I am sometimes asked, "Which of the large mainline denominations is the least likely to follow the liberal agenda to its own complete demise?" My answer has consistently been, "The United Methodist Church (UMC)." A movement of evangelical and traditionalist leadership in the UMC has made the greatest gains over the last twenty years. Those who are more liberal and non-traditional, especially on moral and doctrinal issues, are clearly a minority within the Methodist Church. This means that they are nervous about this conservative response. They use powerful structures to oppose it on many, many fronts. The battles are tough and they are real.
Some estimate that 70% of Methodist people are not liberal theologically or morally. Yet on the whole the official leadership of UMC is quite liberal, with a few wonderful exceptions. But the grassroots membership of the UMC is not liberal. Further, renewal ministries in the UMC have been much more successful in organizing grassroots efforts within the denomination. My good friend James V. Heidinger II, president of Good News, says that "more clergy and laity representing that constituency are finally getting involved, in proportions similar to their presence in the church!" Good News has been encouraging this response for more than 25 years, a faithful record of perseverance against large human odds.
Methodism is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States. As I noted above, 70% of its members consider themselves conservative, traditionalist or centrist. But the leadership, as is true in most mainline contexts, is more liberal than the people. The leadership is often non-traditional and sometimes outright radical on doctrinal and moral issues. The press pays special attention to these voices, sometimes almost exclusively, so this is why you hear more of what they are saying and doing than what is being done by churches and people who are not so liberal. In the General Conferences, which are the regional governing bodies of the UMC, more and more evangelicals are getting elected and are now serving the church with tremendous grace and real effect. This means that the 2008 General and Jurisdictional Conference of the UMC will be extremely important! Early indications are that evangelicals will speak with an even stronger voice at this important watershed gathering. I suggest that all who love the gospel should pray earnestly for this to happen.
The danger for all such renewal efforts is that they can become focused on the battles themselves. The participants become battle weary and then do not see clearly the real gains they’ve made over a long period of time. (God almost never turns a situation like this around in a few minutes or a few months. Even true revival would require new structures to maintain real gains made by the Holy Spirit.) My one deep concern for my Methodist renewal friends is that they see the political battle as the real battle in Methodism. In so doing they may opt for fighting people and issues rather than the evil one. As important as these legal and jurisdictional battles are this is not where the UMC will be truly changed. The model for change in Methodism looks nothing like that pursued in the SBC and that, in my humble estimation, is a good thing. The SBC changes came in the form of a radical takeover by the most conservative people and the end results are very mixed at best. Now there is a new struggle to find a better middle ground that allows the SBC to breathe more freely and to grow again. (This was evident in the recent Southern Baptist Convention meeting.)
One of the grandest visionary plans in modern Methodism is the starting of 365 new churches each year between 2009 and 2012. (Currently 90 churches a year are start-up congregations.) If this goal is accomplished then the UMC will have a thousand-plus new churches focused on evangelism, church planting and world missions, which will also increase its wonderful ministry to the world’s poor. This effort would also pump energy into the whole denomination like no other strategy.
Methodism has many good role models for change. One, Dr. Edwin Lewis, was a professor at Drew Theological Seminary from 1916 until 1951. I first encountered Lewis through my friends at Asbury Seminary. Edwin Lewis embraced theological liberalism in the early 1920s, as part of the movement toward radical thought at the time. He later underwent a remarkable theological reorientation and personal conversion that made him a champion for orthodox views of sin, divine revelation and the reality of Christ’s incarnation and atonement. We need many more teachers like Edwin Lewis. (We have one like him in the Methodist Church today in Thomas Oden.) Lewis warned against a Christianity that urged people to imitate the life and ethical teachings of Jesus as if this was the gospel. He insisted such teaching was not the gospel. Said Lewis, "The evangel was never to challenge non-Christians to adopt the Christian ethic; the evangel
I am praying and working with many of my Methodists friends for renewal. I invite you to do the same. You can get solid news at www.goodnewsmag.org. You can also subscribe to their wonderful award-winning Good News magazine at this site. I read it from cover-to-cover regularly and pray and financially support this great effort. There are several mainline renewal stories that are unfolding before our very eyes in this decade. If you love the cause of Jesus and his mission you ought to at least watch and pray with your brothers and sisters who work to renew some of the oldest churches in our land. Schism from such churches brings great dangers. Staying brings great challenges to compromise. Pray for those courageous souls who work to be faithful to Christ in the UMC and who give themselves for the lives of lost people.
