Recovering a Willardian Wesleyanism

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What do the late Dallas Willard and John Wesley have in common? They both painted a picture of the Christian life that is attainable in the here and now. Read this article from John A. Murdock which draws parallels between the rich life and work of both Christian leaders.

The late Dallas Willard spent his life, as he said when introducing his most popular work The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, seeking “to gain a fresh hearing for Jesus, especially among those who believe they already understand him.”  Dr. Willard, who passed on in 2013, believed that Christianity should affect its adherents day-to-day life, not just their eternal destiny.  Through his own thoughtful works like The Spirit of the Disciplines and his mentorship of Celebration of Discipline author Richard Foster, Willard may have done more than anyone else in the English speaking world to reintroduce apprenticing discipleship back into the lexicon of an evangelicalism comfortable with the “sinner’s prayer” but often ill equipped to further develop the character of Jesus in those who prayed it.

Willard, a longtime philosopher at the University of Southern California, called discipleship “the great omission” of modern Christian culture and elaborated further in The Divine Conspiracy on the need for a system of training “to transform right answers into automatic responses to real-life situations.” Willard did not think he was up to anything revolutionary:  “Radical it is,” he would concede, “especially viewed against a background of all-pervasive consumer Christianity.  But it is anything but new.”  Continuing the thought, he said,

If you examine landmark work such as Calvin’s Institutes or John Wesley’s standard two-volume set of Sermons, you will discover nothing new in what I have said here about a curriculum for Christlikeness, except possibly some points of organization.  And certainly what I have said remains much more shallow, both theologically and practically than these masterworks of the spiritual life.  (One of the greatest hopes I have for the readers of this book is that they turn back to these true treasures of the people of Jesus.)

This discussion of Wesley by name is not an aberration.  Gary Black, Jr., author of The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith and a personal friend of Willard, opens his own book by declaring that Willard’s approach shares much with Christian reform movements of the past, notably “John Wesley and his renewalist theology of Anglicanism.”  Black reports, “Willard suggests Wesley’s method was perhaps the most complete modern disciple making approach in American evangelical history.”  Elsewhere in Willard’s work, one sees Wesley short listed with names like Augustine, Aquinas, and Francis of Assisi.  High praise indeed.

Willard’s admiration for Wesley did not extend to the keepers of his legacy, though.  In The Spirit of the Disciplines he laments,

John Wesley’s writings and life spell out the “method” of the Methodists in detail.  But almost nothing of it remains in current practice, and in this denomination we have one of the clearest illustrations of the tendency . . . to admire a great Christian leader in words, but never to think of simply doing what he or she did in order to do the work of the Kingdom of God.

Sadly, this is a well-founded critique.  Methodism, especially in the United Methodist Church, now offers few of the Wesleyan distinctives that built the now rapidly declining institutional edifice.  To the average person in the pews, John and Charles Wesley show up occasionally as sermon illustrations and their biographies are church history boxes to check in confirmation class, but it is rare indeed that they are presented as templates for present day emulation and rarer still that their discipleship infrastructure is actually made available to parishioners.

There are, however, some green shoots pushing through the dry ground.  Kevin Watson’s book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience offers a practical on-ramp to the keystone of the Wesleyan discipleship model, an intimate and committed gathering where people are expected to speak honestly about their spiritual lives.  The work of Dallas Willard could be a readymade fertilizer for such efforts.

In a more perfect world, one might re-establish the Wesleyan class and band system directly.  Watson is correct that we are dealing with an “addiction to curriculum” in small groups that ultimately needs to be replaced by a more direct experience.  But entrenched habits are hard to break overnight, and for many of us, our actions suggest we would rather first read books about spiritual growth than jump directly into the deep waters of spiritual growth.

Studying Willard can at least help us want to want the right things.  Willard somehow managed to proclaim to the evangelical world that it had largely missed the boat Jesus captained—and he did so in such a way that he was praised rather than thrown overboard from the existing leaky ship.  (The Divine Conspiracy was named “Book of the Year” by Christianity Today in 1999.) He paints a picture of life with Christ that is actually appealing here and now.  Not only is it appealing—it is, Willard winsomely encourages, actually attainable, and the very Willardian para-church group Renovare provides additional resources to help in the attainment process.

Dallas Willard’s goal was to see a real return of discipleship, not to revive any specific Christian denomination.  Nevertheless, for those in the Methodist tradition, Willard’s work could prove an especially useful bridge back to Wesleyan roots and forward to a revitalized church.

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John Murdock is a professor at the Handong International Law School in South Korea. His writings for Seedbed, First Things, Christianity Today, and others can be found at johnmurdock.org.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Good stuff, John. Willard and Wesley are the two who have had the biggest influence on me, and I’m convinced that there is a shared core between them––their beliefs (particularly about the nature of grace and faith), their practices/method, and what the church should be about. Dallas had a broad enough appeal that a number of groups are likely to think he was theirs even if he didn’t say so, but I think the Willardian-Wesleyan overlap is pretty clear.

  2. We’ve reinstated the class and band system, though we don’t use the same language, and we have seen a dramatic turn in discipleship. Men, women, youth and children talking about their lives in Christ, not just answers to the curriculum questions, and loving one another to listen. The bands in particular have proven to keep many from sin and growing in Christ. I am indebted to Wesley and Willard for my own theology of discipleship.

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