A west coast lament

By Steve Beard —

There was good reason that Bishop Gerald Kennedy of Los Angeles presented the Episcopal Address at the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church. “Kennedy is unquestionably among the four or five most dazzling preachers in the U.S. today—an oratorical genius with a commanding baritone, and the pace and timing of a Broadway pro,” wrote Time magazine in a cover story on Methodism’s identity crisis a week after the General Conference.

“This year many of the 858 Methodist delegates arrived at their conference with the deep conviction that their church had reached a turning point in history,” reported Time, “and with a scarcely concealed fear that the vitality that once burned in Methodism was lost when fiery evangelism gave way to today’s organized, institutional church.”

In his address, Kennedy told the delegates that the Christian task is “to pursue our ancient course of attacking our own imperfections, keeping our life open to God, and perfecting our society. We are not trying to sell a system, but to demonstrate a Way which is incomparably better than all others, and shines with the promise of a more abundant life for all men.”

Incomparably better than all others. Now that took some chutzpah back in the 1960s. But that was Kennedy. Elegant, gracious, confident, and firm. He was appreciated by conservatives and liberals alike. Although not narrowly categorized as an evangelical, he was the chair of the Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles in 1963. A prolific preacher and author, Kennedy was independent, smart, urbane, accessible, and spellbinding. When it was time for his sermon at annual conference, preachers literally ran across campus to grab a seat.

Kennedy had a distinct understanding of Southern California culture. He drove around in a convertible Karmann Ghia Volkswagen sports car and preached a trademark sermon called, “A Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” a pop culture nod to the Beach Boys. When his fellow bishop Fred P. Corson of Philadelphia complained about the difficulty of getting his clergy to wear clerical collars in the 1960s, Kennedy used to jokingly respond, “I have a hard time getting my clergy to wear shoes!”

Time observed that Kennedy “best seems to express the peculiar quality of his church’s active, outgoing faith: pragmatic but perfection-aimed, equally concerned with personal morality and social order, loving discipline yet cherishing freedom.” Kennedy called it “sanctified common sense.”

At that time, Kennedy was spearheading the fastest-growing area of the Methodist Church. It was a golden era of buying property, building churches, and extending the tent pegs of Wesleyan Christianity on the West Coast.

A tale of two conferences
Not long ago, Andrew Miller, president of Providence Publishing House, was shocked by the decline of what he considered his home congregation, First United Methodist Church of Riverside, California. When his father was appointed there in 1967, there were more than 2,700 members. Currently, that congregation reports only 346 members.

“It has an enormous physical plant, expansive parking lot, and is in an area of well-populated family homes. There is nothing visible to the eye to explain its decline,” writes Miller in his analysis, A Tale of Two Conferences.

Utilizing the General Minutes of the United Methodist Church, Miller diligently studied the growth and decline of half-a-dozen annual conferences within the denomination. His study ended up comparing the California-Pacific Annual Conference and the North Georgia Annual Conference since they had similar memberships in 1965.

At that time, California-Pacific’s membership stood at 218,352 (92,692 attendance); North Georgia’s membership was at 211,794 (attendance 85,838).

Today, California-Pacific’s membership is 81,194 (48,584 attendance). North Georgia, on the other hand, has a current membership of 356,279 (127,486 attendance).

For those doing the sobering mathematics, North Georgia’s membership has swelled by 144,485 since 1965, while California-Pacific’s membership has diminished by 137,158.

Since 1950, North Georgia has had 99 churches that at some point had more than 1000 members. There are currently 72 congregations at that level.

During that same period of time, California-Pacific has had 82 churches with more than 1000 members. Currently, there are only five.

Miller was stunned by the stark data.

So was I. Both of us were raised in Southern California as United Methodist preacher’s kids. I remember skateboarding up and down the sidewalks of the University of Redlands during annual conference as a teenager and growing up within the small but potent subculture of evangelical United Methodism on the West Coast—a unique minority status.

(Editor’s note: In 1985, the Arizona/Southern Nevada portion of the California-Pacific Annual Conference became the Desert Southwest Annual Conference. For the purposes of his study, Miller eliminated those congregations from the statistics.)

