Empowering the Laity: John Wesley style

English: Portrait drawing of Francis Asbury, A...
“now, now, Joel… Laity have never done anything but serve on committees.” English: Portrait drawing of Francis Asbury, American Methodist leader who began as a lay preacher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At our recent Annual Conference, I got to sit through a presentation about laity empowerment. There were two approaches. One sought to empower the laity to perform acts of service. The other sought to empower the laity through various rounds of education and experience to eventually become pseudo-clergy.

What was Wesley’s view of the lay preacher?

It was in 1747 that the qualifications of lay preachers were set down in this wise:

“Q. How shall we try those who believe they are moved by the Holy Ghost and called of God to preach

“A. Inquire,

1. Do they know in whom they have believed Have they the love of God in their hearts And are they holy in all manner of conversation

2. Have they gifts (as well as grace) for the work? Have they (in some tolerable degree) a clear, sound understanding? Have they a right judgment in the things of God Have they a just conception of the salvation by faith? And has God given them any degree of utterance — do they speak justly, readily, clearly?

3. Have they success — do they not only so speak as generally either to convince or affect the hearts “

Currently, laity may serve as a “lay preacher” in various means.

  • Lay Servant
  • Lay Speaker
  • Licensed Pastor

Frankly, I don’t know if I got everything because they seem to change every quadrennium.

The requirements for the ministry of the laity is much more than what Wesley included. I am torn. I do not want uneducated laity presiding over even band meetings, but I do not want laity so educated that they are but a hair’s breadth away from clergy and thus aren’t really laity anymore.


Empowering laity could be a useful tool. There is more than working in a soup kitchen or resell store. There is more than preaching. This should be about preaching the Gospel in a non-pastoral/administrative way… i.e., spiritual formation.

What is your experience? How would you empower laity? Can and should laity be involved in spiritual formation (i.e., discipleship)? Can they do so without having to eventually decide if they want to be a pastor of sorts?

The real question is this: If The United Methodist Church wants to experience a revival, shouldn’t we turn to the past to see how they did it?

They did it via laity.

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4 Replies to “Empowering the Laity: John Wesley style”

  1. I’ve been reading about a corresponding period in Barton Stone / Alexander Campbell related churches at the time. There were about 10 differences the “Christians” and “Disciples” had with the “Baptists”, with which they had been sharing synods and associations. (according to “A Journey in Faith” by McAllister and Tucker). My paraphrase it that it came down to an uncomfortableness|unwillingness to share|decentralize the churchly|ministry authority on the part of the Baptists who (allegedly) did not want the laity practicing the “ordinances”, something the Stone-Campbellites were strongly practicing (at the time). The irony is|was that the “Christians” and “Disciples” saw themselves as caring on the work of the Reformation by promoting unity (their “tool” was to (rhetorically anyway) agree to practice only those things found in the NT and agree to disagree on any “man-made” traditions which built up since then. Of course in the Old World (and New England) the “ecclesia economics” were a bit different (pew renting, etc.) so perks have always mattered — they just get wrapped up in pretty theology language. Persevere!

  2. The one thing I see missing on this list is a LOVE of the laity. This is missing in many clergy, too. Love requires a frame of mind which is quite averse to worldlly wisdom.

  3. The laity is the Body of Christ, The Church. All disciples of Christ are both ministerial and missional , this includes both the ordained and laity. With this mission of discipleship and ministry comes responsibility and with responsibility comes the need for knowledge and uniformity. John Wesley had two books as sources of knowledge number one the Bible and number two the book of Common Prayer. As followers of John Wesley we also have two books The Bible and the BOD including it’s resolutions. As Christians we all share the love of Jesus Christ
    We all have gifts and talents we were given to use for God, some are to teach, some are to minister and some are to give of many different talents, but all are to serve with love. The UMC offers many forms of training to help us understand what we do and how we serve. We may only take a confirmation class, Methodist 101, lay servant classes, CLM classes for certification, Go through the steps for an Ordained Elder or receive a doctorate in theology, however we are all Disciples of Jesus Christ and have the mission to make disciples to change the world. A pastor, one that is appointed to shepherd the flock, was always laity before there education and appointment. Many ordained elders are not pastors, they serve as teachers, musicians, communications, district superintendents, bishops and many other occupations. Many pastors serve under locale license or part time in small parishes, but all are committed to go where God sends them. John Wesley empowered people to do the work of God, if we are to grow as the early Methodist movement grew we must do the same.

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