While there are many preaching streams that feed into the river of the Christian movement, we will investigate here the unique impact of the Wesleyan-Methodist tributary. We will navigate this body of water with the help of prominent theologian Albert Outler. He locates four lenses through which John Wesley developed his theology: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. These lenses will guide us in exploring the impact of Wesleyan-Methodist preaching.
Scripture: Let’s start where Wesley starts- with Scripture. When I think about the biblical base for Wesleyan-Methodist preaching, I am drawn to a phrase that comes out of the Exodus Event. When God decided to pick a people to be his very own, a group through whom he would bless all the nations of the world, he chose oppressed Hebrew slaves who had been in bondage for more than 400 years. And God used a prophetic preacher named Moses to get the exodus ball rolling. Once the people are liberated, God says to them through Moses, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high” (Lev. 26:13). God did some chiropractic work by breaking bars and lifting heads, giving an undignified people the dignity that comes from right relationship with him.
In the New Testament, those Hebrews found themselves in a familiar kind of mess. This time they were in bondage, not in Egypt, but on their own Palestinian turf to the Romans. And God raised up another emancipator, a prophet-preacher like Moses, named Jesus. In his inaugural sermon, Jesus shows his preaching cards by quoting Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus had a chiropractic mission just like Moses. The preaching of Jesus, according to Jesus, was focused on breaking bars and lifting heads, giving oppressed, down-trodden people a new dignity that would come not from the political policies of Rome, and certainly not from the Jewish aristocracy, but from participation in the Kingdom of God through relationship with Christ.
Through the preaching ministry of Moses and Jesus, people whose heads hung low in disgrace, defeat, discouragement, and despair start walking with their chin up, with heads held high in hopeful belief that they could by God’s grace become something- a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a blessed nation through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed, a church that partners with God in the missio Dei. The preaching of Moses and Jesus caused these kicked-to-the-curb Jews, oppressed by mighty Egypt and Rome, to view themselves and their world through the lens of the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which the first are last and the last first, where the poor have a place, and those with regrets can start over. And that’s what Wesleyan-Methodist preaching does!
Tradition: As we move from Scripture to Tradition in our exploration of the distinct impact of Wesleyan-Methodist preaching, it makes sense to focus on the ministry of John Wesley. Wesley, like Moses and Jesus before him, was a bar breaker and head lifter. He was a member of the Anglican Church, a social club for the English elite at the time. The Church was not a welcome place for underdogs like the poor peasants losing their jobs to machines during the Industrial Revolution and washing away their troubles with alcohol. They had no hope and no help, especially from the church. So Wesley, this well-educated Oxford don and high churchman, senses with Moses and Jesus a burning call toward his people in order to “break the bars” of their yoke and cause them to “walk with heads held high.” All of a sudden, jobless and hopeless alcoholics are being liberated and sanctified to serve the purposes of God. Black women are leading class meetings. Wilberforce is seeking the abolition of slavery. Slave-born Richard Allen is set free and sets others free through Gospel preaching. Phoebe Palmer, a woman, gets up the nerve to travel as an evangelist and proclaim good news. All of this because a guy named John Wesley, anointed by God’s Spirit, had the compassionate courage to preach in a way that broke bars and lifted heads. And they walked with heads held high, their spine straightened by Jesus the Chiropractor, the glory and the lifter of our heads! Preaching got that ball rolling, and justice rolling with it like a river! Because that’s what Wesleyan-Methodist preaching does!
Experience: Our personal experiences can also help us get a grip on the distinct impact of our preaching tradition. Therefore, I’m going to get a bit testimonial-it’s a Wesleyan-Methodist thing! Here is how God stirred in me this notion of preaching as a ministry of breaking bars and lifting heads. By the time I turned 16 years of age, I was pretty down and out. I found myself burdened with the bars of a yoke that kept my head hung low. My parents were battling an addiction to heroin and cocaine. Drug addiction swallowed them up. We lost our house, car, and, worst of all, our dignity. I was labeled the son of drug addicts who would never amount to much. So, I lived into this shame and inferiority. I became, at the age of 16, a high school drop-out alcoholic. The bars of my yoke were suffocating me.
Through a variety of circumstances and people, too detailed to chronicle here, God got a hold of my life when I was 18 years of age. I experienced the words of Charles Wesley’s And Can It Be, “long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night, thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell of my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed thee.” God broke the bars of my yoke and caused me to walk with my head held high primarily through the preaching of others. Though the details of your experience are surely different, God broke the bars of your yoke and he caused you to walk with your head held high. He did this to us so that he, through us, can do it for others. That’s what Wesleyan-Methodist preaching does!
Reason: Finally, we explore the impact of Wesleyan-Methodist preaching through the lens of Reason. I’m not sure any of this is real reasonable; it doesn’t make sense that God would choose to come alongside of underdogs like Egyptian-oppressed Hebrews, or Roman-oppressed Jews, or English peasants, or a down and out teenager. I’m not sure any of this is reasonable, until we realize that this is exactly how God works over and over again; it is his MO! Once we get to know God we realize “his ways are higher than our ways,” his reason beyond our reason. But we can begin to see a pattern emerging with God. He empowers a mouthpiece – a Moses, a Jesus, a Wesley, and you! And through the proclamation of good news to people starving for good news, people are raised to a whole new level of living according to God’s economy of scale. God has called the likes of us to preach in a manner that breaks the bars and lifts the heads of people by connecting them to Christ. Could there be a more reasonable reason to give our very lives to this task!
Faithfully proclaimed messages by preachers whose lives embody the good news they preach is chiropractic. It is not some American dream, political ideal, or ecclesiological well-wishing, but Jesus Christ unleashed and untamed who breaks bars and lifts heads! That’s what Wesleyan-Methodist preaching does!