It is increasingly common in Protestant circles in America today to decry local churches that are inwardly focused, and often led by maintenance-oriented pastors and laity. Such churches and leaders, it is said, should be outwardly focused, attentive to the mission field outside their doors. They should practice intentional outreach, exhibit hospitality, and be sensitive to the worship styles of persons unlike themselves.
I have no intention to dispute any of this. After all, John Wesley was a constant critic of his own Church of England, which all too often exhibited a dead formalism rather than a vibrant Christianity. The point of Methodism was to renew the church, so that the new life of love promised by the gospel would characterize lives and congregations.
What I do want to highlight is the intrinsic connection of mission and formation in Wesley’s theology and practice. This is vital, for it raises the question of why we are reaching out, as well as the nature of the life of the church that is doing the outreach. It suggests that our attention should be directed both outwardly and inwardly at the same time.
Wesley understood the mission of Methodism in these terms: “to reform the nation, particularly the church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (“Minutes of Several Conversations,” Q.3, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 8; Jackson edition, 1879]). This was Methodism’s role in the much larger enterprise of God’s purpose for the entire creation, that is, its renewal in love. What is central here is how Wesley sought to discern God’s particular calling of his movement in terms of this larger eschatological purpose. His conclusion meant that the reason the people called Methodists reached out to others was fundamentally to share God’s promise of a new life of love.
But their reaching out was also an expression of God’s love. Wesley was convinced that unless love characterized the motivation of outreach and the life of the Christian community, the proclamation of God’s promise would bear little fruit. Indeed, the “grand stumbling block” that prevented those outside the church from hearing and believing the gospel was “the lives of Christians,” that is, those inside the church (“The General Spread of the Gospel,” §21). The effectiveness of mission ultimately depends on the life promised by the gospel being a reality in Christian lives and churches in a way that can be seen and experienced.
This brings us back to the local church. But from a Wesleyan perspective the agenda can no longer be preserving and perpetuating the status quo, which is often our agenda, for it is now God’s purposes and promises to which we must attend. For God to be at the center of our worship and life takes discipline, that is, the regular and accountable practice of means of grace. These include searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, Christian conference, fasting, and works of mercy to our neighbor. To neglect these is to ignore to prime avenues God uses to enable us to receive and grow in new life. In addition, as Wesley makes clear in a number of sermons, including “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” it also includes self-denial. The laying up of treasures on earth, he warns, inevitably leads us to trust in them rather than God, while at the same time undermining the generosity of spirit to our neighbor that is one of the fruits of love.
What this means for us is that we will not be a credible and serious outreaching church unless we become a church whose very life and motivation is marked by love. Outreach without this reality lacks integrity and ultimately will be ineffective. To reach out we must at the same time look inwardly, insuring local churches have the patterns of discipline, practices, and self-denial necessary to invite persons to receive and enable persons to grow in love.