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Thanks so much for your encouragement Dr. Armstrong. I’m a brand new elder in the UMC and an alumnus of Asbury Seminary. I’ve never heard of Dr. Lewis, but I find an interesting parallel between him and Dr. Thomas Oden. Dr. Oden taught at Drew (he still might), was a theological liberal but then had an evangelical experience and continues to be a friend of many at Asbury. Funny how history works sometimes.
Thanks Matthew. Asbury Theological Seminary is doing more to help renew the Methodist Church than every other institution in the UMC put together. Almost a third of all pastors being trained for the UMC are at Asbury, a huge number. I am glad you are an elder and personally hope you find much encouragement from this blog site and from our resources at http://www.act3online.com. I am praying for the UMC more than ever.
I deeply appreciate those prayers and your attitude is certainly a welcome departure from others I’ve read recently. We have such a great tradition as Wesley’s heirs and I pray that we will face the future while recovering the best of our past.
I generally come here when Michael links a post or two, but this post and the Acton ones got you Bloglined 🙂 (BTW, I attended an Acton weekend conference in seminary and loved it. Fr. Sirico is awesome.)
Thank-you for drawing light to the hope for renewal in the UMC. As an evangelical elder (pastor) and only 30 years old, I see great potential for the UMC; if I didn’t, I would have bailed out on it years ago. Your point about the real heart of the battle is VERY MUCH appreciated – it is not political at its core.
It irks me every time the mainstream press focuses on what the leadership of our boards and agencies say and make it sound representative of the whole. They have NO official power to state the views of the UMC, only our General Conference does so every 4 years.
I have seen one of our radical bishops on Larry King more than once, and I cringe when I wonder how many people assume that he represented the official position of the church . . .
I appreciate your ministry and hope to return to one of your conferences soon!
Hey, Larry — I’m a 30 year old elder, too!
Well, that makes 2 of us in the UMC . . . actually, you may have seen the recent study that indicated that only about 5% of elders in the UMC are under the age of 35 or 40. Kind of scary! Do you have a strong core of other elders in your AC that are part of our generation? Actually, here in the North Indiana conference, we are starting to see a (slight) upswing in the combination of young and generally evangelical elders.
Matthew and Larry,
Your conversation by means of this site thrills me guys. I am excited by this interchange and hope in some small way that I helped you encourage one another and even someday maybe you will meet each other. In this struggle we need one another to stay focused and stay strong.
I will try to keep people posted on the UMC and how we can pray for you as part of the body of Christ.
That’s somewhat hard to tell. I’m in Arkansas which lends itself toward evangelicalism, but I wouldn’t classify our age group as such. We’ve got a pretty good core of about 20 or so and I would say we tend more toward evangelicalism, but only slightly. Using Dr. Armstrong’s terms in this post, I would say that if we added traditionalist and centrist to the mix, I can only count about three that wouldn’t fit that profile.
I am a local pastor in the Texas Annual Conference (for you non-UMC folks, this means I am licensed and appointed to a church and fulfill all of the roles of a pastor in Word and Sacrament, but am not yet ordained). We had our Annual Conference a month ago, and we elected 11 clergy delegates to General Conference who are all center or right of center. They are all men and women who I trust to move the UMC forward in a Godly manner. I think that the liberalism was a baby-boomer phenomonon, and as they retire, the denominational leadership will correct back from left toward center. The people moving into the episcopacy over the last 8-12 years have mostly been center-to-right, ministry and mission minded people.