Editorial: More Hopeful Than Ever —
By Rob Renfroe —
I have enjoyed the reports coming out of Global Methodist annual conference meetings from all over the United States and Europe. Delegates report that the conferences have been filled with an air of excitement, anticipation, and joy. They state the meetings have the feeling of a revival and there is the sense that something new is being born and a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit is being experienced.
I have also listened carefully to those who have attended the last round of United Methodist Church annual conferences earlier this summer. The word I heard most often coming out of those meetings was “hope.” Some pastors and bishops have even stated they “now feel more hopeful for the United Methodist Church” than they have ever felt in the past.
I wish to state clearly that I pray God will bless the ongoing UM Church with a wonderful future. I pray he will so anoint the UM Church with his Spirit that it will be a church where the Gospel is preached with power, where many lost souls find a new life in Christ, and where acts of mercy and justice are so prolific that the goodness of God’s kingdom becomes apparent to everyone.
So, I pray great things, I wish great things, I hope great things for the ongoing United Methodist Church. But UM leaders who state they are more hopeful than they have ever been for the UM Church mean something more than that. They say they are now more hopeful than ever. Now, for them, is a different time, a better time, a more hopeful time than ever before.
What has changed recently? What’s different now from the last time UM annual conferences met? The change is that over 6000 traditional churches have disaffiliated from the denomination. That’s what’s different now.
The UM Church still has the same bishops; the same seminary professors; the same “open hearts, open minds, open doors” slogan; and the same willingness to allow bishops, pastors and seminary professors to teach a defective Christology, to promote a faith that is far from orthodox, and to bless lifestyles that are contrary to what the Scriptures approve.
The old adage states: Keep doing what you’ve done, and you’ll keep getting what you’ve gotten. And what the UM Church has gotten in the past has not been great. Since the UM Church was founded in 1968, its membership has never grown year over year. Not once. Not once in the past five and a half decades. From 1970 to 2021 UM membership in the United States has declined from 10.7 million to 5.7 million. And it’s getting worse. The loss of membership in 2021 (the last year before disaffiliation began in earnest) was greater than any other single year in the denomination’s history. That is, until 2022 when membership decreased by over 500,000.
I’m not hopeful for the UM Church’s future growth and I won’t be until evangelism becomes one of its chief priorities, until its pastors are given a thoroughly orthodox education at its seminaries, and until the entire denomination admits that the progressive values that have led the church to where it is now will not lead it to a better place in the future.
“But,” I’ve heard centrist and progressive leaders state, “once the traditionalists leave with their narrow-minded, bigoted beliefs, we UMs will be perfectly positioned with our message of grace to reach our culture.” Well, that’s a hope, but not one founded on what other mainline Protestant denominations have experienced. Many of them are far ahead of the UM Church when it comes to ridding themselves of their traditionalists and liberalizing their sexual ethics. What was the result? Their decline in membership, attendance and finances has continued, only at a more rapid rate than ever before.
Since affirming gay marriage and the ordination of practicing gay persons membership, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) has decreased by 20 percent and youth professions of faith by over 50 percent. Since making the same changes, The United Church of Christ has seen its membership decline by 30 percent. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has experienced such a rapid decline that its Office of Research and Evaluation projects that the whole denomination will have fewer than 16,000 persons in worship by 2041. Rather than seeing an influx of secular people since adopting a liberalized sexual ethic, The Episcopal Church (USA) has experienced a decrease in its attendance that is so dramatic that church growth expert the Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile wrote, “The overall picture is dire … At this rate there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.”
What reason, what hope do UM leaders have that it will be different for the UM Church? Do they really believe that the UM pastors remaining in the UM Church are so spectacularly different from the pastors of our sister denominations that our story will be different when it comes to reaching the culture? Are our pastors more committed, more spiritual, more insightful, more compelling than the clergy in the PCUSA, the UCC, the ECUSA, and the ELCA? So different from the pastors of other liberal denominations that our team will crack the cultural code and we will be able to reach the masses where all the others have failed? That doesn’t sound like hope. That sounds like hubris.
Some centrist leaders have said, “Those who are leaving are primarily small churches. We hate to see them go. But losing them will not have a big impact on the denomination as a whole.”
It’s true most of the churches that have left the UM Church are small churches. That’s because most UM churches are small churches. Before the devastating impact of the pandemic on church attendance, fifty percent of all UM Churches had less than fifty persons in worship on a Sunday. Seventy-five percent had less than a hundred. The numbers are even worse now. To be honest the leaders telling people that most of the churches that are leaving are small churches need also to report that most of the churches remaining are small churches.
