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.
10 thoughts on “Go to those who want you most”
I also believed the saying was about need rather than want! I sense that churches in the ‘Weslyan’ or ‘Arminian’ tradition are placing less emphasis on evangelism and discipleship than churches in the ‘reformed’ or Calvinist’ tradition … which seems somewhat counter intuitive! What does it mean to ‘prioritise evangelism’ and what will it look like?
Thank you Roger. I also thought the rule was about ‘need’ and have been quoting it as such. In the light of this discovery, I guess our previous words may have had something to do with ‘preacher’s license’!
Thank you Roger – a timely reminder and corrective – food for much thought. I wonder why we have slipped into the habit of remembering this as “need” rather than “want”? Is there any possibility that both could be encompassed by the word “want” as this used to be a word used to refer to those in need of material resources (those in want). This is leading me to reflect on the link between physical and and spiritual need and yearning.
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Thanks Roger, for prompting me to read these rules again.
I don’t think we ought to be drawing a great distinction between ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ here, nor between evangelism and social care. Like Ruth, I suspect in Wesley’s day the word ‘want’ would include the material, and I also think that ‘soul’ has a more holistic meaning than we sometimes give it. The gospel is preached and embodied in word and deed, and we won’t be good evangelists unless our words are coupled to authentic compassion.
For me, the challenging part of this rule is the ‘spend and being spent’ in this work.
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Go to those who want you most.
Is this what Jesus meant when he said ‘If you are not made welcome, shake the dust from your feet as you leave’?
Trouble is, in my experience a lot of those who wanted us did not need us, and sometimes took up my time unnecessarily. I learnt to field them, not always successfully. There were always those who turned up on the Manse door step, or always wanted to speak to me “privately”. I do go along with rule number 11 though I do wonder if way back then when JW was on this earth, want and need had different connotations.
Not as a question of dispute, but of enquiry, what evidence is there of how JW used the term ‘want’ elsewhere in his writings? There appears to be a clear suggestion that the term only came to embrace ‘desire’ early in the 1700s. Equally, how did JW define (or indeed us) the term ‘need’? In a discussion with a leading Anglican evangelical in the north recently, I was forced to think again (but not eventually change my mind) when in effect he told me that the greatest of Maslow’s needs was unstated – the need to know Jesus. I think the priority for evangelism in that sense over mission in a broader context is a bit more elusive than the discussion so far has suggested. Thanks to Roger and others.
Woke up early this morning, my mind buzzing with thoughts about Roger’s contribution.
1. Let us be clear about JW’s intended audience. Was this a rule for all Methodists or a few? And for those at that time or for all time? The importance of this is implied worth and the importance of the whole Christian community. As a ‘reflective disciple’ Roger will be the first to acknowledge the different gifts we each have. Let us be clear too whether and in what sense the dictum has relevance for the Church today – and whether JW was here expressing a contemporary organisational.priority or a universal and timeless one.
2. Such considerations are more important for me when we recognise that there are other words in this dictum which carry great weight. ‘Go’ and ‘those’ for example.
2. Take ‘those’ first. Is evangelism to be directed only at the individual or is it, especially in the current age, a more societal or even political, activity? Is religion first, foremost and even only individual (and is our answer to that a product of capitalist and consumerist ideologies). Or could ‘those’ be seen as collective – Government, corporations, media, technologies? How would Muslims respond to such questions? What might Rachel and JPIT have to say?
3. Then, ‘go’. This is a very active word. Arguably, it is so active it is exclusive. Is that because it was aimed at the few rather than the many? Was this a moment in time for Methodism or is it guidance for today? (I recall a conversation I had with a Chair in my SRC days who challenged me over the interest I have in managerial approaches to Church life – ‘This is not The Apprentice’, he said.’ I replied that. ‘It is not a question of firing all but the last one or two: For me, it is about including the whole in the enterprise.) I want our members today to feel they can be active disciples whatever their gifts, talents and means.
4. Now we come to ‘want’ and ‘need’. I have already raised a question about whether the distinction we understand between those terms was shared by JW. But also the terms arguably differ in their sense of perception. ‘Want’ implies a desire for: but what motivates that desire? Is it need itself or is it a product of ‘salesmanship’? How does a response to need generate a want in others? And what ethics attend this – most Saturdays I read the FT ( it is for me very informative and engaging on several fronts) – but I am sickened by its regular magazine How to Spend It (although I am sure this raises enormous revenue for the paper and finances much of its journalism). Is our current day understanding of evangelism itself a product of consumerism?
5. Over the Christmas period the Spectatot carried a very interesting feature on the different approaches in the Anglican Church about evangelism and Church growth in the current age. We are seeing this being worked out on the Fylde coast this year in the form of a mission sponsored by several mainline churches to be led by Franklin Graham. Choices about evangelism, choices required by words like ‘go’, ‘those’, ‘want’ and ‘need’ are for me second order issues. To be inclusive of the whole Christian community I am more attracted to first order guidance – Micah, for example.
I feel better for writing all that down! And clearer!! And sleepier!!!
Just a thought on the language, as ‘want’ and ‘need’ were sometimes used virtually as alternatives when I was growing up in East Yorkshire. For example, if an item was dirty, you would say that it ‘wanted washing’. I still find myself using ‘want’ in that passive sense, and I’ve always read it as that was the meaning JW intended. I don’t know if it was general eighteenth century useage, or something regional – was the Humber such a great divide, even in those days? I feel there’s a pathos to the word ‘want’ here that ‘need’ somehow lacks, strengthening the pastoral imperative. Or am I being romantic???
Dear Roger, many thanks for submitting your blog post. This makes me realize how important it is for us to offer something that people actually want – and as you invited us to imagine last year, how amazing it would be if that ‘something’ could be identified by a ‘brand’, such as ‘holiness and justice’. That feels really good to me. With best wishes.