Archive: The Crisis in our Church

Condensed from an address by Dr. Charles W. Keyser,
Editor, Good News
Pastor, Grace United Methodist Church, Elgin, Illinois

Unfaithfulness in a hundred forms – that is the anatomy of church crisis.

As I looked out over this great Convocation, I thought what an amazing miracle! What a wonder God has wrought. It hardly seems possible that God has brought over 1600 of us here to Dallas from across the country-and around the world. I understand that one brother has come all the way from New Zealand.

Such a gathering as this was beyond the fondest hopes of those who began the Good News Movement back in 1967. Back then we, too, had a dream. We dreamed of a day when Methodist evangelicals would not sulk in silence and shame. We dreamed of a day when we would, instead, be drawn together by the Spirit of God for positive and constructive action to cure the crisis of the Church.

Back in 1967 we dreamed of an informed but silent minority becoming an un-silent majority … filled with holy boldness … ready, willing and able to speak up and die, if necessary, for the convictions given to us by Jesus Christ. And we dreamed of a time when millions of Methodists would want to take more seriously the promises they had made to God and vows taken when they joined the church as members, or in the sacred moment of ordination.

Pastor or layman, each one of us promised God to uphold The Methodist Church. (or, more recently, the United Methodist Church). We made this decision freely. We undertook this commitment gladly because we believed that we could be loyal Methodists at the same time we were faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.

We saw no contradiction then, and we see no contradiction now. Because the Methodism that we uphold is based on eternal Truth – God’s Truth as it is revealed, first, in the Person of Jesus Christ, and also in the pages of Holy Scripture. I speak of historic Methodism of our Articles of Religion, our Articles of Faith from the E.U.B. Confession, the Wesley Sermons and the General Rules. These constitute true Methodism – Methodism of the Bible, Methodism of our Discipline.

You and I know that there is a vast and tragic discrepancy between this historic Methodism that is our spiritual birthright, and many of the attitudes and the practices we find in United Methodism today. We have all experienced these painful discrepancies. All of us have suffered and anguished because of them.

Now we have reached a place where. we can no longer keep silent! We can no longer stand idly by while unfaithfulness to God and our beloved Church destroys the once-great force for God, known as Methodism. We cannot be silent! And we will not be silent! For silence in the present Church crisis may be our greatest contribution to that crisis.

Too often there have been compromises with the truth. Too often pastors and laymen have shied away from the hard task of standing for God’s Truth when the crowd is going in some other direction. Too often the desire for advancement in the church, for the good will of church leaders, has muzzled Methodism’s prophets into limp and shameful acquiescence.

To remain silent in the Church crisis is equal to renouncing our commitments to Jesus Christ and also to His Church. So here we stand in Dallas. We can do no other. So, help us God!

What is the Church crisis?

I have been asked to attempt a broad diagnosis. The task is so enormous that only a few of the most important facets can be looked at in the time that is available.

Let me, first, make a generalization: The Church crisis must be seen as unfaithfulness. It all boils down to this. A Church that is not faithful to its Lord, to His commands and His instructions, is sure to be a Church in crisis.

A Church is in crisis, also, when its leaders, and its people are not brave enough to be faithful to their own deep convictions and beliefs. Unfaithfulness in a hundred variations. That is the Church crisis.

Perhaps the greatest and most tragic manifestation of United Methodist unfaithfulness is in evangelism. Nowhere is the crisis etched more starkly. For nowhere in the life and mission of the Church is Jesus’ word of instruction any clearer or more explicit. Our Lord says to the Church, “Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples” (Matthew 28:19a).

What could be plainer than this? Make disciples. Evangelize. Article Five, of the E.U.B. Confession of Faith says, in part:

” … Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit, the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and for the redemption of the world.”

This is United Methodist doctrine. You can read it on page 45 of your Discipline. But many United Methodist laymen, pastors and other leaders apparently do not believe that the world really needs redemption … at least in the eternal sense of the word.

Redemption from race prejudice … yes.

Redemption from cultural dehumanization … of course.

Redemption from insensitivity to the needs of others … certainly.

But many United Methodists who stress these kinds of redemption laugh at the idea that individuals need to be redeemed from sin. And that because all men are sinners, all are therefore separated by nature from God. Denying these basic truths of Scripture and Methodist doctrine, many United Methodists believe that nobody is lost-in the eternal sense. Nobody is really perishing. Nobody is destined to spend forever suffering in hell.

