Wesleyan? What's That?
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
September 2, 2007


Main Passage: Hebrews 12:1-3 (NLT)

Show clip from Dick Van Dyke Show – Richie “Where Did I Come From?”

This is the final week for yet another year of our annual You Asked for It message series. Through August and right up until today, we’ve been talking about topics or passages that you yourself requested. And the question we’re addressing today is, “Where did we come from?”

But don’t worry, I’m not pulling out a Dr. Spock book or anything like that. Because this particular question wasn’t really about how life began. And actually, we’re going to be talking about that later this month anyway.

No, this question dealt with us as Wesleyans. Where did the Wesleyan Church begin? What’s our history? What’s our heritage? What is a Wesleyan, anyway?

After all, we are Sunrise Wesleyan Church. What does that mean?

So today, we’re going to talk about our heritage. We’re going to talk about where we came from. Because the truth is, as Wesleyans, whether you know it or not, you’re part of a tremendous family. So I hope today that you’ll gain a better sense of identity as a part of the Wesleyan Church, and you’ll understand a little better why Sunrise is what Sunrise is. Okay?

So let’s start right at the beginning. We’re going to start all the way back with Jesus. And then we’re going to fly through the first 1700 years or so, and slow down a little once we catch up to John Wesley and the eventual formation of the Wesleyan Church all the way up to Sunrise Wesleyan Church.

But let’s start right at the base. Before Jesus came on the scene, all of humanity was lost to its sinfulness. In big and small ways, individually and as a race, we had rebelled against our Creator. We had sinned. And no matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t measure up to God’s standards. We were hopelessly lost. And there was nothing we could do that could make up for it.

So God Himself decided to step in. And He entered into His own Creation as the man Jesus. Actually, He came as the baby Jesus. That’s what Christmas is all about… celebrating the day that God wrapped Himself in flesh and bone.

And He grew up. And sometime around His thirtieth birthday, He began what we call His ministry years. He traveled all around Israel and even into the surrounding territory, He healed people, He taught people, and He told them about the Kingdom of Heaven. He offered forgiveness and eternal life to all who would receive it. That was the Good News… that was the Gospel He came to proclaim. And through His death and His resurrection, He made it all possible.

And then He told His followers to continue telling people about this forgiveness and life. And they did it. They took the message all through the then-known world. The church was growing. Things were alive. And even when they encountered persecution and even after Christians began to be killed for sport, their numbers continued to explode.

But it wasn’t long before two different flavours of Christianity began to emerge. One was found in the west, centered around Rome, thus the Roman Catholic Church. And these people, they wanted to do things right. They wanted to understand. They wanted to formulate doctrines. They wanted to think things through. That was in the West.

While at the same time, over in the east, there were the Orthodox Christians… and they didn’t really want to figure things out. They liked the mysteries of the faith. They were more touchy-feely. They wanted to experience what it meant to be a Christian.

And eventually that led to the formation of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And that’s all we’re going to talk about them this morning. We’re going to stick with the Western Church, since that’s the line we come from.

So let’s slide on down that line about 1500 years. By the 16th century, the Roman Church had become very rigid, very legalistic, and depended on a salvation through mechanics… through the things you do. They believed that you earn your salvation by doing good deeds. In fact, if you didn’t do enough good deeds or you just didn’t want to do good deeds, you could buy them. You could buy what were called indulgences. Basically, they believed that all the saints who had lived before them had died before using up all their good deeds, and so if you paid money to the Church you could buy those leftover good deeds and apply them to yourself. I know, sounds strange. But that’s one of the corruptions that had crept into the Church.

And people like Martin Luther and John Calvin disagreed with this type of practice. They didn’t believe that you could earn salvation through mechanics… through good deeds… through the sacraments… through the work of the Church. They understood the Bible to teach that salvation is a result of God’s grace, and nothing else.

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT)
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.

And so on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed what were called his 95 Theses onto the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Basically, this door was the bulletin board for the university that was there. And these 95 statements were meant to challenge the doctrines and the practices of the Church.

The goal was to spark some debate, but what happened was a split. And the people like Luther who were protesting against some of the doctrines and practices of the church began a reformed tradition. That’s the Protestant (protest) Reformation. And just so you know, it also eventually sparked a counter-reformation within the Catholic Church.

Okay, travel with me to England. The year is 1559, and Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne. England has been hit hard with this Catholic/Protestant division. And so Elizabeth sets out to try to bridge the gap. And what she does is form a new church… the Anglican Church… which tried to find a middle ground.

On the one hand, this new church kept many of the Catholic traditions, and their services were very formal and even stiff. But along with that, they tried to inject the Protestant understanding of salvation by God’s grace. So this early Anglican Church tried to please everyone and didn’t really please anyone. So it kind of floundered along for 150 years… and it’s there that we meet up with the Wesley Brothers.

