We commemorate Aldersgate both as one person’s evangelical conversion as well as the start of a reforming movement for the Church. But beyond merely remembering what happened, what lessons can we draw so that we may recognise an Aldersgate experience today?
The first lesson is that all of us Methodists need to want to be fervent Christians who have a deep relationship with God.
Aldersgate was John Wesley’s evangelical conversion because although he identified as a Christian and was priest and a former missionary before Aldersgate, he did not know God intimately. Wesley woke up early in the mornings to pray, he studied the Bible, and he did many acts of charity, but he did not have a real personal relationship with God. Before Aldersgate, Wesley knew a lot about God, but he did not really know God.
I fear that there are many people like that in our churches today – not just people who may be quite busy for the church and people who are trying their best, but also people who have been coming to church for years out of habit, people who are here to network, or get their kids into a Methodist school, all of whom do not really know God well.
An Aldersgate experience for us would draw us much closer to God. Wesley said that God gives grace freely to us to make us holy and true Christians, and that this would fulfil our deepest desires, even making us happier. In his 1742 tract, The Character of a Methodist, Wesley wrote that “God is the joy of [the Methodist’s] heart… [we are] therefore happy in God, yea, always happy…”
An Aldersgate experience for everyone would mean that every Methodist would know God intimately and have Him as the joy of our hearts.
The second lesson to draw is we have to act on the grace given to us to do the work of the Kingdom.
As a reforming movement, Methodism sent preachers and circuit riders across Britain and America, establishing not just chapels and tent meetings, but also schools and medical clinics. Methodists tackled the social ills of the day, whether it was rampant alcoholism in Britain and America, or opium addiction in Malaya. We championed prison reform and opposed slavery.
Have we lost that world-changing energy? Many of us have stopped serving in the church and we are content to hire professional staff to do the work for us.
David Hempton argued in his book Methodism: Empire of the Spirit that Methodism was most powerful in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was a countercultural movement, but it declined in the 20th century when it harmonised with a secularising culture. In other words, in the early years Methodism changed the world because it led the world. But more recently, Methodism became a follower of the world and so began to lose its power as an assertive faith.
We need to continue to be a reforming movement and not become a calcified institution. We need to use our distinguishing marks of connectionalism and discipline to spread scriptural holiness, instead of their being mere bureaucratic ends in themselves. We need to recover our world-conquering energy and our vision of the Kingdom.
There is an old 19th century Methodist ditty that may sound a little conceited but which I think nicely reflects the energy and drive of earlier Methodist reformers:
“As good a church, as can be found,
Their doctrine is so pure and sound,
One reason which I give for this,
The Devil hates the Methodist.
If Satan could them all destroy,
The troops of hell would shout for joy;
I’ll pray that God would them increase
And fill the world with Methodists.”
That is my prayer also because I believe all Methodists should know God intimately and use the grace he gives to transform ourselves to be more like Jesus. That is what an Aldersgate experience would look like today.
Rev Dr Chiang Ming Shun is the Elder Attached at Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church and a lecturer in Church History at Trinity Theological College, where he is also Associate Dean.