Tuesday, 21 November 2017

John Wesley Under the Contemporary Spotlight

Recently I had a lengthy comment on my blog post about John Wesley in Wales [1].  The comments raised so many issues that I felt it needed a long reply. So I have made the reply a blog!

The commenter was anonymous and their chief concern was that for all Wesley’s single mindedness and commitment, his approach to life is not one that 21st century church leaders would endorse.

Like many Christians today, I praise John Wesley's utter single-mindedness in his commitment to the work that God called him to do. Most of us know we fall far, far short, which is humbling. Embarrassing, in fact.

However, it occurs to me that Wesley's goals were aided by a way life that few religious leaders today would promote

I am sure anonymous is correct that few religious leaders today would promote Wesley’s way of life, or even his style of ministry. But that may say more about the poor standards of ministry in Christianity now than it does about John Wesley!

I am also wary when the “present” stands in judgement on the “past”. Understanding past beliefs and behaviours can only be sensibly done if we also examine our own in the light of scripture and history. We may misunderstand the past because we are so wrong ourselves. This is particularly true with the whole subject of revival. Our experience of outpourings of the Holy Spirit is so limited that we may view someone like Wesley as if he were experiencing what we experience. He did not – he, and the other Methodists, experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in a higher measure than us, thus we may never fully understand why they did what they did. Disapproving the way of life of a man like Wesley then becomes disapproval of revival altogether.

Then there are contemporary Christians who are so caught up by the subject of revival that they glamorise the revivals of the past, and elevate Wesley, Whitefield and the like to heroes second only to the Apostles. They then fail to see the flaws in past revivals, so that any modern claim to a revival is dismissed as it cannot achieve the standards of the pasts ones. However the “standards” used are artificial. I am afraid contemporary Christians do not make a good job of analysing the work of God in the past!

With the above provisos in mind I will attempt to deal with some of the problems with Wesley’s way of life that anonymous listed.

1. Celibacy is now unfashionable.

It is not clear that celibacy has ever been fashionable except among Roman Catholic clergy and the Shakers! Most Christians are not celibate otherwise populations would not grow. What I think anonymous means is that for Wesley the need for sexual “fulfilment” was secondary compared with preaching and building the church.

This is true, preaching and the ways of God did override all other activities – that what happens when the Spirit is poured out. It is the heart of what it means to be an enthusiast for Jesus. But the danger is to compare Wesley, and the apostle Paul, and even Jesus, with our culture that has become obsessed with all things sexual and its very public discussion. This obsession is mirrored in the Western church where redefining what is right and wrong in sexual behaviour is being radically revised. Anyone following current church affairs would think that sexual behaviour and identity are THE big issues of the moment, rather than the church’s lack of converts and the impending extinction of most mainline denominations. It is possible the modern church needs to look at Wesley and re-learn the priorities of the Christian life

2. Parents/spouses who evangelise full-time are often seen as neglectful of their families.

Wesley only married late in life, an unwise marriage according to his many biographers. Hs itinerate lifestyle meant he was unable to spend sufficient time with his wife. A similar view is held of George Whitefield. But they were the exception among the Methodists, not the norm. Most Methodist enthusiasts did not travel to the extent of these. Methodism grew through enthusiasts – the “infected” Christians who converted others – passing on the “infection” of enthusiasm in the process. It is this enthusiastic aspect of Wesley’s life that the modern church needs. It does not need itinerancy to the same extent that Wesley carried out. Enthusiasm and strong family life are fully compatible. 

3. Wesley's low level of expenditure would alienate many modern families.

It is not clear what Wesley’s actual expenditure was. A lot of money passed through his hands, but he was generous and did not need much himself. Nevertheless a glance though his journals and diaries pictures a man who was comfortable and far from “poor” in the sense of wondering when his next meal was coming from. Again I think it was priorities. When the need to preach Christ so that people are saved is a priority I doubt if there is much need for a lavish lifestyle. The opulent lifestyle of modern Christians may well be a substitute for a lack of passion for the person of Jesus and compassion on the lost.

4. Wesley didn't have a busy 9-5 (+ overtime) job alongside his evangelism.

No he did not. But most evangelism was done by the ordinary Methodists in the classes and churches that Wesley and others built up. They could easily work up to 12 hours in a day and 6 days a week, but it did not stop them witnessing and seeing converts. I find the same level of evangelism in the parts of Uganda I visit, where the time spent in work is much higher than the west. Contemporary Western Christians need to be careful that we do not make excuses for our lack of zeal.

