One fun dimension of being in the denominational seminary is to get a better sense of some trends going on in my denomination at large. One such trend I think I am observing is that we seem to be drawing a lot of pastors from other denominations of various sorts. I don't mean here so much kindred theological denominations like Free Methodists and Nazarenes, but denominations who are close in other ways.
This is fascinating and, on one level, very exciting. It says there is something about us that other believers are finding attractive. So we have individuals from charismatic denominations joining us. We have individuals with a similar church growth approach joining us. In short, we have people joining us because of what they perceive to be our practices, our modes of operation, rather than our theological tradition.
This brings some interesting thoughts. For one, the net effect over time will almost certainly be to steer us as a tradition in certain ways that may or may not be anticipated. For example, I believe we are becoming more and more charis friendly as a church, which I welcome. At the same time, it probably means we are probably going to drift away from some of the strengths of our own tradition.
We are forming an identity we haven't had since 1) we formed our identity around legalism and then later 2) we formed our identity around Maxwell's church growth stuff. In comparison to some of these earlier identities, it is pretty healthy. But it is not necessarily a Wesleyan identity. It is an identity strongly impacted by the restorationism in the water (e.g., Alan Hirsch, etc).
Here are some of the warning lights I'm having go off:
1. narrow conversionism
Using Acts as a model, the focus is on getting people to make decisions for Christ and on baptism as soon as possible thereafter. Notice the swing away from what I believe is the broader cultural trend against thinking of conversion in terms of an event. How quickly the pendulum has swung in a post 9-11 world! Or has it? Is this simply "The Boomers Strike Back," out of touch with broader American culture.
Our focus should be on seeing people's lives change, not on how many baptisms we've had. Changing people's lives does involve event decisions, but this is only one small piece of an overall process of discipleship that starts before (prevenient grace) and continues after (sanctifying grace). If God judges people according to the light they have--certainly a long-standing Christian and Wesleyan perspective that I believe is theologically necessary for Christianity to be coherent--then it is far more important to disciple the world than to get it to make a decision and be baptized.
2. naive primitivism
One hermeneutical dynamic involved in these trends is a kind of naive primitivism that thinks the goal is to do everything the way the church of Acts did. Of course no account is taken of the fact that Acts is only one picture of the early church. If we had a 2 Matthew, a 2 Mark, and a 2 John, it would give us as different a picture as Luke does from these other gospels.
A 2 Matthew would probably feature much more the perspective of the Jerusalem church and would see a lot more continuity in Jewish Law keeping. A 2 John would be much more anti-law keeping than Acts. In short, we are not looking at a video tape of the early church in Acts.
And even if we were, the first century was a dramatically different place than twenty-first century America. Are we going to bring back greeting each other with a holy kiss? It was a patriarchal society formed in group identity. If we're smart, we'll be able to see the points of continuity and discontinuity and feel free to flex in a way that best ministers to our world. The goal is not to do everything exactly as they did.
The leaders of the Wesleyan Church in the late middle decades of the twentieth century tried to move us away from a kind of fundamentalism we absorbed from the broader culture in the mid-century. It is still alive and well. This ranges from the untenable biblicism of Harold Lindsell (the Wesleyan who thinks the only difference between him and Dallas Theological Seminary is eternal security) to the civil religion that can't tell the difference between the Republicanism of the moment (because such things are quickly moving targets) and core Christian values.
We live in a tinder box climate. Given our current sense of economic and protectionist insecurity, these sorts of fundamentalisms can go toxic on short notice anywhere. Then come the witch hunts and events our grandchildren later wag their heads about. It's a climate like 1914, where a chance assassination ends up as World War 1.
And of course the trends above put our historic position on women in ministry in jeopardy. Even though Acts is actually rather pro-women in ministry, the fundamentalism and primitivism forces usually lock their sights on 1 Timothy 2. The household codes of the New Testament are not seen as they are--first century expressions of Christianity, like head coverings--but as God's timeless design for the home.
We'll see where it all leads...