Those who experienced 1968 remember it as a momentous year. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated that spring, Bobby Kennedy that summer. America’s cities were battlegrounds in the struggle for civil rights and platforms of protest of the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, and television cameras recorded disruptions both outside and inside the hall in Chicago where the Democratic National Convention was held as protestors famously chanted, “The whole world is watching.”
The Wesleyan Church was created in 1968 when two like-minded denominations became “One—That the World May Believe,” a rallying cry taken from John 17. This year marks a Wesleyan Jubilee, in a sense—the fiftieth anniversary of the merger when the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America and the Pilgrim Holiness Church joined hands under the banner bearing that slogan.
No one would suggest that the whole world was watching the birth of The Wesleyan Church in June of 1968, of course, but at age 50 the denomination is making its mark in that world—a world even more in need of the gospel than it was in 1968. By any measure, it has been an historic half-century for Wesleyans.
For one thing, Wesleyans have seen historic growth. Several denominational mergers occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, most involving churches much larger than the Wesleyans. One after another, mergers of comparable or greater size from that period have resulted not in growth but in decline, some registering as much as a 50 percent drop. On the other hand, Wesleyan worship attendance worldwide has more than quadrupled, from 130,000 soon after merger to more than 550,000 in 2017.
A major reason for this growth is the phenomenal rise in the number of large churches in the denomination. At merger, only two Wesleyan congregations topped 400 per Sunday in worship attendance. Now Wesleyans claim some of the fastest-growing churches in the United States and Canada. Well over a score of churches average more than 1,000 every Sunday, and 12Stone, “one church in many locations” on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, averages more than 17,000 in its multiple venues. Faithfulness isn’t necessarily measured statistically, and many smaller churches are thriving, but barrier-shattering churches are redefining the possibilities.
Many of those fast-growing churches are led by products of an historic youth movement fostered in the aftermath of merger. Fifty years ago youth ministry was almost universally the responsibility of local church volunteers. Few congregations had a youth pastor on staff. Then 4,300 people attended a 1974 Wesleyan Youth convention in St. Louis, Missouri, which had anticipated less than half that number, and 6,600 attended the next one in Urbana, Illinois, four years later. Youth conventions became the largest gatherings of Wesleyans ever recorded. Soon youth pastors became the “second hire” in Wesleyan churches, and thousands of teens found outlets for Christian service in denominational youth programs like YES Corps and LIFE Corps.
An historic initiative in compassionate ministry was announced in the 1996 General Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. That’s when Wesleyans first heard about World Hope International, a Christian relief and development agency affiliated with The Wesleyan Church and dedicated to combating poverty, suffering and injustice. Founded by Jo Anne Lyon, World Hope gained international headlines in only its second year of existence when its program to provide artificial limbs for victims of atrocities in the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa, caught the attention of the world. World Hope caught the attention of the church, too. Its mission recalls the antislavery efforts of the Wesleyan Methodist reformers in the days before the Civil War and the early Pilgrim ministries which offered hope to orphans, unwed mothers and former prostitutes, efforts which they understood to be “applied holiness.”
Anniversaries invite us to look to the future.
Lyon’s leadership was recognized when she was elected one of three General Superintendents in 2008 and then, in an historic election, became the church’s single General Superintendent in 2012. There were precedents for the shift to a solo superintendent—both the Pilgrims and the Wesleyan Methodists had had a single leader at some point in their histories—but the move was unparalleled in the history of the merged church. For that leader to be a woman was an eloquent endorsement of women in ministry, a hallmark of early Wesleyan Methodist and Pilgrim traditions.
Other historic highlights deserve mention … the new missions paradigm in the “partnership” principle of Global Partners, the accelerated growth of Indiana Wesleyan University and the rise of Wesley Seminary, Earle Wilson’s 24-year tenure as General Superintendent (which set records for longevity), the pivotal role of the Wesleyan Investment Foundation in the success stories of countless churches and schools and many more … but anniversaries invite us to look to the future as well. A milestone like this is not only a good time to look back in gratitude to God, but also the perfect opportunity to renew our commitment to a common mission.
General Superintendent Wayne Schmidt has challenged the church to multiply itself until it has a transforming presence in every ZIP code. It is a goal worthy of a people who know full well that there is a greater Jubilee ahead when God’s kingdom is established forever. Generations have sung it: “Earth shall keep her Jubilee! Jesus saves! Jesus saves!”
Until then, the task at hand is faithfulness in Year Fifty-one.