5. Churches are desperate for money; do they want intelligent members who deliberately impoverish themselves? 

Modern churches are elaborate institutions that need money just to maintain themselves. Despite the Reformation, protestant Christianity inherited the medieval model of church as a “state” in microcosm. Thus much effort is needed to pay the professionals who minister on behalf of the people. Early Methodism was largely lay-led, like the New Testament church, thus not in need of the same degree of expenditure. Thus it did not matter to the church if people were impoverished, as long as they were spiritually alive!

6. Wesley focused on the working classes, but modern British evangelism aims at the middle class.

The more I read of Wesley’s life, and Whitefield’s, the more I realise just how much they spread themselves over all classes. Wesley spent much time ministering to the working class, that was a rarity in his day, but he did also minister to the middle and upper classes. In Wales Wesley could only minister to the wealthy as they were the only ones who could understand English! But Wesley knew the better off were key to reaching the poor, and to generating new ministers who would pastor churches in poor areas.

I understand the comment of anonymous that the bulk of church planting is done where there are a large number of middle class people, especially cities. Just think of HTB in London which can easily be thought of as ministry to the “well off”. But the same church, and its network, is generating many candidates for ministry who have a heart for the poor. Nevertheless, modern church planters can learn from Wesley how to prioritise unreached people, rather than all chasing after the same pool of “easier” people.

7. Some argue that evangelism today has to be friendship-based rather than preaching-based.

I don’t think the two are opposites. The only reason why Wesley had an audience was that people invited their friends to come and hear him. The true enthusiasts were the people in his congregation that brought others to listen.

The modern church has a real problem with preaching and seems to be in a permanent state of apology about it. Preaching is a command, not an option. The trouble is we have inherited a view of preaching that is “church building” centred. Wesley certainly broke that tradition, but it was still one man and his audience. Jesus and the Apostle Paul preached, often to an audience, but sometimes it was dialogue, sometimes it was one to one. Rarely was it in a church service! Perhaps we need to see preaching in a wider context, and I think Wesley helps point us in that direction

Anonymous finally said:

I'm not denying that the Holy Spirit can answer these (and other) problems. But modern Christians are clearly ambivalent about John Wesley; we admire his zeal, but as a role model he's highly problematic for us. Of course, that may be our fault.

I would like to thank Anonymous for their comments. Such comments help focus the mind and make us examine ourselves. Even if we do not agree, provided they inspire us to serve Jesus with more zeal, then good will result.

For me, having to take a forced break from research, it gave me an excuse to write another blog!


[1] John Wesley, Enthusiasm and Today’s Church, 20/9/17

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

John Wesley, Enthusiasm and Today’s Church

Recently, while on holiday in Pembrokeshire, I passed a plaque in the town of Haverfordwest dedicated to the memory of the pioneer Methodist evangelist, John Wesley.  My family and I have been on holiday in this area each year for over 30 years so I must have passed it many times, but in 2017 I noticed it for the first time [1]. Easy to miss; perhaps easier to miss than John Wesley would have been in 1790!
Plaque to John Wesley in Haverfordwest
The plaque reads:
Near this spot on August 16th 1790 REV. JOHN WESLEY, M.A. then in his eighty-eighth year and on the last of his fourteen visits to the town PREACHED to the people of Haverfordwest. His text was,
"The Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel." Mark, 1:15

The early Methodists were called enthusiasts, a derogatory term in their day. I have used the word to represent the sort of person whose Christian beliefs are infectious, so that they pass it on to another person, some of whom also become enthusiasts. Religion then spreads like a disease, typical of church growth in times of revival.  If the church in the UK is to stop its current decline and grow again then it needs revival, and it needs enthusiasts of the sort in Wesley’s day. It made me think what sort of lessons we can learn from his day that would help the contemporary church. 

1) The Time

Wesley preached through the 18th century. For much of the century churches were in decline, with sparse attendance and absentee clergy. Buildings were in disrepair.  On one of his previous visits to Pembrokeshire, May 1781, Wesley noted of St David’s Cathedral:

The cathedral has been a large and stately fabric, far superior to any other in Wales. But a great part of it is fallen down already, and the rest is hastening into ruin [2,3]

The effect of the Reformation and the Puritans was long gone. The Christian religion was mocked by rich and poor alike, whose preference was for entertainment and alcohol.  In many ways the time was similar to 21st century Britain – Christianity looked as if it was on the way out.

Wesley was not daunted by the situation – he, and the other Methodists, saw it as a great opportunity to spread the gospel and glorify God. Enthusiasts do not look at the situation, but to the God who has commissioned them to make disciples despite the situation. 21st Century secular Britain is a great opportunity for enthusiasts!

