I read all of this short little book yesterday, by the late Dr. James Logan (my seminary academic advisor). Entitled How Great a Flame, it is a consideration of the Wesleyan revival in mid-18th century Britain and what relevant lessons we can learn from Wesley's practice.
The biggest thing that struck me, quite apart from being able to hear the voice of a now-passed mentor and friend as I read his little book, was the emphasis Wesley put upon follow-through. While the numbers of those to whom Wesley preached are certainly questionable - his rough calculations even left his brother Charles shaking his head - they were certainly large; in the midst of preaching, as people came forward expressing a new or renewed faith in the saving power of God in Jesus Christ, Wesley was not content to leave it alone. Based upon his own experience at Oxford, with the Holy Club his brother Charles had started, as well as the Moravian class meetings (which, Logan reminds readers, were actually a short-lived phenomenon in Moravian religious practice), Wesley sought in every place he preached to organize those who professed this faith, whether new or renewed, in what he first called bands, and later classes. Organized around lay leaders picked out by Wesley, these small groups, no more than 12 individuals strong, were to hold one another accountable. They were to gather for study of the Scripture. They were to lift one another up. Monies were to be collected and distributed, first for work in Bristol, then for various other works Wesley had organized. He was not seeking to create a new denomination; rather he was seeking within the fervent of social change in Britain at the time, particularly in the Anglican Church, to bring more and more people to a renewed faith.
Yet, Wesley was quite clear that this faith had to be nurtured. Even more important, it had to be tested. Anyone confessing faith in the risen Son of the Father through the Holy Spirit (lest anyone doubt it, Wesley was thoroughly Trinitarian in his faith) may be a new creation, yet Wesley understood that this was not a singular event, but part of a process. Logan points out that the lay leadership of these classes - who also spent time as itinerant preachers, guided very closely by Wesley himself to keep them from straying in to heresy - had a high turnover, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons, certainly, was more than likely a falling off not just of enthusiasm for this new-found faith, but a calling out by others to whom they were accountable that their faith seemed not to be bearing fruit.
One point Logan stresses in the final little chapter of this work is that it is important to seek lessons from history without thinking it possible to staple those lessons on to our contemporary scene (something that he knows the Church, in its desperation and occasional ignorance, would be more than happy to do). Yet, this idea of accountability in our faith, of holding one another up and holding one another responsible is one we have lost.
I suppose this begs some questions. Most mainline denominations are wary of lay folks setting themselves up as theologians, for good reasons. This is one very good reason I do not consider myself one such. As a lay member of the United Methodist Church I am not nor have I been given any sanction to teach. I am offering some theological stuff (along with other thoughts) that are wholly my own, and do not reflect the views of the United Methodist Church, Poplar Grove United Methodist Church, or anyone else. Yet, I hold myself accountable to both, answerable to the doctrine of my denomination as set forth in the Discipline of the Church, as well as its ordained and consecrated leaders and baptized members.
Furthermore, I am answerable to any and all readers of good will. I offer my reflections and thoughts without considering them binding on anyone but myself, yet knowing that others have differing thoughts, and seek to be both encouraged and chastened through discussion. In this more direct fashion, my desire for comments is a necessary part of holding myself accountable.
Finally, my hope is that my views conform to the historic teachings of the universal Church, a treasure in earthen vessels to be sure, but one nevertheless necessary to keep me within the bounds of what we Christian preach and teach, and in whose name we minister to all the world. While always seeking to make the faith something vital for people today, one cannot ignore the two millennia of teachings, from the Biblical authors and compilers through the variety of voices that have sought to discern what it is we believe and what this means for our lives. Falling within this tradition, as vague as the word may be and as varied as it actually is, is important.
I am thankful that there are those who listen and respond to some of the things I write. I am thankful that I am not just putting this stuff out in the world thinking I rest upon either my own intellect or of my own accord as I do so. I serve, first and foremost, the God incarnate in the crucified and risen Jesus whose Spirit is life and whose whole being is love. In that name, I serve all those who read these words, doing my own little bit the best I can. I do not stand on my own, but beneath the authority of that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before me and who surround me now, both upholding me and calling me to account.