Whither Methodism?

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

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 [good news] was for them to be ‘transformed by the renewing of their minds,’ to become ‘new creatures in Christ.’" Amen!

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.