Archive: Prayer Made All the Difference at the 1976 General Conference

By Charles W. Keysor, Editor, Good News Magazine

“Wisdom is better than weapons of war,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes long ago.

What wisdom can we gain from the 1976 General Conference?

Above all, Portland demonstrated that amazing things do happen when many believers pray. The right people are placed on the right committees. The right information is supplied at the moment of need. Those obstructing Gospel principles are wondrously moved aside. Ordinary men and women are given supernatural wisdom to speak, strategize, and cooperate. They are silent at the right time and they speak at the right time. All this, and more, is the result of God answering the prayers of His people.

The day before General Conference began, we noticed a woman praying in the empty auditorium. For hours she sat alone in the semidarkness above the ground floor where workmen were busily setting up desks and microphones. Later we learned that she had prayed over each of the 1,000 desks. She had prayed for each person who would be sitting and voting in that vast auditorium.

This was symbolic. She was one of untold thousands across the country and around the world … United Methodists who love their church, who were deeply concerned, and who lifted these concerns to the Throne of God. They prayed that His will would be accomplished in Portland. That the UM Church would be strengthened. That the Holy Spirit would rule and overrule. That precious time and talents would be used to God’s glory. That God’s people would be wise and bold in upholding His truth. Perhaps this was the first time such a massive prayer barrage had been focused on a recent General Conference.

Perhaps this kind of saturation prayer would have changed history over the last 50 years … certainly this kind of prayer can shape the future in God’s way! For General Conferences yet to come, for annual conferences, for local churches, for pastors, and for church members.

It seems strange that we have only now begun to unite through prayer for positive changes in the church. Perhaps the admonition of James applies to us who have so long lacked influence in our denomination: “You do not have because you do not ask …” (James 4:2b).

Wisdom at the point of focusing our prayers is, indeed, “better than weapons of war.” It is, in fact, the believer’s ultimate weapon in the arsenal of spiritual warfare. Somehow, we must learn to use this weapon more effectively than we have done in the past.

A practical opportunity lies close at hand. On July 13-15 the five UM Jurisdictional Conferences will meet. The most important business at four of these will be electing bishops—the future spiritual and pastoral leaders of our church. Now is the time to begin praying that this great honor and responsibility will fall upon mature Christians. Pray that God will thwart the ambitions of political manipulators and mere guardians of the status quo.

The dates of July 13-15 should be entered on the prayer calendar of each United Methodist who believes that “prayer changes things.” The five conferences will be held:

Northeast, Bridgeport, Connecticut
Southeast, Lake Junaluska, North Carolina
North Central, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
South Central, Lincoln, Nebraska
Western, Salt Lake City, Utah

Prayer targets are also close to home. Your annual conference meets once each year in May or June. It deserves intense intercessory prayer. So do the various meetings of your own local church. Your pastor. Your fellow church members.

Indeed, “More things ARE wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.” Portland proved it. Portland shows us that every United Methodist can help to bring about constructive change in our church—at  upper levels. The question is: do we care enough to pray enough?

A New Politics Dawns in Portland

The 1976 General Conference showed that effective political action under the Holy Spirit, is a real possibility for UM evangelicals. This is something new! “Evangelical politics ” has a strange and unfamiliar sound.

Since the early 1900s, when evangelicals lost control of Methodism, we have suffered one defeat after another. Unfortunately, our most common response has been to retreat from combat and lick our wounds. This has been made easier because of our deep, natural preference to be preaching the Gospel, leading people to Christ, and building up the Body of Christ. Not politicking!

The great evangelical political withdrawal, part by intent and part by naivete, has left non-evangelicals in many places of decision. They have been calling the shots on church school literature … on missions policy … on choosing bishops … on colleges and seminaries. Our role has seemed to be just writing the checks and wringing our hands in helpless frustration.

The worm has turned.

A new day is dawning.

The time has come, evidenced by Portland, when evangelicals will vigorously and creatively “contend for the faith” where the votes are counted. We intend to be where the decisions are made-when they are made. This is a necessary part of our determination to work within our church. For to fail in church politics is to fail our Lord at a crucial point. He does care who makes the decisions in His Church!

The housekeeping activity of the church, which we tend to downgrade as routine and political, is, in fact, very necessary. (A house where housekeeping chores are ignored is a messy place!) Politics is an important part of our living together as Christians in the church.

