After the formalities of calling the conference to order, taking the roll call by ballot and passing Memorial #1, GS Pence turned to retiring GS Earle Wilson to deliver the “Pastoral Letter” which is a sort of quadrennial state of the church address.
Using the theme for the conference “Building on our past; believing in our future,” white haired Wilson framed the address by painting a picture of the merger between Pilgrims and Wesleyan Methodists 40 years ago this summer in Anderson, Indiana. Wilson was an eyewitness in 1968 along with some others in their 60’s and 70’s who still remember the event. He told how 4000 people form the two denominations marched forward amidst thousands of petunias blooming on the campus at that time to give birth (or get married—the merger metaphors often get mixed) to this new denomination that is now 40 years old. He reminded us that we are approaching middle age and have firmed things up (he politely ignored any middle age lethargy or mid life crisis ;-)
The Pastoral letter is a tough assignment. The guy who delivers it is supposed to kind of give a cheer-leading speech to the church reminding us how well we’re doing. It also serves as a substitute to hearing the individual reports of the various General Officers and tends to other duties liker recognizing the death of GS emeritus Virgil Mitchell and others.
It is difficult to get too worked up while giving statistics and reports—but if anyone can bring drama to anything Earle Wilson can. He did, though at times he appeared weary and frequently took sips of the waterbottle on his pulpit.
He recited the various elections of the 2004 General Conference and noted numerous replacements by the GBA in the interim since, then one by one gave a mini-report including one or two outstanding facts and figures from the General Officers as their pictures flashed on the screens in front of the auditorium.
After rehearsing the “Core values” of the Wesleyan Church Wilson recited a litany of good news figures for the denomination using variously the 40 years since merger or the last four years, North American figures or international figures. Some highlights I heard are:
- Since 1968 churches grew from 3678 to 4960 internationally
- 135677 to 364755 in Sunday Morning attendance in 40 years
- from presence in 40 nations to 86 since 1968
- in 1968 we had 2 churches over 500—Skyline and High Point 1st—we now have 40 over 500 and 8 over 2000.’
Dr. Wilson did his best to use his force of personality, powerful voice and presence and his personal authority to remind us we’ve come far and are still doing well. But I sensed he was relieved when he got to move beyond giving the surrogate reports and statistics to the second part of his address—“Believing in our future.” Here he could something more like what Earle Wilson is best at—preaching.
Using John 7:6 Wilson argued that the Wesleyan Church’s time was now. He confessed that he was embarrassed by he church as a child but knows better now—the church is the best thing God has going for Him. He prodded listeners to refuse to yearn for other times—we can’t minister in simpler times, not the 70’s or 90’s or even in 2004—we must minister in this time and now.
Condemning the “attitude of some in our churches” who lean too far toward separation form the world he called for Wesleyans to “come down from the mountain and embrace this world” for Christ. He said “the church of the first century belonged to its time and the church of this century must belong to this time.” He reminded us that the church has a greater calling than to scold the world—reminding us to read the next verse after John 3:16..verse 17: God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world” intimating that we too are not called to condemn the world but save it. Then, just as the conservatives were about to freak out and assume he was condoning a worldly church Wilson reminded us that the other error is to make the church so worldly that is becomes “of the world” (John 17).
Somewhere in here he also reminded us that the growing popularity of lifestyle witnessing was not enough and Wesleyans had to pop the question eventually, but I forgot to write down where this occurred in the address.
Finally Wilson came in for a landing with his agenda of what he believes are the critical affirmations for Wesleyans calling us to stand firm on these. They included:
GRACE… we are not saved by keeping the membership commitments
HOLINESS… positive, dynamic, and both crisis and continuous
UNITY… we are one in diversity and with the larger community of believers
HOPE… Wesleyanism and despair are incompatible
SELFLESS LIVING… simplicity in the face opf the world’s need.
Then he simply walked away from the pulpit as Jerry Pence led a standing ovation which was unanimous as the crowd knew this grand old General Superintendent had just delivered his last denominational address.
I think I saw him sigh as he sat down.