by Philip Brooks Path 1 NCS Assistant
The first characteristic we strive for in a new church start is a church that is “theologically Wesleyan”. I get asked what that means a lot and have to say honestly that it’s a tricky subject. When I was in seminary one of my classes would meet once a week just to try to figure out what it meant to be Wesleyan. Our professor would remind us though that being Wesleyan doesn’t mean you agree with everything Wesley ever said, in fact sometimes being a good Wesleyan means being critical. Rather Wesleyans are those who seek after the same goals for the church as Wesley.
As I’ve gotten to see the work our new churches are doing to bring more of the unchurched in, transform the communities around them, and preach and practice earnest Christian truths and love, I think I’m beginning to understand what he meant. To call ourselves Wesleyans we have to seek what Wesley sought, even if we get there a little differently. Wesley’s own beliefs and practices changed throughout his life, but he never took his eyes off the prize and his beliefs on what the church “should” do remained consistent.
So what should the church do? Well, first of all the church needs to be a place that offers grace. You’d have trouble finding a sermon of Wesley’s that doesn’t talk about grace. Wesley believed that all persons were in need of grace. While grace can take different forms depending on the situation and as the individual becomes a better disciple, our need for grace, like our need for food or air, never leaves us. Grace takes many forms (preaching, sacrament, teaching, prayer, charity, and mercy) and everyone at some point or another will need all of these things.
Another occupation the church must take on is spreading holiness across their community. Even if a church offers all the grace it can to anyone who walks through its door, it still has a commitment to look for other places in need of grace and go there. When grace gets outside the internal church community, we call it holiness. Wesley defined it as “scriptural holiness” because it involved Christians taking the instructions Jesus gave at the Sermon on the Mount and applying them to real issues and problems facing the world. Holiness means living according to the Golden Rule, loving your enemies, going the extra mile, and doing for the least of these as you would for Christ.
As I talk with planters, read about new churches, and meet with the Path 1 Staff, I realize, “There are a lot of people out there who get it.” In Denver, After Hours UMC makes PB&J sandwiches for the homeless every Sunday as part of their weekly service. In Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, Mosaic UMC hosts story time for the children who come to the local farmer’s market during the summer. In Harrisburg, Virginia, Rise UMC started their own variation of covenant classes known as embrace groups. Many new churches have gone back to weekly communion. Others are doing love feasts, like the first Methodists did over two centuries ago. Grace abounds in these churches!
In some areas when these churches were started they were one of the only places that offered grace to some folks in the community. The best part is that in most instances this hasn’t remained the case for long. Community transformation has become a guiding mission for these new churches. They’re spreading holiness all around them whether in the form of after school care and tutoring for children, food and support for impoverished families, or volunteer care for older adults. They also partner with other churches and organizations in the area, making their grace go further. They're doing Brother John one proud by keeping their eyes on the prize. I love to see churches where prevenient grace is simply taught, but lived out. I have a feeling the best is still to come.
How do you think churches can serve as a means of grace to their members and the community? What does spreading holiness look like where you live?