Next year is the quadrennial General Conference of The Wesleyan Church. I'm not sure what all the resolutions will be that the various districts will send. This summer will be when they will pass on them. A General Conference committee will then decide which ones to recommend to the General Conference, although all will be mentioned and an opportunity for anyone to resurrection a non-recommended resolution will be given.
One issue that I'm sure will inspire resolutions from multiple districts (I'm predicting from California and Michigan at least) is church membership. The pressures of our day have already led us to modify our approach to church membership some. When Christian groups were fairly isolated from each other and had a strong sense of group identity, it was natural that they would all have very particular requirements for church membership. In a church of 40 where visitors are unusual, becoming a member of the church can involve requirements that are highly specific to that group.
But there are a lot of larger Wesleyan churches now. I think I heard someone say recently that about half of our denomination attends smaller churches and the other half attend churches of over 200 or 300. [correct data welcomed!] In churches like these there is a natural flow of people from broader Christianity. These individuals are often "Christian book store-ish" in doctrine, vaguely Baptist, and they usually come from traditions where you're a member if you attend.
Here comes the conflict. "Entire sanctification, what?" "I don't get drunk but I do have an occasional glass of wine." "What do you mean I can't vote on the pastor--I've been here every Sunday for the last year."
But the conflict is also cultural. The spirit of the times is moving strongly against centralized denominations. It's the age of the non-denominational church. On the one hand, we should fight against the incorrect Barna notion that you don't need a visible church to be where you should be with God. This is the trend to see the woods as as good a church as somewhere you can meet with other Christians. The early Christians wouldn't have comprehended this. After all, when Paul sent people away from the visible church, he was delivering them over to Satan. No longer does the ear despise the eye--the ear has left the body to do its own thing. This is a diseased understanding of the church we should resist.
On the other hand, current Christian culture correctly recognizes that there is only "one body." Almost no one would say that the Baptists aren't going to heaven or that you have to believe and act exactly like the Wesleyans to be saved. We've already come to believe that we are only a very small part of the body of Christ.
But if we acknowledge that we are only a very small part of the church universal, then how can we deny membership to other Christians? It is for this reason that the Wesleyan Church now has two levels of membership--community membership (those who attend) and covenant membership (those who embrace the particulars of the Wesleyan Church, can vote on the pastor and hold positions of leadership). The standards of community membership are much more "common Christianity" than the covenant standards.
But this set up still seems somewhat awkward, so various Wesleyan leaders continue to strive for some sort of system that
1. recognizes all those who are truly Christians as members, even if they don't believe or practice some of the particulars of the Wesleyan tradition
2. maintains a full committment to specific Wesleyan beliefs and practices, which are also entirely legitimate.
The diversity of the body of Christ in itself enriches the body. And if we allowed all the churches to melt together to some vague and blurry commonality, the result would be a gray, tasteless muck. And there are many aspects of the Wesleyan Church's beliefs that I will gladly argue are far more accurate to the Bible than certain Lutheran or Baptist ideas.
The question is whether both of these principles can be maintained at the same time. If we have to choose, I think it is more important to retain the most important parts of number 2 over number 1. There are other parts of the body of Christ preserving number 1. What will happen to the places where we are right if we abandon the fort to some broader doctrinal melting pot?
One proposal I've heard has one category of membership, but requires anyone who would participate in church leadership to commit to the more particular specifics of the Wesleyan tradition. The new element is the idea that such leaders would have to reaffirm their commitment to it every year. In a way, that's a higher standard than any members have to hold to now! This becomes not another level of membership, but a way to maintain our unique identity in the body of Christ.
This proposal might work, especially if we strengthen just a tad the power of the district to give final word on local church votes. They currently have that power anyway, I believe. But a restatement of it might be the missing element in this proposal. That way if a congregation became beligerent to the Wesleyan tradition, there would be clear lines of authority to prevent a coup.
What do you think?