Missional Discipleship in the Wesleyan Spirit

Phil Meadows

There have been a number of unfolding and overlapping shifts in Western missiological thinking in recent years. First, the dominant understanding of mission as sending people overseas to pre-Christian cultures has been overshadowed by the need for missionary activity in our emerging post-Christian context. The “Gospel and Our Culture” movement has helped the church understand the Western world as a mission field, to which all the principles of cross-cultural mission can be applied (cf. George Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder, The Church between Gospel and Culture [Eerdmans, 1996]).

A second shift has liberated the whole idea of mission from bondage to the institutional structures of the church. It is not that the church of God has a mission, but that the mission of God has a church. In other words, missiology precedes ecclesiology. The “Missional Church” movement has sought to address the challenge of domestic mission by letting the principles of cross-cultural engagement shape the development of culturally and contextually relevant expressions (cf. Darrell Guder et al., Missional Church [Eerdmans, 1998] and Mission Shaped Church [Church House, 2004]).

A third shift, which is presently gaining momentum, refocuses our attention from missional ecclesiology to mission spirituality, and makes authentic discipleship the heart of missional engagement (cf. Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson, Missional Spirituality [InterVarsity, 2011]). Alan and Debra Hirsch have claimed that “discipleship has become a frontier issue for the people of God at this time in history” (Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship [Baker Academic, 2010], 23]. From this perspective, it is not “churches” but “people” who participate in the mission of God. The world is not evangelized by structures, but by Spirit-filled and Jesus-shaped disciples who love God and neighbor.

The modest aim of this article is to survey some resources of Wesleyan theology and spirituality for points of contact with this evolving conversation about missional discipleship. Indeed, the conversation also helps to retrieve discipleship in the Wesleyan spirit as inherently missional by nature.

The Missio Dei

Neither Wesley, nor the early Methodist preachers, use the terminology of “‘mission” as such, but they do speak about “the work of God” and about being being coworkers with God. This more directly biblical language perfectly captures the essence of the missio Dei as the activity of God in the world, and our participation in it. The work of God is fundamentally what God does to lead humanity through the whole way of salvation — by setting us free from sin, filling us with the divine life, and renewing us in holy love. There are two “grand branches” to this work. On the one hand, there is the work that God has done for us in Christ, to forgive our sins and bring us into right relationship with the Father (i.e., justifying grace). On the other hand, there is the work that God does in us though the Spirit, setting us free from the power of sin, and conforming us to the likeness of Christ (i.e., sanctifying grace). The Spirit works preveniently in the hearts of all people, and plants an inner restlessness that can only be satisfied by this life-transforming communion with God. Through this divine initiative, we are enabled to be coworkers with God in our own salvation and in the salvation of others (cf. Philip Meadows, “Entering the Divine Embrace: Towards an Ancient-Future Wesleyan Theology of Evangelism,” Wesley and Methodist Studies 3 [2011]: 3-30).

First, we become coworkers with God as recipients of the missio Dei, when we are caught up in the missional flow of God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. We are invited to “work out” our own salvation, as the Spirit works in us “to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil 2:12; cf. John Wesley, Sermon 85, “On Working out Our Own Salvation,” in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley 3 [Abingdon, 1976–]). Second, we are coworkers with God as participants in the missio Dei, when the love and grace we have received reaches out to others in a life of witness and service. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10; see Wesley’s Sermon 98, “On Visiting the Sick,” ¶2). Wesley says that all “the children of God are ‘workers together with God,’ in every good thought, or word, or action” (Sermon 72, “Of Evil Angels,” §II:9). Third, those who are called to missional leadership, become “coworkers in God’s service,” through the activity of sowing, planting, and watering the gospel in people’s lives (1 Cor 3:5-9). The early Methodist preacher-pioneers were frequently observed to have “the work of God at heart,” which overflowed in a zeal for the work of God in the hearts of others (2 Cor 6:1; cf. Philip Meadows, “Mission Spirituality in the Early Methodist Preachers,” in Perfecting Perfection, ed. Robert Webster [Wipf & Stock, 2015]).

Mission Spirituality

Later in life, Wesley wrestled with a key missiological question: If the Christian gospel is the good news that every human being was made to hear, then why has Christianity made such slow progress around the world? His conclusion is startlingly simple, yet profoundly challenging. “The grand stumbling block” to the spread of the gospel, he says, is “the lives of Christians” (Sermon 63, “The General Spread of the Gospel,” ¶21). He observes that the generality of those who call themselves Christians are not living proof of the gospel, since they lack the “power of religion” in their hearts, and fail to embody the beauty of holiness in their lives. For Wesley, God’s chosen medium for the general spread of the gospel is the witness of ordinary people whose lives are made extraordinary by the holy love of God and neighbor. If the church would recover its vocation to be a holy people, non-Christians would “look upon them with other eyes, and begin to give attention to their words” so that “the holy lives of Christians will be an argument they will not know how to resist.”

“Mission spirituality” has been defined as the work of God to draw all people to himself, in order to transform hearts and lives, then send them out as coworkers and contagious witnesses in the world (cf. Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio [Libreria Editrice Vaticana: 1990]), ¶90). From a Wesleyan perspective, mission spirituality has its source in the conscious experience of God’s justifying and sanctifying grace, and is expressed in a way of life that is missional by nature. This inner wellspring of holy love overflows in the missional love of neighbor, motivated by a zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Michael Collins Reilly has helpfully concluded that “all Christian spirituality must, in one way or another, be for mission” (Spirituality for Mission [Orbis, 1978], 237).

