Four Chords and a Cloud of Grace: Art and Worship in the Wesleyan Style

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In a bar, they’re making PB&J’s to put in a sack lunch. When they finish, the group will hear someone talk about their struggle with heroin or paying the rent or depression. The people will console, cajole, and try in various ways to support the person speaking. A speaker stands up and shares a few verses and a message. The people ask questions and the speaker responds to their questions before leading them in prayer and then communion. The next day, the people take the sack lunches to the homeless, who are given a physical meal and then spiritual meal with communion.[1]

And that is Methodist worship on a Thursday night in a bar in Denver.

And some of the people said, Huh?

For most of us worship in the Wesleyan tradition takes on one of three forms revolving around a liturgy: the contemporary, the rural traditional, and formal tradition. A quick reminder, liturgy literally means, “a public service” or a “public act of worship.”[2] And when it comes to liturgy, the contemporary is marked by limited formality and contemporary musical styling with an emphasis on relevancy. The rural traditional is marked by the feel of a relaxed but reverent attention to older hymns and ‘straight to the point’ preaching, with the emphasis on the traditions of the people. Formal traditional is the service that follows the traditions of the Catholic or Episcopal church in that it has an order that you can set your watch to and a formality that focuses on reverence of God and the Church.

Of course we know about these types of churches because almost everyone attends one kind or another as a matter of preference. All are named with the Methodist or Wesleyan brand, but what is really important in Wesleyan worship? What is the stuff that makes it really Wesleyan and really worship? To quote a Kenton Stiles writing about aesthetics,

“It is fortunate…that a Wesleyan discussion of theology, worship, and the aesthetic does not begin and end with Wesley and eighteenth-century Methodism.”[3]

Based on my own understanding of worship and Wesleyan theology, I would advocate two things are necessary for worship to be Wesleyan: (1) sacrament and (2) means of grace.

Sacraments and means of grace

According to Wesley, “a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”[4] Article XVI of our Articles of Faith says,

“Sacraments ordained of Christ are not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they are certain signs of grace, and God’s good will toward us, by which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in him.”[5]

Short definition: a sacrament is an external expression of God’s work in your inner life. As Methodists we celebrate two sacraments – communion and baptism – although it could be recognized that there are many things that show this. Art, poetry, and dance could all be external expressions of what God is doing in the life of a person. Stories and devotionals could be considered sacramental by the same standard.

But if these are not sacramental, they are at the least means of grace. Wesley writes,

“By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”

Is art a channel to convey preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace? Yep. Is music? Is dance? Absolutely and then some. So if not a sacrament, they are a means of grace.

But what does this have to with worship in the Wesleyan way?

Well, if worship revolves around sacrament and means of grace, we have so much more at our disposal when it comes to liturgy or ‘public acts of worship’ than we use. Think of our friends in the bar and the beginning of the article. They are outwardly preparing food for the homeless of Denver as an expression of what God has done and continues to do in their hearts. Art, poetry, dance, short stories, delivering groceries to those in need, visiting the sick and in prison, caring for the homeless all become acts of worship as outward signs of our inward transformation.

Form is not the limiting factor for expressions of the artistic in Wesleyan worship. Fear is: fear of failure, fear of discomfort, fear of tradition, and other fears that limit our imagination. We simply have to take the gifts that God has brought to us and use them as means of grace to share our faith.


[1] Our friends celebrating bar church are part of AfterHours, a ministry started by Jerry Herships in Denver, Colorado. For more information, go to: http://afterhoursdenver.org/

[2] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/liturgy?s=t

[3] Stiles, Kenton M. “In the Beauty of Holiness: Wesleyan Theology, Worship, and the Aesthetic.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 32, no. 2 (September 1997): 194-217. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed August 16, 2016).

[4] http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-16-the-means-of-grace/

[5] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-articles-of-religion-of-the-methodist-church#sacraments

Michael is the pastor of First United Methodist Church, Newcastle of Newcastle, Wyoming where he serves as pastor, youth minster, worship leader, and coffee shop host. A native of Georgia, Michael spent nearly two decades working with digital media in the Atlanta area before entering the ministry full-time. A graduate of Mercer University (B.A.) and Asbury Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Michael has served churches in Georgia, Kentucky, Colorado and now Wyoming. He and his wife Heather have two children (Avery, 11 and Donovan, 6) and a rabbit named Cosmo.

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