I’ve never met the Rev. Phil Wyman of Salem, Massachusetts. In fact, until I read about him on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) yesterday I didn’t know that he even existed. Phil Wyman is the pastor of a small evangelical congregation in a very old city where a considerable amount of tourism revolves around the story of the execution of twenty men and women, who were accused as witches, in 1692.
I’ve been to Salem. I’ve visited the quaint museums and walked the streets of this historic place. I even saw a dramatic production of the witch trials staged by actors from Gordon College. I have also witnessed the presence of real witches and Wiccans in Salem, openly touting their message in public places. Salem is actually a beautiful New England town and clearly in need of the gospel. This is actually why Phil Wyman went there a few years ago as a minister of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal denomination.
Phil’s story is really quite simple. He was drawn, as a young convert to Christ, to engage nonbelievers about their pre-Christian traditions. He wanted to reach them with the good news. This led Phil and his wife to leave Southern California to go to Massachusetts. For a time he was supported in his work by his denomination but that support ended recently.
Last year local conservative Christian leaders began to question Phil Wyman because his methods were found objectionable. This began when he volunteered to serve with the city’s largest event, the annual Halloween festival. Phil worked to create relationships with Salem’s pagans by showing them real neighborliness says the WSJ story. Christians and witches debated the difference between magic and miracles and Phil, and his Christian friends, chatted openly with people at Salem’s witch shops. He even allowed them to show him how they read tarot cards. Some of these witches sought Phil for spiritual counsel. One such woman, who joined Phil’s congregation, says of him, “He lets people figure out their own spirituality.” Phil is careful to not approve the practices of these witches and does not join their rituals, saying, “It’s their worship, not mine.” But, and this is the important point here, he does not attack these people as the children of the devil. On October weekends this year he provided a stage, sound equipment and live music for folk musicians, candy-apple sellers and caped tour guides in Salem. He also provided a Christian-tinged theatre. In a tent that the church set up a member of Phil’s church openly confessed “the sins of the church” to those who would listen. (For those of you who have read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz you will recall this same thing being done on a college campus in Portland, Oregon.)
One local Salem citizen says that some of his witch friends were moved to hear of a Christian who admitted that the church had actually wronged people in the past. He added, “Sure, he wants to convert people, but he does it in a way that respects you.” What a beautiful testimony to a truly missional approach to evangelism. How I wish more people would take a page from Phil Wyman.
But Phil Wyman is now in trouble with ecclesiastical authority. The Foursquare Church rejected him as a minister in March of this year. Why? Four local pastors felt that Phil was just too close to the enemy. Said the regional Foursquare leader, “Phil had a strategy and methodology that was significantly different from how we perceive church life.” This came about because Phil’s picture appeared on a witch’s Web site. He was seen, in this offensive picture, bending as if to kiss the hand of a horror-movie actress who appears at the Salem vampire ball as Countess Bathoria. (Phil denies he did this and the picture was removed when the person found out Phil’s concerns.) A local pastor felt that Phil had crossed the line, appearing “too familiar, too cozy, too amicable with that [evil] community.” What he is saying is that Phil simply got too close to the evil one and showed too much acceptance to such sinners who are ensnared by the devil. This charge sounds like the charges leveled against Jesus in the Gospel accounts when he was seen as the “friend of sinners,” including sinners who were possessed by the evil one.
Phil’s church, called The Gathering (www.salemgatheringcom), was finally rejected by the Foursquare leaders because they were discomfited by four local pastor’s expressed concerns and by Web links that connected Phil to the wrong kind of Satanic Web sites, i.e., to places where Christians are opposed by the devil. The Foursquare leader said to Phil, “I feel you are not seeing the vulnerability you are opening up to regarding demonic activity. It is my judgment . . . . that you are crossing the line into the aberrant.” When Phil, and his associate pastor, were actually examined by Foursquare leaders last year these leaders wanted to know how Christians could become friends with witches? (Just weeks before this meeting Phil had received a grant of $84,000 from the Foursquare Foundation so that he could teach the evangelization techniques he had learned in Salem.) When Phil asked for a second meeting with the church leadership, to pursue these differences further, the denominational leadership refused. The grant money he received before this decision came down has been used to pay rent and bills but when it runs out Phil says he will likely have to weld and teach guitar lessons to make ends meet.
When I read this story I went to www.google.com and found Phil’s Web site by searching for Rev. Phil Wyman in Salem, Massachusetts. (I love the Internet for many reasons but this is one—I can find people easily and communicate with them immediately.) I read various articles and reflections by Phil on his site with keen interest. I found both his spirit and his missional perspective refreshing and Christ-centered. There is every reason to conclude that Phil is both orthodox and evangelical. I do not know all the facts in this particular case but I think I understand what happened to Phil because I have seen this story repeated many times over during the past few years. I have also experienced various types of evangelical rejection for similar missional reasons; i.e., getting too close to the wrong people and places.
After reading this account, and visiting this Web site, I decided to take action in this case. I wrote Phil an email expressing my encouragement and my sincere desire to get to know him. I also sent a small gift to his ministry, via his secure donation feature on his Web site. I am glad someone in Salem is seeking to incarnate the love of Christ in this way, someone who announces to true “outsiders” that the kingdom is near and thus they are loved by God and need to know of the reconciling work of Christ for the world.