Portland proved that evangelicals can be effective politically. It also proved that the various non-evangelical power blocks are not so formidable nor so unbeatable as they once seemed. They are faltering. They lack fresh vision. Often they are simply a replay of the “Old Left,” vintage 1964-1970.

The news is that yesterday’s progressives have become today’s reactionaries, guardians of the ecclesiastical machinery which they now control. It is the evangelicals, long disestablished, who now represent the potential for constructive change, reform, and wholesome church renewal. Those who once languished in the United Methodist rear guard are now becoming the vanguard.

Nobody expected this. Portland was something of a blitzkrieg. It left various power blocs confused, angry, and fighting among themselves. In the last hours of the 1976 General Conference they vowed to counterattack. They have determined to regain full dominance of the UM Church.

One church leader likened Portland to a parenthesis … a mere “bogey” on the radar screen … a brief aberration, after which the church would return to uninhibited secularism. He attributed the “conservative” trend in Portland to nostalgia kindled by America’s 200th birthday. By 1980, he predicted, it would be his “business-as-usual” for the UM Church.

Perhaps. But we believe that Portland represents something deeper and more significant. The sands of time are running out on the heirs of liberalism. Portland was a discreet, but clear, call for greater sensitivity and creativity on the part of UM leaders. Portland served notice that the church is impatient about continuing hemorrhage of membership loss, the dwindling church school, the secularization of our colleges … the faddism of our seminaries … the erosion of basic Biblical doctrines … and the condescension of church bureaucrats who through their insensitivity fan the flames of discontent and divisiveness.

Recently the Interpreter published an in-depth survey which revealed that many United Methodists are unhappy about such trends. It became apparent in Portland that Good News is no longer an eccentric voice in the wilderness. Thoughtful people were listening—and voting positively. Their voting patterns revealed a concern similar to what Good News has been expressing for the last 10 years.

What happens now? After the tumult of Portland has faded into history, will we settle back in complacency? Or will we move ahead? Will we capitalize for Christ on the momentum which God granted in Portland?

The Swinging Ship in Portland

The Willamette River port area of Portland, in the shadow of Memorial Coliseum, is about 80 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Almost every day foreign freighters dock behind the Coliseum to load cargoes of grain.

During odd moments we watched several of these ocean-going ships maneuvering into the Portland docks. We were impressed by the ships’ powerful forward momentum. Sometimes several sturdy tugboats were needed to swing the huge ships around, so strong was their forward thrust. Always, the turning was gradual.

The UM Church resembles a freighter. Our denomination moves forward with strong accumulated momentum in the direction it has been traveling for many years. General Conference, the top policy-setting authority, provides primary thrust. It also can turn the church in new directions.

To understand what happened in Portland, one must recognize both the beginnings of a turning … and also the powerful continuing thrust in a direction the church has been moving. Portland was neither a complete reversal, nor an uninterrupted continuation of the past direction.

Signs of a turning include these:

1. Voting down proposals by the UM Board of Church and Society to condone homosexual practice and fornication.

2. Rejecting various proposals for a four-year, churchwide study of human sexuality. Instead, the initiative is left with local churches.

3. Prohibiting any agency of the church from spending money to promote homosexual practice, or on organizations which do.

4. Strengthening the expressed official disapproval of so-called “marriage” between persons of the same sex.

5. Considering matters of ordination, inserted this portion of the Social Principles’ statement: we “do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” This safeguard made unnecessary an explicit disciplinary prohibition against ordination of professing homosexuals.

6. Decision to study effects of the “quota system.” This was underscored when delegates refused to endorse a quota for at least 40% executive staff leadership to be women. (The Judicial Council ruled that EUB quotas, established at 1968, will not apply at the 1980 General Conference.)

7. The legislative committee on finance resisted powerful pressures to apportion millions of dollars for various minority-group causes. This committee action seemed to reflect what an Interpreter magazine survey has revealed as a growing disenchantment with high-priority emphasis on minority concerns.

8. Required clearer accountability by boards and agencies as to their political activities. Such information must be provided to churches on request.

9. Evangelism was included among the three top “missional priorities” for 1977-1980.

10. Took action to stem the loss of membership which will, by the end of this year, probably exceed 1,000,000 since 1968.

