When John Wesley looked across Great Britain's Anglican Church in the 1700s, he saw dead formalism. He realized that when people came to Christ, they needed to change and grow, not merely stand on the terms of a contract. In other words, they may have been converted, but their lives were not transformed. They were baptized, confirmed, and churched on Sunday, yet they lived like hellions the rest of the time. Wesley concluded that the people of the church needed to be regularly confronted and challenged to confess their sins and repent.
Wesley realized that the Great Commission is not just to make converts; it's to make disciples. As he preached, people gave their lives to Christ in droves. And then Wesley did something we often do today—he put them into small groups.
The purpose of Wesley's small groups was not simply encouragement and Bible study, but to provide a safe place for confession and accountability, an intimate environment for transformation into Christlikeness.
In 1995, God brought revival to Wheaton College. It broke out in a student-led Sunday night service. Confession and repentance continued Sunday night and every night through Thursday. Eight or nine hundred students repented of their sin.
During one of those evenings, a student confessed that she'd lost her virginity the summer before. She was carrying terrible guilt and wanted to confess her sin. The man sitting next to me elbowed me and said, "Prof, get this thing shut down. This is terrible. She didn't sin publicly. She shouldn't be confessing publicly. If that was my daughter, I'd feel terrible."
I said, "You're right. She didn't sin publicly. But she's having to confess here because …" I paused, "because I've preached in your church, and it's not a safe place to confess sin or to be held in loving accountability."
That night's events and conversations were the seeds that inspired my wife and me and some friends to plant a church. And every Sunday after the service we provide trained prayer and communion ministers, so people have a safe place to confess sin.
We don't forgive their sins, but we tell them, "Jesus Christ forgives your sins and cleanses you from all unrighteousness." And then we try to follow up with them the next week by asking, "How are you doing on this thing? Staying clean?"
Moody's listening team
Despite the flood of conversions under his preaching, Dwight L. Moody kept his focus on the individual. At the end of the service he would say, "If anyone here has questions or would like prayer, we'll be in another room and can pray for you."
Moody told those who would pray with people, "When someone comes up, look at her. Listen to her. Pray, listen to the Holy Spirit, and ask him to help you listen to her. As you're working with her, another person might come up, too, and be looking at her watch. But don't worry about her. Take the first person seriously and keep working with her." As soon as people were heard and prayed with, Moody made sure they were connected with local pastors and lay leaders who would continue that kind of listening.
At a conference on the eastern seaboard, I was similarly challenged to ignore the multitudes and focus on one person. I had just read an intriguing, little, second-hand book written for Catholic priests who were going to hear confessions. The book focused on listening to people while seeking the Spirit to hear what they're not saying—like Moody instructed his trainees. The book contended that some people don't know what they want to say or ask, but as we seek the Spirit, he can work in the unseen things of their hearts.
The night of the conference, the preacher concluded his message by asking people who desired to pray to come forward. As soon as he said it, so many people streamed forward that he called the ministry team to come up and help him.
I asked a man, "How can I pray for you?"
"I don't know," he said.
So I prayed, Lord, show me what I might do with this man. Show me how to pray for him. I put my arm around him and began to pray as I felt led.
He began to weep uncontrollably. "How did you know how to pray for me?"
"I didn't; the Lord knows your need. He told me how to pray for you."
I didn't minister to anyone else that night. For five more days at the conference I got together with him regularly. And for six years after that, we met at that conference to talk.
As Moody taught, "Listen well. Take this soul seriously. And listen to the Holy Spirit as you do."
In her Christianity Today article, "Whatever Happened to Repentance?", Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote, "The more we see the depth of our sin, the more we realize the height of God's love." This vision of sin and love transformed the life of my friend from the conference. Luther, Wesley, and Moody can help us offer the same vision to our churches.
Lyle Dorsett is professor of Christian ministries and evangelism at Wheaton College and pastor of Church of the Great Shepherd in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
Adapted from "Three Ways to Bring About Repentance," by Lyle Dorsett, Leadership Journal, 2002.