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|12th September, 1999|
As we approach the year 2000, many of us are concerned about the condition of our Uniting Church. We have just seen the graphs and examined the statistics of the Christian Research Association on the trends of various denominations in Australia. Some Australians, about 10,000 out of 18 million, have become Buddhist. A few more have become atheist. But on the whole there is more interest in spirituality than ever, an increased percentage of people who believe in God, and a remarkable increase in the percentage of people who have turned from the apathy of the 1970's and 1980's to believe in heaven and hell, salvation and eternity. Many denominations are doing well. The one doing worst is the Uniting Church.
In the Uniting Church, the average age of members is the highest of all. There is a decrease in total numbers of members. There is a failure to reach men and younger adults, and there is an appalling lack of conversions. Wesley Mission, a part of the Uniting Church does not fit this picture at all. Our average membership age is less than half that of the average age in the Uniting Church. We have twice the percentage of men and young adults as the average, and we are growing strongly. We have conversions. There are some trends in the rest of the Uniting Church that we do not share and some we emphasise that keep us young and growing. These trends we need for the new century, leaving behind those attitudes that are reducing the church and weakening the commitment of people. The difference is our Wesley heritage.
1. THE MAN: John Wesley was an Anglican clergyman who became one of the most influential people of eighteenth century England. His parents were remarkable. His father Samuel, was an Anglican clergymen and his mother Susanna, a woman of spiritual depth. They had nineteen babies, ten surviving. His childhood was marked with the mother's strong influence and a traumatic boyhood experience. He was saved from their burning house in Epworth when aged six, in a way that gave him the belief he was "a brand plucked from the burning" for a reason. After school at Charterhouse he completed his Master of Arts at Oxford. For 13 years he tried hard to serve God through curacies, brief ministries helping his father, and in two years of overseas missionary service.
His missionary service was frustrated by failure. On his way home from USA, he wrote in His Journal: "I went to America to convert the Indians, but Oh, who shall convert me?" His warm heart experience was the dividing point of his life. May 24th 1738, while aged 35, he felt his heart "strangely warmed" while listening to Martin Luther's introduction to Paul's Letter to the Romans, while at a devotional meeting of a group of Moravian Brethren. He wrote: "About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart by faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." From that came a great evangelical movement.
It brought into being a new kind of Protestantism combining evangelism and social reform. His travels after conversion were prodigious. The second stage of his life saw him become England's most influential preacher. He rode over 225,000 miles on horseback, preaching 44,000 sermons and establishing societies all over the English speaking world. He personally won 140,000 converts to Christ. His death in 1791, saw the establishment of two hundred thousand followers in Britain, Europe and America. He died surrounded by supporters. His last words were: "The best of all is, God is with us!" He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Within ten years of his death, one in every thirty Englishman was a Methodist. He fought to the end, and six days before his death wrote to William Wilberforce to urge him to abolish slavery. He lived and died an Anglican Clergyman concerned for that church.
2. HIS MESSAGE: God's grace was seen in God's loving response to our sin and our apartness from God. Christ's life, death on the cross for our sins, and resurrection enables us to enter the new life. Personal Salvation must be acknowledged by all who would be Christian. The message of Christ's salvation must be told to every one. God's grace freely saves all through personal faith. A Spirit filled life assures us of salvation and enables us to live with spiritual power. Christian people live an abundant life, filled with the gifts and fruit of the Spirit enabling growth in grace until they become mature in Christ and competent to serve others. Transformed lives become the basis of a transformed society.
A social care for all people, especially the poor, marked the early Methodists. Two years after his heart-warming, Wesley turned a former Foundry into a meeting place seating 1500 on benches rather than rented pews. A teaching room, a free school for children, a shelter for widows, a free dispensary and a cafeteria were established, - the first Wesley Centre after which ours was modelled. As the poor became the basis of his church, so we continue to care for the poor, the needy, the alcoholic, the widows, the homeless and the hungry. The poor responded and through the teaching groups, tens of thousands advanced themselves as competent people. As Wesley wrote to some clergy: "The rich, the honourable, the great, we willingly leave to you. Only let us alone with the poor, the vulgar, the base, the outcasts of men."