John and Charles. How many of you can quote from John Wesley for, say, one minute. I wouldn’t do very well. I mean, I can quote “The world is my parish,” and “My heart was strangely warmed.” And he said, “Give me one hundred men who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I will shake the world.” But I can’t do much beyond that.

How about Charles? Can you quote anything from him?

How about, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” Or, “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.” Or, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”. Or, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Or, “Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” You sang those words earlier this morning. You were quoting Charles Wesley and you didn’t even know it. He wrote something like 6000 hymns, may of which are still used today.

But even though we know the words of Charles better, it was John who changed the world. In fact, during his lifetime, he was the most influential person in the English speaking world.

John was born and raised as an Anglican. His father was a minister in the Anglican Church. John himself became a minister. He loved the Anglican Church, and he declared “I live and die an Anglican.”

But he also recognized that the Anglican Church was pretty dead and needed some new life. So he set out to revive or reform the Anglican Church from within. He had no desire to start a new church; he wanted to bring alive the existing church.

And so what he started to do was form societies. Not new churches, just groups to strengthen existing churches. Kind of like what parachurch organizations do today… like Promise Keepers, or the Billy Graham Association, or Campus Crusade for Christ, or like Purpose Driven Ministries.

So Wesley organized these societies, or these class meetings, in order to help people become what he described as a real Christian.

According to Wesley, a Real Christian…

1.    Has an experience when they become a child of God.

This means that it’s not enough to just be baptized. It means it’s not enough to just attend church every Sunday. It means it’s not enough to just believe all the right stuff and agree with the creeds of the Church. You must experience a new birth.

John 3:3,6 (NLT)
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God… Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.”

And for Wesley, it didn’t matter when this would happen. You could be a child and experience a new birth. You could be a young adult and experience a new birth. You could be… well, mature and experience a new birth. But at some point during your life, you needed to experience this climatic moment when you became a child of God.

And what believe did was it lead to a passion for evangelism. People needed to hear about this, and so Wesley and his followers set about telling people. And that continues today.

2.    Develops a life of salvation.

This meant a pattern of living. A real Christian would develop habits in his or her life… habits of holiness. In fact, Wesley wasn’t afraid to call them disciplines, because right in that word discipline is the word disciple. You would practice habits of a disciple, like prayer, and fasting, and Bible study, and doing good toward others, and taking part in the sacraments. All of these were part of a life of salvation. They didn’t earn salvation, but they followed salvation.

Philippians 2:12-13 (NLT)
Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.

3.    Pursues a life that is Christ-like.

That’s the intent of those habits. You live your life of salvation with the goal of becoming Christ-like. They’re not just a meaningless exercise; there’s a purpose. And Wesley believed that you could get to the point that your love for God and others was perfect and pure. Now, that didn’t mean that you would be perfect in your performance or in your behaviour… you were still prone to mistakes and sinfulness. But despite those vulnerabilities, you could be perfect in your love for God and your love for others. That guy who cut you off on the bypass this morning… you can still love him. That lady who told that horrendous lie about you, you can still love her. Basically, Wesley taught that you could really live out the verse you see on the wall behind me and now on the screen. Read it with me…

Mark 12:30-31 (NLT)
“And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength… Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Wesley believed it was possible for you and for me to become Christ-like. We could love God and others with that kind of perfection. This is what he understood it meant to be holy. It’s his doctrine of holiness. But it all starts with the grace of God. God’s grace is extended to us, and that always calls for a human response.

So, let’s get back to what we were talking about with Wesley setting up these societies. These would be similar to what we would call our LIFE Groups here at Sunrise. And do you know who could attend? Do you think, anybody who attends church regularly could attend? How about people who were the core of the church… the ones who really keep things running? Is that who the societies were for? Well, according to Wesley, you were welcome to attend if you were afraid of hell and you wanted to get closer to God. That was the requirement. Pretty open, isn’t it?

And so they had all sorts of people show up. Some of the men would arrive still half tipsy from an earlier stop at the bar. But they were greeted by open doors.

Oh, they might get asked, “Are you serious or not? Do you want to get closer to God or don’t you? You do? Okay, then come on in.” You could show up with a tattoo on your forehead or a 2 by 4 through your nose. “It’s okay, you can come. But you’ve got to grow.”

And Wesley himself would visit the different societies that were meeting, and maybe every three months he’d sit down and ask you, “How are you doing? Are you getting any closer? Are you growing?”

Well, our of these groups, Wesley eventually formed more groups. And these groups he called “Bands.” These bands were for people who wanted to go even deeper into the Bible and pursue an even deeper relationship with God.