This is why United Methodist enthusiasm for evangelism is sagging. And, to make matters worse, we are going through a fad which calls evangelism anything and everything that the church does. Some tell even us that Christ needs not be mentioned at all. And so we find evangelism without an Evangel. A strange and grotesque unfaithfulness, indeed!

Too many United Methodists stop after emphasizing the need for eternal redemption. It is almost as if God had no concern for what is happening to people next door, down the street, or around the world. And this is surely a major factor in the Church crisis.

People who ignore the social responsibilities of the Christian faith are just as guilty of apostacy and heresy as those other people who have wrongly eliminated the eternal. Scriptural Christianity – that is, true Methodism – has two dimensions. One for this world, and the other for the world to come. These are opposite sides of the same coin. To ignore either side is to be disobedient to our Lord Jesus and His both-worldly Gospel.

I wonder whether we are all familiar with the United Methodist Social Creed. We ought to be. It is not the devil’s invention as some suggest. No, it is an attempted expression of that indispensable Christian concern for others. Others, whom Jesus has called us to love as much as we love ourselves. The fact is, this can happen only when Jesus Christ fills our lives with Himself, that “love divine, all loves excelling, that joy of Heaven to earth come down.”

I am glad that the objectives of this great Convocation include these words: “to challenge all United Methodists to confess our own failures, and to make a more radical and selfless commitment of our lives to Christ … and to work to eliminate those forces which brutalize our fellow-men.”

We do care about racial hatreds.

Yes, we care what the younger generation is trying to say through its angry protests.

We do care about war, about disarmament, about the rape of our environment.

Another great area of church crisis is unfaithfulness in love and concern toward each other. Our Lord said, “A new commandment I give you: love one another …. If you have love for one another, then all will know that you are my disciples ” (John 13:34, 35).

This great principle can be seen in Wesley’s General Rules, which are properly part of the United Methodist’s ethical heritage. Wesley instructed: “It is expected of all who continue in these societies that they shall continue to evidence their desire for salvation … by doing good especially to them that are of the household of faith” (Discipline pg. 50, 51).

Is there not an awful discrepancy between this high ideal of practical love, and the way we often treat each other in the Church? Is it love to engage in Tammany Hall politics, where the goal is to wipe out those who disagree?

Is it love to have liberals driving conservatives out of the church?

Is it love and consideration when our Board of Education ignores decades of pleading by loyal Methodists for literature that does not violate their faith and Christian experience?

Is it Christian love when United Methodist curriculum editors force upon the Church secular concepts so radical that many loyal Methodists feel obliged to leave the Church rather than subject their children to new morality, ethical relativism and doubt enshrined as truth?

Is it love and honesty when certain elements take money given by the people for one purpose and then use that money for a completely different purpose … a purpose to which many of the givers are violently opposed?

Is it love and concern when church pressure groups make one-sided public pronouncements which inflame our tensions and increase our polarization?

Is it love and concern when laymen who object to certain church policies are told, “Get out if you don’t like the way we are running the church?” And “you can go to hell.”

When the world looks at United Methodism, as the world is looking right now, will the world say, “See how these Christians love one another?”

The Church is in crisis because we have been unfaithful to God and to each other in the matter of concern, respect and willingness to coexist as Christian brothers with those whose opinions may differ on matters not essential to salvation.

Let it be clearly said for all the world to hear and understand: We seek faithfulness on the part of United Methodist pastors, laymen, church leaders and employees of the church. Faithfulness to those great principles of our doctrines and our Discipline which are the foundation of Methodism. We seek faithfulness to the vows and the promises by which we all became Methodists. Faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to His Gospel.

That is our desire! That is our goal! That is our demand!

Multitudes of faithful Methodists are sick and tired of unfaithfulness. Their dollars have built Methodist churches and pay Methodist salaries. Their sons and daughters fill Methodist pulpits and staff Methodist institutions around the world. Also, they fill Methodist pews Sunday after Sunday.

Many of these faithful Methodists are disillusioned, frustrated, angry. They are feeling betrayed by their leaders. It is time to sound the alarm! Unless these loyal Methodists begin to see that unfaithfulness is coming to an end, they will send their dollars elsewhere. Their sons and daughters will serve Christ outside of the United Methodist Church. And we will see them no more.

I am not being pessimistic; I am being realistic. For these things are already happening. We all know it. But we have been reluctant to face the truth. It is time that these things be said openly. Better face the truth now, than lose another 200,000 members next year. The Church may not have much time remaining before the Lord of the Church calls us to account.

