Methodist blogger, John Meunier, writes an excellent post on issues facing the General Conference of the Methodist Church in the eighteenth century:
Q. 7. Is field-preaching unlawful?
A. We conceive not. We do not know that it is contrary to any law either of God or man.
Q. 8. Have we not used it too sparingly?
A. It seems we have; (1.) Because our call is, to save that which is lost. Now, we cannot expect them to seek us. Therefore we should go and seek them. …
So spake the Methodist conference long ago when John Wesley was presided at the meetings. In changed conditions, I’m fairly certain that anything like old-fashioned field preaching will not bear fruit as it did in the 18th century. But the problem raised by the conference remains with us.
The people who most need Jesus — for the most part — are not going to seek him out. In church or out of it, they are not willing or ready to hear the word of God. They will not come to us, so we need to go seek them.
If we refuse, not only will our denomination wither and die (a small thing in the economy of God), but people will live and die without God.
As a pastor, I’m greatly convicted by such passages in Wesley’s works. And it appears preachers in his day faced the same challenges of resolve. Here are the words of the conference.
The greatest hinderance to this you are to expect from rich, or cowardly, or lazy Methodists. But regard them not, neither Stewards, Leaders, nor people. Whenever the weather will permit, go out in God’s name into the most public places, and call all to repent and believe the gospel; every Sunday, in particular; especially where there are old societies, lest they settle upon their lees. The Stewards will frequently oppose this, lest they lose their usual collection. But this is not sufficient reason against it. Shall we barter souls for money?
How many of our old congregations have settled deeply in their lees? How does a United Methodist preacher today follow this old advice from our first sessions of the General Conference?
I was struck by one sentence in particular from those old and "glory days" of Methodism: "The greatest hinderance to this you are to expect from rich, or cowardly, or lazy Methodists." In my book, The Politics of Witness, I speak of how materialism is killing the church's witness:
I propose that the politics of witness will only work if the church at large and Christians as individuals live a simpler lifestyle. Materialism has all but destroyed the church's ability to witness politically in this world. It is not so much that the church lacks resources to fulfill its mission in this world, as it has too much of its resources tied up in things that, as Jesus himself said, "rot away" (Matthew 6:19). Churches are dumping resources into old run-down buildings, and individual Christians are in just as much debt as the average American. The problem is not that we lack financial resources; it's rather that they are tied up as a result of greed and an indistinguishable way of life.
My words not only apply to our political witness but to our entire witness to the gospel in this world. And the first step into moving in the right direction on this is for all of us to admit that we are all materialistic. We are into "stuff" up to our armpits. Let's be honest and acknowledge that often when we hear the words "greed," "materialism," and "rich," we first think of those persons who make more money than we do and those persons who have more stuff than we do. But just like an alcoholic cannot begin to get help until she or he admits the problem, so we too cannot begin to move toward a simpler lifestyle that will free resources for the sake of the gospel in this world, until we admit that we are addicted to things. And, yes, there are some who are richer than others, but that fact does not excuse the lack of stewardship on the part of those who have less. Until we admit the problem, we will not understand that the quandary is not scarce resources, but resources unavailable because we have them tied up in the things that will decay. And I think that is one of the elephants in the room at General Conference. Once we Methodists were indeed a radical movement, but we have become a status quo, bourgeois denomination immersed in declining Christendom. And it seems that we want to be a movement again while hanging onto our status quo, bourgeois, Christendom-immersed status. I don't think that will work.
Yes, we are all the "rich" Methodists spoken of back in the eighteenth century. And we must ask if we too are the stewards who "will frequently oppose this, lest they lose their usual collection." But in the twenty-first century do we truly want to barter souls for money?
As far as the cowardly and lazy Methodists... that's another post for another time.