Social justice is all the rage in Western Christian circles these days, and experiencing God emotionally is not far behind. For some evangelicals, the gospel has feet only when it is used in service to the disenfranchised, and worship is considered good only when it fosters fuzzy warmth in the worshiper. But what if changing the culture, transforming the world, and worshiping intensely are not the primary missions of the church? What if they are byproducts of something else?
In his latest book, Gregory S. Clapper gives his perspective on what the church should be about: The Renewal of the Heart Is the Mission of the Church: Wesley's Heart Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Wipf and Stock) . Clapper explores John Wesley's view of human "affections" (emotions, passions) and what his view means for churches today.
In exploring Wesley's relevance for the contemporary church, Clapper draws from many academic disciplines. For example, he dives into contemporary psychology to show how Wesley relates to recent emotion theory. He also shows how Wesley's views impact teaching, preaching, evangelism, spiritual formation, and other areas commonly placed under the umbrella of "practical theology." The bulk of the book, however, is about Wesley himself, and Clapper pays great attention to the original source material.
In short, Wesley's heart religion was a lived Christianity, as evidenced by what he saw as the essential doctrines of repentance, faith, and holiness. In Wesley's "house of religion," repentance is the porch, faith is the door, and holiness is the house itself. For Wesley, being a Christian is not merely about believing the right things. A true Christian is marked by her love of God, love of neighbor, and faith. These qualities yield repentance and good works. And the heart is crucial to this view, since people have their own agency to direct their hearts toward God. When so directed, holiness follows, and Wesley considered holiness to be the strongest evidence of Christianity.
For Wesley, the renewal of the heart is the central "orienting concern" of Christianity. For Christian educators, this might mean first exploring what students love, and then showing how the gospel and traditional doctrines relate. For those in the business of spiritual formation (preachers, counselors, evangelists), offering Christ to people can take a variety of forms. And Clapper effectively illustrates the potential for human change entailed by Wesley's heart religion, using contemporary film (e.g., Groundhog Day), theater (e.g., The Music Man), and some of Clapper's own pastoral experience. If readers can get through the first several chapters—a lengthy discussion of Wesley's writings—it's well worth their time.
Clapper's focus on Wesley's writings makes it difficult to identify this book's audience; it seems unlikely that non-theologians or non-Wesleyans will wade through his painstaking exegesis. While I as a theologian appreciated his attention to detail, this is not a book for the casual reader of Christian nonfiction. Even though the book is relatively short (132 pages), it is not until the final two chapters—nearly 100 pages in—that Clapper begins to elaborate on the implications of Wesley's views for the church. But when he gets there, he writes with all the wisdom of a learned scholar and all the sensitivity of a caring pastor.
Michael McGowan is a graduate student in theology at Claremont Graduate University, School of Religion, Claremont, California.
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Articles about John Wesley from Christian History include:
How John Wesley Changed America | Why should Wesley's 300th birthday be a red-letter day on this side of the ocean? (Christian History, August 8, 2008)
Christian History Corner: Serving God with Mammon | John Wesley's wisdom for hard economic times: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. (November 1, 2001)
A Tale of Two Brothers | Like many siblings, John and Charles Wesley often clashed— and the Methodist movement profited. (Christian History, January 1, 2001)
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