Another dimension of the Church crisis is revealed by John chapter three, verse 3. Here Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.” This and other passages in Holy Scripture make it very clear that man, as he is, is not fit for fellowship with God. A miracle must happen: sin must be paid for. There must be a profound inner transformation of the ethics, the emotions, and of the value standards. As Martin Luther put it, the inner self must be liberated from bondage to Satan.

John Wesley’s ministry was based upon this great goal of bringing sinners into a glorious new and right relationship with God. Wesley said: “The Church has nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore, spend and be spent in this work. It is not your business to speak so many times but to save souls as you can, to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance.”

Our Methodist doctrine makes this clear. Article seven says “Original sin standeth not in following Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk) but it is the corruption of the nature of every man … whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil and that continually”  (1968 United Methodist Discipline pg. 38).

And the ninth E.U.B. article, on page 46 of our Discipline, says, in part, “We believe we are never accounted righteous before God through our works or merit, but that penitent sinners are justified or accounted righteous before God only by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. …”

How strongly does the United Methodist Church today emphasize the absolute necessity of deep transformation through life commitment to Jesus Christ? We seem to hear more often that man is basically okay – that no inner transformation is really necessary. Powerful forces in the Church are urging celebration of humanity, without the prior experience of redemption clearly emphasized in Scripture, and in our Methodist doctrine.

Millions of United Methodists have never been confronted with the radical demand of Jesus: “You must all be born again.” And so there has ceased to be much real distinction between the Church and those outside of the Church. A Church no different from the world can make no real impact upon that world. How can we expect to, when a great number of those calling themselves United Methodists have not experienced the new birth which allows them, by faith, to enter God’s Kingdom and thus be fully His children? In failing to stress the requirement of new birth, we have been diametrically opposed to the explicit requirement of our Lord. And a disobedient Church is sure to be a Church in crisis.

It is interesting to hear what Jesus had to say about the climax of world history. Speaking of the dreadful and mysterious “last days,” Jesus predicted: “Such will be the spread of evil that many people’s love will grow cold. But the person who holds out to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:12, 13). And Jesus told the Church at Ephesus: “Here is what I have against you: You do not love me now as you did at first” (Revelation 2: 4).

A Church must always guard against the cooling of its devotion to Jesus Christ. Is United Methodism ablaze with love for Jesus? Do laymen commonly witness to their love for Him? Do our ministers train their laymen to share Christ as a way of life? How many pastors love Jesus so much that they would accept a less prestigious appointment for His sake? Does our church school literature kindle fires of loyalty for Christ? Do our seminaries and colleges care most of all about deepening practical devotion to Christ, sending out into the world tough, mature Christians who love Jesus enough to be fools for His sake? Is our love for Christ hot enough so that we would leave our air-conditioning and our million-dollar church buildings behind to follow Him who had no place to lay His head? Do we love Him more than our property? More than our programs? More than our pensions? More than our familiar rituals? More than our prestige and authority? More, even, than our denomination?

A Church is in crisis when its love for Christ grows cold – when other things become primary objects of loyalty and devotion. Unfaithfulness … that is the problem.

In Matthew 18:19 we can see another aspect of the Church crisis. Jesus says, “Whenever two of you on earth agree about anything you pray for, it will be done for you, by my Father in heaven.” This is just one of many places where Jesus teaches that prayer is important as eating or sleeping or breathing. Who could imagine a Jesus who cared not to pray?

From the strong Scriptural emphasis upon prayer, John Wesley drew a portion of the General Rules. You can read these on page 51 of your Discipline. Wesley said that a Methodist shall continue to evidence a desire for salvation, among other ways, by “family and private prayer.” A non-praying Methodist is as much a contradiction as fire without heat.

What about the prayer life of United Methodism?

I will always remember something that happened when I was just beginning my studies for Local Preacher’s License. I went to a meeting with a number of ordained Methodist ministers. A buffet supper was served, and somebody suggested that we ought to pray before eating. A number of the pastors snickered.

The crisis in United Methodist prayer life can be seen among laymen, too. In the average United Methodist Church, what percentage of laymen are ready, willing and able to lead in prayer? How many laymen regard praying as important as watching “Bonanza” on television? Or showing up at their place of employment on Monday morning? How many pastors really teach the way of prayer to their people?

