In a country where in “1736 every sixth house in London was licensed as a grogshop,”2 England was a country of drunkenness, despair, and moral decay. Children as young as three and a half worked in the mines, the mills, and brickyards, and “less than one in twenty-five had any kind of schooling.”3 The rural poor migrated to the cities in droves, looking for work, as the primitive wheels of the Industrial Revolution began to turn, creating urban slums never seen before. “The reigns of economic power were completely in the hands of the wealthy few. Beneath the sophisticated veneer of the governing classes, the English populace was gripped in a vise of poverty, disease, and moral decay.”4
But where was the church? The Church of England at that time catered to the upper strata of society. Churches were subsidized by the government, and of the 11,000 pastors who were on the payroll, 6,000 never even set foot in their parishes but farmed out their ministry to underlings.5
Wesley’s goal was formidable, but his mission was clear. Wesley knew that preaching to the masses alone was insufficient. His contemporary, George Whitefield, would often preach to crowds exceeding 20,000. But because Whitefield had no mechanism for preserving the fruit of his preaching, near the end of his life he called his own converts “a rope of sand.”6 Wesley tried to learn from Whitefield, and building on Whitefield’s “field preaching,” he added his class meetings—a small group system—and these class meetings began to shape character and change behavior of those who joined them.
Wesley’s approach to ministry was influenced by several sources, including his own experiences leading the Holy Club at Oxford, the Pietist conventicles that Philip Jacob Spener pioneered in Germany, and the Moravian societies that Wesley encountered in England and America.
Wesley’s life was contagious. “The church was producing a different kind of lay person, people who were spending three hours daily for the work of the kingdom and giving much of their income toward its building.”
Another influence was the Catholic nobleman Gaston Jean Baptiste de Renty (1611-1649), whose biography Wesley read in the late 1720s. “Throughout his life, Wesley continued to refer to de Renty as the epitome of Christian holiness coupled with concern for the poor and effective methodology.” 7 De Renty’s example of uniting growth in piety with active ministry for the poor resonated with Wesley’s own instincts, as, indeed, was demonstrated by the practices of the Holy Club at Oxford. And this coupling formed the axis of the new Methodist class meetings—small groups that met regularly for spiritual encouragement and accountability but differed from other religious societies by virtue of their model for spiritual growth. “The focus of the Anglican groups was personal growth through careful attention to themselves; de Renty concentrated on personal growth by ministering to the needs of others. The Anglicans hoped that Christian service would be the eventual outcome of their quest for personal holiness; de Renty viewed Christian service as the context in which personal holiness developed… for Wesley, de Renty’s model of growth-through-service enabled him to steer his groups around the dangers of morbid introspection and mysticism.”8
Wesley practiced what he preached. He campaigned against the slave trade, agitated for prison and labor reform (including child labor), set up loan funds for the poor, opened a dispensary to distribute medicines to the poor, worked to solve unemployment, and gave away considerable sums of his personal money to people in need.9 Wesley’s life was contagious. “The church was producing a different kind of lay person, people who were spending three hours daily for the work of the kingdom and giving much of their income toward its building.”10
In many ways, the story of John Wesley may well be the best-kept secret of the past two and a half centuries of church history. On February 24, 1791, at age 88, six days before his death, Wesley wrote the last letter of his life to William Wilberforce, a fellow Evangelical. Wesley congratulated Wilberforce for publicly rising to champion the anti-slavery cause in the British Empire. In following years, Wilberforce pressed relentlessly to end slavery in the British East Indies. Parliament outlawed the slave trade throughout its colonies in 1807 and abolished slavery in 1833, a few hours before Wilberforce’s death. Wesley was long dead, but his Methodist societies were a dependable part of the British anti-slavery coalition during the long struggle.
Wesley’s revolutionary concepts, and his vision for what the Church could be, shaped not only the denominations that developed from his churches but also an approach to externally focused ministry that continues to influence churches all over the world today.
ERIC SWANSON is a missional leadership specialist with Leadership Network and is the co-author of The Externally Focused Church (Group, 2004), The Externally Focused Life (Group, 2009), and The Externally Focused Quest (Jossey-Bass, 2010).
SAM WILLIAMS is the co-director of Vision San Diego and was a long-time pastor, seminary professor, and church planter. He is also a church and leadership consultant.
Used by permission. Excerpt taken from To Transform a City by Eric Swanson and Sam Williams © 2010 Zondervan. The original title was "The Influence of Wesley."
1 Michael D. Henderson. John Wesley’s Class Meetings (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel, 1997), 35.
2 Ibid., 48.
3 Ibid., 50.
4 Ibid., 19.
5 Ibid., 20.
6 Ibid., 71.
7 Ibid., 48.
8 Ibid., 50.
9 John Telford, “The Life of John Wesley,” http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-life-of-john-wesley-by-john-telford/ (accessed May 24, 2007).
10 Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Madison, Wis.: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 381.