How do you choose a church? Does the label matter? UMC, PCA, SBC? Is it style that does it for you? Or do you focus more on what they teach and believe?
In the world before denominations began to disintegrate (and they are, but that’s not the real point of this post), people largely chose their churches based on the label. I am United Methodist (or Presbyterian, or Primitive Baptist), so that’s the label I’m looking for. To a much greater degree, we could count on a church with a given label to look like all the other churches with that label. Sort of like McDonalds, which (at least in the U.S.) serves the same hamburger, no matter which state you buy it in.
That was then. This is now.
In this post-denominational culture, two churches with the same label can be radically different in style and theology. While we may grieve the decline of a more predictable world, this might actually be a good thing.
What if the trend in this post-denominational world actually frees us up to think theologically again?
Chances are, when all the shakin’ going on in the denominational world settles down, Christians will gather more intentionally around theology. Rather than trusting the brand to be exactly what we expect (like at McDonalds), we will engage each individual church culture discerningly, evaluating not just style but what is taught and lived. This could well lead to a revival among those who think, believe and live with a Wesleyan mindset.
Dr. Joe Dongell, one of my all-time favorite professors at Asbury Theological Seminary, has assembled what he calls twelve essential features of a Wesleyan mind. After making this list, Dongell concluded that he’d still missed what Wesley himself might call the defining mark of a Methodist: love of God and people (both neighbor and enemy).
Acknowledging that love is the prize, I offer his list here for those who want to better understand what it means to live with an emphasis on holiness of heart and life:
- Wesley was a man of one book. He called himself at one point a Bible bigot (someone focused upon and devoted to the Bible). For Wesley, the Bible was the touchstone of all truth. In contemporary circles, the Bible has been devalued to the point of being called “a valued resource.”
- Wesley did value reason, tradition and experience, but scripture has final authority.
- Wesley was Arminian, which means he was convinced we were created with a measure of free will.
- Wesley viewed the process of salvation optimistically. God can do amazing things, and can do them in you and me. God’s grace is so vibrant, so rich, that we can be changed in very real ways.
- Wesley viewed the human being as perfectible in certain ways.
- Wesley was convinced that all progress in the spiritual life comes through the means of grace. God has revealed pathways in which we walk, so we confidently embrace these paths. And possibly at the pinnacle of these means is the Lord’s Supper.
- Wesley believed all progress in the Christian life comes within the company of believers. We progress within the crucible of accountability and community.
- Wesley was convinced that every human being is desired by God to be saved, and God is constantly at work pursuing every human being. God is at work reconciling the world to himself.
- Wesley insisted that poor and marginalized people be cared for and that their suffering be relieved in both body and soul.
- Wesley was convinced that God desired to ensure our trust in our salvation. We can know we belong to him, not only through rational confirmation but also through the Spirit bearing witness to our spirit.
- Wesley knew that the transforming grace of God works at the deepest level of my being — beneath intellect and choice to the place of our affections (the deepest set of inclinations we have). God has the power to affect us and reorient us at a deeper level than our will, at the level of our core. Can I come to love holiness and be sickened by unholiness? Can I discover a delight in the deeper things of God?
- Wesley believed we must always embrace a catholic spirit. “If your heart is with me, give me your hand.” We must find ways to cooperate meaningfully even with those with whom we disagree.
Of course, I’m unashamedly biased about all these things. I happen to think highly of this way of looking at God and the world. When it was preached in its purest form, this worldview spread like wildfire across the early American landscape. Sitting recently between two twenty-somethings at a conference focused on Wesleyan theology, I was so greatly encouraged to see that this way is still just as engaging today.
If you’re looking for a place to worship and call home, I can’t do better than to offer the above thoughts as a litmus test as you discern.
Because these days, the label doesn’t count like it used to.