A different place
Miller’s study can be used as an illustrative example of two areas of the church pursuing diametrically different spiritual worldviews. Over the years, Cal-Pac has embraced the prevailing theological liberalism and gay activism of the Western Jurisdiction—a section of the UM Church that has lost 45 percent of its members in the last 40 years. For example, during the 2010 annual conference, seven different presentations were given at Cal-Pac to highlight gay, lesbian, and transgender concerns.

North Georgia, on the other hand, has maintained and promoted an overall orthodox theology and upheld traditional United Methodist sexual ethics. This is not to say that there are no liberals or progressives in North Georgia any more than it is to say that there are no evangelicals or traditionalists in Cal-Pac. It is, however, to say that each annual conference has a prevailing theological and ethical outlook.

It is understandable that when most analysts look at the data of the two conferences, they first note the obvious distinction between the perceived “Bible Belt” culture of Georgia, and the “happy pagan” vibe that permeates California.

“The leading difference is diversity,” responded Bishop Mary Ann Swenson when I corresponded with her about the comparison. And she has a point. In addition to Southern California, her area encompasses Hawaii, Guam and Saipan. Almost 60 percent of families in Los Angeles have a language other than English spoken at home. As I grew up in the parsonage, my dad’s ministry included helping launch a Spanish-speaking congregation, as well as Vietnamese, Tongan, and Korean congregations.

When Bishop Swenson’s pastor in Mississippi called her forward to the altar 41 years ago and laid his hands on her head, he prayed for her to be an evangelist and missionary to the “wild West.”

“I have learned that, compared to my home in the South, the West is not so much ‘wild’ as it is profoundly different in religious and cultural terms: this is the context for my ministry—our ministry,” she responds.

Not long ago, Los Angeles surpassed New York and London as the most religiously pluralist metropolitan region. There are more than 600 separate faiths with religious centers in the area.

At the same time, Los Angeles is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic—3.6 million strong. Of those, 70 percent are Latino. The second largest religious representation is Judaism, followed by the Southern Baptist Church, Mormonism, and Islam—the third largest concentration in the United States. Of course, there are cults and pseudo-religions on every corner.

Protestantism in Los Angeles is overwhelmingly evangelical, Pentecostal, or charismatic. Today, the mainline denominations represent a very small segment.

By way of comparison, Atlanta is overwhelming Southern Baptist, followed by United Methodists and Roman Catholics.

Pacific Homes
In our exchange, Bishop Swenson mentioned the Pacific Homes litigation from the late 1970s to the early 1980s as a “difficult time in this region and accounts for some of the decline in those decades.” Once again, she has a point. It was a public relations disaster for United Methodism in Southern California. These church-related retirement homes in California, Arizona, and Hawaii ran into catastrophic financial problems and subsequent legal issues. I remember the talk around the parsonage of lawsuits, liability, bankruptcy, and families leaving our congregation.

Bishop Charles F. Golden (who followed Kennedy) appeared before “60 Minutes” cameras and front page stories appeared in the newspapers. This was a denominational earthquake that threatened to burst the Richter scale. Providentially, Bishop Jack Tuell, a former attorney who followed Bishop Golden, helped guide Cal-Pac through the rigorous and tedious legal and financial issues that threatened the annual conference.

In the painful process, Cal-Pac had to slash its budget and move the conference headquarters into the Pasadena First United Methodist Church. The repercussions of the Pacific Homes debacle would be felt for many years.

Measuring vitality
“Focusing exclusively on congregational membership isolates the question of vitality from the context of mission,” Swenson believes. She points out that membership statistics are not the sole measuring stick to test vitality. Although the membership in Cal-Pac has declined 16.5 percent over the past ten years, attendance increased over 2 percent during the same period.
Furthermore, Swenson notes that despite Cal-Pac’s decline in membership over the last 10 years, giving per member increased 45 percent.

“Yet the more fundamental constraint is not visible in numbers and dollars,” Swenson continued. “As much as I love our United Methodist Church, I am convinced that we are attempting to operate out of one size fits all model of evangelism, combined with an assumption of homogenous contexts for ministry. That homogeneity does not exist, and to ignore it is to attempt a ministry that is disconnected from reality. Measurement of ministry based on that assumption is equally disconnected from reality.”

