Methodism as an Awakening Movement

Methodism as an Awakening Movement

Join the Community!

The Wake-Up Call is a daily encouragement to shake off the slumber of our busy lives and turn our eyes toward Jesus.

Click here to get yours free in your inbox each morning!

It is hard to predict what form the emerging Methodist church will take. But certainly, the next Methodism will have to be about more than Methodism. Of course, we love this precious church and have for decades contended for its renewal. But what we most cherish and desire about it has been rarely evident for generations now. The Methodist tree sown and husbanded by our forebears, the fruit of which shaped our society, has deteriorated down to little more than a stump compared to the great “oak of righteousness” (Isa. 61:3) that we once were. I am nearly sixty years old, and I have never known a Methodism that was genuinely prevailing.

In its deep taproot beneath that stump, however, Methodism was—and, I believe, still is—an awakening movement. Extending beyond what we have known revival meetings to be, Methodism was a protracted movement of God that produced deep wholeness in people, renewal of the church, evangelization of generations, and transformation of society. This can still be found in the root system of the next Methodism. We steward the archetype in our story of what the church can be when it expresses the fullness of “plain scriptural Christianity,” in the words of Wesley.

And awakening—conviction of our need for God that leads to repentance and wholeness—is the great need of our day. Long ago we left behind the times when denominational improvements were a sufficient hope. We are the best-resourced Christians who have ever lived and look where we find ourselves. At the least, our current ecclesial crisis is confronting us with unambiguous proof of how human excellence is too small a thing. What we need is something only God can do. We need awakening. It’s audacious but not unreasonable to believe the next Methodism could be our best opportunity for that.

“Quite Athirst for God”

Whatever it becomes, let’s determine that the next Methodism will not merely be about giving us relief. That’s the temptation, isn’t it? We’ve looked forward to getting free from the strain and angst we’ve carried for so long across dividing lines and theological differences. We just want the peace of basic agreement, respite from all that has distracted us from the main work of disciple-making. And unity in essentials is a necessity, no doubt.

But consensus alone, and the consolation it brings, is not the remedy. Methodists remain a people who know that there has to be more than what we have become, even in our orthodoxy. And it’s this more that we’re after—more of God’s love and power moving in our fellowship and in our world. We want to be done with the form of religion without the power.

The next Methodism will need to continue as a fellowship of the frustrated. Not a murmuring, finger-pointing frustrated; we don’t blame those before us, those above us, those with more power or influence than we have had. Rather, we actually cherish our restlessness as the primal move of awakening: a gift from God to be stewarded, even intensified, not relieved in a next Methodism.

After visiting the Methodist society in Coleford in 1784, Wesley wrote in his journal:

They contained themselves pretty well during the exhortation, but when I began to pray, the flame broke out. Many cried aloud, many sunk to the ground, many trembled exceedingly, but all seemed to be quite athirst for God and penetrated by the presence of his power.1

That desire should be a hallmark of the next Methodism: “quite athirst for God.” Whatever we become we must be a connection of thirsty Christians. In all their varied expressions, awakening movements are consistent in how they are populated by thirsty Christians. The struggle of our multi-decade journey into a new beginning will have been squandered if we fail to embrace an unrelenting desire for more of God in our hearts, our homes, our churches, and our cities.

“Poured Out Their Souls before God”

Wesley had been eyewitness to a fellowship of thirsty Christians among the Moravians—on the sea returning to England, during his pre-Aldersgate turmoil in London, and most convincingly in Herrnhut. He visited the Zinzendorf estate within three months of his heart-warming, excerpting from the “Constitution of the Church of the Moravian Brethren” into his journal:

In the year 1727, four-and-twenty men, and as many women, agreed that each of them would spend an hour in every day, in praying to God for his blessing on his people. . . . The same number of unmarried women, of unmarried men, of boys, and of girls, were afterward, at their desire, added to them; who poured out their souls before God, not only for their own brethren, but also for other churches and persons, that have desired to be mentioned in their prayers. And this perpetual intercession has never ceased day or night since its beginning.2

The following New Year’s Eve, Wesley attempted to put into practice some of what he had seen in the Moravians, gathering with his brother Charles, George Whitefield, and sixty friends at Fetter Lane for an all-night prayer meeting in which “many cried out . . . and many fell to the ground” in intercessory prayer.3

Soon, as the revival had begun in England, such fervent praying was taking root among the Methodists. In early 1742, Wesley records in his journal:

I called on one who was sorrowing as without hope for her son, who was turned again to folly. I advised her to wrestle with God for his soul; and in two days he brought home the wandering sheep, fully convinced of the error of his ways, and determined to choose the better part.4

Earnest prayer remained essential for the Methodists to the end of Wesley’s life and beyond. In the last Methodist conference at which he presided in 1790, Wesley chronicled forty-six different points at which the proceedings were interrupted for prayer—at least every hour.

Deep in our root system is this wrestling, bold, unremitting voice of prayer. The original prayers of Methodism were not unlike the weeping of Hannah, the contending of Jacob, the neediness of the Psalms, the tears of Jesus over Jerusalem, the unutterable groans of the Holy Spirit, or the travail of Paul for the Galatians as if “in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).

