Monday, November 1, 2021

Sung Il Lee: The Missiology of the "Middle Wesley"

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Sung Il Lee. Rev. Dr. Lee is a missionary of Global Ministries and Missionary Practitioner in Residence at Candler School of Theology.

Extending W. Harrison Daniel’s concept analysis of the mission theory of the “young Wesley” (pre-1938) (Daniel 2000), I would like to examine the missiology of the “Middle Wesley” (1738-1765).

After he returned to England, Wesley had a warm experience at Aldersgate on 24 May, 1738. This experience helped to intensify and organize the middle Wesley’s Methodist movement. In this period, Wesley’s mission was consistently evangelical. I argue we must think of Wesley’s understanding of mission in the living context of his vital renewal movement.

I would like to see Wesley first as a proclaimer. As a proclaimer, Wesley considered “preaching the principal means by which converts are gathered into Christian fellowship and nurtured in faith and holy living” (Carder 1994, 82) and was convinced that “God had raised up the Methodists as means of reforming the nation and the church” (Carder, 81).

Wesley’s understanding of preaching was very missiological. He viewed preaching as “serving two basic purposes: to convert and to nurture” (Carder, 82). Wesley believed it was “God’s will that all should be saved, redeemed, and shaped by God’s grace revealed and mediated in Christ” (Carder, 82). Yet, his field preaching was “not a ‘hit and run’ operation; instead, it was re-enforced by the societies and class meeting in which converts were taught the faith, nurtured, admonished, and held accountable” (Carder, 83-84).

Wesley’s evangelical preaching and his organizing skills resulted in a group of the people called Methodists. Wesley was convinced that this people was called to do extraordinary rather than ordinary ministry. He pondered the meaning of Methodism as “spiritual churches within the Anglican Church” (Snyder 1996, 128) and as “little churches within the ecclesia” (Snyder, 128). Most importantly, Wesley viewed Methodism as a dynamic movement and “noted with great interest the depth and intimacy of community that developed in the Methodist societies, classes, and bands” (Snyder, 127).

As a renewal movement within the church, the Methodist movement has great missiological implications. “Wesley regarded Methodism as a movement of authentic Christianity within the larger church, which was largely decadent” (Snyder 1996, 128). Snyder continues, “The Methodists did not want to be a separate sect living only for themselves. They existed for the health and renewal of the whole body” (Snyder, 128) .

Through this renewal movement, Wesley wanted to “‘renew the church’, ‘spread scriptural holiness’, and ‘reform the nation.’” (Hunter 1986, 24). Hunter argues that Wesley’s “more apostolic goals are not as widely recognized” (24). According to him, Wesley “sought no less than the recovery of the truth, life, and power of earliest Christianity , and the expansion of that kind of Christianity. He single-mindedly managed the movement for fifty years primarily by that objective” (24) and “communicated this objective to the growing ranks of Methodists” (24). To Wesley, mission meant spreading scriptural Christianity throughout the lands and nations.

Wesley saw “the call to parish ministry and the call to mission as one” (Daniel 2000, 452) not “separated” (453). He observed painfully how the presence of “nominal Christians without experience of the new birth” in Savannah (455) hampered Indian and Black missions. Just as he needed mission before being born again, Wesley accepted the call to parish ministry (home mission) and the call to mission field (foreign mission) as an “indivisible unity” (453).

The Savannah mission experience made Wesley maintained a synthetic view that regarded the parish (home mission) and mission field (foreign or cross-cultural mission) alike as both mission field and parish (Daniel, 455). Wesley argued, “Suffer me now to tell you my principle in this matter. I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to.” (Letter, possibly to John Clayton, generally dated from March of 1739 in Baker, Letters, 1:616).

Though Wesley was a “home” missionary, he saw foreign mission as a “natural extension of the apostolic and extraordinary ministry by which the unchristian of his own nation were to be reached.” (Campbell 1992, 56). Campbell argues that “this ‘home’ work, in Wesley’s sense, was inseparably linked to the broader prospect of global evangelization. Wesley did, in fact, engage in evangelization beyond his ‘own nation’ (using this term in a strict sense) in the Evangelical Revival” (Campbell, 57).

