John Wesley's 1741 Sermon, "The Almost Christian," offers some food for thought to anyone who is interested in renewing the church. Wesley, of course, never intended to start a new denomination; he only wanted to revitalize the Church of England which seemed to have the form of godliness without its power. We might say, the Church of England was going through the motions, but not really transforming lives with the Gospel. In some ways, today's United Methodist Church may more closely resemble Wesley's Church of England than it does his Methodist movement. That's a topic for another day.
Wesley's sermon, preached at Oxford in July 1741, sets out to describe the difference between an "Almost" and "Altogether" Christian. There are three basic characteristics of the Almost Christian: Doing good, avoiding evil, and using the means of grace. Yes, these three things would soon become the General Rules of the societies. But in this earlier version, Wesley suggests the Almost Christian doesn't gossip, doesn't lie, doesn't eat or drink in excess. The Almost Christian tries to live a moral life, doing good at every opportunity. The Almost Christian attends worship, reads scripture, prays, partakes of Holy Communion. And Wesley argues that the Almost Christian is even sincere. He or she "has a real design to serve God, a hearty desire to do his will."
But the Almost Christian lacks love, the love of God and the love of neighbor (what Wesley would also call "personal and social holiness"). And one more thing is missing in the Almost Christian: Faith, by which Wesley means not only a head faith that believes, but a heart faith that trusts in God.
The question this sermon raises today is: How many people in our churches are even Almost Christians, let alone Altogether ones? How many people in the pews regularly use the means of grace (or, for that matter, even know what they are)? How many really try to do good and avoid evil? How many are sincere in the desire to serve God? If Wesley were preaching the sermon today, he might be compelled to add another category: the Almost Almost Christian or the Hardly Barely Not Quite a Christian.
It seems to me that if we can encourage people to move, by grace!, from the Almost Almost Christian to the Almost Christian, we can help to point them toward the love and faith that will lead them to the fullness of life in God.