2) The Man

Wesley never stopped preaching, he never retired. This was his 88th year and he still saw it as his mission to convert the lost and build the Methodist societies. He travelled extensively. Before his final tour of Pembrokeshire in August 1790 he had travelled from Lincolnshire, and afterwards visited Bristol. [2,4].
He was persistent. This was his 14th visit. When he started there was no Methodist cause in the town. By his final visit there was a flourishing church and education among the children and poor [5]

He laboured despite poor health. On January 1st he wrote

I am now an old man, decayed from head to foot. My eyes are dim; my right hand shakes much; my mouth is hot and dry every morning; I have a lingering fever almost every day; my motion is weak and slow. However, blessed be God, I do not slack my labour: I can preach and write still. [2]

Enthusiasts have a zeal for the work of the gospel that need not waver with age, health or the passage of time. The UK church has many former enthusiasts from the evangelical and charismatic renewal of the late 20th century who have given up the fight and fallen asleep spiritually. The lesson of Wesley is that they can be enthusiasts again and spread revival until their last breath.  

3) The Culture

Wesley was preaching in Wales, at this time predominately Welsh speaking. His normal practice of preaching to the poor and uneducated could not be used as they could not speak English, the only language Wesley could use [6]. Fortunately there was a separate Welsh speaking Methodist connection that ministered to the poor in Wales.

Wesley, not put off by the culture, changed his strategy. Instead of preaching directly to the poor he preached in places like Haverfordwest where there were a number of wealthy families, who could speak both English and Welsh. He then inspired them to teach the poor, especially the children, and bring them to faith. One member of the Haverfordwest church was a Miss Catherine Warren, a member of the local gentry who Wesley corresponded with regularly to encourage her in her work [5]. Wesley expected conversions from all levels of society, culture or class were no handicap. All were expected to change, rich and poor alike. Then culture changed accordingly.

Enthusiasts are not put off by the culture of society. Whether it’s atheists, humanists, Muslims, or “Diversity” and LGBT ideologies, enthusiasts expect conversions that change behaviour and lead to cultural changes that reflect God’s kingdom.

4) The Method –  He Preached

Wesley’s text that day was “repent and believe the gospel”, one he had no doubt preached many times. His message was simple and direct, sin is the problem, Jesus is the answer. His was no message of acceptance and inclusion, popular in much of today’s church, but of one of justification and transformation. No one had to stay the way they were – through repentance and faith they could be put right with God immediately, and become what He designed them to be. Enthusiasts preach directly to the heart of the problem.

Wesley preached. He was not a social activist, though he did much social good. He did not organise discussions or debates, perhaps where a group of people could decide what is true. Though no doubt his preaching left many people discussing and debating! He preached, that is he took a text explained, it and persuading people to obey is implications. He did not do it to be popular. Preaching was no more popular in his day than in ours; Wesley was sometimes stoned and often verbally abused. He preached because Jesus commanded it. Enthusiasts obey the command and preach.

Wesley preached everywhere. He did not wait for people to come, but went to them. Enthusiasts are not locked away in church buildings, but out and about, speaking to people whether ones and twos, or in crowds.

Wesley preached the Bible; he had confidence in its message and in the truth of its words. Recently I was at a church where the minister read out some words of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel ,And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”. The minister then said, “This couldn’t have been the words of Jesus. Something must have got lost in translation between him and Matthew!” Sadly that lack of confidence in scripture has been common in the church for a few generations and has undoubtedly assisted its decline [7]. Enthusiasts have confidence in the truth of scripture, so much that they live by it, and must bring it to the attention of all they meet.

If Wesley was around today, it is not clear what he would have made of a plaque in his name. But he would have recognised society, the plight of sinners, and the state of the church. No doubt he would still be an enthusiast and behaved exactly as that day in Haverfordwest. Today’s enthusiasts need only to follow his example.

The plaque's location in Dew Street, Haverfordwest

References & Notes

[1] The plaque was unveiled on the 18th May 1956 at the town’s grammar school. It was later moved to the town’s library, date not known.

Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, vol 30, June 1956

[2] John Wesley’s Journal

[3] As a result of the 18th revivals started by the Methodist, all the UK Christian denominations experienced revival in the first half of the 19th century. Thus, in the 50 years following Wesley’s 1781 visit to St David’s, the Cathedral was rebuilt by a now flourishing congregation, as were most of the decaying parish churches in Britain.

Of course there was revival and church growth among the Methodists from the 1730s onwards. But it took to the end of the century before it spilled over into the other denominations in a big enough way to repair the damage of their long period of decline and neglect.