11. Ordered a four-year emphasis on local church education, “Decision Point: Church School.”

12. Evangelicals emerged as a viable political force.

13. Diminished “clout” of several caucuses which had previously been very influential.

14. Delegates did not respond in Pablovian fashion to the kind of guilt-generating rhetoric which has so powerfully moved recent General Conferences. Delegates listened openly but voted independently.

15. Adopted a $600,000 per year program in “mass communications” to influence the media. This will offer support to the quadrennial emphasis, so it should include evangelism on radio and TV.

16. The theme for 1977-1980 will be, “Committed to Christ-Called to Change.” This offers great possibilities for the Gospel!

17. Insisted that our bishops be significantly involved in setting priorities for the church between General Conferences. This was a checkrein upon the power of boards and agencies.

18. Ordered continued study of a proposal to relocate the headquarters of the Board of Global Ministries. This would break up the denomination’s largest entrenched bureaucracy, separating it from proximity to the World and National Council of Churches in New York City.

19. Recommended that representatives from “small membership churches” be considered for membership on annual conference boards and agencies. This would help insure a fuller representation, since about two-thirds of all UM churches have 200 members or less.

20. Eliminated the UM Council on Youth Ministries which had acted as the spearhead for pro-homosexual advocacy. Debate showed that it had failed to fairly represent the opinions of youth of the church. The new youth structure, to begin in 1977, will be more accurately representative and accountable through the Board of Discipleship.

21. Adopted “guidelines” for charismatics and the UM Church. National Courier commented, “In effect, the guidelines tell UM preachers and laymen who are charismatics to deal gently and lovingly with those in the congregation without such experience. The guidelines also attempt to speak to non-charismatics by suggesting that they be more tolerant and understanding.”

22. Ordered that all staff executives be United Methodist—an effort to relate the bureaucracy more closely to the church which it serves.

23. Recommended abstention from alcoholic beverage. Some called this a stronger statement than adopted in 1972.

24. Condemned the spread of state-sponsored gambling.

25. Rejected a proposal for a publicly administered, universal health care plan.

26. Continued the life tenure for bishops. This defeated further weakening of the episcopacy and thwarted caucus domination in selecting bishops. Eight years was set as the maximum time a bishop may serve in one episcopal area. (Someone asked, “What do you do with a used bishop?”)

27. Established a new “Diaconal Ministry” for people not ordained, who are serving the church on a “full time professional basis.” Required each annual conference to establish a Board of Diaconal Ministry, as a counterpart of the Board of Ministry. These measures move toward equal recognition of the laity as servants, though unordained, of Jesus Christ.

Considered together, these actions of General Conference comprise an obvious turning of the Good Ship United Methodist. But other actions of the Portland General Conference indicate that the Ship still continues moving in the direction of recent years:

1. Voted a 19.8% increase in apportionments for 1977-1980. This seemed to indicate a greater sensitivity to pressure groups than to the realities of local church mood and capability.

2. Allotted evangelism $125,000 per year in apportioned funds. Allotted black colleges $6,000,000 yearly in apportioned funds; $2,000,000 apportioned yearly for world hunger; $2,000,000 apportioned yearly for strengthening ethnic minority churches.

Evangelism, which many United Methodists believe to be the first business of Christ’s Church, languishes as an under-budgeted stepchild.

3. Voted to increase yearly apportioned giving to both World and National Councils of Churches, after an effort failed to reduce this by 50%. NCC was allotted $470,000 per year during the present quadrennium: it will be allotted $500,000 per year from 1977-1980. And WCC, which was allotted $230,000 annually, will be allotted $300,000 per year from UM apportionments during the new quadrennium.

4. Accepted in principle the Council on Church Union (COCU) proposal for mutual recognition of membership among Christian denominations. COCU, widely considered dead, is evidently very much alive.

5. Delegates created more bureaucracy. They made permanent the temporary Commission on Role and Status of Women, with a budget of $200,000 per year from World Service. That this new bureaucracy could not be assimilated into the existing structures for women suggests that the Commission on Role and Status of Women will become an official base of operations for promoting “Women’s Lib” within our church.

6. Mandated a Commission on Religion and Race to be set up in every local church. This adds complexity to the local church organization, which is already difficult for churches with limited working personnel available to operate committees.

