It’s more than demographics

By George Mitrovich

In the past 50 years, while the U.S. population grew by 127 million, mainline churches lost more than five million members—led by United Methodists, who lost more than three million.

The math is incontrovertible and undeniable: While America experienced exponential growth; mainline churches experienced catastrophic loss.

Why?

If you’re a Methodist and a disciple of John Wesley, both the evangelical Wesley and the Wesley who confronted social injustice, you view membership losses as a theological crisis; a failure by many in our church’s leadership—bishops, district superintendents, and clergy—to honor Wesley by failing to keep the vows they took upon ordination as ministers into the United Methodist Church.

The greatest losses suffered by our church have occurred in the theologically most liberal of our jurisdictions, Northeastern and Western. It would be disingenuous to argue the first hasn’t affected the second, but that is often the argument made in attempting to explain these traumatic losses.

If churches lose their dominant White Anglo/Saxon membership because communities evolve from Anglo/Saxon to Asian (for instance), how does that change the church’s calling? There’s no hyphen in the language of God. John 3:16 has no asterisk. Jesus died for more than Ozzie and Harriet, David and Ricky.

If you look at those United Methodist churches that have experience remarkable growth such as Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Faithbridge in Houston, or Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio, you find churches led by pastors who honor John Wesley; pastors who actually believe the confessions and creeds of the United Methodist Church; pastors who do not suffer theological angst, but preach that Jesus is who he said he was (John 4:26).

Am I saying Adam Hamilton, Ken Werlein, and Mike Slaughter never have theological doubts? No, but they, unlike too many of their colleagues, choose to believe and act upon the sacred vows they took when they were ordained—and the results are persuasive.

In 1945 at a conference in Wales, C.S. Lewis warned the Church of England of the consequences that would come if Anglican clergy continued in their priestly duties while recanting the church’s historic faith. C.S. Lewis’ prophecy has tragically come true—as is evident every Sunday in England’s shockingly empty churches. (A few notable exceptions would include London’s All Souls Langham Place, the church of John R.W. Stott, as well as Holy Trinity Brompton, home of the Alpha Course.)

What is true in the Church of England is increasingly true in the U.S. Great Methodist churches, especially in the northeast and west, have been reduced to small and aging congregations, mere shadows of their once glorious past.

The consequences for the United Methodist Church are devastating, but so too are the consequences for our society, which desperately needs our Wesleyan witness and social ministry; a witness and ministry that once made the Methodist Church the greatest of America’s Protestant churches.

It’s a hard thing to say, but I am compelled to say it: Methodist clergy who no longer uphold our doctrines and beliefs have betrayed their vows—and betray our church.

Monumental losses in membership and disappearing Methodist congregations may be more than the failure to honor our Wesleyan heritage, but if that isn’t it, pray tell what is?

George Mitrovich, a San Diego civic leader, is a member of that city’s First United Methodist Church—the largest congregation in the California-Pacific Annual Conference.