The Future of The United Methodist Church

by Rev. Michael Walker Pastor, Salem-Kinser United Methodist Church, Greenville, Texas

The question of the future of the United Methodist Church is important to each of us. We have invested our lives in its life and work; we have given of our dollars to support its outreach and build its institutions. I suppose that there really shouldn’t be any question as to the future of our church which was undoubtedly raised up by God in the 18th Century and has had a valid ministry through many decades. But the fact is that when we read our Bibles and when we are sensitive to what is going on in the church we become concerned. Some of our episcopal leaders have shown an awareness of great problems emerging in our church. Bishop Gerald Kennedy said some years ago, “Too many churches today are only second-rate country clubs and nothing more. I don’t wish to be negative, but at times when I look at the church in North America, I worry that it may not be part of the healing, but instead part of the disease.”

When the church was in its heyday, Bishop Hazen Werner stated in 1960, “Our proclamation of the Gospel is arrested because of our dryness of soul. …Our lives have been dried by the hot winds of secularism. … Conversion is a fact of history, but not an experience of today. …The Gospel is a term, but not good news. … ”

In 1973, in his first address to the North Texas Conference, Bishop W. Mcferrin Stowe declared, “The Church has lost her authority. Having sometime since lost a clear understanding of her identity, being uncertain therefore about her purpose, she now wonders what she believes or what she should believe. She lacks the voice of certainty, which always arises out of strong convictions and deep commitment. So the ancient question is heard anew, ‘If the trumpet sounds an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?’

“There seems to be no captain on the ship, no compass … there is a growing need for purpose, conviction and authority.”

These observations by church leaders do not surprise those of us who are evangelicals. We have shared their concerns and for some years now have been working and meeting with a view to seeing spiritual awakening and reform within the UMC. What many are asking is this: Does all this effort make any difference? That is a difficult question to answer, because it is not easy to view the church nationally. It is easier to assess how a particular board or agency· is responding to our efforts … or to assess the progress toward evangelical renewal in a specific annual conference. But the larger picture is ambiguous. My own personal assessment is that we have reason to be encouraged about the denomination if we look at the progress evangelicals have made in the past years. But if we look at how far God wants us yet to go toward recovering Scriptural Christianity, then we can hardly be anything but discouraged.

Let’s note some of the developments (and we cannot mention them all) which most evangelicals find cause for new hope within our church. The existence and ministry of Good News itself continues to be a source of encouragement. Since our beginning in 1966, while we have often made mistakes and have been far less effective than we needed to be, the movement and the magazine have given evangelicals a national voice and a visibility before the denomination which has made an impact. The emergence of our sister organization, The Evangelical Missions Council, has provided a strong voice for a Biblical outreach.

In most conferences there has developed a greater freedom for evangelical pastors and churches to be themselves, and in many conferences the evangelical renewal groups have provided an identity for evangelicals and a vehicle for common action which has given them far greater influence in the annual conference.

The charismatic movement and the lay witness movement have in recent years been instruments of renewal in thousands of individual lives. The spiritual vitality brought through these movements has resurrected many churches. We praise’ God for this continuing stream of spiritual power in the UMC.

A greater number of our pre-ministerial students are now finding their way into seminaries which are unapologetically committed to the Word of God. I understand that now the independent Asbury Theological Seminary has more United Methodist students than all but one of our denominationally-owned seminaries. And in each of our own seminaries there are groups of young evangelicals with a deep commitment to the historic Christian faith, who hold great promise for the ministry of the UMC.

But if these things bring us encouragement, there are others which contribute to our daily dilemma. Doctrinal pluralism heads the list. Pluralism is heard by most evangelicals to mean, “It doesn’t matter what you believe ” or, “All theologies are equally valid.” Formalized by the 1972 General Conference, it is invoked more and more. Now it is advocated in the first chapter of a new book of UM beliefs which states, “Pluralism is a major tenet.”

Last year was a most traumatic year. It saw the continuing membership decline, coupled with a fading aggressiveness in evangelism; a prostitutes’ convention held in a California United Methodist Church; and the denomination’s Council on Youth Ministries’ call for the ordination of homosexuals into the ministry. In the first case, the public response of the local episcopal leader offered a weak, I-wouldn’t-have-done-it-that-way kind of statement. And the rest of our leaders were practically silent. In the case of the recommendation of the Council on Youth Ministries, the church’s leaders responded negatively only after months of official silence. And today, some in the Board of Church and Society are working to get the General Conference next year to soften our already moderate position on homosexuality in the church’s statement on Social Principles.

The Evangelical Missions Council, organized a year-and-a-half ago, following action taken here at Junaluska at the 1973 Convocation, has in good faith tried to effect changes in the policies of the Board of Global Ministries, policies which would reverse our Church’s retreat from an aggressive and evangelistic mission strategy. Finally, after many efforts, it has become obvious that the Board of Global Ministries will not substantially change its present course in the foreseeable future.

And then there is the Church School Curriculum. After years of writing papers, letters, holding meetings with the curriculum-producing agencies, only a little progress has been made. While we are grateful for what has been done, more and more evangelical congregations are finding it necessary to switch to independently published materials in order to maintain the integrity of their local church’s ministry of the Word.

Evangelicals look at these developments and tears fill our eyes. Our hearts ache with a burden to see a church renewed in faithfulness to the Word of God. So we keep on praying and planning for that to happen. Tonight I want to suggest some directions our church must take in order to be faithful to Scriptural Christianity. These keys to the future include a recovery of theological conviction, a rediscovery of the Bible, evangelical ecumenism, renewal among the clergy and in the seminaries, and the strengthening of the evangelical wing of the church.