[4] John Wesley kept a private diary separate from his published journals. Although his journal makes no mention of the 1790 Wales tour, his diary gives the following details for Haverfordwest:

Sunday 15th  

5 Prayed, letters ; 8 tea, conversed, letter, chaise ; 10 St. Daniel's, prayer, Acts xi. 36 ! meditated ; 1 1 Rowl[ ], communion ; 12.30 writ narrative, dinner ; 3 [ ], boat, chaise, Hav[erfor]d ; 5 tea ; 5.30 read, Mark i. 15 ! the bands, visited, supper, prayer; 9.15.
Monday 16th
4 Tea, conversed, prayer ; 5 chaise ; 8.30 Tavernsp[ite], tea ; 9.30 chaise, prayed; 12.30 Carm[arthen] ; i at T. Taylor's, writ narrative, dinner, the preachers, letters ; 4 Isai. xxxv. 8 ! on business ; 7.30 supper, conversed, prayer ; 9.30 lay down ; 11.30 sleep.

The square bracketed letters indicate missing letters from his abbreviated diary entries. In some cases the missing letters cannot be determined, hence [ ].

He actually preached in Haverfordwest on Sunday August 15th. He left the town on the 16th. Thus the plaque records his last day in the town, rather than the day he preached.

See also “John Wesley in the Cardiff Area - Part 2: 1747-1790” by David Pike for extensive material on Wesley’s time in Wales.

[5] Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, vol 30, June 1956
In 1785 John Wesley wrote to a Miss Catherine Warren, a lady from a renowned local family, who had the care of 50 children to encourage her to continue her good work. Spiritual progress was also expected in this work. Wesley wrote in his journal of these children: “Several of them are much awakened, and the behaviour of all is so composed that they are a pattern to the whole congregation.

There was no Wesleyan Methodist church in Haverfordwest in 1769. But by 1782 it was established and thriving, mainly due to the enthusiasm of Miss Warren.

Bulletin of the Wesley Historical Society in Wales, Number 1, P76, 2011.

[6] Haverfordwest Society: “Wesley enjoyed coming to south Pembrokeshire because he knew that it was one of the few areas in Wales where his preaching would be understood.”

See also

[7] See the series of articles on church growth and decline on the Presbyterian Church of Wales as illustrative of the post 19th century decline of the church. This decline is attributed to a fall in conversions, caused by a lack of revival, rooted in a mixture of institutionalism, rationalism and liberalism, which undermined the church’s confidence in Scripture and the God who reveals himself through it.

Blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversions

Blog: Church Decline cause by Lack of Revivals

Blog: Why Revivals Stopped in the UK

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Church Growth Limited by Evangelistic Purity

Limits to Church Growth 4

In three previous blogs I have looked at congregational growth being limited by:
      I.     Demand from society [1];
    II.     Supply by the church [1];
  III.     Lack of enthusiasts [2];
  IV.     Inadequate resource production [3].

When congregational growth stalls and appears to hit a limit, the obvious question is to ask “why?”. In particular, has growth ended because of factors within the church, or factors in society? If there are no internal limits to growth then society will always eventually hinder growth, limit (I) above. However churches often cause their own growth barriers, not evangelising enough, (II); have enthusiasts, the evangelisers, who cease to be effective, (III); or not generating enough resources in the church to attract, disciple and retain people, (IV).

Church congregations are a mixture of people, some are enthusiasts, wanting to reach people and see them converted. However some are inactive in conversion, preferring to spend their time on other aspects of church life, worship, socials, good works and the like. The balance of people in the church determines its culture. Thus I will put forward the hypothesis:

The balance of enthusiasts and inactive believers in the church determines the evangelistic effectiveness of the church.

I will call this effectiveness the church’s evangelistic purity, and propose the conjecture:

Falling evangelistic purity will limit the congregation’s growth, regardless of the size of society.

The Model

The model to represent this situation is given in figure 1. People are converted to church from outside. The cloud in the left hand of the diagram represents and unlimited supply of potential converts [4]. The reinforcing loop R1 captures the action of the enthusiasts, the more enthusiasts the more converted, thus even more enthusiasts. I have assumed all new converts become enthusiasts first. Enthusiasts do not stay active in evangelism indefinitely, thus they become inactive after a fixed duration, balancing loop B1.

Figure 1: Evangelistic purity model of church growth

Following the hypothesis, the conversion rate for each enthusiast depends on the evangelistic purity of the church. If the number of enthusiasts increases then the evangelistic purity of the church also increases. This reinforces the growth of enthusiasts, R2. However the more inactive believers the lower the evangelistic purity; a balancing loop resisting the growth of enthusiasts B2. If B2 is large enough then church growth will stop.


