Learning from Renewals Past
In Psalm 126:1-3, the Psalmist recalls a moment of renewal in Israel’s history and writes, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Our mouth was filled with laughter; our tongues with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘the Lord has done great things for them.” Then in verse 4, he prays for God to do it again, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the streams in the Negeb!”. I’ve made this Psalm a regular prayer of mine. It reminds us that what God has done in the past, he delights to do again.
As Richard Lovelace explains in his book Dynamics of Spiritual Renewal, revival comes in and out like the tide. The “ebb and flow is a part of the church’s experience” as it battles the darkness in the world and ushers in the kingdom of God. But as Lovelace points out, the more we study renewal movements of the past, the more we can learn about the preconditions, primary elements, and secondary causes as we seek renewal in our day. One specific renewal past that I find especially applicable to our day is the Wesleyan Revival of the eighteenth century.
Theological Assessment & Historical Reflection of the Wesleyan Revival
In Lovelace’s study of renewal throughout the Bible and church history, he speaks of preconditions. There are two essential preconditions present in almost every moment of spiritual renewal: 1) cultural/societal upheaval and 2) syncretism or stagnation among God’s people. If you think about it, these things make sense. They go hand in hand. The culture is in a rage, and the church has either been sucked into it or lulled asleep by it. Now, these two things alone don’t guarantee an awakening, but when they are coupled with humble repentance and desperate prayer among God’s people (often sparked by a key leader), God has the kindling he likes to work worth. In the case of the Wesleyan Revival, this is what we see.
John Wesley, born in 1703, was used by God to spark a movement that transformed England, spread around the world, and had lasting effects on the church that we are still experiencing today. Much like the United States today, Wesley’s world was in societal upheaval. The eighteenth century “ushered in an era of major cultural change and upheaval … [and] England was teetering on the verge of anarchy and chaos.” The rapid shifts England was experiencing were due to what historians call the Age of Reason and the rise of the Industrial Revolution. A subsequent spiritual, moral, and social collapse followed. Poverty, pollution, crime, alcohol abuse, prostitution, and child labor were all on the rise as many people left their families (and God) behind to move into cities and towns around factories. This caused one prominent religious leader in England to say, “the country had collapsed to the degree that was never before known in any Christian country.” Precondition #1 for renewal was in place.
What was the church in England up to in all of this? Well, it wasn’t in much better shape. Winfield Blevins writes, “there was an epidemic of spiritual laxity and even widespread immorality among some of the clergy… The result in the Church of England was rapid decline.” Renewal precondition #2 was also in place.
In the midst of all of this, God calls out a key leader, John Wesley. Wesley’s ministry follows the same renewal pattern we see throughout history. God uses Welsey to awaken the church to the holiness of God, call them to repentance, restore their joy in the gospel, and reinvigorate a whole generation of believers to leverage their lives for the glory of God. Wesley sought to recover the biblical and straightforward means of following Jesus, but this was not well-received by the Church of England, where he and his brother, Charles, were ordained as ministers. The Church of England interpreted Wesley’s ministry as being against the church’s traditions, but this was not the case at all. What Wesley was against was “dead, dry religion, cold ritualism, and the clericalism that discouraged non-ordained people from being involved in the life of the ministry.” Wesley hoped that God would use his ministry to bring renewal within the Church of England. When asked about his vision for the church he said, “I am fully convinced that our Church, with all of her blemishes, is nearer the scriptural plan than any other in Europe.” Even toward the end of his life, still an Anglican, Wesley said, “I will not separate from the Church, yet, secondly, in case of necessity I will vary from it, both of which I have constantly and openly avowed for upwards of fifty years.” Though Wesley died an Anglican priest, his ministry not only sparked a revival but gave birth to Methodism. By 1791, the year of Wesley’s death, the Methodist movement had grown into a church movement “with more than seventy thousand members in England and forty thousand in the new United States.” And this was only the beginning. God used Wesley’s Methodism to bring renewal across England, establish mission hubs across the world, and spark a revival in North America. By 1830, six million people attended a Methodist church. From 1880 to 1905, the Methodists in America planted more than seven hundred churches per year.
So what sparked all of this? What were the ways in which Wesley “varied” from “the dead, dry religion, cold ritualism” that God used to shake the Church of England from its cultural syncretism and spiritual slumber and spark a worldwide revival in the eighteenth century? It was Wesley’s ability to recover the biblical gospel, biblical discipleship, and contextual evangelism. For Welsey, the focus was on recovering the apostolic teaching found in the New Testament and the patterns of church life practiced by the early churches. Rather than going on the defense during the cultural shift of his day, Wesley led “a contagious movement that proactively engaged the culture, preparing the church to be a force of change in society rather than simply reacting to cultural change.” There was an intense focus on discipleship and community. Devotion to the scripture, confession of sin, growth in holiness, and walking in the power of the Holy Spirit were key areas of emphasis in Wesleyan discipleship. All of this worked out in the context of genuine relationships, or Christian-community. The Wesleyan discipleship process equipped and empowered everyday people to join in the mission of God right where He had placed them. Not only did the Weslyan recovery of biblical discipleship have massive ripple effects, but so too did the preaching ministry of Wesley. Over his lifetime, he preached over 40,000 sermons across the globe that resulted in thousands of people coming to Christ. But again, the goal of Wesley’s preaching wasn’t just decisions for; it was discipleship. Wherever Wesley or Wesleyan discipleship went, church planting followed. This, I believe, was the key to this revival spanning multiple generations, and why I think it is still rippling today.
Though I am not a Methodist (and I would disagree with Methodism on key points of theology), I deeply admire the Wesleyan movement and all it has to teach us. It was not a perfect movement; no renewal movements are. They are all full of mistakes, unintended consequences, sinful people, and led by imperfect leaders. This was certainly true of the Wesleyan revival. It’s well known that Wesley was not the best husband. His marriage was sacrificed at the altar of his ministry. Wesley, and Methodism, spent years caught up in a doctrinal battle regarding Calvinism and Arminianism. But to Wesley’s credit, he never allowed his debates with his contemporary George Whitfield (sovereign grace versus free grace) to distract from the mission of God.
All in all, if we are going to see a new renewal movement in our day, we need to follow the pattern of Wesley in the eighteenth century. Not because it offers some silver bullet, but because it shows us what God can do amid societal upheaval (and a slumbering church) when God’s people recover the biblical gospel in repentance and work to contextualize its message in dependent prayer.
- Lovelace, Richard. Dynamics of Spiritual Renewal: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, (p. 68). InterVarsity Press 1979
- Blevins, Winfield. Marks of a Movement: What the Church Today Can Learn from the Wesleyan Revival. (p. 19). Zondervan 20019.
- J. Wesley Bready. England: Before and After Wesley. (p. 19). Russell and Russell 1971.
- Jackson, Thomas. The Works of John Wesely. (p. 146). Baker Books. 1971
- Hunter III, George C. The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement. (p. 5). AbingdonPress 2011.
- Sayers, Mark. Reappearing Church: The Hope of Renewal in the Rise of our Post-Christian Culture. (p. 49). Moody Publishers 2019.