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John Wesley: Family Expert?

Dr. Dean Blevins
Professor of Practical Theology and Christian Discipleship
Director, Master of Arts in Christian Formation and Discipleship Degree Program

It is interesting just how prominent the concern for ministry to families continues to grow in local congregations these days. Several conferences and curriculums span both mainline churches and mainstream evangelical churches including Orange, D6, Faith at Home, and Vibrant Faith Ministries, just to name a few. Most of these initiatives surfaced either to support efforts to make current age-level ministries more family-friendly; to actually place families in the center of discipleship in their homes; or to foster a more comprehensive, intergenerational, ministry within the church. In the Church of the Nazarene, NTS has developed a partnership with SDMI to create Faithful Homes,  an online web resource to assist families in naming and shaping their spiritual walk.

As Wesleyans, where do we draw inspiration for these efforts? Obviously we can find examples from within scripture and the early church. The amount of research and literature around families and faith exploded in the late 20th century, providing a host of resources to help us understand both the biblical and historical framework that shaped family spirituality. Perhaps we could even name other strategic points in our tradition’s history and heritage.

However, a quick look at our spiritual “grandfather” seems to raise some real problems. For instance, would you ever think to consider any pastor a “family expert” who had the following background:

  • His personal family lived in poverty, primarily because his father proved inept with financial matters (Samuel was thrown in jail for debt).
  • His mother remained bed ridden a large part of her life, yet also ruled with an iron hand (Susanna taught children to “cry softly” by age one).
  • His mother and father (that is probably the right order) proved so strong-willed that they separated over a difference in politics for more than three years (at least their “reconciliation” resulted in John’s birth).
  • The seven sisters in the family were often neglected in order to give the boys (three of them) a quality education and most of the parental emotional support as they grew older.
  • His father rejected one of the daughters during her time of deep need, causing the sons to rise up to protect her by directly opposing the father.
  • Our expert seemed pretty clueless when it came to serious interactions with women, often attracting young ladies’ interest but never being able to come close, almost proving just how much of a “momma’s boy” he might have been.      
    • Matter of fact, friends and foes alike considered him and his brother quite a flirt with young ladies at the Fetter’s Lane Society.      
    • Yet our expert had at least two close relationships that failed miserably as both young ladies married others. The second relationship included an engagement in which our expert’s brother betrayed the couple by convincing his fiancée to marry someone else.
  • Our expert was known for dispensing what many people would declare as abusive child-rearing instructions such as: “never give a child anything that it cries for,” and “the primary goal is to break the will of the child as soon as possible.” Yes, most of these ideas came from his mom.
    • Matter of fact, many of the educational practices for children at our expert’s private school seemed to resemble a military boot camp. The private school regimen began at 6:30am with work, and children were not allowed to play at any point during the day.      

These facts do describe our spiritual grandfather, John Wesley. At least one book by Anthony Headley, titled Family Crucible, provides an introduction to the Wesley’s family life that details many of these problems through the lens of family systems. Reading the book, one might be amazed just how much grace was needed for John to live out his ministry. However, does this mean that we must disqualify Wesley as a mentor for family ministry today?

What could Wesley have going for him?

At least we have to also consider the following:

  • His father and mother both emphasized a patterned religious life. John’s father instilled life in the prayer book & church, while his mother provided strong introduction to spiritual writers of the day and methodological Christian living.     
  • Susanna Wesley, regardless of her strict teachings, always took time to listen to each child at night and to bless all children before they went to sleep.     
  • The close sibling relationships caused brothers to love and care for their sisters deeply, and to support their mother through difficult times later in life.   
  • Also, Wesley wrote poignant prayers and instructions for families, reminding parents of their deep duty toward their children and the power of God’s grace in the ability to “heal” children’s sinful life.
  • Wesley also required Methodist ministers to pay spiritual attention to children when they visited families. One minister apparently complained that providing spiritual oversight for kids was not his “gift.” Wesley’s apparent written reply was to the effect “gift or not, you are to do this (care for children) or you are not a Methodist minister” (i.e. maybe you should look for another job).        
  • Wesley also changed a number of social “customs” that shaped English working class culture  (wife-swapping, binge drinking, bear-baiting) by providing respectable…and required… practices (prayer, scripture reading, etc.) that changed spiritual life within the family.        
  • Ultimately Wesley proved a strong believer that family could only survive through the grace of God. However, John also believed that families could indeed become the very agents of God’s grace (part of Wesley’s constellation of Christian communities) in nurturing the life of individuals.        

Wesley’s vision for families remained strong in spite of his own background. Yes, John was a product of his history and heritage. However, he seemed to transcend some of the troubling aspects of his heritage (which Headley also points out) by drawing on the strength of the past while struggling with other aspects of his personal life.

As part of a current family ministry class, I have been writing paraphrases of Wesley’s prayers for families. John wrote a series morning and evening prayers for families to pray together. I open each class with one of those morning prayers, or close the class with an evening prayer. What amazes me about these writings (once I get beyond trying to translate old English sentence construction into contemporary American prose) is the depth of grace, the height of salvation, and the power of God, that Wesley believed to be at work in families.

Also Wesley models for us that one could be a product of one’s environment (good, bad and ugly) yet also be “both” descriptive of his heritage “and” also redemptive in later years by the very grace of God at work.

The fact that Wesley’s childhood, youth, and adult life proved less than perfect may be more important than we realize in family ministry. Many parents labor under an illusion they must be “perfect” in their ministry. This “myth” of the perfect parent lingers in the background of a lot of instruction on family spiritual life, often making families more defensive instead of encouraging them to continue to grow in grace. I think the fact that John’s family life was so “mixed” with some really good, as well as some really bad influences helps current families to understand that they can never be “perfect.” However, all families can build on their strengths as they seek to overcome the limitations of harmful actions from their family history and in their current family life. Families live by grace, even as they are called to living out holiness of heart and life…as families.

Wesley seemed to understand this concept as a son of sometimes tumultuous parents who both loved and opposed him at times. Wesley also seemed to understand this principle as a close sibling who could get lost in arguments with brothers while providing comfort for sisters. John may have even understood that while we might not all be mothers and fathers, we are all sons and daughters, so we need to take family life seriously. Perhaps John’s expertise surfaces in the day to day life he lived to a vision of holiness that was bigger than his family, and even bigger than his ministry. This vision of holiness comes from God, anchored in Jesus, and given through the Holy Spirit. Only that vision satisfies what families might become as they understand how God’s grace can work through their relationships and practices. This message might be the expertise that John-boy (Wesley) offers us for the future.

Click here for more resources and ideas to incorporate into your family’s spiritual life.

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