And then he set up what he called “Select Societies”, and these were for people to train to become leaders. If you wanted to become a leader in these groups, you didn’t have to go off to seminary or Bible college. But you did need to be trained. Now remember, this isn’t a church. If you wanted to become a minister in the Anglican Church you still needed to go through all educational requirements. But for Wesley’s organization, you were trained in the select societies.

So what he was doing was empowering the lay people. The people who weren’t formally trained to be professional ministers were still ministers. They were actively involved in the work of God. And that’s something we continue to emphasis today.

And finally, Wesley set up groups that he called Penitent Societies and they were for people who had gotten stuck in some kind of sin that they just couldn’t break free of. And he decided this group would meet Saturday night. Any idea why he chose Saturday? The pubs were open Saturday night and for many of the people, that was their problem. And so these groups became their way out of that addiction.

Now, I can remember 20-25 years ago when small groups were the big new thing. I remember when mentoring and accountability groups became popular a decade or so ago. Just last month, several of us attended the Leadership Summit over in Moncton. And the latest craze seems to be groups to help people get over addictions and weight loss and recovery groups. Revolutionary stuff. Wesley was doing it all 300 years ago!

So Wesley developed this highly structure method of reaching people who were far from God, bringing them to experience a new birth in their relationship with God, and helping them grow on to maturity. And because of this method that he developed, he and his followers became known as “Methodists.”

What I find interesting is that the established church felt threatened by Wesley. He was one of their greatest supporters, but he wanted to bring a renewed passion and focus into the church. And as a result, he was shunned by many Anglicans and many churches were closed to him. And so, even though he originally hated the idea, he had to take to open air preaching. In fact, there were times when he even had to preach from his father’s grave, using his tombstone as his pulpit.

And huge crowds would show up to hear him. Once he preached to a crowd of more than 30,000 people. And he was one of the most active preachers the world has ever known. He would preach up to eight times a day. And over a forty year stretch, he averaged 5000 miles a year riding on horseback, traveling around preaching. That’s the equivalent of circling the globe 8 times.

And he had a tremendous impact on society as a revival was sparked through his preaching. In fact, many historians claim that England would have suffered a violent revolution similar to what France experienced if not for the spiritual revival sparked by Wesley.

And even though early on the church shunned him, but the end many greatly admired and respected him.

Okay, let’s fly across the Atlantic. Let’s talk about Methodism in North America. Wesley wanted missionaries to come here to North America. He had actually been here years earlier himself as a missionary, but was a miserable failure. Why? Because it was before he had experienced that new birth in his own life. That didn’t happen until after he returned to England, and he never made it back here again. In his old age, he expressed his desire to come again, but he just couldn’t do it then.

But he did send missionaries. Missionaries  like Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke. And here’s where you discover what made Methodists so unique. Because all the other denominations, when the minister arrived, the first thing he wanted to know was where the stone quarry was. Why? Because he wanted to get those nice pretty stones so he could build a nice pretty church like they have in England. Like some of the ones we have downtown here. Beautiful buildings.

That’s what those other denominations wanted to know. “Where can I get the stone, where can I get some stained glass, where can I get some walnut for the pews?”

But Wesley sent his missionaries and he told them, “Let the other denominations worry about building their nice little buildings. As for you, you ride. Get on your horse and ride. You go out into the highways and byways. You go out into the country. You don’t need a pretty church. You can meet God in a school house. You can meet God in a barn. You can meet God in somebody’s living room. You can meet God in an Irish Hall with a bar at the back. Just spread the good news about Jesus Christ. Don’t get hung up with looking respectable. Be passionate about bringing people to Jesus Christ.

In 1765, there were 3 Methodists in the United States. In 1843, there were 5 million. It’s the fastest growing group of Christians in any part of the world in history, and all Wesley said was “Get out there and spread the message.” And they did. And they created little societies all over the place. And that’s still what they were. Societies. They weren’t a church. And so the circuit riders would tell the people to be sure to be in church on Sunday.

But where would they go to church? Well, let’s say the nearest Anglican Church is in Halifax, 252 km away. Well, that’s a problem. We’ve got a lot of Christians in these societies but we don’t have a church.

And then in the U.S., you have the American Revolution. The colonies rebelled against England, and when it was all done there weren’t any Anglican Church anyplace to go to. And that’s when Wesley made a pivotal decision in 1784. He said, “For the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in America, we’re going to have a Methodist Church.” And so we had a church that formed over here south of the border called the Methodist Episcopal Church. But in England, Wesley remained in the Anglican Church and advised all the Methodists there to do the same.

Well, Wesley would die in 1791 at the age of 87. But the Methodist movement continued. Which incidentally, is one of the wonderfully things about Wesley’s organizational skills. Usually when a great leader dies, the movement dies shortly afterward. But in this case, Methodism flourished.

