Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Happy 50th Birthday, Wesleyan Church!

On June 26, 1968 the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the Wesleyan Methodist Church voted to merge and become The Wesleyan Church. Happy Birthday!

1. The late 60s were a divisive point in American history, and yet they were also a time when there was a movement toward unification in a number of churches. Just a couple months earlier in 1968, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Brethren Church had merged. Earlier in the decade, the Roman Catholic Church had changed its sense of non-Catholics to where we could finally go to heaven. :-)

Of course there were those who saw the merger as a movement toward a one world religion, which has of course since taken place. Everyone in the world is now Wesleyan. I had a relative who told my Dad he would pray for his soul if he went with the merger. My Dad was a delegate at the merging conference, and my family was in attendance.

The merger also reminds us that two groups that have almost the same beliefs can still have significant differences in culture and flavor. Personally, I think the merger has worked well for us and was a very positive event. There has only been the occasional ribbing over the years among IWU religion faculty about being either entrepreneurial Pilgrims (Keith Drury, Russ Gunsalus, me) or intellectual Wesleyan Methodists (Bud Bence, Steve Lennox).

Bill Hudson, AP
2. Wesleyans on both sides were pretty absent from the most pressing social issues of that moment. You won't find hardly a word about the civil rights movement in any of the district journals or official records of that time. There were the outliers, like Joanne Lyon, who was working that day in the aftermath of the race riots in Kansas City to try to get people jobs.

But most either felt uncomfortable at being forced to confront the systemic injustices of the time or, at worst, blamed those "trouble makers" for being law-breakers. We are facing some of the same dynamics again today with regard to race and immigration, and many Wesleyans are making the same mistake again. We cannot control how history will view us, just as those who were part of the merging conference cannot control how most young Wesleyans today view their lack of engagement with civil rights back then.

3. The 70s and early 80s were a time of emphasis on evangelism in the church. We are coming back around to an emphasis on it again today in the form of church planting and multiplication. Everything cycles. I grew up in the 70s with John Maxwell and Evangelism Explosion. We had two buses that competed to get as many children on board for Sunday School as possible. Now I have Wayne Schmidt as general superintendent and Mark Gorveatte as DS, and we are innovating like a Pilgrim again. :-)

The focus on doing largely kept us out of intellectual and fundamentalist controversies. The culture wars did affect us though. We can hardly remember what it was like before Jerry Falwell weaponized abortion as an issue, even though most probably did not embrace Jerry Falwell at the time. The culture wars of the 80s formed the psyche of most older Wesleyans, unlike the younger millennials that Robert Webber once called the "younger evangelicals." The problem with doers is that they can easily absorb the ideology of the day without even knowing it.

Today, churches like 12Stone are leaders in the area of church multiplication. The move of the church toward networks of innovative church multipliers (over rigid and unproductive structure) is amazing and ground-breaking. The innovative Pilgrim DNA strikes again!

4. Meanwhile, there were other forces driving us to become more respectable. Here I think especially of figures like J. D. Abbott, who emphasized that everything be done "decently and in order." I haven't seen anyone run the aisle for about forty years, and altar calls were scarce there for a while. Tongues were rejected, although we softened our position on divorce. The impulse toward respectability has led various church and educational leaders to move toward more generic evangelicalism over the years. They have wanted to go play with the big dogs. When someone a few years ago at IWU asked some of us who our aspirational benchmarks were, I remarked under my breath, "We're the benchmark." After all, I'm a Pilgrim. That person was a Wesleyan Methodist. :-)

We started a seminary in 2009. My own by-line in those days was, "Real denominations have seminaries. Are we are real denomination? If not, we should join one." The founding vision of the seminary was to right the balance of ministerial education toward the skills you actually needed to have to do the work of the ministry. "May it never be said of us, 'I didn't learn anything there that I actually needed to know to be a minister.'"

Of course my own thought was never that Wesley would not also create the thought leaders of the next generation of Wesleyans. The problem is only that I can't convince anyone that my thoughts are what those thoughts should be. :-) That's the frustrating thing about free will.

5. I think we created the International Conference of the Wesleyan Church with good motives in 1972. I remember thinking what a great move of empowerment it was to let the Caribbean and then Philippines be their own general conferences, running their own show and contextualizing the gospel and mission for their own cultures. I have been proud that our denomination has increasingly emphasized national leaders and moved away from the older "colonial missionary" approach. We have come a long way from insisting that young native Americans wear Wesleyan wads to letting the Native American church work out its own salvation with fear and trembling.

6. We saw great strides toward recovering the Wesleyan Methodist heritage of social justice these last fifteen years, especially with Joanne Lyon as GS. God also led Wayne Schmidt toward a vision for a Revelation 7:9 community at Kentwood Community Church, a work now continued by Kyle Ray. I sense that Wayne has had to temper this vision because of resistance in the church.

But this is the kingdom trajectory. The current climate is a predictable push-back on the majority culture losing power as America becomes more and more diverse. But this is the future of any thriving church. You can pay the Lord now, or you'll pay him later. :-)

Happy birthday, Wesleyans! We are not the largest of churches. Being Wesleyan doesn't make you holier than someone else. We have some halos and some warts. God does not need us to save the world.

But he loves us and would like to use us, if we are willing.

3 comments:

Ken Schenck said...

For our history, see The Story of the Wesleyan Church.

Pastor Mark Haines said...

Like you, my dad was at the merging General Conference and like you I was there but a few years older. I'm from the former Wesleyan Methodist branch and I am in full agreement with your half whispered statement. "We are the benchmark."

Martin LaBar said...

I heard a man say that the merger was like his marriage: "She took my name, and I took her discipline."