What is Wesleyan Preaching?

What is Wesleyan PreachingWe all have different stories surrounding our relationship with Wesleyan preaching. If you are like me, you were formed in, rebelled from, returned to, called through, and now are serving the Wesleyan church. You may have a different story though. Some preachers I know never saw a Wesleyan church until they were called to preach in one. A minister on loan, or a pastor with transferred credentials, you may still call some other tribe your true home. Then there is everything in between: first generation Christians, late-in-life baptisms, second career calls, or still reluctant not-sure-I-know-why-I-am-doing-this preachers. With this variety of stories, and diversity of interactions with Wesleyan theological and ecclesiological connections, it’s fair to ask: Do we mean the same thing when we say Wesleyan preaching? Wesleyan sermons?

With a little thought, you will likely agree with me that the only right answer is ‘no.’ We do not mean the same thing when we say Wesleyan preaching, or Wesleyan sermons.

In just my own experience with Wesleyan preaching I have experienced sermons that are revivalistic passion-fests that last over an hour. There have also been calm, cooly considered doctrinal explanations less than fifteen minutes in length. Some Wesleyan pastors sound as much like comedians with a spiritual punch as anything else. There also have been the story telling, tear beckoning, laughter evoking spell binders. Then there are those faithful, steady, verse-by-verse expositors of books. If world war three broke out tomorrow, they would still preach the next passage in the Bible on Sunday. There are those as ‘WASPy as WASPy gets’ pastors among us. There are also inner city hip hop preachers, bi-lingual code-switching preachers in the barrio, skillful intergenerational sages in the Korean ‘dongpo,’ and the bridge builders leading churches at the crossroads of cultures. This is just a brief reflection on North American preaching. The preaching in Cap-Haïtien, Caparra, Bogota, Busia, Vladimir, or Valenzuela all have their own diversities within them.

This is so far just a reflection on style, congregation, and culture in the briefest way. So what is Wesleyan preaching? What holds it all together?

I am not convinced I have the answer. I think the direction in which the answer likely lies is neither style, nor culture. It certainly is not found in geographical boundaries or class-oriented restrictions. It isn’t limited by educational level, financial means, or defined by standards of excellence on which we could not agree. My hunch is that what holds Wesleyan preaching together lies deeper, even before the decision on doctrine. My hunch is it lies at the level of values.

Here’s what I notice all the above preachers seem to hold in common:

  1. A deep reverence for the Scriptures. Ordination boards differ on their sticking points with scripture. And even in the same ordination board I have noticed vastly different ranges of “acceptable” for perspectives on doctrine of scripture between one member and another. From the simple perspective, to the complex; from the educated to the simply devoted: all hold a sense of reverence and respect in common. However it is named, in any tone of voice it is expressed, whatever metaphors we use, all point to a high respect, a cherishing, an elevation of Scripture. This is not true of all preaching that is not Wesleyan. But when it is not true of a preacher, we tend to part ways.
  1. A preference for the commoner. Every community has a particular set of values it holds dear, so dear they are not even named. They are assumed. When violated, the reaction is disdain even disgust. When they are sustained and embodied in a person, that person is celebrated and loved…often for reasons we cannot even fully define. They are just the “epitome” of, or the “quitissential” example of, or the “essence” of us. In Wesleyan churches all over the world, we seem to love the everyday person. Even among the wealthier churches it is the “down-to-earth” among the upper crust preachers seem to speak to. Metaphors are common place. Illustrations are from the average life. The most celebrated preachers often use phrases like “ordinary people” and use vocabulary aimed at the average speech. A preacher who does not come across as common, normal, un-assuming, does not find much air time.
  1. Aimed at responsible grace. Randy Maddox named the theological discrimen of the wesleyan movement as responsible grace in his great book on wesleyan-methodist theology. The concept is that grace allows us to respond in holy ways. It enables us to respond in bold ways. Since grace has enabled us to respond, we are now response-able. This then, makes us responsible. We can, therefore we ought. When preachers are giving suggestions to one another in Wesleyan circles I often hear them intuitively pulling each other back to the fullness of the phrase. For those who only preach “ought” and “should” we remind them that grace is what makes us “able” and is our great “can.” It must be preached first and foremost. For those who only preach grace without response, we remind them there is always something to do, some way to respond, some way to worship God actively because of grace. “What is this sermon changing in my life this week?” Or “What exactly is it you’re hoping I will do?” These questions are pulling us back to our doctrinal and homiletical home: responsible grace or holy love.
  1. Spirit(ual). Luke Powery, the Dean of Duke chapel and a former Pilgrim Holiness church goer, coined this way of writing spirit(ual) in his book Dem Dry Bones. It is a way of highlighting the active person of the Spirit in the midst of anything we call spiritual. Often spiritual has become code word for psychological, or emotional, or moral. It has lost it’s Godward dimension. Not so for Wesleyans. We are really spirit(ual) preachers around the globe. The “charismatic but not crazy” crowd feel pretty cozy to many of us. We would rather this spirit(ual) group influence us than spirit(less) groups. There is a belief in the active agency of God working in the world today. Lives are changed by the Spirit of God, not just by natural or human forces. The Spirit’s actions are described in sermons, invited in prayers, and expected in the service.
  1. Missional. Wesleyan preaching is a sending preaching. We do not simply “tell the story and tell it well.” Post-liberals do that. For us, the Christian faith is not a story. It is reality, and it is a movement. “Believing” in Christ requires following his walk and way in discipleship. Our preaching aims to help entire communities move outward in the mission of God’s work in the world. Some preachers emphasize certain portions of that mission more than others. There are the racial reconciliation exemplars whose voices we still need to follow; the great winners of souls who enable and equip us to love our neighbors enough to share faith; the prophets for justice and equity who show us social hypocrisy; the leaders whose capacity to rally us forward in a common aim helps us enact the mission week to week. All of them seem to hold this in common: they are working for mission, preaching on mission, and calling us back to mission. Wesleyan preaching does not seem to be characterized by knowledge for knowledge’s sake, poetry for poetry’s sake, or even church building for church building’s sake. It is characterized by an impulse towards the missio Dei, we receive God’s mission as our own.

There may be things commonly wrong with Wesleyan preaching, but I prefer to see the things that are commonly “right.” If we can grow these things, they will crowd out the others. If we can celebrate these things, we can diminish the others. If we will continue to model these things we will be glad to be Wesleyan.

What elements of Wesleyan preaching would you change? Would you add one? Take one away?

David B. Ward, © 2019