You can't really boil a church like mine, the Wesleyan Church, into a simple list of characteristics. There's far too much variety. So when I put down three characteristics I hope will be true of the Wesleyan Church of the future, I am neither giving you anything like a full picture of what we currently are or of what we will certainly be. I am pointing out some elements that are in the mix of our background that I think are key strengths and that, if I could create a self-fulfilling prophecy, is what we will look like in the days to come.
The three things I love about the Wesleyan Church:
1. We are pietist, not fundamentalist.
We are not really a church that feels like it has to resolve all the tensions in our faith or nail down all the details of the "right" way to do things. We follow the Spirit in the Bible far more than the letter in our interpretations. We don't argue over baptism, communion, or inerrancy, and we take as our watchword and song the words of John Wesley, "If your heart is as my heart, then put your hand in mine." Bottom line: Faith first, truth second. Don't get the wrong impression--we do believe in truth and we are interested in it. But it's more important to us that you have your heart straightened out than your head.
There's room for mystery in the Wesleyan world because, let's face it, God's really bigger than anything our feeble minds could capture or fully nail down.
Quote to hang it on: "If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand."
2. We are catholic in spirit, even though we start every discussion with the Bible
We didn't come into the world through a pure Protestant lineage. At the beginning, most Anglicans did not consider themselves part of the Protestant movement, and the Methodists from whom we emerged, emerged themselves from the Anglicans. And who wants to be defined by being a "protester" anyway? The protest is over already.
It's true that we are not Roman Catholic. We don't feel bound to later developments in the Roman church like the celebacy of clergy, purgatory, the infallibility of the pope, or abstinence from birth control. But we don't hate or fear Roman Catholics either. Every tradition has its blind spots, and the Roman Catholic tradition is no exception. But if we take into account the sheer numbers of Roman Catholics, surely there are way more "born again" Roman Catholics with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ than there are people who attend a Wesleyan Church somewhere.
I would like us to say we're more truly catholic than the Roman Catholics! We're radical catholics! For example, on baptism, most Wesleyan Churches baptize like the Baptists. But we're catholic, "universal" enough to allow for every other way of baptizing except one that would say you are automatically saved with baptism or automatically not saved if you're not baptized.
And we say, "The body of Christ" in communion and let you decide whether you believe it's just a remembrance or actually becoming the literal body of Jesus in some mysterious way. The only views we don't allow are those that would say you are automatically saved by taking communion or automatically not saved if you don't take it.
I suppose you might call such a catholic spirit a "generous orthodoxy" that emphasizes the core of the apostle's creed and is very flexible on most of the things that divide the body of Christ into denominations.
We also affirm a lot of things that aren't clear in the original meaning of the Bible. For example, the existence of a New Testament as a collection of authoritative texts came hundreds of years after the books were actually written--and we accept the New Testament. We believe in the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ even though these positions weren't fully hammered out and agreed on until the fourth and fifth centuries. We believe you are conscious between death and resurrection and that Christ's death was the end of all animal sacrifice--we believe these things even though these views are only expressed in a small part of the New Testament. They were solidified in the church that followed. And we affirm most those parts of the Bible that looked to the day when there would be neither male nor female. And that's where the church is headed too, even though some parts are stubbornly resisting :) But I know where God is taking it...
After we have noticed these things, all such discussions begin for Wesleyans with the Bible. They do not end there because the message of the books must be joined together (something we have to do from the outside looking in) and the gap must be bridged between that time and our time (something we have to do from the outside looking in). Wesley's hermeneutic was a kind of "quadrilateral" that took into account tradition, reason, and experience after starting from the Bible. But we are a people of the Book and we cherish it as a sacrament of revelation, the place God has deigned to speak, God's Word.
Quote to hang it on (the Pilgrim Holiness motto): "In essentials unity, in non-essentials charity."
3. We are Wesley-an.
Wesleyans do not worship John Wesley by any means, and we don't we limit ourselves to the boundaries of his way of thinking. But at the same time, we recognize that God said a lot of true things through this man. There are things Wesley understood that the church could sure benefit from. Here's a couple important ones:
1. prevenient grace: God's interested in you before you even know He's there. He's working on your behalf even when you couldn't care less.
2. victory over temptation: Wesley rightly understood the biblical texts to affirm victory over sin and temptation. Like the New Testament, we recognize that it is possible to "fall away," "become a cast away," etc. The New Testament affirms the importance of faithfulness to God and His holiness.
3. God wants everyone to be saved and gives everyone a chance. By God's power, everyone could in theory come to Christ. Not all will, but in some way God gives everyone a chance.
4. Holistic mission. God calls the church to work for the salvation of the world on every level. This commision includes not only the spiritual salvation of all but ministry to the poor and disempowered of the world.
Quote to hang it on: "To spread scriptural holiness throughout the land."
So this is the Wesleyan Church I belong to:
1. Pietist, not fundamentalist
2. Catholic in spirit, starting with the Bible