They also need to tell their followers that many of the denomination’s largest congregations have left. A partial listing includes three of the four largest in the Texas AC, the largest in the Rio Texas AC, and the largest in the Central Texas AC. The four congregations in Louisiana with the highest attendance have left, as well as the two largest in the Alabama-West Florida Conference. The largest church in North Georgia, Illinois Great Rivers and in Mississippi exited years ago. Two of the three largest congregations in North Alabama are out. The two congregations with the highest attendance in Oklahoma have disaffiliated, as well as the churches with the highest attendance in the Michigan, North Carolina, South Georgia, and the Northwest Texas Annual Conferences. The results are similar in other Annual Conferences, but these examples illustrate that those saying the churches that have exited are primarily small congregations are misrepresenting the truth of what has happened in the UM Church.
If the majority of the 6000 churches that have left are so small, why has the General Council on Finance and Administration proposed that the denomination’s budget for the next quadrennium be cut by 40 percent? That is an astounding number. That is an alarm bell loud enough to awaken all those who have ears to hear.
Membership is declining. Attendance is decreasing. Finances are struggling. And the plan is to blame the traditionalists, keep electing progressive leaders, double down on the liberal agenda that has brought the UM Church to where it is – and be hopeful.
Hope is a wonderful thing. But hope is not a strategy or a plan or a way forward. In fact, if it’s a blind “hope against hope” kind of hope, it can be a detriment to making the changes that need to be made.
Do I wish the UM Church well? I do. Am I hopeful for the UM Church? I want to be. But I can’t be until I hear its leaders deal with the real reasons it has declined for the past fifty-five years, acknowledge that something went very wrong when 20 percent of its churches and five of its bishops felt compelled to leave the denomination, and admit that maybe, just maybe, they are part of the problem.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. Photo by James Barr on Unsplash.
Centrist Misconceptions —
By Thomas Lambrecht —
Over the last several weeks, this Perspective has been in dialogue with the weekly e-newsletter of Mainstream UMC, a caucus group representing United Methodist centrists. Mainstream’s articles have been illuminating what the future United Methodist Church will likely evolve into. They certainly have indicated the direction many centrists see the church pursuing.
Last week’s Mainstream missive contained a number of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations about those who are disaffiliating. Their article is entitled “Clarity.” So in the interest of clarity, let us examine some of the mistaken ideas Mainstream puts forward about traditionalists who are disaffiliating.
The Mainstream article begins by describing disaffiliating traditionalists as “looking for a denomination where everyone will be forced into lockstep about Scripture, about what discipleship looks like, about whose love is worthy of God’s blessing and whose is not” (emphasis added).
First of all, there is no “force” involved. For example, those who align with the new Global Methodist Church are choosing to do so because they agree with the stated beliefs of the GM Church. Some centrists appear to have the misconception that people who voluntarily unite under a banner of common theological commitments are somehow being “forced” into some type of artificial unity. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The GM Church has set forth its understanding of the faith, through its doctrinal standards and social witness statements. It subscribes to the ancient creeds of the church, as well as the doctrinal standards of the UM Church. It maintains the 2,000-year-old teachings of the church on marriage and sexuality. It understands discipleship as a process of becoming daily more like Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit and guided by the teachings of Scripture. If someone does not agree with these foundational understandings of the Christian faith, they would not voluntarily join the GM Church.
What is different about the GM Church is that it will expect its pastors and bishops to teach and maintain the doctrines of the church. Ironically, that is what the UM Church also says on paper. The “Historic Questions” asked of all candidates for ordination include these: “Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? After full examination do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? Do you approve our Church government and polity? Will you support and maintain them?”
For many years, these “Historic Questions” have been viewed as a type of historical relic that some candidates answer with their fingers crossed. That is not how John Wesley, Methodism’s founder who wrote the questions, saw them. Wesley was big on accountability for both doctrine and polity (church government). He expected Methodist preachers to abide by both.
Maybe this is what the Mainstream article means when it says people are “forced” to conform to certain understandings about the Christian faith. Aside from the fact that this accountability is voluntarily chosen by (not “forced” on) those who seek ordination as clergy, accountability to the organization’s doctrines is no different in the church from what is expected in secular businesses. Employees and especially leaders in any business are expected to promote the “company line.” Deviating from that message is ample cause for loss of employment. Should the church exert less accountability on its leaders than secular businesses do?
In addition, there is no “lockstep” on all theological matters in the GM Church. The foundation is covered in its doctrinal standards and social witness statement. Aside from these foundational matters, there is considerable latitude in opinions and beliefs about various other, nonessential teachings. Within a commonly-held boundary of basic belief, there is much room for theological exploration and disagreement (see further below).
The Mainstream article goes on to describe those who are disaffiliating as those “who cannot tolerate differences.” It quotes John Wesley as saying, “Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike?” It argues that Wesley omitted the ancient creeds from Methodist doctrine “because he understood how they could become stumbling blocks to faith.” The article sums up its reasoning with the statement that “Methodists have never been about uniformity of belief, but rather uniformity of mission.”
Church historians can weigh in on whether Wesley thought the creeds could become stumbling blocks to faith (I think not). Suffice to say that the doctrines contained in the ancient creeds are also included in the Articles of Religion, which form the basis for United Methodist doctrinal standards. Perhaps Wesley thought including the creeds would be redundant and superfluous, given the already more robust doctrinal standards in the Articles of Religion.
It is certainly historically incorrect to state that Methodists have never been about uniformity of belief. Wesley himself during the formative years of the Methodist movement in England separated from the Moravians and then the Calvinists due to doctrinal differences. Both separations were actually quite sharp, with published articles pro and con trading accusations and even insults. Wesley was definitely concerned about doctrine. It is only in the 20th century that Methodists, in their drive toward ecumenical relations and denominational reunification, deemphasized doctrine as a uniting force.
Wesley’s quote above about thinking “alike” is taken out of context by Mainstream. In his sermon on the Catholic Spirit, he is urging that we treat one another as Christian brothers and sisters, despite differences in theology. But he is talking about belonging together to the larger Body of Christ, the universal or “holy catholic” church, not the qualifications for belonging to a particular denomination.
Elsewhere in the same sermon, Wesley says, “A catholic spirit … is not an indifference to all opinions. … This unsettledness of thought, this being ‘driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine’, is a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true Catholicism.” The saying that all manner of theological teachings and opinions are welcome within one denomination creates the kind of indifference and unsettledness that Wesley repudiates. Wesley’s sermon is best applied to the future relationship between the UM Church and the GM Church as different denominations within the one Body of Christ.
When it comes to belonging to a denomination, Wesley says, “every follower of Christ is obligated by the very nature of the Christian institution to be a member of some particular congregation or other, some church … (which implies a particular manner of worshipping God; for ‘two cannot walk together unless they be agreed’). … I ask not therefore of him with whom I would unite in love, ‘Are you of my Church? Of my congregation?’” Clearly, in his sermon on the Catholic Spirit, Wesley is talking about Christian love embracing brothers and sisters across denominational lines, not advocating for a “big tent” view of one’s own denomination.
Trivializing Doctrinal Difference
At the beginning of his essay, “The Character of a Methodist,” Wesley writes, “We believe indeed, that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God; and herein we are distinguished from Jews, Turks, and Infidels. We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule, both of Christian faith and practice; and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Romish church. We believe Christ to be the eternal supreme God, and herein are we distinguished from the Socinians and Arians. But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”
Plainly from this quote, Wesley believes there are certain foundational opinions or beliefs that are essential for being a Christian. The often-quoted admonition to “think and let think” does not apply to these foundational beliefs.
The Mainstream article charges that the church’s teaching “around LGBTQ marriage and ministry is a stumbling block to faith for many. It is standing in the way of our mission and keeping generations of people from a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.” Traditionalists counter that ignoring Scripture on these issues contravenes one of the basic foundational beliefs of Christianity, that “the written word of God [is] the only and sufficient rule, both of Christian faith and practice.” This is something that “strikes at the root of Christianity” and therefore cannot be ignored.
We might note that there are many teachings in the Bible that might act as “a stumbling block to faith” and in fact did so in the time of Jesus. The fact that there is only one God was a stumbling block to polytheistic Gentiles. Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah was a stumbling block to Jews. Many of Jesus’ teachings were met with resistance and even caused some to walk away. Yet, the early Church never thought it was appropriate to further the mission of the church by discounting, watering down, or compromising on these foundational truths. In fact, it was the distinctiveness of the church’s teaching and proclamation that won converts in the early centuries. Compromising today regarding LGBTQ teachings would carry the same negative impact on the church’s mission.
The Mainstream article goes on to charge that a “legalistic adherence to a few obscure Scripture passages is exactly what Jesus warns against in the Gospels. We should not be caught up in legalism, and neglect ‘the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.’” However, the article omits the next sentence in Matthew 23:23, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
Jesus does not set “justice, mercy, and faith (or faithfulness)” against “a few obscure Scripture passages.” It is not either/or, but both/and. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).
The Mainstream article concludes with the acknowledgement that “if our social witness does not align with our professed faith, then we are not only failing in our mission, but we are doing a disservice to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This is precisely what traditionalists believe is happening in the UM Church. Progressives and centrists have taken their social witness in a direction that does not align with our professed faith. Many traditionalists have determined that they cannot continue in a church that is failing in its mission and doing a disservice to the Gospel.
These are deep theological difference that cannot be trivialized by saying, “There is a place for everyone in the UMC.” Who is right, traditionalists or centrists and progressives, may not be obvious for another 100 years or more (or until we get to heaven). In the meantime, however, it is apparent that we cannot live together in the same church denomination and maintain our separate strong convictions. As Wesley advocated in his sermon on the Catholic Spirit, we must allow individuals and congregations the freedom to follow their own consciences without coercion or penalty. That is one basic way we can love one another.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Art: John Wesley at 85. Stipple engraving by F. Bartolozzi after J. Zoffany, 1760. Public domain, Wellcome Collection.
Our Side of the Street —
Editorial by Rob Renfroe —
I often read that we traditionalists are guilty of giving out misinformation about the United Methodist Church – its beliefs, practices, and future. It would be understandable for traditionalists to respond with a litany of falsities that have been stated by UM bishops and centrist leaders about our beliefs and our practices. Honestly, I’ve done my fair share of that. People need to hear the truth.
But we also have a responsibility to “take care of our side of the street.” We need to make sure we do not propagate untruths or write in such a way that we are easily misunderstood. If we have ever done so, we need to do our best to make it right.
One charge against traditionalists is we are telling people “the UM Church is going to change the Articles of Religion” which go back to the time of John Wesley. Along with a few other foundational documents, the Articles of Religion define what United Methodists believe about the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus, justification by faith, the sacraments, and many other important topics.
I can honestly state that I have never heard a traditionalist leader make this claim. I haven’t read everything my colleagues have written, but I’ve read a great deal. Over the past three decades, I have been in scores of discussions with other traditionalist leaders. Never in public or in private, never in writing or in conversation, has anyone stated that once we conservatives are gone, the UM Church will change its foundational beliefs.
What we have said is that the UM Church does not hold accountable bishops, pastors, and seminary professors who teach contrary to our doctrines and the Articles. You don’t need to change the rules if no one is enforcing them. Teach that Jesus is just one of many ways to salvation. Preach that he did not die for our sins. Declare that it is not important whether Jesus was raised from the dead. Undercut what the Articles of Religion (and the orthodox Christian faith) state, and you can remain in your pulpit or continue to teach in a UM seminary. Teach that Jesus was prejudiced and bigoted and you can be a UM bishop.
So, to clear up the misinformation, will the UM Church change the Articles of Religion any time soon? No. Will the UM Church and its bishops who are charged with upholding our doctrines enforce the Articles of Religion in the future? If they didn’t do so before the traditionalists left, it’s hard to believe they will do so in the future when most of us are gone.
Another accusation is we have portrayed everyone who is staying within the UM Church as theological liberals and cultural progressives. If we have, we were wrong to do so. I have close friends whom I respect and admire who are “staying UMC.” These are pastors who have a high Christology and who believe the Bible is God’s inspired word. Some of them even possess the same view I hold that marriage is the sacred union of one man and one woman and that sexual relations outside of marriage are contrary to God’s will.
Staying or leaving is a complex matter. Individual life circumstances come into play. Frankly, I have been baffled by some who are remaining. But we who are leaders within the traditionalist camp are grown-ups. We know the world and the human heart are complicated realities, and good people can differ on whether and when to leave. I am sure many centrist leaders love Jesus as much as I do and have devotional lives far superior to mine. I know that in the process and the politics of disaffiliation harmful things are said and there is a tendency to paint with an overly broad brush. If I have done that, I apologize. If laypersons on the way out have unfairly maligned the faith or the character of their pastor, they, also, need to ask forgiveness.
I have also been told that a common bit of misinformation is the conservative talking point that churches remaining in the UM Church will one day be forced to accept a partnered gay person or a theological progressive as their pastor. I don’t think we’ve ever put it that way, but this one is difficult to get just right. Churches that have been told they will never have to accept a pastor whose theology is progressive need to think carefully about that promise. By the end of this year most strongly traditionalist UM pastors will have left. A good number of those who stay will be nearing retirement age and will soon be gone. Very few young traditionalists will enter the UM pastorate in the future. So, in a very short time there will not be many conservative pastors to appoint to UM churches.
As for being forced to receive a practicing gay pastor, I don’t think anyone can guarantee that won’t happen. The definition of marriage and the requirements for ordination will change within the UM Church. There will be many more openly gay UM clergy and leaders. Most bishops and pastors who remain in the UM Church will see “full inclusion” as a matter of justice. Can you imagine a bishop promising a church that it will never have to accept a female or a black pastor? No, if the bishop thought such an appointment was best for that church, he or she would make that appointment, even if the church was resistant. To discriminate based on gender or ethnicity would be unjust.
In a similar way, it’s very likely there will come a time when giving in to a church’s desire to have only straight pastors will also be considered unjust. And bishops will decide to do what’s necessary to help a congregation grow, overcome its bigotry, and become “a real United Methodist Church.” Will it happen right away? Probably not. But will it one day happen? I can’t tell you for sure it will. But no one can tell you for sure it won’t.
I have assumed above that the UM Church will change its position on sexuality, marriage, and ordination. I have been told – and in the official UM series “Is the UMC Really …” it is stated – that no one truly knows where the UM Church is headed regarding sexuality. There are some proposals, we’re told, but no one is certain where the UM Church will come down, and it’s misinformation to say we know that the church will liberalize its position.
Ok, in the interest of full disclosure, I do not have a crystal ball, the gift of prophecy, or “a word from the Lord.” But it’s not disinformation to say that progressives and more recently centrists have for many years argued and fought for a more liberalized sexual ethic. Votes to uphold traditionalist views at General Conference have recently prevailed by only a few percentage points. It’s not “fearmongering” (as we are sometimes charged with) to conclude that once most of the traditionalists have left, the centrist-progressive coalition will constitute the majority and will be able to legislate what they have long wanted to be the UM position on sexuality.
The only question is “how far will they go?” As the culture becomes more and more progressive and begins to approve of loving sexual relationships beyond two adult persons, what will a denomination committed to full inclusivity and diversity not accept? If love is love, what love will be intolerable in the future UM Church? I don’t know. But have you heard any centrist leaders state they recognize this will be an issue for the UM Church in days to come? Have you read any bishop or denominational leader crafting a sexual ethic that states, “this we will accept, but this we cannot?” Have you seen anything that gives you confidence that the leadership of the UM Church is prepared for, or even aware of, the progressive wave that is coming its way regarding sexual ethics?
So, no, I don’t know where the UM Church will end up when it comes to marriage and sexual relationships. But it is not misinformation to say it will be more liberal than it is now. Possibly much more liberal.
We traditionalists need to be very careful when it comes to misinformation. We need to focus on issues, not attack people. We need to apologize and make amends where we have stepped over the line. But having a difference of opinion is not misinformation. Good people can differ. Grown-ups can talk about those differences. Christians can discuss those differences in a respectful way. That should be our goal and our commitment.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock.
Surf City Disaffiliation or Eviction? —
The Los Angeles Times recently published a comprehensive 2,000 word piece about the excessively costly disaffiliation process for traditionalist United Methodist congregations in Southern California. It is worth reading to gauge the level of turmoil and pain within the denomination-wide schism.
Every annual conference has set different requirements for a congregation to disaffiliate. The California-Pacific conference is one of three to charge 50 percent of the price of their property – in addition to the normal fees and pension liabilities that are required by other annual conferences around the nation. Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware are two others.
Elsewhere, California-Nevada is charging 20 percent, while South Carolina and West Virginia are charging 10 percent of the price of their property. Mountain Sky is charging a negotiated percentage of property value. Oregon-Idaho is adding some extra costs, but not a percentage of property value. Pacific Northwest and Alaska are not requiring extra costs. Neither is Desert Southwest.
According to the July 1 Times story from reporter Eric Licas, there are 22 Southern California churches attempting to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church. The arbitrary financial requirements are proving to be major impediments in the fate of these small congregations.
“This annual conference and a couple others out there are adding onerous provisions for disaffiliation that make it literally impossible,” said the Rev. Glen Haworth, lead pastor of The Fount, a United Methodist congregation in Fountain Valley, California. “My church has 50 members, and they want $3 million dollars,” he told Licas. “And they say that’s fine, that’s fair. I say: fair to who?”
For small congregations like Haworth’s, the annual conference cost requirements seem insurmountable.
The in-depth story in the Times focuses on a neighboring congregation, Surf City Church in Huntington Beach, a community 30 miles south of Los Angeles. That congregation sought to disaffiliate, but was closed by the conference instead.
The superintendent of California Pacific Conference’s South District, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, told the paper that Surf City Church – a United Methodist congregation – had been deemed “unviable” after “10 years of efforts to revitalize and focus the mission and ministry there.” According to Olewine, the conference leadership made the decision to close the church.
“[Surf City Church] is no longer a chartered congregation and due to the failure to participate in the mission congregation process that designation was terminated on December 31, 2022,” Olewine told the reporter. “They have no official standing in the denomination any longer.”
Understandably, laypeople from the Huntington Beach congregation are seeing the very painful story through a different lens.
“People in the pews, they’re the ones who are just unbelievably disappointed that they were part of a church that would say the kind of things and do the kind of things and take the kind of actions the church has taken,” John Leonard, a member of the Surf City Church board of trustees, is quoted as saying in the paper.
Leonard told the reporter that Surf City Church existed as a congregation long before it joined the United Methodist Church and that their sanctuary, preschool, fellowship hall and the rest of its facilities were all paid for by members of the community.
“The conference didn’t pay a cent for any of that,” Leonard said.
According to the newspaper account, Surf City was launched in 1904 as a “tent church” on the shore in Huntington Beach.
The newspaper reports that “members of the local congregation claim they have been harassed by parties representing their parent denomination, according to Leonard and [fellow board member Marge] Mitchell.” That interference includes harassment of the church’s preschool.
According to the reporting, “Earlier this year, [members of the congregation] received an email claiming they were illegally operating their preschool and had to shut it down. That was followed shortly thereafter by a visit to the school by state inspectors who said they were responding to an anonymous tip. However, [the inspectors] found no issues.”
Terri King, another Surf City member, handles the finances for the preschool that serves about 95 students from the community. When she tried to pay the teachers, King discovered that the “accounts holding their wages had been frozen by attorneys for the conference.”
In past years, the congregation has hosted a summer program for kids, but they have cancelled it this year “because we have no guarantee that we will be able to pay the teachers,” King told the paper.
Worship services, Bible studies, and other programs are being hosted at the church with the assistance of guest pastors. “Members still shuffle into their sanctuary’s pews and take inspiration from its stained glass windows,” reports Licas. “Most remain committed to their faith, even if they’re practically regarded as squatters by the conference.”
The members of the Huntington Beach congregation are awaiting a final decision “outlining exactly how ownership will be transferred,” although attorneys for the conference have “unsuccessfully filed motions to allow them to seize it immediately,” reports the paper.
“The issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is the presenting issue currently,” the superintendent, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, wrote in an email to the reporter on June 23. “But there are other challenges we must face that have existed for far too long: systemic racism, persistent sexism, and impacts of colonialism both within the U.S. and globally are just a few. How to be church as we approach the second quarter of the 21st century is up for grabs. We are amid a period of reformation, which is not a bad thing, but it is a challenging thing.”
Concerned laypeople within the congregation believe the denomination is “trying to leverage its survival against what they describe as a ransom on those trying to part ways with it.” They are hoping for a reformation of a different kind with a peaceable resolution.
To read the entire story in the Los Angeles Times, you may click HERE. Photo: Lone surfer at Huntington Beach. Photo by Steve Beard.
John Wesley Birthday Reader —
John Wesley’s birthday is a bit unusual. While the great evangelist and founder of Methodism was born on June 17, 1703, according to the Julian Calendar in use at the time. Midway through his life (in 1752), however, Britain shifted to the Gregorian Calendar, adding 11 days. From 1752 and for the rest of his life, Wesley celebrated his birthday on June 28th.
In recognition of the special celebration within Methodism, we draw your attention to a few of our favorites from the archives.
• Jason Vickers – “Don’t Take My Word for It, Read Wesley Yourself.”
“Over the last half century or so, scholars have written dozens of new books about John Wesley. There is now vast secondary literature on virtually every aspect of the founder of Methodism’s life and thought. And there is no shortage of disagreement over how to interpret Wesley. After all, that’s how we scholars make our living. We critique and challenge prevailing views in the name of complexity and nuance. Intentionally or not, this can give the impression that Wesley himself must be difficult to read. Some people might even be tempted to forego reading Wesley in favor of one of the new scholarly books about Wesley.
“An additional factor that can discourage people from reading Wesley for themselves is the simple fact that Wesley wrote a lot, including letters and diaries, occasional treatises, edited volumes, commentaries or ‘notes’ on the Bible, and sermons. With so much material at hand, it can be hard to know where to begin. The good news is that Wesley intended the overwhelming majority of what he wrote for the theological and spiritual edification of the people called Methodists. To be sure, he occasionally had other motives for writing, but his main concern was to develop and publish materials that would help people come to know God more truly and to love God and neighbor more fully each day. He wrote to educate, challenge, encourage, and inspire his readers in their journey with God and with one another. With this in mind, one could almost start reading anywhere.”
• John Singleton – “Wesley Finds His Place In History”
“After returning to London, he attended various Moravian meetings, and during one of these, on May 24, 1738, he had a conversion experience. “I felt my heart strangely warmed,” he wrote. “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” He was then 35 years old. The experience had such an effect on him that he devoted the rest of his long life to bringing the same message of salvation to others.”
• David F. Watson – “What Does it Mean to be a Wesleyan Christian”
“In other words, we need to recommit ourselves to some of the core beliefs and practices that characterized early Methodism. For Wesley and his followers, the Methodist movement involved a commitment to holiness lived out in several ways. Holiness was rooted in Scripture. It was lived out in community. It was facilitated by the means of grace, and it was expressed in solidarity with the poor.”
• Winfield Bevins – “Lessons from the Wesleyan Revival”
By the time of John Wesley’s death in 1791, Methodism was an international church movement with more than 70,000 members in England and more than 40,000 in the new United States, with even more among the mission stations scattered around the world. The seeds of the Methodist movement would continue to grow and spread well beyond Wesley’s lifetime. Just a few years after his death, Methodism in North America had grown to 200,000, with more than 4,000 Methodist preachers. By 1830, official membership in the Methodist Church had reached almost half a million people, and attenders numbered six million. From 1880 to 1905, American Methodism planted more than seven hundred churches per year on average.
• Kenneth C. Kinghorn – “Wesleyan Family Tree”
“John Wesley invented no new theological doctrines. “Whatever doctrine is new must be wrong,” he wrote, “and no doctrine can be right, unless it is the very same ‘which was from the beginning.’” Mr. Wesley said, “If Methodism…be a new discovery in religion…this [notion] is a grievous mistake; we pretend no such thing.” Far from being narrowly sectarian, John Wesley was a catholic Christian. He stood firmly in the mainstream of historic Christianity, and drew from many of the tributaries that fed into it.”
