John Wesley’s Approach to Christian Formation

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Perhaps my greatest research interest as of late is studying how various theologians and church leaders throughout history sought to form and educate believers in the Christian faith in their particular contexts. Though I do not identify myself as Wesleyan, I am continuously amazed at the level of enrichment I’ve received in studying John Wesley’s approach to Christian formation. Wesley himself wrote numerous tracts related to Christian formation, notably “On the Education of Children,” “On Family Religion,” and “A Treatise on Baptism.” Being the practical theologian he was, Wesley diligently worked to see his ideas come to fruition. Wesley’s doctrines of total depravity and sanctification served as the foundation for his approach to Christian formation—an approach which included the institution of the class meeting system, the education of children in the way of faith, and the founding and supporting of educational institutions for children.

Wesley’s Theology of Formation

Wesley’s theory of Christian formation was rooted in his doctrines of total depravity and sanctification. Wesley strongly affirmed total depravity, as he noted, “Is man by nature filled with all manners of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen? Is his soul totally corrupted? Or, to come back to the text (referring to Gen 6:5), is ‘every imagination of the thoughts of his heart evil continually? Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but an heathen still” (“Original Sin”). Just as his mother Susanna educated Wesley for the purpose of his salvation, Wesley believed that religious education was a means of leading people out of their depraved state and into the ongoing stages of grace.

For Wesley, the ultimate experience of the Christian life prior to attaining the glory of heaven was entire sanctification, which Wesley taught as loving God and neighbor wholeheartedly without selfish motivation. Of course, the believer can stumble in sin, but having experienced entire sanctification, the believer’s sin will be unintentional, and s/he will experience great regret and repent of sin. Wesley firmly believed in the necessity of conversion, but used the term sparingly because it implied that no further growth in holiness was necessary. Therefore, for Wesley, it was crucial that the church give believers every opportunity to grow in faith (sacraments, community life, Scripture reading, singing hymns, among other things) in order to attain Christian perfection. By participating in these means of grace, believers grow vertically in devotion toward Christ and horizontally in love toward their neighbor.

Fleshing It Out

Wesley’s rich theology of holiness and formation manifested itself in the institution of various educational efforts. The Wesleyan class meeting system utilized a three-pronged approach to Christian formation—forming people through instruction in faith (societies), fine-tuning people’s behaviors (classes), and orienting their desires toward the right ends (bands). That these meetings also consisted of people from all different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds made them apt for discipleship. D.L. Moody believed that Wesley’s class meetings were the most effective discipleship method in history! The strength of the Wesleyan class meeting lies in its ability to form believers holistically—developing head, heart, and hands. Whereas we generally conceive of Christian education as a cognitive exercise in observing doctrine, Wesley believed that the formation of genuine Christians required a holistic approach.

Wesley was also a passionate proponent of educating children in the faith and so advocated early initiation into the means of grace for formation. He believed that in order for revival to continue, the church must be diligent in passing on the faith to the youngest among us:

“If family religion be neglected—if care be not taken with the rising generation— will not the present revival of religion in a short time die away?” (On Family Religion, III)

Elsewhere he writes to his colleagues (and notice here the opportunity for mutual formation):

“What avails public preaching alone, though we could preach like angels?…Spend an hour a week with the children in every large town, whether you like it or not. Talk with them any time you see any of them at home. Pray in earnest with them.”

Finally, Wesley was an enthusiastic proponent of the Sunday School movement, the purpose of which was to educate children who came from lower-income families and had to work during the regular school week. Clarence Benson, a renowned religious educator of old, said “To the Sunday School the Methodist Church owes a large measure of its success, if indeed it is not indebted to it for its continuous as well as its steady growth” (Clarence Benson, A Popular History of Christian Education, 126). It also worth mentioning, even if only in passing, that Wesley was instrumental in the founding of several Christian schools, as they served the church in particular and broader society in general.

Looking Forward

There is much more to explore in Wesley’s approach to Christian formation, but we can say with confidence that Wesley was a practical theologian at heart. He believed that theology should have real flesh and blood and develop Christ-followers for service to God, the church, and the world. Wesley’s example of allowing theology to shape ministry practice should spur us on to rethink how effective our own ministries are doing in forming people from the inside out. Moreover, we should think about implementing Wesleyan class meetings in our churches and prioritizing the education of children in faith, just as Wesley did. If Wesley believed in the power of these educational methods, perhaps we should as well.

 

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Ben Espinoza currently serves as a pastor at Covenant Church in Bowling Green, Ohio. A frequent writer in areas related to Christian formation, ministry, and theology, he currently serves on the board of directors for the Society for Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives.

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