The next Methodism offers an opportunity for awakening as we reclaim that spiritual posture of petition from which we came. We are among those who find intolerable the gap between the church we read about in the New Testament and the church we experience day by day. And we believe closing this gap can happen by means of prayer.

“Love Is the End, the Sole End”

“Love is the end,” Wesley preached, “the sole end, of every dispensation of God, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things.”5 Perhaps here more than anywhere else is where the next Methodism might prove most redemptive in our cultural moment. Against a tidal wave of unprecedented anxiety and epidemic loneliness, the next Methodism could be an authentic movement of love. Not the tolerance and pretense society expects, not the saccharine acceptance of anything and everything paraded in the media, not even an affection or concern possible in human strength alone. But a supernatural love of entire sanctification, which Wesley believed God had deposited into the substructure of our origins. “A Methodist,” Wesley wrote, “is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him.’”6 Here is love with the power and durability to change everything.

So crucial to our essence is this life of love that we also carry forward an inherited model for sustaining it in discipleship bands, another idea whose time has come again in the next Methodism. Bands of three or four men or women in consecrated friendship with Jesus were the indispensable building block of “spread[ing] scriptural holiness over the land” when Methodism was first springing up.

Banded discipleship is where holiness of heart and life really gets worked out. Banding is humble enough to acknowledge that if I am going to engage this world if I am going to go the distance, if I am going to finish the race, I need to walk with others. I will need people who will listen to me, pray for me, and with whom I can do the same in safety and honesty sufficient for the love of God to transform us. Here is what Wesley was after in “social holiness.” The healing and authenticity banding together makes possible is what our world is craving, and what the next Methodism can be.

“Do You Desire to Flee the Wrath to Come?”

What Methodism began as, what finally is the only hope for a different day, is a movement of real Christians—people made holy by the love of God, whose lives reflect Jesus Christ. And Methodists today are honest to admit it has been generations since that has been largely true of us. Such mission drift did not occur suddenly, and our restoration will not be fast either. Oak trees can grow up from seedlings germinating in those old stumps, but they require time. We will need a multigenerational mindset in thinking about the next Methodism, a long-term vision of the downstream benefits we hope our children will lead and their children will benefit from.

The challenge in that, though, is to match patience with urgency, marathon mentality with sprint intensity. Something of this urgency is what Wesley was after when he identified the signature commitment of those entering the Methodist connection to be a “desire to flee the wrath to come.” They knew they had no time to waste.

A recent study by the Pinetops Foundation called The Great Opportunity concluded that if current trends continue, more than one million emerging adults at least nominally connected to the American church today will choose to leave each year for the next three decades. That translates into nearly forty million millennials and GenZ, currently identifying themselves as Christians, who will say that they are not by 2050. This study showed that if we could just slow the bleeding, if we could return to retention rates and evangelism patterns we saw with Generation X only two decades ago, this hemorrhaging could be reduced to a loss of twenty million.

Holding on to those twenty million young believers would be greater than the number of all who came to faith in the First and Second Great Awakenings, the 1857 revival in New York, the Azusa Street revival, and every Billy Graham crusade combined. The next Methodism really could be our great opportunity.

We know that most people make their faith commitments by age twenty-five. The majority of millennials are now past that point, and Gen Z, the largest generation in American history, has just now begun aging through that milestone. The youngest Gen Z will be thirty-five by the year 2050, the age after which religious commitments generally remain unchanged. Clearly, it is no exaggeration to recognize how these next two or three decades are make-or-break for American Christianity. Similarly, it is no mere coincidence to see these same years as the open door for the next Methodism.

“There is a wide-open door for a great work here,” Paul wrote the Corinthians (1 Cor. 16:9 NLT), and we could say the same of our moment now. The stakes are too high for the next Methodism to be about little more than cobbling together whatever remains of traditionalist contemporary Methodism in the hope that liberated affinity will revitalize us. We will have to dig deeper than that, beneath the surface, down to the root system from which we came and where there is awakening life still nascent.

What we find there is not complicated: thirst, heart-cry, and holy love, safe and honest soul-friendship among the faithful, passionate concern for the unbelieving, and endurance married to urgency. It’s all down there in our inheritance. Yet Spirit-empowered revival is not something we can manufacture. But we can remove impediments to it. We can position ourselves to receive it. We can offer ourselves afresh to these hopes. And we can join hands and hearts to seek God for his new work of grace until he sends it. More than at any other moment in our lives, the next Methodism is that opportunity.

Get a copy of this in printed form from our store here.

What does the future of Methodism look like? We need awakening. We need something only God can do. It’s audacious but not unreasonable to believe the next Methodism could be our best opportunity for that.

1. Works, 23:330–31, Journals and Diaries VI, Sept. 8, 1784. 

2. Works, 18:295, Journals and Diaries I, Aug. 11–14, 1738, emphasis mine.

3. Works, 19:29, Journals and Diaries II, Jan. 1, 1739.

4. Works, 19:260, Journals and Diaries II, April 26, 1742, emphasis mine.

5. Works, 2:38, Sermons II, “The Law Established through Faith, II.”

6. Works, 9:35–41, “The Character of a Methodist.”


One Response

  1. Our church has successfully disaffiliated. This has the sound of success, and perhaps it is that. What now? We are squandering opportunity aplenty……..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *