By Thomas Lambrecht –
Recent communications from proponents of the One Church Plan have attempted to portray traditionalists and evangelicals as a small group within The United Methodist Church seeking to divide the denomination. In 2016, moderate leaders suggested that maybe 10-20 percent of the church is progressive and 10-20 percent is conservative, but the “broad middle” is 60-80 percent and constitutes the bulk of the denomination. (We are speaking here only of the American part of the church – roughly 60 percent of the global denomination.) In my own thinking, I have often surmised that American Methodism is one-third progressive, one-third moderate, and one-third evangelical.
It turns out we are all wrong. A recent survey by United Methodist Communications has found that rank and file laity in the American church self-identify as 44 percent conservative-traditional, 28 percent moderate-centrist, and 20 percent progressive-liberal. (It found 8 percent were unsure.)
One can quibble with the methodology of the survey, how the questions were worded, and the validity of accepting someone’s self-identification. But the fact remains that the largest segment of the church considers itself to be conservative or traditional in their beliefs. And this is at a time when reactions against harsh partisan secular politics are causing some American conservatives to be reluctant to use that term about themselves.
Furthermore, although moderates tended to fall between traditionalists and progressives in their answers, they were often closer to the conservative position. “I don’t think you can add the moderates and progressives and say that’s where the church is,” said Chuck Niedringhaus, who oversees research for UMCom. “Theologically, many (moderates) are more traditional.”
The survey indicates that the center of gravity of American Methodists is on the conservative-traditional end of the spectrum. Delegates to the special General Conference this month will need to take into consideration how rank and file members of our churches think and believe. A way forward that adopts a non-traditional understanding of human sexuality risks alienating a substantial portion of the church.
Niedringhaus suggested that the survey results have implications also for how our general boards and agencies function. “There’s a big theological gap,” he said. “At the very least, boards and agencies should be looking at this data.”
For decades, Good News has challenged our boards and agencies to give greater respect and weight to the thoughts and beliefs of conservatives within the church. Too often, agency leaders are themselves progressive in theology and out of touch with what rank and file members believe. As a result, agencies end up promoting many positions and programs that are at best irrelevant to many members and at worst offensive to them.
According to the survey, conservative-traditional members are more active in the church. Fifty-seven percent of conservatives claim to attend church at least 2-3 times per month, compared with 44 percent for moderates and 39 percent for progressives.
The survey points out how wide the theological gap is between traditionalists and progressives. For conservatives, the top two sources for their personal theology are Scripture (41 percent) and Christian Tradition (30 percent). For progressives, the top two sources are Reason (39 percent) and Personal Experience (33 percent). (Only six percent of progressives view Scripture as their most authoritative source.)
In the secular world, there is a perception that conservatives get their news and information from Fox News, while liberals get theirs from CNN. Having different sources leads to divergent opinions and even worldviews. Similarly, traditionalists and progressives in our denomination derive their personal theology from mutually exclusive sources. This is bound to create highly divergent theological perspectives, and it is probably one reason why the two groups often seem to talk past each other. They are using some of the same words, but with totally different meanings and contextual understandings.
The survey also seems to bear out the contention of evangelicals that the disagreements in our church are over the authority of Scripture. When progressives name Scripture as the least authoritative source for their personal theology, named by only six percent, that is a stance that evangelicals are not able to understand or support.
This theological gap has practical consequences in the life of the church.
What should be the primary focus of The United Methodist Church? Eighty-eight percent of conservatives said “saving souls for Jesus Christ.” Only 32 percent of progressives agreed. Progressives favored “advocating for social justice to transform this world” by 68 percent.
For contemporary evangelicals, this is an old and unfortunate dichotomy. Obviously, we believe in preaching the gospel but we are equally compelled to care for the physical needs of our neighbors and work to right injustice. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35).
From an evangelical perspective, both focuses are essential. Our mission statement is “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Evangelicals, however, tend to emphasize the priority of evangelism and discipleship because it is something only the church can uniquely do. If we do not do this, no one else will.
Furthermore, evangelicals believe that the way to transform the world is through personal transformation. Yes, structures need to be transformed and laws changed. But unless the human heart is transformed, sin and injustice will continue and grow, regardless of one’s commitment to social justice. We all need Jesus, first and foremost.
Given the disconnect in terms of priorities, one can see how the heavy emphasis on advocating for politically liberal agendas for social justice on the part of our general boards and agencies without a corresponding emphasis on evangelism and discipleship can seem irrelevant and at times even offensive to conservatives and traditionalists. They often feel like their tithes and offerings are going toward an agenda that they do not support. This is part of the reason for a reluctance to pay apportionments.
It is important to note that these deep theological differences (we will highlight more of them in a future blog) were not somehow “ginned up” by Good News or other renewal groups. They reflect the deep-seated differences between groups in our church that are playing out now in the conflict over human sexuality and marriage.
Many evangelicals think they can no longer support an agenda at odds with their beliefs. If The United Methodist Church goes forward with a change in the definition of marriage, allowing same-sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, most conservatives and traditionalists will feel alienated from their church. If even half of them were to leave, the church would lose one-fifth of its members in the United States. The consequences for the denomination could be devastating.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.