• James V. Heidinger II – John Wesley and United Methodist renewal
“At the time of the birth of Methodism, eighteenth century England was in a period of both spiritual and moral decline. John Wesley was preaching at a time that observers would consider Anglicanism’s “glacial” era – cold, stiff, and uninviting. Poet Laureate Robert Southey went so far as to say, ‘There never was less religious feeling either within the Establishment, or without, than when Wesley blew his trumpet and awakened those who slept.'”
• David F. Watson – “The Wesleyan Way to Read Scripture”
“For Wesley, the way in which the church had interpreted a passage of Scripture through the centuries was in large part determinative of that passage’s meaning. In other words, the church’s consensus helped to establish the plain sense of the text. Reading the Bible was not simply an individual undertaking. It was an ecclesiastical undertaking. In fact, without the guidance of the church, it was not possible to understanding the Bible correctly. For Wesley the Bible had one purpose: to lead us into salvation, and therefore reading it apart from the church’s theology of salvation would be futile.”
Photo: Bust of John Wesley by Enoch Wood. The piece was once on display at the World Methodist Museum at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Photo by Steve Beard.
Facing Your Jericho
By Stephen A. Seamands
Jericho is staring Joshua in the face, with its imposing, impenetrable walls towering over him. This was a fortified city if there ever was one, armed with all the sophisticated weaponry of that day. It was in lockdown because they knew the Israelites were going to attack.
More than any other obstacle, Jericho was standing between Joshua and the people of God, preventing them from taking over and occupying the land God had promised them. (You can read the story in the book of Joshua.) If they could take Jericho, the rest was sure to follow.
What is the equivalent of Jericho in your life today? What’s keeping you from your promised land? We all have them, don’t we? Imposing obstacles that stand in the way. Yours may relate to your job, your finances, your ministry, your marriage, your children, your family, your physical health, your relationships, your stage in life. But we all have them, don’t we?
Well, as the old African-American spiritual said, “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down.” They certainly did. The Bible says, they “fell down flat” (Joshua 6:20) – like a pancake.
But what about your Jericho? The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8 that in all things we can be “more than conquerors” through Christ. What do you need to do to win the battle?
Well, let’s look at what Joshua did.
1. Look up. “When Joshua was by Jericho,” the Scripture says, “he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand.”
The first thing Joshua did was that he “looked up.” But notice where he was when he did this. He was “by Jericho.” It is not looming in the distance, but right there in front of him. Jericho – staring him in the face.
Yet he looked up. Don’t miss that. Because your Jericho is like that too, isn’t it? You can’t get away from it. You can’t help thinking about day in and day out. It gets your attention. It’s in your face.
Ultimately, whatever gets your attention gets you. It has a way of consuming you. The more you think about it and focus on it, the bigger it gets, the more overwhelming it becomes. The more it weighs you down. And the more it keeps you from thinking about anything else.
But now notice, Joshua “looked up and saw.” That means he turned his eyes and his attention away from Jericho. And if he hadn’t done that, Jericho wouldn’t have fallen.
I wonder if that’s what you need to do right now. Is your attention so fixed on your Jericho that you’re not looking at anything else? Turn away from it right now. Look up and see.
The reason I attend worship services, and read the Bible every day, and pray, and meet with other Christians in a small group is because it helps me to look up.
2. Fall on your face. Joshua looked up and “he saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand.” Who was this man, anyway? We’re not told his name, but he was armed and dangerous.
But who exactly was he? As Christians we read the Bible backwards, reading the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, in the light of Christ. Christian writers and commentators of the Bible have suggested that what we have here is an appearance of Christ, the pre-existent Son of God.
As the Son, the second person of the Trinity, he existed from all eternity, and so he could appear like this to someone. Theologians have a word for this, they call it a “Christophany,” an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ, that is, before he became flesh and dwelt among us.
Joshua saw a man standing before him. He didn’t know who he was. He just knows this guy is ready to fight. Now he wants to know whose side is this guy on? Is he on our side or their side? But Joshua doesn’t get the answer he was hoping for or expecting. Instead, Joshua gets a push back that stops him in his tracks. “Neither,” says the man, “But as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”
In other words, “Joshua, you wanted to know if I was on your side or their side. And you were hoping I’d be on your side because you know you need help. You’re in over your head and you know it.
“You’ve got Jericho facing you, and you were hoping I would come along and help you with it. Then you could tell me what to do because you’re the commander in chief of Israel’s army and I would help you fix it, make it go away. And we would all live happily ever after.
“But no – that’s not what I’ve come to do. I haven’t come to serve you. I’ve come to take over. Forget about whose side I’m on. The real question is whose side are you on. I haven’t come to put myself at your disposal, so that you can use me to accomplish your agenda. I’m here to accomplish MY agenda. I want you at my disposal. You’re not in charge here, Joshua. You’re not the commander in chief anymore, I am.”
