Preaching Like John Wesley

Implementing a Culturally Relevant Method of Preaching

By DS Dennis W. Miller

As I travel around the Foothills District, occasionally I hear individuals inquire whether we are being faithful to our Wesleyan heritage regarding preaching and worship styles. A few have even suggested that we need to “return to the way John would do it.” As one deeply rooted in our tradition, I believe this is sound advice. The key, however, is to truly understand our history, and the Wesleyan practices and principles that shaped our early Methodist experience. In 2001, I wrote a book entitled, The Athenian Method: Culturally Relevant Preaching for the 21st Century. On pages 33-36, there is a short section regarding historical perspectives on implementing a culturally relevant method of preaching (and worship). In this article, I would like to share some of those thoughts to encourage effective practices today.

For Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, the life and ministry of Methodism’s founder provides key insights into effective and ineffective communication. In 1735, the Governor of Georgia, James Edward Oglethorpe, persuaded thirty-two-year-old John Wesley to accept an appointment to minister to the English colonists, Indians and slaves in America. Overall, history has judged his short stay in Georgia as a pastoral failure. Although there were many things that contributed to his downfall, including his relationship with Sophy Hopkey, one key factor of failure was his inability to contextualize his ministry, which alienated him from his congregation. In his pastoral ministry, this Anglican priest steeped in high church tradition attempted to apply similar practices of the Oxford Methodists to his Savannah church. Wesley seemed to forget that not all of the colonists were high church Anglicans. Most of them, in fact, were "low" churchmen & churchwomen, Quakers and nonconformists. Thus, as a high churchman, Wesley was sadly out of place on the frontier. His doctrines and daily disciplines were simply too rigid.

Upon Wesley’s return from Georgia to England and his experience on Aldersgate Street in May 1738, his personal understanding of Christian mission changed. In traveling to America, he perceived his work as a means to nurture his own spiritual formation. Before his departure to America, he wrote, “My chief motive is the hope of saving my soul. I hope to learn the true sense of the gospel of Christ by preaching it to the heathen.” After his own heart-warming experience, however, the purpose of his missional activity shifted to the spiritual concern of his audience. In less than a year, Wesley’s new burning passion for the lost led him to present the gospel in unorthodox forms. On April 2, 1739, John Wesley preached his first outdoor sermon to the uneducated masses. Previously he would have considered this action degrading and improper for an Anglican clergyman. This is how his journal records the historical moment, “At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tiding of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in the ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.”

Wesley writes of his willingness to become “more vile” in order to communicate the gospel in a fashion that would reach the common people of Bristol. Certainly, the method of presentation was foreign to his sophisticated background. Yet, Wesley also realized that his new form of preaching was an effective means to an end. George Hunter in his book, To Spread the Power: Church Growth in the Wesleyan Spirit, explains early Methodism’s model of communication in these terms, "The Wesley’s demonstrated that forms of outreach that “fit” people make it more possible for them to respond than do alien or “superior” cultural forms. So Wesley, and other Methodist preachers, typically engaged these unreached pagans in the open air, on their turf - perhaps in a market square, or church yard, or a park, or a wide city street, or a crossroads, or beside a mine, or a natural amphitheater. The approach became known as field preaching."

John Wesley discovered that the goal of the preacher is not crafting pulpit masterpieces but conveying messages that touch and change human hearts. It is interesting to note that several years later, as the Methodist movement swept across the American frontier, a spiritual awaking was born. In response, John Wesley prepared a simple abridgement of The Book of Common Prayer for these early Methodists. At this time, the American movement consisted of mostly lay members. Gradually, the laity discarded Wesley’s formal liturgy to adopt indigenous forms of worship. Not only did this rejection of formalism appeal to the anti-English sentiment, but it also encouraged lay participation. Since the gospel was no longer being presented in a foreign “cultural” language, it could easily be embraced. As a result, American Methodism exploded in growth.

In Wesley’s later article entitled, “Character of A Methodist,” he wrote, “Our religion does not depend on any peculiar ways of speaking. We do not rely upon any quaint or uncommon expressions. The most obvious, easy words which convey the truth most effectively – these we Methodists prefer, in daily speech and when we speak about the things of God. We never depart from the most common, ordinary way of speaking – unless it be to express scriptural truths in the words of Scripture.”

The attempt to communicate God’s Word in the indigenous language of the culture continues to our present age. In the spirit of Wesley, in order to communicate with the postmodern mind, preaching and worship must balance doctrinal purity with communicational clarity. A preacher is most effective when understanding the medium through which the audience communicates. When this is grasped, an atmosphere is created for the Holy Spirit to minister and transform. This, of course, was the teaching method of our Lord Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul. They communicated God’s word in a language and method that common, everyday people could easily understand and embrace. In worship, as God the Holy Spirit comes to us, we experience the risen Christ and are transformed by Christ’s presence. The medium is simply an avenue to the encounter. Thank God for our Methodist heritage! Let’s encourage other United Methodists to return to these effective principles so that many will come to saving knowledge of the truth in Jesus Christ!