One way to envision God’s work in the world through the Christian faith is to picture a river. Or better yet, picture a river system: the entire interconnected watershed that feeds into and out of the major waterway at the center of it all. The Judeo-Christian river system is, like North America’s largest, vast. (The Mississippi River watershed stretches from New York to Montana. No, really.) It incorporates huge watercourses like the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation, and other historic (but less familiar to Westerners) river basins like Eastern Orthodoxy and the Coptic Church of North Africa.
Go far enough up- or downriver, and our stream of Christianity, the Wesleyan Holiness movement, connects to each of these traditions. Throughout this collection of online courses, we return to a river/stream/current metaphor to help us orient ourselves and our expressions of the faith with respect to God’s broader, longer, past and future work.
The Wesleyan Holiness Stream
As the name implies, the two major springs that feed the Wesleyan Holiness stream are the 18th-century Methodism of John Wesley and the Holiness movements that emerged a hundred or so years later during the Second and Third Great Awakenings. (Don’t worry, we’ll unpack these personalities and events more thoroughly in later courses.) Our branch of the river includes denominations such as the Assemblies of God, the Church of the Nazarene, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Free Methodist and United Methodist Churches, The Salvation Army, Foursquare, the Brethren in Christ, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, and many others. While these various “currents” may not, at first glance, appear to share much in common, we all spring from the same historical headwaters.
What Makes Us Unique
Our shared history gives us some shared theological distinctives, as well. Chief among these is a formative conviction that God calls people to Christlikeness through the work of the Holy Spirit, who draws individuals and communities ever deeper into God’s love and life. Understood in this way, holiness is not flawlessness but the fulfillment of the Creator’s intentions for human beings from the beginning.
This shared theological emphasis works itself out in at least three significant cultural ways—that is, in what we do and how we do it.
We are more relational than propositional.
Take evangelism, for example. When it comes to proclaiming the Good News of God’s kingdom, we take our cues from Jesus’ ministry: We begin with people, not with beliefs. This isn’t to say that beliefs are irrelevant or unimportant! But Truth is a Person (see John 14:6), and so our orientation is toward meeting needs and restoring lives, not toward promoting a statement of faith.
We are more centered-set than bounded-set.
This has profound implications for ecclesiology. When it comes to life together (how we do church), communities can either emphasize their boundaries—who and what is in or out—or their center. We tend to focus on moving together toward our center (deeper life with God), rather than on defending our boundaries.
We are more descriptive than prescriptive.
God has been initiating encounters with human beings since time began—and shows no sign of giving up the habit! We are more interested in watching for and experiencing moves of God than in defining beforehand how these are allowed to happen. We tend toward trusting openness, in expectation that Christ’s Spirit will reveal what God is up to and empower us to participate.
A Method for Following Christ
The Wesleyan Holiness stream is characterized by powerful manifestations of God’s Spirit to bring healing and restoration to individuals, families, and communities. Personal transformation and social engagement go hand in hand, because Christlikeness is expressed both inwardly and outwardly. Each tradition or “current” may have its own set of priorities, but together we seek the essential and practical unity of the Church.
As you spend time getting to know your own tradition’s history, theology, and culture at a more granular level, zoom out every once in a while to get oriented. Look around at the broad stream of the Wesleyan Holiness movement and then even further to the vast, branching watershed we’re connected to by God’s Spirit. Take time to give thanks for all God is doing to redeem, restore, and reconcile all of creation!