While no one wants to measure ministry on assumptions that are disconnected from reality, it would be worth having a denomination-wide discussion about whether United Methodism actually has a serious “model of evangelism” at all.

The numerical loss of members carries significance because individual souls matter. Perhaps United Methodism has lost sight of the great weight of one lost soul looking for redemption. Are we convinced that the lost even need to be found?

In the beginning of August, evangelist Greg Laurie held his 21st Harvest Crusade at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. Over three nights, more than 118,000 men, women, and children attended the event. How many United Methodist congregations officially partnered with the crusade? Zero.

Stadium crusades are not everyone’s cup of tea, nor are they the normative model of United Methodist evangelism. Nevertheless, would we not benefit by occasionally venturing outside the confines of our denominational family to see what is working and what is making a difference?

Hispanic influx
The Immigration Act of 1965 would prove to transform the ethnic make-up of Southern California. For example, the Hispanic population of Los Angeles is nearly 50 percent. Spanish services are held in two-thirds of the Catholic parishes.

In all honesty, United Methodism is not the only group to have lost a tremendous opportunity with Hispanics. All of the mainline denominations have failed. “The most interesting thing about the Latino population in Southern California is that they have their own churches, some imported here from other countries, some growing up here,” observes sociology professor Richard Flory, senior research associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. “But, they do seem to be either Catholic or some version of evangelical, Pentecostal, or charismatic.”

In my conversations with Cal-Pac clergy, I asked why United Methodism never gelled with the Hispanic population. “We viewed them as a social justice project instead of an opportunity to share our faith,” said one pastor. This sentiment was expressed repeatedly. It seems as though we have been held captive by a false dichotomy of social justice vs. outreach. The Roman Catholics and Pentecostals embrace a both/and approach instead of an either/or model. United Methodism would have been wise to have done the same.

If United Methodism intends on making any inroads with Hispanics, we must be intentional about having pastors, evangelists, and teachers speak Spanish and be willing to Pentecostalize some of our services. Furthermore, our annual conferences must attempt to have a greater understanding of Latino culture.

Many years ago, I was a guest preacher at a Methodist annual conference in Mexico. Over meals, many of the pastors asked me about the preoccupation with homosexuality within the UM Church in the United States. One by one they recounted the public disgrace they faced as Methodists when the Rev. Ignacio Castuera, a prominent UM clergyman in Cal-Pac, appeared on the “Cristina” television show to perform several same-sex marriages in 1995. Cristina was the Oprah of the entire Spanish-speaking world.

Castuera was decked out in a clerical collar and a colorful stole draping his robe as he smiled with glee as the male couple and the female couple kissed on television. These pastors in Mexico received the brunt of the ramifications of his actions. Their parishioners were disillusioned and angry. As in the United States, many left the Methodist church for other denominations where this was viewed as unscriptural. These pastors bore an undeserved stigma among the people in their towns just for being Methodists.

Although the bishops of Mexico sent letters of protest and concern, there never came a satisfactory response. This is the kind of situation that guarantees United Methodism could remain an alien faith among Hispanics.

Missing the youth culture
Some of United Methodism’s diminished effectiveness in Southern California had to do with an “inability or unwillingness to adapt to the emerging youth culture starting in the 1960s, and probably just in general being considered too ‘establishment,’” sociologist Richard Flory told Good News. “I think as well that theology also played a role in that in general, the message from mainline denominations was more social gospel oriented than what evangelical and Pentecostal/charismatic churches offered, which in one way or another has always focused on…a personal religious experience, journey, quest, or worship experience.” Wesley would have referred to it as having his heart “strangely warmed.”

Southern California was an epicenter for an enormous religious revival among the counter-culture in the 1960s and ’70s. “Jesus is alive and well and living in the radical spiritual fervor of a growing number of young Americans who have proclaimed an extraordinary religious revolution in his name,” reported Time in 1971 in a cover story on the Jesus People. “Their message: the Bible is true, miracles happen, God really did so love the world that he gave it his only begotten son.”