That answer stops Joshua in his tracks. He realizes he’s asked the wrong question.
So what about you? Have you been asking the Lord God to fight for you, to help you with your Jericho. “You need to fix this for me, Jesus. You need to make this Jericho go away. Here’s what I want you to do.”
We do that with Jesus, don’t we? Use him to get what we want. Jesus becomes the divine pharmacist we use to fill our prescriptions when we have aches. He’s the interior decorator we turn to whenever the house needs a makeover.
Jesus stands before us today and he says, “No. That’s not why I’ve come. Not so you can tell me what to do, but so I can tell you what to do. As the Commander of the Army of the Lord I have now come.”
How does Joshua respond to the abrupt, jarring answer he got? Here is what the Scripture says: “And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and he said to him, ‘What do you command your servant, my Lord?’” (Joshua 5:4).
Joshua fell on his face. He surrendered. He said, “Not my will, Lord, but Thy will be done.” His question changed from, “Are you here to help me?” to “What can I do to help you.” Do you need to fall on your face? Your Jericho is before you. Christ, the commander of the Lord’s army is here. You’ve been praying, “Jesus help me to solve this problem, to fix it, to resolve it the way I think you should.”
“Forgive me, Lord. Today, I’m changing my prayer. Not my will, but let your will be done. Take my Jericho. You fix it, you resolve it as you see fit. Use me, Lord to accomplish that.”
Do you need to stop telling God what you want, and start asking God what he wants? Joshua fell on his face. Before the walls of Jericho could fall down, Joshua had to fall down. Do you need to fall on your face, to surrender, to stop praying my will be done and start praying “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?
3. Take off your shoes. In the presence of the man with the drawn sword, Joshua fell on his face. But notice what he did next. “The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.’ And Joshua did so” (Joshua 5:15).
First Joshua looks up, then he falls down, now he takes off his shoes. This is interesting. And again, not what Joshua expected. He’s just said, “What do you command your servant, my Lord.” In other words, “I’ll do whatever you ask. Just tell me, I’ll do it. You’re the commander in chief now.”
And if you’re a military man, like Joshua was, and you know there’s going to be a battle to fight, you’re probably expecting to be given an order to carry out that has to do with preparing for battle. But instead of being told to get his boots on and put the troops on high alert, the first order Joshua gets is, “Soldier, take off your boots. The place you are standing is holy.”
Oddly, the commander of the Lord’s army calls Joshua to worship first, not to war – to adore, not to attack. He calls him to wait in the presence of God. “Slow down, Joshua, take your shoes off. I am here. Be still and know that I am God. Jericho can wait.”
This is always the order in spiritual battle. First we ascend into worship. Then we descend into war. Worship causes our God to get bigger. Of course that’s not literally true, but God does appear bigger in our eyes. We see him for who is always is and was and is to come! We are captured by his overwhelming beauty, his loveliness, his power, his goodness, his strength, his love.
And after we’ve been in his presence, gotten a fresh glimpse of who he is, then instead of telling our God how big our problems are, we start telling our problems how big our God is!
4. March and Shout. To conquer Jericho, Joshua had to look up, fall on his face, and take off his shoes. Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See I have handed over Jericho to you” (Joshua 6:2). Now march around the city for seven days, and on the seventh day, march around it seven times, and after you’ve done that have everyone shout – for the Lord has given you the city.
In the face of Jericho, God calls Joshua and the people to exercise faith. As it says in Hebrews 11, the great faith chapter of the Bible, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled seven days” (11:30).
So God says, “I’ve handed over Jericho to you. It’s a done deal. I have given you the city. Take me at my word. So as an act of faith, march around it because the city is in your hands. No, you can’t see it yet. It hasn’t become actual yet, but make no mistake, it’s real, it has happened.
“And keep marching. Be patient – march around for seven days until the circle of time is completed. It may look like nothing is happening. The novelty of marching around the walls may have worn off. The people of Jericho, looking down on you from inside the walls, may ridicule you and tell you you’re crazy. But don’t stop.”
According to Hebrews 11, “faith is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot see” (NLT). Stay at it until the unseen real (what God’s word says) becomes the seen real (what you can actually see). Stay at it until your faith becomes sight.
And when you’ve marched around the city for the very last time, for the seventh time on the seventh day, shout in anticipation of what God’s going to do. Don’t shout after the walls fall down. That’s what we would expect. We shout after the batter hits the home run or team scores a touchdown. No, do it before in faith as bold anticipation of what God’s going to do.
He’s here with you at this moment, the risen and reigning Lord Jesus – the man with the sword in his hand – standing by your Jericho. So look up and see, fall on your face, take off your shoes, march around the city, and shout.
Stephen Seamands is professor emeritus of Christian Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of several books including Wounds That Heal: Bringing Our Hurts to the Cross and Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service. This article appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Good News. Cover art: Wesley21 Art.