EFFECTIVE EVANGELISM & Lessons Learned While Traveling in the Hoof Prints of Wesley

by Bob Whitesel PhD, The Great Commission Research Journal (La Mirada, Calif: Talbot Theological Seminary, Biola University) Vol. 5, No. 1, Summer 2013.

GCRJ Whitesel Wesley Hoof Prints COVERDownload the entire article here:  ARTICLE ©Whitesel Wesley Holistic Good News GCRV5-1-052.


The Good News can be understood as the message of the missio Dei to which varying methods can be attached. Churches, however, often specialize in a specific part or method of that mission, e.g., helping the needy, emphasizing conversion, or promoting discipleship. This article suggests the Good News has yielded significant historical impact when churches embrace a comprehensive or holistic understanding of the Good News that includes three methodological components: establishing legitimacy by meeting the needs of non-believers, effectively facilitating conversion, and spiritual formation in small communal groups. Missional and effective evangelism nomenclature will be discussed in relation to this holism. Finally, examples of simultaneous methodology will be drawn from the experiences of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, as well as from experiences of the author while studying Wesley‘s original letters and traveling the settings of John Wesley.


I recently visited in John Wesley’s haunts, from the high moors of Derbyshire, to the alleys of industrial Sheffield, to the cosmopolitan bustle of City Road in London.  Amid these journeys I sought to better understand Wesley’s writings (to which I was kindly provided access to the originals in various locales) and the development of his holism regarding evangelism. Though for months I had been studying the massive reams of his journals, letters and books, I found his comprehensive view of the Good News because clearer as I trekked into his world.

Wesley lived in a world that was surprisingly not too different from the one we live in today.  It was rampant with unethical new technologies that cheapened people, their self-esteem and their moral values. Compounding the problem, the Church of England had denigrated into parish fiefdoms where pastors amassed private fortunes, catered to society’s elite and harangued one another over private theological perspectives. Worship services had became uninspiring and lethargic.

This pattern was sometimes broken at regional-wide churches which adopted a performance-orientated tactic.  In these regional churches only the best musicians and preachers were invited.  Yet, still the masses were not attracted, for they had been driven to the cities by the promises of an Industrial Revolution where factories provided stability over agriculture. Here in the cities the masses struggled to recover a communal life they left behind.  And churches who practiced excellence or preached politics did not offer them the communion with God or one another they sought. Into this unexciting, stratified and irrelevant church Wesley had felt called to be a pastor … but to pastor differently.

John Wesley & Social Advancement

The term methodist was used in a derisive manner to slander Wesley and his student friends at Christ Church College in Oxford. They had gained a notoriety for attempting to live lives more purposeful and godly. They drafted for themselves rules to help them grow in their Christian spirituality and service:

  1. “To lead a “holy and sober life”
  2. “To take communion at least one a week”
  3. “To be faithful in private devotions”
  4. “To visit the prisons regularly”
  5. “and to spend three hours together every afternoon, studying the Bible and books of devotion.”

One of Wesley’s friends had suggested that the group go to Oxford’s most outcast inhabitants, those who were housed in the nearby Oxford prison. This had an amazing effect upon the Holy Club. Eventually Wesley and his friends would even ride with prisoners in the carts on their way to execution, consoling and comforting them.

From his years at prestigious Christ Church College forward, Wesley would view meeting the needs of society’s most estranged, be they believer or non-believer, as a fundamental element of the Good News.  Though fellow Oxford students would derogatorily call them “The Holy Club,” their methods of holding each other accountable, receiving the Sacraments and helping the needy only required one more element for their movement to become whole. And that was for these young men, who grew up in Christian homes, to experience an inner transformation.

John Wesley & Conversion 

As a fledgling pastor Wesley would not ignore the poor. After all, he had been involved in social advancement ministry since his days at Oxford. But still, he did not feel he had not experienced holistically God’s Good News. True assurance that he would be saved from damnation eluded him. The following recounts how I gained a better understanding of how Wesley’s holistic view of the Good News developed.

Wesley’s Conversion: From Savannah to Aldersgate   

John Wesley, perhaps like some of the readers of this article, always knew he was going to be a pastor. In preparation, he had attended the best pastoral-training school in the British Empire and was now in 1735 was sailing to the New World.  An impressive intellectual and well respected despite his Holy Club activities, Wesley had received a prestigious appointment to be the first pastor of the Church of England congregation in Savannah, Georgia.

