By Barbara Dunlap-Berg
Evangelical United Methodist groups are teaming up with evangelical groups in other mainline Protestant denominations to share resources. Some of these evangelicals are working toward reform within their denominations. Others are in the process of splitting to form new denominations.
The leaders have covenanted to engage in joint ministries and to explore cooperatively planting churches and sending missionaries, offering incubator facilities to support new church plants, providing theological education and sharing space with dislocated congregations.
“What we hope to learn from each other is the ‘how’ of ministering that message in our 21st century North American culture,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News, an unofficial evangelical caucus of United Methodists. “Through sharing, support and cross-fertilization, we believe we can be more effective in contemporary ministry, building vital congregations to make disciples for the transformation of the world.”
He was part of an ecumenical summit of 32 evangelical leaders from 14 United Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches and organizations who affirmed common theological ground and sought practical ways of working together during a late October conference in Dallas. The unofficial United Methodist caucuses represented included Good News, The Institute on Religion and Democracy, The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church and Lifewatch (Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality).
The ecumenical group’s goal is not to create a new United Methodist or evangelical super-denomination but, rather, a network to address common issues and concerns, Lambrecht said. “We believe in a type of ecumenism that is not institutional, but organic, built on partnerships and networks that can be of mutual benefit,” he said.
However, Lambrecht noted that one challenge he believes the denomination faces is its broad theological spectrum. The United Methodist Church is “the opposite of McDonald’s, where every restaurant offers the same menu and experience,” he said.
That lack of consistency, he continued, contributes to the denomination’s greatest challenge, which is “how to create growing, vital faith communities in a culture that has changed. One of the barriers to our doing that is the lack of a common theological message. Because of our diversity of beliefs, we have many different messages coming out of local churches and pastors.
“The denominational label doesn’t really tell you what you will be getting if you attend one of our churches. With such diversity, it is difficult to come up with a unified strategy to reach our culture for Christ.”
Rather than being in competition with United Methodist boards and agencies, Lambrecht said the ecumenical group envisions participating in experiences that denominational agencies do not offer. The goal, he added, is to share resources and experiences. “We do not anticipate diverting dollars or support from United Methodist programs, but offering additional alternatives.
“It is also true,” he said, “that some of our denominational ‘official’ experiences are not theologically congenial for evangelicals. The ecumenical experiences provide another option that for some might be more in line with their evangelical theology. Where appropriate, we hope to be able to include United Methodist agency staff in these shared ecumenical experiences.”
‘Encouraged’ by the future
Representatives of the Institute of Religion and Democracy, the American Anglican Council, the North American Lutheran Church, and the Presbyterian Lay Committee organized the summit. All have been part of an evangelical ecumenical group called the Association for Church Renewal, which consisted of renewal leaders from several mainline denominations.
Lambrecht said that when Association of Church Renewal formed, all of the renewal groups were still working toward reform within their denominations. Since then, several — namely those in the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — have spawned new, independent denominations.
“It was thought that a new initiative was needed that could take account of that new reality and assist us in working together for spiritual renewal and growing vitality in whatever denominational setting we find ourselves,” he said.
Lambrecht said he does not see evangelicals within The United Methodist Church moving toward a split. “Our U.M. situation, he said, “is much different from most of the others, in that we have not reached a breaking point for evangelicals. In fact, we are quite encouraged about the future we see in our denomination.”
He said recent gatherings of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, have upheld “the authority of Scripture and our moral teachings.” He added church leaders “finally getting serious about addressing our membership decline and wanting to work diligently to turn things around” indicate “a greater openness to what evangelicals have to offer,” he said.
Participants formed working groups, listened to plenary sessions and affirmed an ecumenical statement. While all of the leaders endorsed the statement, some did so as individuals rather than on behalf of their respective churches or organizations, Lambrecht said.
‘Being the church together’
The statement says the new group comes from diverse Christian traditions but is united in the Spirit. While the signatories acknowledge “the imperfections of Christian institutions and the broken nature of our collective witness to the world,” the signers also “commit to strive together for a faithful way of being the Church together. Our hearts are burdened for the millions of our neighbors who are estranged from God and the Church.”
The statement addresses two issues that have been a source of tension and even schism in their respective denominations — human sexuality and abortion. The statement defines marriage as between one man and one woman and affirms, “Every human life is a gift from God to be cherished and respected from conception to natural death.”
“The church should speak only on the issues that follow directly from core Christian moral convictions,” the statement said. Among the others it identifies are upholding the dignity of each person as created in God’s image, addressing the needs and expanding the opportunities of the poor, strengthening the bonds between parents and children and defending the free exercise of religion in North America and around the world.
Summit participants plan a 2013 summit and hope to piggyback on an Anglican church-planting event in Wheaton, Illinois.
They also want to address the issue of sex trafficking. Lambrecht said, “I personally hope we can involve our United Methodist agency staff in both of those experiences.”
Barbara Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.