And it continued to be inspired by people like Charles Finney, a Presbyterian preacher in upstate New York who came up with radical innovations like the altar call and revival meetings. And then there was Phoebe Palmer. She was an evangelist from New York City who built upon Wesley’s teachings on holiness. And between the two of them, they greatly impacted not just churches and not just theology, but all of society. And their influence spread right on up to here in the Maritimes.

Well, let’s pick up the pace again. Over the decades, slavery became a hot topic in the U.S. Now, Wesley himself had opposed slavery. In fact, his writings had inspired William Wilberforce to make it his mission to put an end to the slave trade and eventually slavery itself throughout the British Empire. Earlier this year we talked about his decades long fight. And one of the last letters that Wesley wrote was to Wilberforce, encouraging him to press on. So Wesley opposed slavery, spoke against it, and wrote against it. But the Methodist Episcopal Church failed to take a stand against it.

So several people ended up leaving the Methodist Episcopal Church and formed the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in 1843 which eventually became known as the Wesleyan Methodist Church. This new organization opposed slavery, opposed war, supported women’s rights, encouraged child labour reform, supported the labour movement, and battled for a variety assortment of other social and political reform issues. They were involved with the Underground Railroad which helped slaves escape to freedom. And the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York, hosted the first Women’s Rights Convention. And they were among the first denominations (if not the first) to ordain a woman as a pastor. By the year 1900, one third of all the ministers in the Wesleyan Methodist Church were women.

And over the years, several other smaller denominations that shared similar beliefs and values merged with the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Here in Atlantic Canada, we were our own denomination… the Reformed Baptist Alliance of Canada… formed with a passion for the life of holiness that Wesley and Phoebe Palmer talked about. Well, zooming right along, we merged with the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1966, which in turn merged with the Pilgrim Holiness Church, another holiness denomination, in 1968 to become the Wesleyan Church.

Today, there are some 5000 Wesleyan Churches with over 400,000 worshippers located in close to 100 countries around the world. Including us right here at Sunrise.

You will not be tested on this information. The important thing is that you understand that we do have a history, that our heritage is based on a strong commitment to the Word of God and to Biblical values, and that these beliefs impacted society.

And you know what? We’re still impacted today by people like John and Charles Wesley, Charles Finney, Phoebe Palmer, George Whitfield, Luther Lee, and Orange Scott and others who have been part of the Wesleyan Methodist movement over the past three hundred years. And I want to be impacted by them. Their passion for God, their passion for others, their passion for holiness… and the way that extended outward and transformed society… Don’t you want some of that?

Plus, I think Wesley’s understanding of what it means to be a real Christian is right on the money.

1.    Has an experience when they become a child of God.
2.    Develops a life of salvation.
3.    Pursues a life that is Christ-like.

Here at Sunrise, we’ve spent a lot of time on that first one. And we have addressed the others as well. But as we head into the Fall and as things crank up for us for another year, we’re going to be focusing a bit more on those habits… on what it means to live a life of salvation and how that culminates in a life that is Christ-like. Okay?

Now, just as we finish up, let me quickly describe for you who we are as Wesleyan today…

Who We Are Today:

A.    We are people of the Book

We believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, and so we remain faithful to the Bible and will not compromise on basic doctrines. We believe in the virgin birth. We believe in the reality of the crucifixion and the resurrection. We believe that Jesus is coming back again someday. And the day we start to do away with our basic doctrines is the day I search for a new church.

B.    We are evangelistic

We believe that there is a lost world, filled with people who are far from God, and our job is to go outside our walls and reach them with the message of new birth.

C.    We are committed to holy living

We understand that God has called us not just to believe certain things but to live a certain way. And that it all needs to flow out of a heart that has been transformed by the grace and love of God.

D.    We are a Spirit-led Church

We seek His leading not just in our denomination but in our lives. We deeply crave to experience Him and His work in our lives. And we’re not ashamed to express that outwardly as we sing, as we cry, as we clap… we’re moved by the Holy Spirit. And that’s a good thing.

E.    We are a mission-oriented Church

Charles Wesley put it well in one of his hymns. Read it with me…

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master's will!

Every summer at Beulah when we ordain new ministers, we sing that song. But it’s not just a song for the ordained. We all have a calling to fulfill… the serve the present age and spread the message of forgiveness and life and new birth. That’s why we’re here. That’s what we’re all about.

And aren’t you glad to be part of such a great movement of God through the centuries? Chris read these words for us earlier this morning, but let’s finish by reading them again…

Hebrews 12:1-2 (NLT)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus…

We greatly benefit from the heritage we have in Wesley… his teachings, his theology, his social action, his methods… we respect him and appreciate him. But we don’t worship him. We keep our eyes on Jesus!

[Much of this message adapted from material by Bud Bence]



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