The church in Santa Ana pastored by my dad that I grew up in had a barefooted Jesus People youth pastor. My dad knew the intense cost—and paid the price—of attempting to merge the countercultural with the “establishment,” but he had a heartfelt commitment to the next generation. Unfortunately, not enough of our mainline clergy had the same passion for evangelism and belief in the transforming power of God to find a way to welcome the John-the-Baptist hippies to a coat-and-tie Sunday morning service.

The spiritual vacuum, however, was filled with entirely new and dynamic denominations. The flagship congregations for such movements as Calvary Chapel, The Vineyard, and Hope Chapels exploded with growth all over the west coast.

Let’s be very honest about the fact that there never has been a problem with growing a large church in Southern California. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church is just one example of vibrant evangelism, passionate worship, and meaningful social action.

Liberal fundamentalism
As Cal-Pac’s primary seminary, the Claremont School of Theology establishes the theological tone of many pulpits throughout the Western Jurisdiction. Claremont’s decision to become an interfaith graduate school of religion that trains Muslims, Christians, and Jews under the same roof was not terribly surprising to those familiar with its theological underpinnings.

In making his pitch for the seminary’s new vision, Claremont President Jerry Campbell told the United Methodist Reporter that Christians who feel they need to evangelize persons of other faiths have “an incorrect perception of what it means to follow Jesus.”

Huh?

“I think the correct perception is much more on the side of learning to express love for God and love for your neighbor as yourself,” Campbell said. “Those are the fundamentals for me.” The wording was very clever, but ultimately intellectually and theologically confusing and inadequate. Our love for our neighbors is at some point most potently expressed by sharing with them the life-changing power and love of Jesus Christ. To withhold that winsome message does no honor to God nor our neighbor. As Wesley said, “Offer them Christ.”

We are not talking about beating anyone over the head with the Bible, but we are talking about being serious about the message of Jesus: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

“We have lost the idea of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ,” said one young Cal-Pac pastor. “The gospel has been reduced to doing good things—kind of a religious version of the Lion’s Club. People are looking for much more than that.”

Church planting
“As new areas develop, new congregations must be organized,” observes Miller in A Tale of Two Conferences. “North Georgia has dedicated staff working full time on new congregational development. Several other conferences showing growth have such staff assigned as well. Cal-Pac has no large membership category churches that have been founded since 1975. In the same time period, North Georgia established fourteen of its large membership churches, as well as a number of others approaching this level.”

“There is an expectation that every local church can grow and there is a commitment within the annual conference to begin new missions, ministries, and congregations every year,” says Bishop Mike Watson of the North Georgia Annual Conference.

“There is a place for many diverse people including Anglos, African-Americans, Hispanics, Koreans, Kenyans, Vietnamese, Brazilians, Haitians, and others,” Watson told Good News. “We have every size congregation from the tiny to the extremely large. We have inner city, urban, suburban, county seat, small town, and open country congregations….There seems to be a welcoming place for everyone.”
Lyle Schaller, the prolific church growth guru, believes that there should be a “chief strategist in every annual conference (this could be a person or a task force) with the competence plus the responsibility and authority to fill that role.”

After surveying the comparative data, Schaller told Good News, “The North Georgia Conference has been organized for at least four decades with someone, or some group, filling the role of chief strategist and the strategy affirms that larger congregations are more likely able to mobilize the resources required to produce the relevance, quality, and choices younger generations seek as they search for a church home than are small churches.”

Kennedy’s call
As they gathered in Pittsburgh for the 1964 General Conference, delegates believed that their church had reached a “turning point in history,” as Time reported. Many were fearful that the “vitality that once burned in Methodism was lost when fiery evangelism gave way to today’s organized, institutional church.”

To refocus the passions, structures, and vision of the church that he loved so much, Bishop Kennedy reminded the delegates in his Episcopal Address of the evangelical roots of their heritage and the divine calling of the Methodist Church.

“The Wesleyan revival was, among other things, a demonstration that when plain men could say in the words of the founder, ‘We have felt our hearts strangely warmed,’ thousands were converted,” Bishop Kennedy said. “While our fathers were good organizers, they regarded organization as a means to fulfill the evangelistic purpose. Their success was a testimony to the power of witnessing to Christian experience and another example of how the preaching of the Word of God saves men by faith.”

In times like these, we all need to be reminded of that.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.