Spiritual Formation for Mission

If mission is ultimately a spiritual issue, then spiritual formation for mission is the primary challenge. Yet this is what Dallas Willard called the “great omission” from the Great Commission (The Great Omission [Monarch, 2006]). From a Wesleyan perspective, we can identify four principles for developing the spiritual life of missional disciples. It is not just each ingredient that is important, but the logic of disciple-making that exists between them. (For a more detailed analysis, cf. Philip Meadows, The Wesleyan DNA of Discipleship [Grove, 2013]).

1. Seeking Holiness

Wesley claimed that God had raised up the Methodist movement “to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (John Wesley, “Minutes of Several Occasions,” in The Works of John Wesley, 8:326). Further, he believed that the goal of “Christian perfection” was the “grand depositum” which God had given them to proclaim (John Wesley, Letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury, September 1790, in The Letters of John Wesley, ed. John Telford [Epworth, 1931], 8:238). For Wesley, “scripture perfection” can be defined as “pure love filling the heart and governing all our words and actions”; or becoming like Christ in heart and life (Works 11:469). Methodists are not those who have arrived at this goal, but “any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained” (Works 8:384). Disciple-making leadership is not just about “feeding the flock,” but making them hungry for more of God. When those who live without God come into contact with a people whose lives are in the process of becoming radiant with the beauty of holiness, Wesley believed the truth of the gospel would be not only credible but attractive and compelling (Sermon 24, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse 4,” §IV:1-3). Becoming captivated by the vision of perfection love is what motivates the pursuit of holiness, and is itself an invitation to the life of mission.

2. Spiritual Discipline

Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to pursue scriptural holiness through taking up the practices of spiritual discipline as “means of grace,” by which our life-transforming communion with God is entered and deepened (Sermon 16, “The Means of Grace”). These means include “works of piety,” such as prayer, searching the Scriptures, participating in the Lord’s Supper, and fasting or abstinence. They also include “works of mercy,” which include caring for others in body, such as visiting the sick, and in soul, by “awakening sinners” and “contributing in any manner to the saving of souls from death” (Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §III:10). Disciple-making leadership is not just about “doing ministry” for others, but also equipping disciples for a life of intimacy with God, and responsiveness to his Spirit in daily life. As missional practices, works of piety and mercy involve us in a movement of divine grace that fills, transforms, and overflows our lives with love of God and neighbor. They are also called “good works” insofar as we become coworkers with God through them, in working out our own salvation and working for the salvation of others.

3. Sharing Fellowship

It takes the help of deep spiritual friendships to help us maintain a life of spiritual discipline, and keep us intentional about the pursuit of holiness. Wesley taught the early Methodists that there was no such thing as “solitary Christianity” because the inevitability of spiritual dissipation, the temptation to quit, and the deceitfulness of the human heart are all too great to overcome by ourselves (Works 14:437). The core purpose of Methodist society was “to watch over one another in love” (Heb 13:17), so they might “help each other to work out their salvation” (Phil 2:12). The societies were subdivided into small groups of around twelve people called “class meetings” (Works 8:269-70), who held one another accountable, and helped one another respond more faithfully to the movements of divine grace. Those who hungered for greater intimacy and spiritual maturity were gathered into even smaller groups of four or more, called “bands,” arranged by age and sex (Works 8:274-75). Disciple-making leadership is not just about “attracting crowds,” but investing in the formation of deep spiritual friendships, a few at a time, for the sake of deep and lasting growth. As missional practices, mutual accountability and group spiritual direction make us more attentive to the presence of God, and more responsive to the leading of the Spirit, in the ordinary flow of everyday life.

4. Everyday Mission

Seeking holiness, spiritual discipline, and sharing fellowship all contribute to a God-centered life that is missional by nature. From a Wesleyan perspective, mission is best understood as the character of a holy people who are set apart for God and sent out into the world, to live and work for his praise and glory. The ethos of everyday mission is embodied in what Wesley called “social holiness,” meaning that every Christian disciple is embedded in a nexus of personal relationships through which the life, love, and grace of God may be revealed. He says, “This is the great reason why the providence of God has so mingled you together with other men, that whatever grace you have received of God may be communicated to others” (Sermon 24, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse 4,” §I:7). The spirit of everyday mission is also encapsulated in Wesley’s principle of “good stewardship,” which demands that we become ever more fully surrendered to God’s purposes (Sermon 51, “The Good Steward”). The spiritual life is a gift, not to be owned and possessed, but to be enjoyed in the process of giving it back to God, in the service of others. Disciple-making leadership is not just about developing “mission strategies,” but raising up ordinary missionaries, who give up their lives to God, and lay down their lives for others. As missional practices, social holiness and good stewardship shape a way of life that impacts others as occasion demands, in the here and now of daily life, one act of mercy at a time.


From a Wesleyan perspective, we might say that spirituality and discipleship provide the link between ecclesiology and missiology. A theology of mission spirituality reminds us that mission is an inherently personal matter, as God’s holy people become recipients and participants in the movements of his love and grace in the world. Reflecting on the purpose of church structure, Wesley asked, “What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God, and to build them up in His fear and love. Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not, it is worth nothing” (Letters 2:76).

For Wesley, the true test of any ecclesiology is its fruitfulness in making disciples, and the true test of discipleship is its fruitfulness in everyday mission. The way we “do church” is to be valued only insofar as it functions as a means of grace, through which we become coworkers with God in his mission of holy love to a lost and broken world. Mission is ultimately a discipleship issue. And discipleship as the pursuit of holiness is not about withdrawing from the world, but being a Jesus-shaped and Spirit-filled presence within it, as the gospel takes flesh in our lives, and transforms the lives of those around us.

Posted Mar 30, 2016