Nonetheless, Campbell criticized Wesley as too captivated by the “sense of the Christian message as radiating out from a central core (i.e., where the Revival was occurring) ” (Campbell, 60) to encourage “the thought of mission (such as the proposed mission to Africa) in places that were not contiguous with the Revival” (Ibid.). Campbell shows Wesley’s cautious approach to foreign missionary work, stemming in part from his refusal to start missionary ventures without a sense of providential opening.

In the expansion of the scriptural Christianity, Wesley’s strategic approach to the task in England was the same as Paul had in the Roman Empire. Paul worked with Pauline mission teams to spread the gospel through a network of people undergirded by the prayers and financial support of house churches. In Paul’s strategy, he selected the great cities of the Roman Empire with several characteristics in common: Roman administration, centers of Greek civilization, Jewish influence, and trade and commerce. From these centers he sent his younger helpers to radiate out to the smaller cities of the region.  (Sung Il Lee, 2 )

Wesley, who aspired to restore scriptural Christianity, learned Paul’s missionary methods and developed them in his contexts  . Wesley tried every means available such as Methodist societies, bands, class meetings, itinerary preachers, lay preachers, etc. to bring “a consistent version of contiguous proclamation, that is, revival beginning in one place and spreading from thence to contiguous areas until the world was saturated. It was the model suggested, in general, by the Acts of the Apostles” (Campbell, 60). Campbell illustrates that “Wesley’s understanding of the mission of the Church laid the heaviest burden on his own people. For there to be a ‘core’ from which evangelism could radiate, it was necessary that his own people should be truly converted, and should display the fruits of Christian faith which, he believed, would be the strongest testimony to the world on behalf of the faith” (Campbell 1992, 60).

In relation to spreading scriptural Christianity, Wesley’s mission was guided by his radical recognition that “his own people, their society and their culture, were not themselves Christian, and thus stood as much in need of the Gospel as any foreign people” (Campbell 1992, 54). Campbell argues that Wesley’s mission was contingent upon bringing others to real Christianity, beginning “in the nominally Christian lands of Western Europe, followed by the conversion of Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and finally the rest of the world” (Campbell, 56).

In other words, his basic recognition of the unchristian character of his own world directed the goal of the Methodist movement and shaped Wesley’s evangelistic outreach. The middle Wesley expanded his missionary experience in Georgia and established himself as a missional reformer by transforming nominal Christians and their churches in England into a missionary constitution that opened the Great Century of Protestant missions, which began with William Carey only two years after John Wesley died (Campbell, 61).

In brief, Wesley believed that “proclaiming the gospel of grace … faces no less formidable obstacles that were confronted by Paul in the first century” (Carder, 93). “To fulfill the Great Commission in our generation, in order to proclaim Christ to the modern pagans who surround us, we must ask the kinds of questions that vexed John Wesley  between 1736 to 1739: ‘What kind of Christianity do we now have to offer the world?’” (Campbell 1992, 62). Do we really want people of foreign lands to become something like modern-day North American or Korean Methodists? “Can there be any authentic global evangelization today that does not proceed from a recognition of the failures of our society and culture to follow Christ, and that does not begin with the evangelization of our own people?” (Campbell, 62).

Works Cited:
Campbell, Ted A. 1992. “John Wesley on the Mission of the Church.” In The Mission of the Church in Methodist Perspective: The World is My Parish. Ed. by Alan G. Padgett. 45-62. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen.
Carder, Kenneth L. 1994. “Proclaiming the Gospel of Grace.” In Theology and Evangelism in the Wesleyan Heritage. Ed. by James C. Logan. 81-94. Nashville, TN: Kingswood.
Daniel, W. Harrison. 2000. “The Young Wesley as Cross-Cultural Witness: Investigations into Wesley’s American Mission Experience And Implications for Today’s Mission.” Missiology 28(4): 443-457.
Hunter, George. 1986. “John Wesley: A Church Growth Strategist.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 21(1-2) Spring-Fall: 24-33.
Snyder, Howard A. 1996. The Radical Wesley and Patterns for Church Renewal. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

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