I want to talk about the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The organization claims to be grounded on Biblical authority and historic Christian tradition. These are two slogans I am tired of hearing. Every person is orthodox in his opinion. Every Protestant church claims some kind of historical orthodoxy. Unitarian-Universalists claim to hold to a doctrine of God that predates the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. But evangelical-renewal groups really sell their product as doctrine that gets results. Churches are tempted by the promises of membership and budgetary growth. The remaining lay members and clergy of most churches are anxious. And that, my friends, is the whole point.
Wesleyan And Evangelical
John and Charles Wesley sought to restore the doctrine, order, and practice of the New Testament Church. They were neither the first nor the last to desire this goal. John Wesley left good accounts of what worked and did not work for him. The evangelical movement of Wesley was similar to previous ones including the movement begun by St. Francis. Historically, the Wesleyan movement was at the end of enlightenment in the 18th century. The movement coincided with the American revolution which John Wesley opposed.
Evangelical movements were not the doctrinal position of evangelicalism which is a euphemism for fundamentalism. The problem is theological terminology. Evangelism, evangelical, and evangelicalism are separate concepts. If the original definition of evangelical is “Gospel-centered and Christ-centered,” then the person centered on certain other doctrines could only be called evangelicalist. I quit calling myself an “evangelical” because of the confusion of terms. My ministry is evangelical in the older sense of the term.
The Culture of Anxiety
Many American Christians during the Cold War turned to fundamentalism because of the culture of anxiety being fostered by both government and the media. Communism was not merely an ideological foe it was “godless.” The New Deal and all movements for social justice were cast as creeping socialism and conflated with communism in the post-war period. Cold Warriors understood atheism as a subject that was very emotionally motivating. Conflating atheism with communism made the latter a greater enemy.
The anxiety fostered by a seeming existential threat turned people against the very idea of culture. Hollywood, writers, novels, and the music industry became suspected of influencing the young toward atheism. I recall the seeing the title The Marxist Minstrels in a church library. It was an attack on the Beatles. The culture wars were begun.
Damaging Wesleyan Theology
The Wesleyan Covenant Association is a product of culture war anxiety. As such, it is mild compared to Trumpism, Qanon, and the Anti-vaccine groups. But there is a continuous theme among them. Decline, corruption of the self, impending collapse of society, and loss of religious identity are the major fears. What is the solution? Adherents to these groups believe they are holding back great evil.
The damage done to Wesleyan theology is extensive. Wesleyan theology is a doctrine of practices. Our major emphasis is not creedal orthodoxy. It is not “right teaching” but “right practice.” Conforming to Cold War anxiety destroys this approach to Christian belief.
One congregation that recently identified with the WCA demonstrates the problem. The congregation growth in membership has leveled off while attendance is only about 25% of the members on the rolls. Attendance has dropped by 40-50% in the last few years before the pandemic. What they have been doing is not working. So now they have doubled down on what they have been doing. One leader said it was important for the community to know an “orthodox Wesleyan church” was present. The community – the majority of the church membership even- do not care. All that has been accomplished is to increase the damage.
The myth of evangelical church growth developed along with mega-churches in the 80’s and 90’s. It has been exploded for some time now. The mega-churches that lost their (non-doctrinally) charismatic pastors but not their fundamentalist dogma declined in attendance. The people drawn to such churches left to find another pastor. It was the person not the doctrine. But people often will not admit that fact. A similar phenomenon is seen when politicians act like Donald Trump but are not Donald Trump. It is the same conspiracy-laden paranoia and bombast. But it is not the person.
The solution is to let go of the anxiety and be open to new possibilities. Churches that offer Christian formation and spiritual exploration are attracting people. Churches where mere charity is replaced by community involvement are growing stronger. Openness is key. No congregation wants to have members that are present only because they feel an affinity with a particular leader. Churches need leaders who will build a sense of community. John Wesley rightly understood the primitive church produced scriptures that maintained the communities that read them. He worked hard to find out how they did so. The Wesleyan movement was about learning what practices made Christian community work.