The Wesleys and the “New Evangelization” – from First Things

An interesting article came out on First Things this week, entitled “New Evangelization and the Wesley Brothers,” by Colleen Reiss Vermeulen (HT Dan Sheffield).

If you aren’t familiar with the idea, “new evangelization” is a term used in Catholic circles to talk about re-proposing the gospel to those who have fallen away from the faith, or are apathetic about their faith.   In particular, the new evangelization is about re-evangelizing cultures that have a strong Christian heritage, but have embraced secularization and marginalized the faith.    European cultures are the most obvious target for new evangelization, but  North America is also considered ripe for re-evangelization.    New evangelization, or re-evangelization, is seen as a necessary antidote to the de-Christianization of previously Christian cultures.

Pope Benedict XVI has shown some initiative in this regard, establishing the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization in 2010.  In October, a synod of Bishops will be held on the new evangelization, and, as Vermeulen notes, the US Council of Catholic Bishops has just produced a resource on the new evangelization.

In this context, Vermeulen suggests that Catholics pondering new evangelization have something to learn from the Wesleys, noting that the 18th century evangelical revival began at a time when Christian religion and observance in England was at a very low point, with many either hoping to get by with a bare minimum of religious commitment, and others showing seeming indifference.

So what did the Wesley brothers do in their setting of indifference and perceived divisions? Did they tone down their sacramental devotion to appeal to the “rational” sensibilities of the age? Or scrap the Book of Common Prayer’s disciplines of daily liturgical prayer as obsolete? Did they insist that a particular “right” way of worship would solve all problems? Did they ignore suffering and injustice in England and focus only on an otherworldly, eternal salvation? None of the above. Instead, Charles and John Wesley set out for the mines, meadows, prisons, and town squares of England with an urgent Gospel message, a messagemeant to be lived.

So she encourages Catholics, facing immense indifference among their own constituency in the United States today, to adopt a full-fledged and in-depth approach to evangelization, calling people to a real, robust, “lived Christianity,” but one that includes a rich sacramental and ecclesial life:

Charles and John Wesley demonstrated a confidence in the Gospel—that by bringing Jesus Christ into all aspects of the lives of those they ministered to, lukewarm members of the Church of England and the “unchurched” masses alike would be inspired by the Holy Spirit to draw close to Christ in the sacraments, especially Holy Communion. In Disciples Called to Witness, the bishops of the United States call on each person today to have a similar confidence that by “proposing anew” the unchanging message of encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, we too can trust and participate in the work of the Holy Spirit, drawing people out of indifference and into authentic Christian living.

It’s an interesting comparison, and an appropriate one,  I think, given Methodism’s original location as a movement of reform and renewal within the Church (noted previously here).

One thought on “The Wesleys and the “New Evangelization” – from First Things

  1. Your comments and thoughts on this subject are interesting, but I would just like to remind you that there have been lately some serious theological reflections on the Army’s stand on sacraments. You are surely also aware of theologians in other denominations* which are totally in line with our understanding of Christ as the only sacrament and Jesus’ followers as being called to sacramental living. So I would go as far as saying that, though we do not criticize other Christians for their stand on the subject of sacraments – which is totally based on tradition – we don’t need to apologize for our view: it is as justified as theirs, it is just as much or as little present in the text of the Bible. (cf. i.e. John 6.63 “my words … are spirit and life”)
    We need salvationists who understand this, in order for the discussion to finally raise itself from the – in my view rather simplistic – opinion that the Army” just doesn’t do sacraments”, without really understanding or agreeing to why.
    *Emil Brunner, in The Misunderstanding of the Church, for instance.
    Cordial greetings – I follow your page with interest! Anne-Florence

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