7. Approved gun control, Equal Rights Amendment, and eventual independence of the Panama Canal—issues on which United Methodists disagree sharply. These official endorsements guarantee four years of abrasion that will result when church boards and agencies make public pronouncements, join coalitions and spend church money promoting these causes which are not essential to salvation, as specified in Scripture.

8. Exhibited much greater “openness” toward homosexuality than either the Scriptures or the convictions expressed in thousands of petitions. Two UM bishops, Wheatley (Rocky Mountain) and DeWitt (Wisconsin) were listed as participants in a noon hour worship service sponsored by the homosexual caucus.

Mr. Keith Spare, homosexual caucus leader, was invited to speak briefly to the General Conference in the midst of a debate involving homosexuality. Equal time was not provided for advocates of the Biblical viewpoint.

On this issue, it was as if the Bible and the people had spoken in thunder but the General Conference heard only a whisper.

9. The bureaucracy exercised powerful influences, often protecting their vested interests.

10. This General Conference made it somewhat more difficult to remove inactive members from local church rolls. This restricts disciplinary initiative by local churches and may help to minimize membership loss figures during the next four years.

11. Refused to require a UM Men’s unit for each local church. Also refused to establish a division of men’s work within the General Board of Discipleship. General Conference seemed thus to minimize the importance of men, while maximizing the empowerment of women.

Yes, the Good Ship United Methodist has begun to turn. Change has started occurring. We need to recognize this and give thanks to God for every constructive sign of new directions! We need to push hard to accelerate every constructive change.

But we need also to be realistic about powerful forces which continue propelling United Methodism in directions which lead to shrinkage, spiritual impotence, and loss of Biblical distinctives.

A Macendonian Call in Portland

General Conference ended at 2:00 a.m. Saturday, May 8. At 10:00 a.m. May 8, some Good News leaders met to assess what had happened. On a wind-swept hilltop overlooking Portland, we were suddenly reminded of Revelation 3:8, “Behold I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.”

Did not God open a door in Portland? Is He not beckoning us to move through this door, into a future which He is even now preparing?

Is He not Lord of the future? Doesn’t His sovereign power tread down all His enemies, open pathways through impenetrable wilderness, feed His people, and proceed before them in cloud and pillar of fire?

Yes, a door has been opened! The initiative for church renewal and reform is being handed to those who believe the Gospel unhesitatingly, and who are prepared to act boldly because their belief is more than just God-talk.

Another thought came to us just after General Conference adjourned. We remember the Apostle Paul’s “Macedonian Call,” recorded in Acts 16:9, 10. In a dream, Paul heard a Macedonian man calling, “Come over … and help us.” In obedience, Paul went. He carried the Gospel into a new continent and a beachhead for Christ was established in Europe.

In Portland we sensed the cry of a great church, shorn of its spiritual power, weak as Samson bound before Delilah. We heard that church—our church—calling, “Come over … and help us. Help us to find the resurrection power of Jesus Christ!

“Come—set us free from the clutches of dead formalism and triviality in worship!

“Come—liberate us from perpetual piddling with church organization!

“Come—help us proclaim Jesus Christ to lost billions around the world!

“Come—help us teach children, young people, and adults the great, enduring truths of Holy Scripture!

“Come—and help us convert mil- lions of unsaved who mistakenly think that church membership is salvation.

“Come—drive out the awful apathy which strangles our praise, repels our youth, and makes our churches mausoleums rather than redemption centers.

“Come—and help us find the Holy Spirit’s power by which each United Methodist Church may become a transformer of our pagan culture.

“Come—and rescue us from the world around us which is squeezing us relentlessly into its own mold.

“Come—and help us place the Name of Jesus Christ above every other name in our worship, our programs, our meetings, our institutions, our publications.

“Come—and help us recover our first love for Jesus Christ, the love grown tragically lukewarm, the passion without which we perish.”

Heeding that Macedonian call is our task as evangelicals in the UM Church.

This cannot be done in our own strength. We are scattered. We are sometimes demoralized and timid. Too often we have a defeatist attitude, complaining that the problems are even larger than our God’s strength. Too often we retreat when we should advance, sidestep when we should engage falsehood with the weapon of divine truth.

No less than an outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s power can lift us in our weakness and thrust us through God’s open door into the future He has planned.

In Portland this began to happen. By God’s grace and power it can happen also in our churches. And in us.


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