No element of the church crisis is more serious than the shriveling up of United Methodist prayer life. It is bad news when people cannot pray naturally, out of faith’s overflow. When, instead, they have to read printed prayers composed by other people. When this happens – and it is happening – then spiritual sickness has progressed to the point of near-death. When prayer is not second nature to people called Methodist, when only the professional minister is willing or able to pray, then spiritual rigor mortis has already set in.

I am always amazed by the great optimism which Jesus felt about the Church. Our Lord said of the Church, “Not even death will ever be able to overcome it” (Matthew 16:18b). In other words, Jesus believed that the Church, His Church, is going to triumph. He cautioned his disciples that reverses would come. And discouragements. Suffering and betrayal, too. But in spite of every obstacle, the Church is going to triumph. So said our Lord Jesus Christ to His disciples.

Against today’s prevailing pessimism over the Church’s future, the optimism of Jesus seems almost naive. Today, both the theological left and the right write off the Church as irrelevant, dead, hopeless, useless. In our seminaries, would-be pastors often get the idea that the real “action” cannot be found in the Church.

If we really believed our Lord, would so many be so pessimistic? I think the problem comes because we fail to properly distinguish between the eternal Church of Jesus Christ and the human institution called church, an institution that we have built. Jesus’ Church is built upon Himself, upon principles found in the Bible. But the human institution known as church is often built more upon the operating principles of General Motors, emphasizing luxury, size, dollars and prestige.

This pseudo-church is crumbling. Sagging. Dying. And it deserves to die! For it has profanely taken the name of the Church without accepting the spiritual reality of the Church. It has claimed the privileges of the Church, without yielding itself in obedience to the Lord of the Church.

The unfaithfulness of the pseudo-church was revealed by one United Methodist pastor who said, “My people would be upset if I suggested they were sinners.”

Thus we try to build bigger membership rolls. Bigger buildings. Bigger budgets. Bigger staffs. Bigger bureaucracy. More grandiose programs. But is all this really the Church of Jesus Christ?

God is already answering that question. His judgment is pouring down like a mighty stream on the pseudo-church. Its members are fading. Its budgets are shrinking away. And it is subject to the ultimate indignity of being ignored by the world.

But meanwhile, the true Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, goes on toward final victory. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against this Church. Its Savior is Jesus Christ – not Paul Tillich, not Rudolf Bultmann, not Dietrich Bonhoffer. Its ultimate authority is Christ and the Bible, not “New Creation,” not “Motive,” not “Together,” not “Engage.” Its power is the Holy Spirit, not the spirit of Saul Alinsky, not the spirits of the late Bishop Pike, not the spirit of the Ecumenical Institute.

If you belong to the real Church, you will not be dismayed because of the crisis. By faith you will hear Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock! For your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32). This assurance sets the real Church free. Makes the real church “A Christian community, free in its inner life to be in mission in response to the Holy Spirit, affirming Jesus Christ to all men as divine Savior and Lord, serving as a reconciling community, and participating in God’s work of human liberation.”

This Church need not fear the crisis. Its battle cry is “In Christ, we shall overcome someday!” We know that a sovereign God is in our midst, working. It is a privilege to serve this wonderful God. And we rejoice because in this crisis – in this moment of dangerous opportunity – we may be His messengers, His proclaimers of truth, His servants, His reformers, His slaves.

I have lifted up some important aspects of the Church crisis. Obviously, there has been time to touch on only a few highlights:

  1. Undue pessimism about the Church.
  2. The shriveling up of our prayer life.
  3. Cooling of our devotion to Jesus Christ, Lord of the Church.
  4. Failure to present clearly and categorically Jesus’ radical demand for conversion that reaches all the way down into value standards and emotions. Conversion which changes people so they will be able, by the power of God, to change the world.
  5. The growing impatience that many loyal United Methodists feel because of unfaithfulness in their seminaries, in their church school literature, and, sad to say, in their church leaders at all levels.
  6. Blindness to both the social and to the eternal dimensions of our Lord’s two-sided Gospel … a Gospel for this world and the next.
  7. Dying enthusiasm for evangelism.
  8. Showing too little love and respect for each other.

May God help each of us to become part of his solution to the crisis! Let us no longer be content to be part of the problem!

I close with words from God, through the Apostle Paul. Words especially suited for a Church in crisis.

“We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend. And although badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8,9). ” No, in all these things we have complete victory through Him who loved us. There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God, which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord” {Romans 8:35, 37-39).


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