There are many ways to evaluate and enhance the ministry of preaching. One that some may overlook is the study of historic preachers, people who have successfully shared the gospel of Jesus Christ in their time. Two people that Wesleyans in particular can look back at are John and Charles Wesley. They were leaders of a revival that lasted for nearly 50 years. Preaching was central to that revival. It was not only their preaching, but the way they developed lay pastors for local congregations that played a role in the success of the revival. Although many of the practices may not transfer to our day and time, there are three general principles that are still applicable to today. John and Charles Wesley had a passion for the lost which drove them to find new and different ways to present the gospel message. They were also committed to a thorough understanding of the word of God. Finally, they saw themselves as a part of a community. Because of this they not only relied on others to develop their own sermons, but also developed sermons that could be used as models for the lay preachers.
Passion to Reach the Lost
How far would you go to reach the lost? Early in their ministry both John and Charles were faced with the choice to either continue in the way that was proper or, in their own words, to become “vile for Christ.” One of the ways they did the latter was to take the message of Jesus Christ out into the fields. George Whitefield challenged John Wesley to try this new form of preaching. Both John and Charles expressed reservations about being involved in this new ministry, but after committing themselves to preaching outside of the church they embraced it wholeheartedly. One of the most unusual places John preached from was his father’s tomb. It has been estimated that John preached upwards of 15 sermons per week. Many times he would preach at 5AM in order to reach the workers before they went to work and again at 5PM as they were leaving work. The goal of these sermons was to draw people into the small groups where they would discover more and more about Christ until they reached the point where they made a commitment to follow him.
Although it seems unlikely that we could adapt the same practices as John and Charles Wesley, it does seem possible that we could recover some of their passion for the lost. The people that they sought to reach were those who were either not in the churches or, worse, not welcomed in the churches. Many times John and Charles would lead large segments of the poor to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Instead of accepting them with open arms, the Church was often upset that their “safe place” was being invaded by those poor people.
John and Charles Wesley challenge us to ask these questions; how passionate are we to reach the lost? How welcoming is my church to people who are poor and outcast? How diverse is my congregation both racially and economically?
Passion to Know the Word
John Wesley has been called a man of one book. For John the Bible was the central authority of his life. In order to understand the Bible more fully John was a man of many books. We would be hard-pressed to find anybody in our day and time that was more well-read or who edited more books. Charles was also active in publishing many books during his life, but most of his were collections of hymns and poems. The theme of almost all of their writing was the practical application of Scripture to life. Together, John and Charles published notes on both the Old and New Testaments. Charles published several “hymnals” which were reflections on Scripture. This passionate desire to know and make known the Scriptures is something that we can emulate today.
Charles knowledge of the Scriptures can also be seen in the way his method of preaching developed. Early in his career, Charles would preach from a manuscript. Because of later comments we are pretty sure that he preached these manuscripts word for word. After his Pentecost experience in May of 1738 he began to preach extemporaneously. What this means is that he began to preach beyond the manuscript, to preach from his heart. During this time he also started preaching on whatever text he opened to. In other words, he would allow his Bible to fall open and the passage his finger would fall on would be the passage he would preach from. For most of us that would be a very dangerous practice, but for Charles who knew Scripture and the theology of Scripture, it was much more acceptable.
How can we develop this kind of zeal and competency in Scripture? The first is more about our attitude. Do we really believe that Scripture is the inspired word of God that speaks into our lives the truth? Do we desire its words like a deer pants for the water? If not, why not? How can we revive a passion for the word of God? Becoming competent in Scripture will probably follow this kind of zeal, but it is a good thing to plan for this kind of competency. Why not start with just one book of the Bible? Begin to read it every day. Begin to study it every week. Become an expert on that book. Get to the place that you could preach a sermon from your heart from any passage in the book. After you have mastered the first book begin on a second book. In doing this we will be following the model of Charles and John Wesley. We will become people of one book who study many books.
Passion to Interpret in Community
One of the things that should be clear from our discussion of their love for the word of God, is their reliance on the work of others. John and Charles Wesley were part of the Church of England. The Church of England had and has a book of homilies. This is a collection of sermons that were to be used by the preachers on a regular basis in the local congregations. They are a summation of the theology and practice of the Church of England. One of the first things John did after his Aldersgate experience was to edit some of the sermons from the book of homilies. In other words, John was testing his new ideas against the theology of the church. What he found was that his new understanding matched the theology found in the homilies. Simply put, John relied on the preaching of others as he shaped his own preaching. Later he would mentor others in the ministry of preaching.
The early Methodist movement relied heavily on lay preachers, many who had little or no understanding of the word of God. How could they proclaim the truth of God to the people if they didn’t understand it themselves? John Wesley decided that one way to do this was to create a “book of homilies” for the Methodist movement. During his lifetime John published several of his sermons that would become the backbone for the preaching of his lay preachers. Today we have 150 sermons that were published in English during John’s life.
What we see here is the interpretation of Scripture in community. John relied upon the book of homilies as he prepared for his ministry, and John prepared his ministers by creating his own “book of homilies.” Because of the concern about people just borrowing sermons from online sites, we sometimes miss the opportunity to encourage young preachers to listen to and learn from people who have preached for a number of years. What sermons are you reading? How are you allowing those sermons to both move you and to shape your preaching ministry? Is it okay to rework another sermon and preach it as your own? I think the key word is rework. Preaching another sermon without thinking through it and allowing it to touch you will result in a dry presentation. But hearing the word of God from another, learning and applying that word to our lives, and then sharing it with our congregation should be at least one part of our sermon preparation practice.
There are three principles one can learn from the Wesleys. They had a passion for the lost which drove them to find new and different ways to present the gospel message. How are you reaching the lost? How are you making the outcast welcome in your church? They were also committed to a thorough understanding of the word of God. What are you doing to increase your passion for and competency in Scripture? Finally, they saw themselves as a part of a community. How are you either relying on others if you are just beginning your ministry? Or, if you have been preaching for a while, how are you helping those who are just beginning?
Dr. Patrick A. Eby presently serves as an Adjunct professor of Church History for Indiana Wesleyan University and Asbury Theological Seminary. His study has focused on the history and theology of the early Methodist movement. He is currently working on his first book–The Heart of Charles Wesley’s Theology: Being Restored in the Image of God.