being formed in these very real micro-churches, in much the same way as the early Methodist movement. For example, at Wildwood United Methodist Church, FL, we currently have twelve fresh expressions tethered to the inherited church, with more coming soon. Using Wesley’s model of societies, classes, and bands, we are in the process of identifying each one of our fresh expressions in one of those stages. Each of these fresh expressions is overseen by a pioneer, an “ordinary” Christian from among the “priesthood of all believers.” These are not “professional clergy” persons, but rather followers of Jesus, awakened to God’s love, who have turned their passions into a network church.
Fresh Expressions and Ministry Structures
At Tattoo Parlor Church and Paws of Praise (church in a dog park), God’s prevenient grace is at work, as we are regularly engaging not-yet-Christians, and so called, “nones,” “dones,” and offering them Christ (society). In Burritos and Bibles (church in a Mexican restaurant) Shear Love at Soul Salon, and Yoga Therapy Church, God’s justifying grace is at work as people open to Christianity, engage Scripture, feel free to publicly pray, or take communion for the first time, and share about “how goes it with their soul” (class). At Mascara Mondays, a group of women gather in a coffee shop for the purposes of “single ladies learning to be sanctified and single” (band).
While these may not be perfect illustrations, you can see how they reflect a new/old Methodism, that’s remerging powerfully in 2018. While Fresh Expressions is NOT Methodist and is a movement occurring across the Christian spectrum, I am convinced it may be one of the most Methodist things going on today. This is an old/new Methodism. This is a taking to the fields, “submitting to be more vile,” “the world is my parish” kind of Methodism. This is about “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This is an awakening of Wesleyan people to our core missional narrative.
 Bolger, Ryan K. 2007. “Practice movements in global information culture: looking back to McGavran and finding a way forward.” Missiology 35, no. 2: 181-193. (2007), 188.
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.