This practical social care was dependent upon people giving money: "a penny a week and a shilling a quarter" was to be collected. Wesley was concerned as his people became middle class: "What way then can we take that our money may not sink us into the nethermost hell? There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who can gain all they can, and save all they can, will likewise give all they can, then the more they gain the more they will grow in grace, and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven.". Today we enable the poor to grow in wealth, self-esteem and dignity. Australians like the Government to support them, but we followers of Wesley care for the poor, give of our money, meet in a theatre, identify with the needy and all those God loves.
3. HIS METHODS.
1. Restore the Scriptural Christianity. Wesley sought to restore New Testament Christianity, by living the principles and spiritual power that made the early church great. He regularly preached in Oxford urging a return to New Testament Christianity.
2. Renew the Church. They were mocked in trying to brings life into the church as "Enthusiasts" "Bible Moths" "Reformers", and "Methodists". His brother Charles, wrote a phenomenal 6,500 hymns. Like their devout mother they grew up spending much time praying and studying the Scripture. As an Oxford tutor John joined with others in two hours of prayer daily, in spiritual exercise and reading, poverty and chastity, meditation and fasting. They were seeking to restore New Testament Christianity in their own lives. To help followers grow in their faith, especially those who were poor and illiterate, Wesley organised a system of classes, bands and societies, supported by travelling preachers and wrote or edited over 400 books on a variety of Christian teaching.
3. Reform the nation. Wesley was a evangelist who held personal evangelism in balance with social responsibility. When people were born again, they had to show the fruit of faith by loving their neighbours. The urban poor of England's Industrial Revolution were evangelised and souls were saved among the coal-miners, iron smelters, quarrymen, ship yard workers, cotton factory hands and servants. John Wesley said "Go not to those who need you, but to those who need you most."
They cared for the poor by establishing credit unions, free schools and dispensaries, attacked factory work conditions and laws allowing economic exploitation, slavery, war, piracy, gambling and political graft. So in our turn, Wesley Mission hurls itself into social reform and personal evangelism.
4. Research the methods. Wesley was a pragmatic evangelist, His effectiveness dates from the day his friend George Whitefield demonstrated how coal miners near Bristol would listen to the Gospel preached out of doors. Wesley rejected the concept of the Gospel being preached anywhere except from a church pulpit and "I should have thought the saving of souls a sin if it had not been done in church." So Wesley now preached frequently at 5am, not for his personal convenience, but because poor people were going to work at that time. He recorded everything in his Journal and reviewed it to discover what worked. Whatever worked was used to "offer Christ". Charles wrote Christian doctrine in hymns to popular tavern songs.
John and Charles Wesley established some church growth principles which worked in their era, but which are not confined to their time.
- Accept personal salvation as the basis of faith.
- Believe a plain gospel to reach plain people.
- Commit every believer to a small nurture group.
- Demonstrate practical concern for the poor.
- Expect personal growth and spiritual discipline.
- Face social problems in Christ's name.
- Grow the church by whatever good means work.
They established trends that lasted, trends still applicable today, mega-trends unaffected by time or culture. This practical approach could save the Uniting Church in Australia. The liberal theology that says the Bible is no longer to be regarded as inspired or authoritative for the life and action of Christians, has left our denomination in weakness. The attitude that says we are an inclusive church that accepts every belief and practise regardless of Biblical standards has proved to be bankrupt. The humanism that calls for the church to become involved in every social conflict without mentioning the name and spirit of Jesus is seen as short lived. The worship that evokes the spirit of this age without the spirit of God is un-Biblical. The preaching that is full of platitudes and social issues without the Cross and resurrection of Christ is not the Gospel and is powerless to change the lives of people. The Wesley heritage can save our denomination from that!
At the conclusion of almost every sermon, John would call people to repent and seek salvation. He would write in his journal: "We offered Christ". So now I offer Christ to you. Receive Him into your heart by faith. In a church in Chester, England, the congregation erected a plaque that reads: "Near this spot on June 20th 1752, the Rev. John Wesley preached his first sermon in this city. His sermon was "O let me commend my Saviour to you." So on this spot, let me commend my Saviour to you. Believe God loves you, Jesus Christ died for your sins, and the Holy Spirit endows you with gifts for both now and eternity.
Rev Dr Gordon Moyes
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