A Picture of the Movement
I’d like you to imagine a vast river that flows through the desert bringing life wherever it goes. This is the Holy River of God. It begins in the heart of God and flows into all of creation bringing transformation, life, and wholeness where it goes. Like any river, it too has many streams that flow into it, fueling it. Each of these streams is different – some flow through rocky terrain, others in meadows, some under trees, others in the glare of the sun. Each is unique, but none is better than another.
These tributaries represent the many streams of the church – the river of God in the world. One might be the new reformation movement. Another might be the renewal movement in the mainline churches. Still another might be the Gospel Coalition. And one may be called the Wesleyan Holiness stream. All flow into the river of God.
The Wesleyan Holiness stream represents a fast-growing segment of the church worldwide. In it we find the churches with a clearly Wesleyan theological foundation that have been shaped by the Wesleyan theological framework and the subsequent holiness movement in the 19th century. Flowing from this heritage, the people and churches of this stream embrace the gracious Christianity that understands the tensions of living as God’s creation in need of restoration. It brings the healing effects of God’s holiness through grace for our inadequacies.
The Mission and Context
The Wesleyan Holiness Connection (WHC) serves the church and world as a nurturing catalyst centered on the unifying message of holiness. It empowers pastors and leaders to embody more authentically their denominational heritage and boldly lead in relevant engagement in the 21st century. The WHC is a relational network of churches and people that aims more fully to embrace this missional call to cultural engagement for God’s work in the world.
It’s not uncommon for our contemporary generation to be quite confused about holiness. Some are even quick to say that “holy” is nothing more than a precursor to a swear word. Unfortunately, the institutional church hasn’t been effective in guiding culture to a full and well-formed understanding of this pervasive Scriptural theme.
Many theological themes in Scripture refer to some action that God is doing to us or for us in response to our condition or action. In motivating love, God reaches toward us to redeem us, to forgive us, to comfort us, to discipline us, to justify us. These are only some of the theological doctrines studied and analyzed in Scripture as acts of God in our behalf. However, holiness stands in a category by itself. This is not an action of God toward us but is a description of the very nature of God. The source of holiness is not our ability or will, but the very character of God, which when reflected in the heart of a surrendered person transforms them to be holy as God is holy.
Clearly, this is not a perfected state of behavior. Holiness is a reflection of God’s holy nature that increasingly becomes evident in the life and action of a person who surrenders to a greater measure of God’s influence in them. Holiness, then, is not a description of behavior or rules. It is the dynamic condition of a life that reflects God who is holy. The source of holiness is God’s nature, not the human aspiration, will, or personal accomplishment.
Sadly, many churches in the holiness movement were founded out of the passionate hearts of leaders who were consumed by this surrendered transformation. They quickly became enmeshed in legalism that imposed behavioral expectations as a measure of true holiness. As this legalistic mindset became codified, denominations were defined by institutional expectations that fragmented the holiness movement and significantly sidelined its effect in the late 20th century.
The Founding of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection
In the wake of this 20th century milieu, the Wesleyan Holiness Connection was founded as a means to rearticulate the message of holiness in a relevant way for the 21st century. In this effort, the various currents of the movement are able to find increased unity in mission and deeper understanding of their Wesleyan Holiness spiritual heritage.
The year 2016 marks the tenth anniversary of the WHC, which was formally created at a meeting with denominational heads convened in Dallas. There has never been a grand plan or strategy. In Wesleyan fashion, the rapid growth and influence of the WHC came from the intentional response to the nudges of the Holy Spirit in my own heart and those that began to join the effort.
Although the earliest starting point is traced to a breakfast meeting with Don Dayton, David Bundy, and me, it is clear that God has been working to form an inner passion and frameworks to shape the WHC from earlier days. After that conversation, my resolve was not to create an academic event, but to mobilize church leaders in rediscovering the fullness of our own heritage as a unifying basis for our future mission. I began to organize a three-year project with the support, funding, and delegated persons from multiple denominational leaders. This became known as the Wesleyan Holiness Study Project.
The forty participants in the WHSP presented dozens of papers over the period of its work. The multi-year process produced a few key documents as well as a deep sense of unity, collaboration, and trust among the participating denominations. These documents included: “The Holiness Manifesto,” “Fresh Eyes on Holiness,” as well as brief statements to guide the thinking of the group. The two principal documents have become reference points for pastors and church leaders in significantly shaping the new holiness movement in unity. These resources and many others can be found on the WHC website.
Subsequently, many of the papers appeared in a book, The Holiness Manifesto (ed. Don Thorsen and Kevin W. Mannoia [Eerdmans, 2008]). During the years of the study project, we recognized the significant schisms that had occurred in the early 20th century at the Azusa Street Revival. Pentecostals separated from revivalists, blacks from whites – and the fracturing of the holiness movement drained the holistic power and mission that had so influenced the wider culture in matters such as discrimination, personal piety, economic reform, suffrage, slavery, and freedom of the Spirit in worship. Recognizing the holiness heritage of all of these groups, we began to reweave the fractured stream into greater unity.
As a means to model Wesleyan practice, I convened regional leaders of the denominations in Southern California during the last year of the Study Project. The purpose was to give feet to the reflection of the study. A large group of interdenominational pastors gathered at the first of what has now become known as Holiness Leaders’ Days. For the first time, these leaders began to talk together around the principal documents of the study group. The new model for expansion was born.
From the earliest day of the study group, America’s Christian Credit Union became involved in a growing relationship of support, and has become an integral part of the success of the WHC. This mutual relationship provides vital support to the WHC through financial help and personnel support, and the WHC has provided much-needed ecclesial anchoring for this growing financial institution committed to serving people and churches in the Wesleyan tradition.
