One of the four drivers of congregational vitality identified by the Call to Action Steering Team examining contemporary United Methodism was “inspirational preaching and length of pastoral appointment.” Certainly inspirational preaching was at the heart of the 18th century evangelical awakening.
John and Charles Wesley eventually oversaw around a hundred itinerating lay preachers assigned to circuits throughout Great Britain. These were not pastors of local churches, but traveling evangelists who preached both to unbelievers and to Methodist societies. Hence their sermons necessarily called for repentance and receptivity to God’s forgiveness, as well as Christian growth in love and other fruit of the Spirit.
Itinerancy was a missionary strategy. Wesley believed that sustained awakening most frequently occurred when preachers traveled. He was convinced that “were I myself to preach one whole year in one place, I should preach myself and most of my congregation to sleep.” Denying it is the will of God “that any congregation have one teacher only,” he insisted that experience has taught “that a frequent change is best” (“Letter to Mr. Walker” [Sept. 3, 1756]).
Wesley has a point about the need for multiple teachers and fresh perspectives. But as a missional strategy, the frequent change of appointments that was so effective in early Methodism is not so effective now. If local congregations are themselves to become missional churches, experience today shows that longer appointments are required. Because itinerancy was a means, not an end in itself, a 21st century Wesley might agree.
But Wesley was also concerned about the content of preaching—what it is for. He wanted preaching that would not only convict of sin but promise salvation, that would offer not only forgiveness of sin but new life, the goal of which is not only faith but love. The “best general method of preaching,” he said, “was (1) to invite, (2) to convince, (3) to offer Christ, and (4) to build up, and to do this in some measure in every sermon” (“Large Minutes” Q.48, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 8; Jackson edition, 1879]).
Wesley was strongly opposed to preaching in the awakening that solely focused on forgiveness of sins at the expense of sanctification. He finds “more profit in sermons on either good tempers, or good works, than in what are vulgarly called gospel sermons…. Let but a pert, self-sufficient animal, that has neither sense or grace, bawl out something about Christ, or his blood, or justification by faith, and his hearers cry out, ‘What a fine gospel sermon!’ Surely the Methodists have not so learned Christ. We know no gospel without salvation from sin” (“Letter to Miss Bishop” [Oct. 18, 1778]).
Such preaching, he wrote to his brother Charles, “naturally tends to drive holiness out of the world” (“Letter to Charles Wesley” [Nov. 4, 1772]).
The best way to avoid this is to preach Christ in all his offices, as prophet, priest, and king. It is to declare both law and gospel, to both believers and unbelievers. It is to proclaim holiness of heart and life, centered in love, as the promise of the gospel.
Although Wesley insists on a kind of preaching that searches the heart and exposes sin, he warns against preaching law apart from gospel, or presenting the promise of sanctification in a harsh manner. Rather, Wesley urges that sanctification be placed “in the most amiable light” so that it may excite only “hope, joy, and desire” (“Doctrinal Minutes” Q. 46, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 8]). Entire sanctification should be preached “Scarce at all to those who are not pressing forward,” and to those that are “always by way of promise; always drawing, rather than driving” (“Doctrinal Minutes” Q. 8, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 8]). Indeed, as our love is in response to God, preaching should keep before its hearers God’s love for us in Christ, as the ground of all that the gospel promises.
What we preach matters. Inspirational preaching for Wesley had a definite content and purpose. “If we could once bring all our preachers,” he said, “itinerant and local, uniformly to and steadily to insist on those two points, ‘Christ dying for us’ and ‘Christ reigning in us,’ we should shake the trembling gates of hell” (“Letters to Charles Perronet” [Dec. 28, 1774]).