Social justice is all the rage in Western Christian circles these days, and the emotional experience of God is not far behind. For some evangelicals, the gospel only has legs when it is used in service to the disenfranchised, and worship is only considered good when it arouses fuzzy warmth in the worshiper. But what if changing culture, transforming the world and worshiping intensely were not the primary missions of the Church? What if they were byproducts of something else?
In his latest book, Gregory S. Clapper gives his views on what the Church should be: Renewal of the Heart is the Mission of the Church: Wesley’s Religion of the Heart for the 21st 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 to the contemporary Church, Clapper draws on many academic disciplines. For example, he delves into contemporary psychology to show how Wesley relates to recent emotion theory. It also shows how Wesley’s views influence teaching, preaching, evangelism, spiritual formation, and other areas commonly placed under the umbrella of “practical theology.” Most of the book, however, concerns 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 considered to be 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 just about believing the right things. A true Christian is marked by his love of God, his love of his neighbor and his faith. These qualities generate repentance and good works. And the heart is crucial in this perspective, since people have their own power to direct their hearts toward God. When asked, holiness follows, and Wesley considered holiness to be the strongest evidence of Christianity.
For Wesley, renewal of the heart is the central “orienting concern” of Christianity. For Christian educators, this might mean first exploring what students like and then showing the connection between the gospel and traditional doctrines. For those working in the field of spiritual formation (preachers, counselors, evangelists), offering Christ to people can take many forms. And Clapper effectively illustrates the potential for human change implied in Wesley’s religion of the heart, using contemporary films (e.g., groundhog day), theater (for example, The music man), and some of Clapper’s own pastoral experience. If readers can make it through the first few chapters – a lengthy discussion of Wesley’s writings – it will be worth it.
Clapper’s emphasis on Wesley’s writings makes it difficult to identify the audience for this book; it seems unlikely that non-theologians or non-Wesleyans would engage in his careful exegesis. Although, as a theologian, I appreciated his attention to detail, this is not a book aimed at the casual reader of Christian nonfiction. Although the book is relatively short (132 pages), it is not until the last two chapters – almost 100 pages – that Clapper begins to elaborate on the implications of Wesley’s views for the Church. But once there, he writes with all the wisdom of a 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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Renewal of the heart is the mission of the Church is available on ChristianBook.com and other booksellers.
Articles about John Wesley from Christian history include:
How John Wesley Changed America | Why should Wesley’s 300th birthday be a landmark day on this side of the pond? (Christian historyAugust 8, 2008)
Christian History Corner: Serving God with Mammon | John Wesley’s wisdom in times of economic hardship: Earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. (November 1, 2001)
A story of two brothers | Like many brothers and sisters, John and Charles Wesley often clashed – and the Methodist movement benefited. (Christian historyJanuary 1, 2001)
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