Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored with Jeremy Summers, an ordained pastor who serves The Wesleyan Church as a denominational leader, and is passionate about spiritual formation in the church.
Kurt Vonnegut was a controversial author who isn’t often quoted in support of Christianity. But I, Matt, was recently struck by his poignant observation that captures the primal hunger for authentic expressions of the Church. “Human beings will be happier,” he said, “not when they cure cancer or get to Mars, but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again” (Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, ed. William Rodney Allen, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988, p. 80).
Two centuries earlier another firebrand and provocateur named John Wesley called for a rediscovery of what he named “the primitive church.” Referring to the early church as described in the New Testament, he believed that the dynamic spiritual and social renaissance they experienced could happen again, in his day. For having the audacity to vocalize such faith in the unchanging nature of God, the once prestigious Mr. Wesley was rewarded by being banned from almost every local church pulpit. At the encouragement of his close friend George Whitfield, Wesley took to preaching out in the fields to the poor and forgotten. He even resorted to proclaiming his message from standing on top of his father’s tombstone. They couldn’t ban him from that one spot, he reasoned. He was assaulted, both verbally and physically by people who thought he was desecrating the Holy Word by carrying it to the margins of society.
Wesley went from being a promising young Oxford fellow to an outcast itinerant preacher. And a strange thing happened. As he was forced out beyond the walls of the established and institutionalized church, the Gospel started to take root in the culture around him. Almost as if the thick of culture is the wild and native habitat of the Kingdom. As increasing numbers of people experienced the hope of Jesus, he strategically organized them into smaller, nimble groups for intentional discipleship. These environments sparked growth and accountability as well as a desire to multiply the mission. As disciples made more disciples, these exponential micro-movements worked their way through England. The poor and marginalized received and served. Ordinary people were empowered to expand the Kingdom. Unlikely voices discovered the gift to preach and lead and shepherd. The Holy Spirit indeed revived a vision of the primitive church, proving that the ripest time for renewal is always now. The Wesleyan revival had such a transformative impact on the culture at large that it may have led England back from the brink of a violent revolution.
Historian Donald Dayton points out that the Church, at its best, can’t be described as liberal or conservative. Those labels are too weak to capture the mystery that is the Church of Jesus. A better designation is radical. We often think that the word ‘radical’ implies being way out on the edge. But it actually comes from the Latin term radix, which means root. The radical church returns to its roots and finds a way to inhabit primitive communities again. The seeds contain the harvest. By remembering our story we rediscover our DNA and live into our inherited family traits. Our genetic map points the way forward. Our memory sets our imagination on fire. As A.W. Tozer, in Man the Dwelling Place of God, said, “Every new discovery is already old, for it is the present expression of a previous thought of God.” Perhaps we don’t need to create new ways of doing church. Perhaps the ancient past can reveal God’s vision for the future—an authentic expression of being church. Not a church that is fleeing from or fighting against culture, but transforming it from within.