On his voyage to Savannah a fierce storm threatened to sink the ship. Even hardened sailors were said to be in fear of eminent death.  John Wesley was no different and by his own admission cowered in the ship amid many of the people he would soon be expected to pastor in Savannah. Cowering in fear of his life, he felt himself a poor example of the eternal certainly that he must soon preach to the congregants who traveled in the ship with him.

But on the ship were a group of Christians that demonstrated a remarkably different reaction to almost certain death.  Known as “Moravians” they were Christian reformers from Germany who has emphasized quietude, mediation and prayer as a means to spiritual growth. In the midst of the tempest and impending death, Wesley and others were amazed at their calm and confident trust in God’s protection. Their resolve convicted Wesley that something in his life was missing: a lack of trust and assurance in God.

The ship weathered the storm, but a series of miscalculations in his first pastorate together with his spiritual uncertainty sent Wesley back to England with the thought that “I who went to American to convert others, was never myself converted to God?”

St. Paul’s and a Small Group Meeting on Aldersgate Street   

Back in London, Wesley frequented the meetings of the Moravians and similar like-minded Christians who met in small groups for quietude, prayer, meditation and accountability. Wesley also kept up his attendance at Church of England worship services since he never wanted to leave the Church of England. Wesley always believed that the Church of England was God’s instrument and he never advocated leaving it, nor did he want to. Many years later when “preaching services” of the Methodists sprouted up all over England, Wesley asked that they never meet at the same time as Church of England services. Wesley did not want the Methodists to become a rival denomination with rival meetings. Instead Wesley always believed the Methodist Societies should be a renewal movement within the Church of England.  If anyone was dedicated to turning around a church, even a denomination, it was Wesley.

One evening he attended Evensong at the mother church of the Church of England, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Only 27 years earlier this stately church facility had been completed from a design by the famed architect Christopher Wren.  St. Paul’s had been Wren’s architectural tour de force, and in Wesley’s day as today, it was a hub of tourist curiosity.

I too attended Evensong at St. Paul’s at the same approximate time of year to take in for myself what Wesley saw and heard.  Just days before I had been in the John Ryland’s Library at the University of Manchester, holding in my hands and studying Wesley’s letters about this and other experiences.  I had read what he said in hindsight, but now I wanted to experience the intangibles. Though times have changed in many ways, they have not changed in other ways. The Church of England is in much the same crisis of faith and irrelevance that concerned Wesley.  And though St. Paul’s Evensong on the night of my attendance was attractive, it was hollow.

The service began with a steward waving an incense censer as he lead the procession of priests and singers. Over the years ecclesiologists had reinterpreted these incense censers as symbolic of the soothing fragrance of the Holy Spirit’s presence. But in Wesley’s time, people knew the real purpose for incense censers. As a member of the aristocracy Wesley would have been particularly familiar with incense censers as standard fixtures in rooms where noblemen held counsel. Over centuries, this practice had slowly made it way into the church. On my trip I had toured the country homes of English noblemen and palaces of the their royalty, only to find in most large incense censers meant to protect the aristocracy from the putrid odors of the masses.  Large metal burners, stationed in these homes directly between the aristocracy and the commoner conveyed an sense of elitism and separation. And this practice in the church, regardless of a theological attempt to reinterpret their function, would have conveyed at least a subconscious impression of exclusivity to Wesley’s generation.

Yet most notable in St. Paul’s was the massively artistic ornamentation and presentation.  Here was everything the Church of England could muster in excellence and quality. Then as today only the best musicians, singers and pastors were invited to participate at St. Paul’s. Tonight was no different. The organ voluntary was magnificent, the surroundings heavenly with all the other-worldly flair that famed architect Wren could muster. The preaching was engaging and politically nuanced.

To Wesley this would have been the Church of England at its attractive best. Wesley had had been familiar with such attractional methods since his college days. Christ Church College had been the de facto college for the religious elite of the British Empire. Daily he ate dinner in its stately dining room, amid grandly set tables under imposing larger-than-life portraits of English statesmen and religious leaders.

At St. Paul’s this was reflected in a way that many churches tried to copy: an impressive atmosphere of religious excellence that would inspire the religious indifferent to exchange their old way of life for a journey into Christian maturity. But, the churches in the 1738 were largely empty, even amid a quest for attractive experiences that would lure the masses back to church.

