The Gathering was a meeting of the pastors and denominational leaders of the Wesleyan Church. I asked myself who I was looking at among this group of worshiping believers. I was not looking at the believers in the pew. I was looking at those who stand behind the pulpit, along with their families. I was not looking at Wesleyan educators, although understandably top college administrators and marketers were here on the job. Also since many ministry faculty are ministers, some of us were here as well. And of course those who lead the denomination at HQ were here.
So what did I go out to see? These pastors are really the operational core of the Wesleyan Church. Those who were up front, those from HQ, those like me who are educators, we are not the dynamo of the church. Certainly the people in the churches are most the church, but they do not frame the direction of the church, at least not at this time. The denominational leaders, educators, and people on the platform can try to influence the pastors, but ultimately, they as a whole, if they share a common vision, are the real influencers. They signify the church's direction, its future.
So what are my impressions of the direction of the church, after these days here?
First, the pastors of the Wesleyan Church are good people. I have countless friends here: childhood friends, college friends, seminary friends, former student friends, colleague friends. I like the people of the Wesleyan Church. The crowd here (including the Spanish service I went to yesterday) love to sing songs of praise to God. I thought the worship leader for the conference was excellent.
The primary emphasis of their ministries (my impression) is to get people to pray the sinner's prayer. Here I think you can distinguish the bulk of these pastors from the large church pastors and young pastors. The emphasis of the growing churches and the young pastors, I think, is to love people on their way to a true and lasting relationship with Christ and one another.
There does remain a strong stream (I think) that does not like having a woman leader, simply because she is a woman. If you ask, "But wouldn't you agree that Joanne Lyon is a more gifted leader than anyone else at HQ?" Usually they will agree. "Don't you think she has as much vision for the church as anyone." Usually they'll agree. I have not been able to find any real reason for this attitude other than an unhealthy bias.
I have a hunch personally that the bulk of Wesleyan pastors are quite "culturally captive," and this is a concern for me. I am speaking of American conservative culture that takes its cues from the moguls of American fundamentalist Christianity. It is a culture that has a difficult time distinguishing Republican politics from Christian values. It is neither historically Christian and certainly not historically Wesleyan.
The second emphasis of the ministries of these pastors (my impression) is to get people to stop sinning. Again, here I want to distinguish the bulk of Wesleyan pastors from the large church and young pastors. The successful pastor will preach more "for" things than "against" things. They preach changed lives for the better rather than against those out there somewhere (the people they preach against aren't usually sitting in front of them) who are doing the wrong thing. The pastors who are attracting large congregations and the younger pastors want to see people's lives healed. They want to see marital problems solved, etc (versus preaching against how much divorce is going on out there).
There is some good thinking going on in the Wesleyan Church. I heard that Wayne Schmidt's presentation was excellent, although I was still on a plane at the time. Also, more than one person told me that Brenda Salter-McNeil, the African-American women who spoke Wednesday morning, was the best speaker of the entire conference (again, I was uploading material for an online course ;-)
What is most encouraging to me about our denomination is our involvement and empowerment of Hispanic ministry and Dr. Lyon's engagement with bringing "good news to the poor" in our broader society and world. This bristles some because of the cultural captivity I mentioned, but these may actually be some of the only distinctive contributions our fellowship is making to the kingdom of God at this time at all.
This is a hard word and perhaps I am wrong. As I looked out at the collection of people I love, I found little reason for us to exist as a denomination. There are some people with vision, but I don't think the "operational core" of our church has any clear vision or identity. Indeed, those streams within the church that might most point toward such vision are the very things that cause so many Wesleyan pastors to bristle.
So does the Wesleyan Church have any reason to exist?