by Roger Walton.
‘Go always, not only to those that want you, but to those that want you most.’
I laboured for several years under the belief that John Wesley’s 12 Rules for a Helper contained the words ‘Go always, not only to those that need you, but to those that need you most’.  I don’t know who first quoted this in my hearing but the word ‘need’ was definitely there and it stuck. It was a bit of surprise, to discover that the word Wesley used is ‘want’ rather than ‘need’. I had always interpreted the instruction to be about attending to the most extreme needs first, where the needy might mean the disadvantaged, the marginalised, the voiceless, the dying. In the light of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it also carried the idea that one attends to the most basic needs first – food, shelter, warmth, safety and only later to the ‘higher order’ needs such as meaning and ethical living.
The word ‘want’ gives it a different feel. Rather than a way of prioritising competing needs, is it really about discerning where the desire for help is most ardent, most open, most eager?
On the surface ‘need’ is a more acceptable word. If we attend to what people want, are we not just pandering to human whims and desires, which in our consumerist society are relentlessly tickled and stimulated by slick advertising and draw on our base desires to own things, to keep up with Joneses and to be better than others? What human beings want and what they need, we regularly tell ourselves, are very different things.
On the other hand, deciding what others need and how to help them is a very tricky business, as the history of the poor laws and other ways people have tried to help those ‘in need’ demonstrate. Well-intentioned interventions have often exacerbated rather than eased conditions. The mantra that Rachel Lampard drew to our attention last year, ‘nothing about us, without us, is for us’ should, she suggested, guide our approach. People in need are not objects or problems to be solved but subjects, people made in the image of God, to be respected and able to contribute to finding solutions. That is why the work of Poverty Truth Commissions always includes the voices of those in need, so that their wants as well as their needs become part of the conversation. This has been a significant dynamic in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Those most affected (most in need) want certain things to be addressed and rightly campaign for their desires.
Wants and needs may not be as easy to separate in human experience as we imagine. That does not mean that every want must be met, nor every attempt to discern need abandoned but the way forward is surely through dialogue, engagement and genuine encounter. Rather than a technique for ministerial efficiency, Rule 11 may be an invitation to deeper human relationships.
But there is something more to be said. The purpose of the 12 Rules is to give instruction to the growing number of itinerants, helping Mr Wesley to spread the good news and to order the societies for the disciplined pursuit of holiness. The Rules are concerned with character, conduct and responsibility, so that the helpers may be both effective in their work and carry something of the message in their personality. The full text of Rule 11 is somewhat longer. The words above are prefaced with this solemn reminder: ‘You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work.’ They are followed by the reminder that it is not about how many sermons you preach or about the number of societies you take care of but rather about calling people to repentance and holiness of life. In this context, the meaning of those in want (or need) is squarely in the arena of evangelism and discipleship. Preachers are urged to awaken desire for, and work with those who seek the life of faith. Within an Arminian framework for evangelism, the instruction ‘to go to those who want you most’ may well mean going to where there are signs of openness and deep yearning for spiritual life. This is a timely word for us as we prioritise evangelism in our Connexion. But Wesley’s instruction also reminds us that we are to form relationships with those to whom we go and discover together with them God’s amazing salvation.
 This rule was not in the original 1744 version but was added at 1745 Conference and appears as Rule 11 in 1753 version.