For the past several years, I have been reading almost daily out of John Wesley’s published Journal. It is a fascinating, ongoing travelogue that covers more than 50 years of his life and ministry.
Wesley published his Journal in periodic installments and intended it for public reading. So it can’t be read as if it were a diary — personal thoughts and musings by someone who never thought his words would reach the light of day. On the contrary, Wesley crafted the Journal with a public audience in mind. That means it served a number of functions: informational reading for Methodist societies across Britain in order to build a sense of connection; practical and moral guidance for committed members of the movement; an ongoing defense of his actions and views in the face of his external critics; and a historical record of his own ministry and important happenings in the Methodist revival.
There are some sections of the Journal that are well-known even to people who don’t dig into it regularly. It contains Wesley’s famous account of his experience at Aldersgate in 1738, for example. And the use of the phrase “converting ordinance” by Wesley to describe the efficacy of the Lord’s Supper also comes from the Journal.
Most of the material in Wesley’s Journal is not particularly exciting, though. Here’s a passage I read this morning that I think is a great representation of what you often encounter in it:
[Friday, November 5, 1773.] I preached at noon to the warm congregation at Loddon, and in the evening to the cold one at Yarmouth. I know there is nothing too hard for God–else I should go thither no more. Monday 8, I found the society at Lakenheath was entirely vanished away. I joined them together once more, and they seriously promised to keep together. If they do, I shall endeavour to see them again; if not, I have better work.
Tue. 9. I preached at Bury [St. Edmunds], and on Wednesday at Colchester, where I spent a day or two with much satisfaction among the poor, loving, simple-hearted people. I returned to London on Friday and was fully employed in visiting the classes from that time to Saturday the 20th.”
This is interesting in the way it shows Wesley moving from society to society, doing the hard work of ministry through his organization, oversight, preaching, and pastoral care. But it isn’t the kind of thing that is going to light the world on fire in an instant. Instead it is a description of very patient, very methodical day-to-day ministry. And we might consider that it is the only way that a really lasting foundation can be laid.
I think this is a very helpful way to look at Wesley and early Methodism in general, particularly because so much of the language of contemporary church renewal is about “making Methodism a movement again.” Should we want to be a fluid religious movement, that goes to where the lost really are and has the flexibility to turn on a dime when needs be? Absolutely. But we also shouldn’t be under any illusions about what such a ministry requires of us. Sometimes it means going to Yarmouth, where the people seem cold and lacking in any spiritual vitality. And sometimes it means spending more time than we anticipated among the truly simple-hearted in Colchester. It can mean reorganizing the scattered flock of a Lakenheath. If we are really serious about nurturing mature discipleship, it also means doing the patient work of pastoral visitation among the classes in London.
This is a picture of effective ministry, not sexy ministry. It isn’t addicted to the latest fad or cultural trend. But it is committed to the hard, daily work of discipleship formation. And it is committed to doing that work in the midst of people who sometimes know they need it, and sometimes just don’t.