As in Wesley’s time the majority of the attendees when I visited St. Paul’s where tourists. One small row was set aside for the “St. Paul’s Community” of which only a few seats were taken. The sensation was of grandeur, artistry and emptiness. And, this tactic was not wooing them in then, nor in my experience was it today. The large sanctuary, sized more for coronations and state funerals, produced only a hollow resonance. Thin echoes led to a feeling of beauty inexperienced. It was not too dissimilar to a mausoleum, where beauty seems wasted upon so few.

But when I left Evensong, I stepped out the front doors into one of the most bustling intersections of London.  Here Fleet Street, the venerable headquarters of the British press climbs Lundgate Hill toward London Wall Road. This is the ancient center of the City of London. In 1738 this was also the center of English business life where the work of business did not subside at 5 pm. And the broad and central steps of St. Paul’s’ provided a fitting place to gather. Add to this the tourists from across the empire that visited this center of the ecclesial smugness, and the dissimilarity between what was going on inside of St. Paul’s and with out could not be ignored. In Wesley’s time the streets would have been teaming with humanity in all of its liveliness and energy. And, it was again today.

I had always envisioned Wesley leaving Evensong after twilight in a pensive manner. I had envisioned him as making his way down the dark Aldersgate street adjacent to St. Paul’s to the small group of Moravians where his heart was “strangely warmed” and where Wesley’s assurance became solidified. Yet here as in Wesley’s day, the daylight would still have rule. But, there were at least two more hours before dusk. And the masses, since Wesley’s day, have used the broad and stately steps of St. Paul’s as central London’s main gathering place.

Today the steps and streets were no different.  What startled me was the drastic difference between the stately, yet lonely beauty of  Wren’s magnum opus and energy of the teaming streets outside.  It struck me, how St. Paul’s leaders so desperately wanted the masses to enter and experience God, but the masses seemed content to enjoy one another’s camaraderie on its steps.  No amount of excellence in design or execution seemed to meet the needs the masses wanted. They wanted community, they wanted fellowship and the church had created edifices staffed by curators.

Before long, Wesley was headed down the adjacent Aldersgate Street to a meeting of the introspective Moravians. How much different that small group must have been from his experience only hours earlier at St. Paul’s. To compare the two must have been revelatory for Wesley as it was for me. People needed what the church had to offer. But despite its best attempts to recreate the beauty of heavenly realms and attract the throngs, the church paled in comparison to the spiritual assurance that came from a small group on Aldersgate Street that encouraged one another in faith development.

John Wesley & Spiritual Development

Wesley had always been impressed with how the Moravians organized their meetings to allow time for quite reflection (sometimes called quietude), spiritual assessment and communal accountability. Here in the midst of Scripture, friends and reflection came to Wesley something all the stately grandeur of St. Paul’s could not amass. Wesley stated that he felt “my heart strangely warmed” and forever recounted this night as a night that changed the course of his life.

What came out of that night was a John Wesley who had a new self-assurance that God could help him surmount the foibles that had dogged him most of his life. The smaller community of accountability and reflection gave Wesley something he had benefitted from many years earlier in Oxford. Here was a group that knew him, that knew his struggles and who helped him overcome his questions of faith. And, they gave him time to reflect and then commune with the heavenly Father who sought to reestablish a relationship with John.

In both Oxford and London were elements that helped Wesley see how he was to participate in God’s mission. In the sacraments administered in the stately halls of St. Paul’s were the mysterious workings of God’s Holy Spirit in His church.  And in the company of fellow spiritual travelers were the accountability, support and divine communication he needed to embark on a journey to serve others.

A Holistic Method Emerges

Probably because Wesley’s conversion had been built upon many years of serving the needy, and then had been facilitated by the fellowship of a small cadre of friends, Wesley never seems to focus on one part of the Good News over the whole. Wesley had a passionate dedication to holism in his so-called method, that included social advancement, conversion and intentional spiritual maturity. Wesley would allow no one element to overshadow the others. They had been closely connected to one another in Wesley’s spiritual journey, and spent much of his life convincing others that they must be theologically and practically connected in the method that was emerging.

Wesley’s methods were so distinctively precise that over time the equally disparaging Methodist would replace the deriding term “The Holy Club.” Wesley never liked either, especially the term methodist, because he didn’t think that varying methods should eclipse a holistic mission. Though the mission was comprehensive it included varying methods that helped complete that mission. But any one or two methods, no matter how publicly criticized or glorified were incomplete without an understanding of the holism that Wesley experienced.

To read more, download the entire article by clicking on this link (courtesy of The Great Commission Research Journal): ARTICLE ©Whitesel Wesley Holistic Good News GCRV5-1-052

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