What is a Wesleyan?
As a church planter in a progressive college town, I have heard that inevitable question more times than I can count. And I can’t help but smile when I get the opportunity to answer.
As a movement we are defined by our shared core beliefs, but also by our story of how we have lived them out in real time and place. Our theology is expressed through our biography. You can rarely share one without speaking of the other.
We see this truth playing out yet again through the Wesleyan Distinctive we are calling “different expressions of the church.” We define this as the culture of freedom to express and embody the gospel with kingdom imagination. In that definition we recognize the important pairing of key words like “freedom and gospel” or “kingdom and imagination.”
We celebrate and create space for freedom as we experiment with new methods and models of the church. Yet the message of the gospel remains unchanged and at the center. We let the imagination pioneer on the edges of new frontiers, but every new idea is held in alignment with the culture and values of the kingdom of Jesus. If it is out of step with the kingdom, then the idea may be creative, but it’s not an authentic expression of the church.
The Wesleyan Church (TWC) of today is Unleashed through diverse expressions like micro church networks in homes, restaurants, college dorms and even prisons; coffee shops started by churches and churches starting in coffee shops; local and global incarnations of mission driven justice and mercy; rural and urban, campus and plant, liturgical, contemplative, activist and enthusiastic forms of worship. All expressions that find a home in our interconnected ecosystem of ecclesia.
Yet, our history reminds us that every new idea is an echo of what came before. The Wesleyan revival that swept through 18th century England was marked by this distinctive of different expression.
Provoked by his friend and Great Awakening preacher George Whitefield, John Wesley took up the scandalous practice known as field preaching. Writing in his journal that he “submitted to ‘be more vile,’ and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation,” he carried the message of the gospel beyond the well-defined walls of mortar and stone. And true to form, he noted that this controversial innovation found a fairly decent precedent in Jesus’ own Sermon on the Mount. He weathered the backlash and our movement has been seeking out new fields ever since.
From the abolitionist convictions of the Wesleyan Methodists to the storefront missions of the Pilgrim Holiness, to the modern-day songwriters picking up the legacy of Brother Charles, the gospel continually finds different expression among the people called Wesleyans.
Warnings and opportunities
As we live into this inheritance and pioneer the next frontiers of mission, there are several practical guideposts for us to keep in mind.
- Re-imagine measures — As we empower new methods, we must find new measures to match. Numbers don’t lie. They just fail to tell the whole story. Get beneath the surface of the traditional stats and measures and tell the stories behind the numbers. A micro church must be measured by more than the weekly offering. An urban mission must be measured by more than attendance. A plant in a post-Christian global city must be measured by more than a launch event. Track measures that match the method.
- Release control — Different expressions are full of risk. This can raise concern for key leaders in a denomination or district who are tasked with stewarding funds and direction. Besides the risk of failure, different expressions can also feel like a critique or even rejection of the models or systems these leaders have invested in for decades. But Wesleyan leaders must find the courage to empower the next expressions of the church and teach them to go and do the same. Pioneering leaders don’t want your job. They want your guidance and blessing (even your accountability) as they follow their calling within the bond of the family relationship.
- Resist pride — If the Holy Spirit has given you a vision and burden for a different expression, be grateful but stay humble. Even if you experience resistance from positional leaders, resist pride. Give them time to understand. Didn’t it take you time to understand, even though the Holy Spirit himself was pushing you? Give that grace to others as well. Don’t break relationships when others ask questions or critique your ideas. Humbly take that opportunity to learn from their experience and hone your vision and communication in the process. Not every question is persecution and even the coolest ideas are a variation of something that preceded you. Remember … after 2,000 years of the church of Jesus transforming the world, you didn’t finally discover the right way to do it. I promise.
- Learn new stories — Expand your vision for what is possible by collecting stories of what is happening around our movement and beyond. Search our Wesleyan social media community groups, ask fellow local churches or even reach out to TWC’s communications department for examples to follow.
- Tell the old story — While we empower a culture of freedom in how we express our mission, the gospel of Jesus is always at the heart. Keep coming back to Jesus. His is the most compelling story in the history of the world and remains evergreen.
- Discern through prayer — Acts 2 records the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Unleashing the wildly creative movement of Jesus into the world. But before Acts 2 comes (spoiler alert) Acts 1, where the disciples are commanded to wait and pray. Before we rush ahead into our next idea, we should spend time discerning the Spirit’s direction through prayer. Listen to the Spirit, to the needs of your community and discern through prayer before you act. Then go in the power of the Holy Spirit as yet another extension of his fresh work through this family called The Wesleyan Church. We believe in you and we bless you as you carve out the way ahead.
Rev. Matt LeRoy is a pastor, church planter and General Board member of The Wesleyan Church.