A simulation of the model, for a given conversion rate, duration enthusiast, and ratio of enthusiasts to inactive in the church, is given in figure 2 [5]. Church numbers are the sum of the enthusiasts and the inactive believers.
Figure 2: Falling evangelistic purity results in a limit to church growth

 A church of 30 people grows rapidly over 40 years, but is limited to just over 200 people as its evangelistic purity has fallen, figure 2. This limit is reached even though the pool of potential converts is infinite. It is a purely church induced limit, not affected by society.  Looking at the two types of believers, it can be seen that although the number of enthusiasts rises, their growth eventually slows as they become increasingly ineffective in a church becoming dominated by believers with no interest in evangelism, figure 3. Enthusiast numbers peak and afterwards fall away.
Figure 3: Falling evangelistic purity results in enthusiasts who are unable to reproduce themselves indefinitely

Analysing the cause of the changes in enthusiast numbers shows that it is the impact of the loop B2 that causes their numbers to fall and eventually halts church growth. Impact is a measure of the extent to which a feedback loop influences the curvature of the graph [6]. Figure 4 shows the regions of loop dominance on the enthusiasts.

Figure 4: Periods of loop dominance on enthusiast numbers

Enthusiast growth initially accelerates due to R1, their rising numbers, and R2, the influence of the enthusiasts on evangelistic purity, figure 4, first phase. The growth slows due to the generation of inactive believers, B1, and their negative effect on evangelistic purity, B2, second phase. Loop B2 becomes so powerful it causes the number of enthusiasts to change from growth to decline as conversions fall below the loss of enthusiasts. This is the third phase.

The decline in enthusiasts becomes faster, reinforced by falling conversions R1 and R2, the fourth phase. Decline finally slows as the remaining enthusiasts drain away, loop B1.

Thus the conjecture is demonstrated, falling church purity limits church growth, because the negative effect of inactive believers limits the generation of enthusiasts.

Tipping Point

So what can be done to remove this barrier to growth? There are three possible strategies:
1.     Increase the effectiveness of the enthusiasts;
2.     Increase the duration new converts remain enthusiastic;
3.     Have a church that has a greater balance of enthusiasts to inactive.

Applying any of these three strategies raises the limit to the congregation’s growth, due to a larger generation of enthusiasts. Figures 5 and 6 show the effect of increasing the initial purity of the church, the ratio of enthusiasts to inactive. Purity 1 is the lowest; Purity 5 the highest. Thus the more evangelistically pure churches are able to reach a higher limit to growth than the impure ones.

Figure 5: Effect of increasing initial church purity on church growth
Figure 5: Effect of increasing initial church purity on growth of enthusiasts

There comes a point if the purity is increased further, church growth continues indefinitely, curve Purity 5, figure 5, because enthusiasts continue to be generated, figure 6. Thus a sufficiently pure congregation can remove this barrier to church growth, and concentrate on the other barriers that come into play, not included in this model. It is good to know some growth barriers can be removed.

One way to raise church purity is to allow the inactive to leave. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if church leaving increases, church growth increases, as long as it is the evangelistically inactive that leave. This is an example of Kelley’s hypothesis that a stricter church is stronger and thus more likely to grow [7].

The principle of evangelistic purity encouraging growth can apply across all churchmanships, not just conservative or evangelical ones, as purity refers to participation in the mission and recruitment to the church, rather than theology as such. It may be possible to show that certain theologies are more likely to encourage evangelistic purity, particularly ones that see the need for personal salvation. But that takes us beyond this simple model, which shows that having enough people in the church committed to evangelism can remove a barrier to church growth.

References & Notes

[1] Limits to Church Growth – Part 1.  Lack of Supply & Lack of Demand.

[2] Limits to Church Growth – Part 2. The Reproduction of Enthusiasts.

[3] Limits to Church Growth – Part 3. Inadequate Resource Production

[4] An overview of system dynamics is given by the System Dynamics Society

[5] It is normal to use computer simulation to produce results of system dynamics model, though not always essential. The results of the evangelistic purity model can all be proved mathematically. In this blog the graphs were produced By the Stella Architect software, ISEE systems, https://www.iseesystems.com/

[6] The concept of loop impact is related to the concept of force in Newtonian mechanics. See:
Hayward J. (2015). Newton’s Laws of System Dynamics. Presented at the 33rd International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, Cambridge, MA, July 2015.
Hayward J. & Boswell G.P. (2014). Model Behaviour and the Concept of Loop Impact: A Practical Method. System Dynamics Review, 30(1), 29-57. DOI: 10.1002/sdr.1511  

[7] Kelley D. (1986). Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in the Sociology of Religion. Mercer University Press.