Evangelism in America has long been focused on eliciting an individual decision to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The decision one makes determines whether one’s sins are forgiven, and thereby one’s eternal destiny. This call to decision has been an explicit goal of much of evangelism and revivalism since the late nineteenth century, but its roots are in the second great awakening. Since the 1970s there has been much written that calls this model of evangelism into question and offers many creative, biblically grounded alternatives, but the fact that new books still come out criticizing it is a sign of how dominant it has been.
Some would find this decisionist individualism even earlier, in the eighteenth century. And it is true that figures like Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys emphasized the new birth as a transformation of the heart, addressing the message to individuals. But there are two major differences between them and their nineteenth-century successors that lead me to describe their approach as personal and relational rather than individualistic.
First, they all emphasized divine initiative. They were all, perhaps to an unprecedented degree, theologians of the Holy Spirit. The Wesleys in particular depicted God not as waiting for our decision as an act of our free will but graciously enabling and inviting our response. For them God’s initiative was universal, through prevenient grace. The goal was to enter a relationship with God that is transformative, such that we grow in love for God and neighbor. In other words, our entry into a relationship with God enables us to become relational in a particular way: to love as God loves, especially as God has loved us in Jesus Christ.
Second, this relationship with God is sustained and strengthened through community focused on spiritual disciplines. John Wesley learned early on that when people came together to share what God is doing in their lives, discuss what it means to serve God in the world, and hold one another accountable to a spiritual discipline, they tended to grow in love and deepen relationships. When they did not, they tended to fall away.
No wonder Wesley was so emphatic on the necessity of community. After describing the “solitary religion” of some mystics, Wesley states: “Directly opposite of this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy Solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel then holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness” (Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739, §§4-6).
The implications for evangelism are profound. As Wesley notes in his Journal for August 1763, “I was more convinced than ever that the preaching like an apostle, without joining together those that are awakened and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer. How much preaching has there been for these twenty years all over Pembrokeshire? But no regular societies, no discipline, no order or connection. And the consequence is that nine in ten of the once awakened are now faster asleep than ever.”
Thus when persons responded to preaching or personal witness, they were enrolled in a probationary class in which they began to keep the Methodist discipline of do no harm, do good, and attend the ordinances of God. They met weekly to hold one another accountable to that discipline but also to discuss ways to keep it more faithfully. These classes were a form of Christian initiation.
But community was as essential for growth as it was for initiation. Every Methodist was in a class, both awakened sinners and those who had experienced forgiveness of sins. For those growing in sanctification there were bands, which also had weekly meetings. And the entirety of the Methodists in a city or town met quarterly as a society, where among other things they shared testimonies of mutual encouragement.
Through these groups persons helped one another along the way of salvation. They encouraged one another to remain open and receptive to grace even as they served as means to both clarify and urge faithful discipleship. Wesleyan evangelism enables persons to begin the way of salvation by placing them in a community that initiates and sustains them in a transforming relationship with God and with one another.