Exploring Evangelicalism: The Wesleyan Church
Ed Stetzer: What are some of the distinctives that make you different than other evangelical groups?
Jo Anne Lyon: The Wesleyan Church has an optimistic view of grace. We truly believe that God has the power to change lives. Because of that grace it is possible to experience victory over sin. As the Bible says, “He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 15:54-58).
This is why we often talk about being “made new” as Wesleyans. Those two words are shorthand for the way God gets a hold of a life and transforms it. A person can be truly and radically changed, as I’m sure you’ve seen, Ed, in your ministry. That grace is accessible to everyday people, all of us!
Personally, made new means getting rid of the old story I’d been told all those years about who I was and then living out the new story that Jesus had in mind for me from the time I was born.
Wesleyans are committed to being the people that actually live out the words that we sing and emerging from the hypocrisy so many accuse the church of these days. We want to “be made new in the attitude of your minds” and to… “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (See Ephesians 4:23-24). This grace has changed us, and continues to change us; we can’t help but give it away.
But it’s about much more than just my life and yours. It’s about churches and communities being changed as well. The Wesleyan Church is really a part of a broader renewal movement in the kingdom of God to call all churches and denominations to transformation.
As God transforms our churches he transforms our communities. We won’t ever be convinced that our communities are going to hell in a hand basket. We believe they can be made new too. We work hard to join what God is up to in our communities, and work for justice with integrity, which includes reforming unjust systems as only a righteous person can. Amos 5:24 captures that sentiment well. I can promise you that Wesleyans are still working to see justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream! I see this verse as a kind of two-part definition of holiness: personal righteousness and social holiness, and we need to pursue Christ in both ways in the kingdom of God. That’s why we Wesleyans care so much about restorative justice and personal integrity at the same time.
Several Wesleyans have shared with me what made new means to them right from their smart phones, so here is what they have to say:
ES: What do many evangelicals often misunderstand about your movement?
JAL: I don’t find too many who misunderstand us. Instead, most evangelicals (and beyond) that I speak to have a good deal of respect for our movement and, in fact, offer very positive feedback about our place in overall evangelicalism and the need for our emphasis.
I see this repeated affirmation of our work because our Wesleyan way is not something new and is not added to scripture. Instead we just want to ensure we don’t forget that God empowers us to fight sin, whether in us, in our communities, or in our countries. We are not to succumb to sin and cross our fingers hoping that when we die we will be shaped up for heaven. Instead, it is critical to remember, no matter what theological background you are coming from, that God calls us to be holy, and that holiness is not something we ourselves earn, but something God empowers by his Holy Spirit.
Second Timothy 1:9a made these truths so very clear in just one verse: “He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.” It’s possible that some misunderstand this point from John Wesley and our tradition—but scripture is equally clear that Christ empowers our victory over sin and likewise that we are not earning it on our own. That, in short, is what grace means, and is another way to clarify what it means to be made new.
ES: What do you wish Christians knew about your movement?
JAL: When it comes to the mission of God, we Christians are in this together! We are undergoing shifts in the world today that are a clarion call for unity in the church for the sake of the gospel in at least the following ways:
We are in the most radical season of urbanization in our history. In 1950, 30% of the world’s population was urban. It is now well over 50%, and by 2050, 66% of the world’s population is projected to be urban (see United Nations 2014 World Urbanization Prospects report). At the same time, the church has often moved in the opposite direction. I am calling on all Christians to respond with urban urgency to this change and see new churches planted worldwide in urban places, in particular, to seek those who are lost and join Christ in these places he is already at work!
Immigration has changed the dynamic of outreach in the United States and beyond. In The Wesleyan Church, we have officially advocated for immigration reform, in the US, since 2008. I have advocated on Capital Hill and directly to our Presidents. But even those who don’t have these convictions know that our neighbors must be loved and we should welcome the stranger among us. Yes immigration is an issue; but immigrants are people. I wish more Christians knew about The Immigration Alliance and joined us in offering low-cost immigrant legal services right in churches, a real-world solution to this significant problem in the US.
Beyond these matters I continue to feel compelled to mention that ending racism in all its sinful forms is a priority we can only achieve together—and that concern relates to the others above. The fruit of evangelism in a multiracial society ought to be a diverse church free of racism and fully interdependent across ethnic lines.
In all these things, let’s work together, for the glory of God, to support the grass-roots efforts of those working to end human trafficking, support the poor, and empower the oppressed.
ES: How does your history impact your practices?
JAL: Wesleyans have spoken truth to power since our inception—opposing slavery from the start of our movement and then supporting women’s right to vote. Because of this tradition we continue to work against racial and economic inequality, the trafficking of vulnerable people, and the killing of the unborn. We want to end extreme poverty and hunger, alleviate the marginalization of immigrants, and cease our exploitation of creation. We cannot “hide our light under a jar” as it says in Luke 8:16. Our transformation exists to be a blessing to the world. We don’t want to hide away in a holy huddle; but instead, as John Wesley said, “spread scriptural holiness over the land that reforms a nation” and likewise challenge the sins of our culture and of the church.
Another thing about our history is the fact that we have ordained women from the start. In fact, a Wesleyan preached the sermon at the first ordination for a woman in the United States and also performed the first ordination of a woman in Canada, as well.
A few Sundays ago I was preaching in a dynamic church in Fountain City, Indiana. This is one of the oldest churches in the Wesleyan Movement and was a key stop on the underground railroad, before the Civil War. While there, they took me to a room where they have preserved some of their heritage. I saw a pulpit that both Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth had preached from. I touched that pulpit with great respect and tears flowing down my face as I realized the sacrifice of both of these great pioneers of the faith. This old church has had to reinvent itself many times over and is one of the largest churches in the area, continuing to spread hope and holiness across that entire region, stemming from that noble history.
ES: Why should Christians want to be like you? In other words, make the case for your distinctives.
JAL: I think Christians should want to be like Jesus Christ, not like me or like Wesleyans. But I know what you mean by this. I suppose that’s the point, however. We want people to want to be like Jesus. More and more every day, he shapes us into his likeness. We are born with the image of God on us, and through his powerful grace he draws us unto himself so we are converted to his Way, and then God empowers us to be victorious over sin, making us more and more like Jesus Christ.
Perhaps, like Paul, we could say, “follow me as I follow Christ”… but that word “as” is important. In any way you see a Wesleyan living as Christ did, then follow that example. Let the passion for being like Jesus overwhelm you and make you into the greatest witness this world has seen since the Son of God walked through Israel. When the world sees examples like that they will be drawn to Christ. The best evangelism strategy in the world is the faithfulness of believers.
Cry out along with me one of my favorite old hymns by Charles Wesley … “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” and the stanza I love most:
“Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!”
All of us have had troubled hearts about our sin; but the Holy Spirit breathes into us and makes us new in Christ!
“Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;”
We are all born with a bent to sinning, what the reformers often called “original sin.” While you cannot save yourself nor work to earn your salvation, God has the power to fully redeem us, to take that away and bend you towards his will. By this he restores the Kingdom of God through you so that you do what he wants you to do, because you want to do it - not resisting. After this God will be the first and last of everything in your life, your Alpha and Omega in reality.
I pray for all to experience God in this way so we might be sent out into the world to be a faithful witness to all God can do on this earth, to relieve the human condition, and transform lives, churches, and communities through his hope and holiness!
Jo Anne and her staff will be available, today only, in the comments if you have any questions you’d like to ask.