On meeting with denominational heads in Dallas to create the WHC, we committed to multiply regional networks like the one started in Southern California. Their purpose was and remains to emphasize new and fresh thinking on Wesleyan Holiness themes, and to encourage leaders to embrace a new sense of identity.
The Current Reach of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection
Based on the formative principle of following the nudge of the Holy Spirit in stepping through doors that were opened to us, the WHC began to expand in influence and reach. Principally this expansion occurred through multiplying various gatherings and emphases.
These are gatherings of regional ecclesiastical leaders within close geographic proximity. Quarterly meetings nurture collaborative thinking, prayer support, and small group exploration of the unique perspectives on holiness from each. The leaders also work together in planning annual Holiness Leaders’ Days to create unity centered on the message of holiness. These Leaders’ Days have become a key source of learning and a visible point of reference for the WHC movement. Usually a day is spent with a key resource person and interactive dialogue to allow for relationships to be framed by our common theological heritage and the future mission of holiness in the new century.
These Regional Networks have also begun in other countries, including Brazil (where seven networks exist), Kenya, Philippines, and England. Currently in the US, nine regional networks operate in Seattle, Oregon, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Ohio, Philadelphia, Florida, Indiana, and Kansas City.
These are networks of leaders with a common purpose, though not in geographic proximity.
- Presidents’ Network: The first affinity group was formed when I proposed to the denominational heads that our academic institutions were a vital part of shaping our mission going forward. I subsequently invited the presidents of colleges and universities to meet with me and the WHC Presidents’ Network was formed. Sixty-two universities and colleges self-identify within the Wesleyan Holiness stream of the church. Some are denominational schools and others are independent. Each year the WHC Presidents’ Network meets in Washington, D.C., where we discuss the impact of our Wesleyan Holiness heritage and mission on building an institution of higher learning. These presidents have grown together and find relevant help in leading their schools in exploring institutional identity.
- Chief Academic Officers Network: Similarly, the provosts and academic vice presidents felt the need to consider the complex nature of integrating the theological and spiritual identity of their schools into the curriculum and faculty development efforts of their schools.
- Freedom Network: Inasmuch as issues of oppression and slavery were fundamentally part of the founding of many holiness denominations, this subject was an essential part of shaping the message in the future. This network is the collaborative meeting of the key agents or activists in the various WHC denominations with specific focus on human trafficking. The purpose is to become aware of the full range of activity and to anchor this activity in a natural outflow of spiritual vibrancy. Our activism flows out of our core identity. By identifying with the WHC, this important work is validated as a concern that should be included in the mainstream thinking of all churches.
- Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy: Although this affinity group predates the WHC and has its own guiding structure, the leaders of this significant network desired to align with the WHC given the singular mission of both that centered on holiness. By so doing, the WH Women Clergy were able to become freer in the expression of their commitment to focus on holiness as women clergy. Their biennial conferences provide a high profile declaration of the significance the Wesleyan Holiness churches place on women in leadership at all levels.
In 2011, while speaking to the WHC Steering Committee, I conveyed my burden that any such movement must have fuel to keep it going. In my thinking, this meant new and fresh books. In close dialogue with George Barna, I began to explore the possibility of publishing. Barna helped greatly in framing the nature of such a publishing entity. The two of us each published a book through a collaborative effort as a means to test our plan. Maximum Faith: Live Like Jesus (Barna ) and Masterful Living (Mannoia ) cemented the idea of a publishing entity. Their success accelerated the formation of Aldersgate Press as a non-traditional, author-friendly source of fresh voices and new authors in the Wesleyan Holiness stream.
As part of the unique contribution of the WHC to those within this stream of the church and to the broader Christian church, the WHC has made it a practice to produce brief, succinct documents that provide insight, reflection, and collaborative thought concerning important issues confronting culture. These have become useful tools for denominational leaders, university leaders, and pastors to help them shape their engagement contextually. These documents include:
- “The Holiness Manifesto”: a declaration of unity centered on the compelling message of scriptural holiness
- “Fresh Eyes on Holiness”: a document helping leaders to anticipate the issues involved in living out “The Holiness Manifesto”
- “A Declaration for Freedom”: addressing the issue of human trafficking through the lens of the Wesleyan Holiness movement
- “Gracefully Engaging the LGBT Conversation”: a framework to guide the engagement of pastors and leaders with the conversation and situations they may confront
- “A Theology of Women”: now in process, a foundational document for guiding leaders in understanding the commitment of the Wesleyan Holiness stream to full empowerment of women and men
Although I attempted to forestall the creation of a formal organization for as long as possible, the WHC was incorporated in 2011, thereby solidifying an entity that may continue beyond one generation. The membership of the WHC are the members of the Steering Committee. This group is comprised of delegates assigned by the denominational heads who choose to lend their denominational support to the work of the WHC. In addition, the coordinators of each regional network and affinity group, as well as those who serve on the board of the WH Women Clergy, are members of the Steering Committee. From among these approximately 30 persons, a six-member board is elected to conduct the work of the WHC between annual Steering Committee meetings.
Our Commitment Forward
There hasn’t been a master plan. As I reflect on the short history and high impact of the WHC, it has sometimes been tempting to plan ahead. The commitment to remaining in a responsive posture to the Holy Spirit has been one of the most effective ways to give complete glory to God for raising a new vision for holiness in the 21st century. We’ll lean forward in our full surrender to God’s nature being reflected in and through us. We’ll move at the impulse of God’s Spirit in keeping the holiness voice clearly present in shaping the mission of God in the world.
Our greatest passion is for the Wesleyan Holiness stream of the church to flow with fast-moving, fresh water, running deep and pouring into the life-giving river of God. To that end we remain open and ready.