1. The first imperative for a viable future is to recover a sense of theological conviction. Presently, we are in a state of theological and doctrinal anarchy. Everyone does his own thing theologically. We are fascinated by every theological fad. No norms seem operative, except those of intellectual respectability and institutional expediency.

In contrast, the thing that distinguished Jesus from the teachers of His day was that His words were spoken with authority and confidence. The same authority was characteristic of the apostles and the early church. The truth had been revealed in Christ and their job was to boldly proclaim it. The world today desperately needs the church that will stand up and declare what it believes to be the essential core of Scriptural Christianity.

When we talk like this we open ourselves to the charge of advocating dogmatism. John Stott, in his powerful book, Christ, the Controversialist, writes:

… Historic Christianity is essentially dogmatic because it purports to be revealed faith. … If God has spoken, … why should it be thought ‘dogmatic’ to believe His Word ourselves and to urge other people to believe it too? This of course does not mean that we know it all … but neither does it mean that the Christian can make no confident statements. It is true that our dogmatism should be limited to that core of central truths clearly revealed in Scripture, but on those things we need not be doubtful or apologetic.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition and has settled on the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.

Professor James Stewart agrees, “It is quite mistaken,” he writes, “to suppose that humility excludes conviction. Humble and self-forgetting we must always be, but diffident and apologetic about the Gospel, never.”

Another criticism of a call for certainty in theological matters is that it promotes controversy. This results in our church most often in cries for tolerance and pleas to remain positive.

On the matter of being positive, we in Good News have heard much. “If you must sound sure of your viewpoint,” we are told, “at least don’t be critical and negative about other viewpoints.” But such a statement ignores the teaching of Scripture, the clear example of the Church leaders of the past, the ritual of our own church, and the practical necessities of communication. Titus 1:9 gives the duty of the elder in the church. It is to both “… give instruction in sound doctrine [positive] and also to “confute those who contradict it.” [negative]. We are called to be both positive and negative. In the ordination service for elders we vow to not only “minister the doctrine of Christ,” but also to ” … defend the Church against all doctrine contrary to God’s Word.” The Evangelical must not be intimidated into silence at the presence of unbiblical teaching by the accusation of negativism.

And then there’s the matter of tolerance. John Stott says:

We need to distinguish between the tolerant mind and the tolerant spirit. Tolerant in spirit a Christian should always be, loving, understanding, forgiving, and forebearing others, making allowances for them, and giving them the benefit of the doubt; for true love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. But how can we be tolerant in mind of what God has plainly revealed to be either evil or erroneous? In Revelation 2:20 Jesus judges the church at Thyatira for tolerating false teaching and immorality.

No right-thinking evangelical loves controversy. It is very distasteful. It is never our first choice. Our first choice is – like Jude’s, in verse 3 of that little letter – to declare our common salvation; but sometimes it is necessary to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” This, of course, must always be done without bitterness or personal insult, but it must be done. The example of Jesus is clear at this point. Committed to the truth, He did not shrink from declaring publicly His opposition to wrong doctrine, to point out error, or alert His disciples to false teachers.

I quote from Stott one more time:

… If we loved the glory of God more, and if we cared more for the eternal good of the souls of men, we would not refuse to engage in necessary controversy, when the truth of the Gospel is at stake. The apostolic command is clear. We are to ‘maintain the truth in love; being neither truthless in our love nor loveless in our truth, but holding the two in balance.

Wesley’s famous phrase from The Character of a Methodist, “… We think and let think” has been grossly abused to promote a careless view of the doctrinal issues. The whole point of his phrase in its context is that “we think and let think” on peripheral issues of Christian doctrine – but on those which “strike at the root of Christianity” we do not yield.

What can be done to move us toward having greater theological certainty? Good News has taken a positive step in developing a “Statement of Scriptural Christianity.” I commend it to the whole church for consideration. I would also like to call for the General Conference to acknowledge the weakness of our Doctrinal Statements (Discipline, Part II), adopted in 1972, which center around pluralism and for the General Conference to revive the original vision given to the Theological Study Commission by the 1968 Uniting Conference. That vision was to develop a new statement of faith based on the Articles of Religion and the EUB Confession of Faith.

2. Closely related to the need for new conviction in our theological positions, is the urgent need for rediscovery of the Bible. It does not require very wide contact with the people called United Methodists to discover that we have not effectively taught, and our people have not learned, the Bible. What I am calling for is not just printing Scripture texts in more prominent places in our church school materials. We must come to a new confidence in the Bible’s reliability as the Word of God which must be a norm for our whole lives, especially as it is related to the church. A new emphasis on the authority of Scripture will lead in turn to a new emphasis on the content of the Scripture. Here are some specific initiatives which might move United Methodism in this direction:

a) Evangelical churches which are close together could cooperate in forming Bible Schools, with one or two-year programs in the Bible Institute tradition, yet without the rigidity of many schools in fundamentalist circles.

b) I would like to suggest also to larger evangelical churches that instead of hiring another associate for general pastoral duties, you might hire a full-time teaching minister … a “professor in residence” who would devote his time to teaching the Bible, basic doctrine, Christian ethics, etc.

c) The church could also benefit from a new cassette Bible teaching ministry. United Methodist evangelicals could be recruited to offer effective exposition of the Word on a continuing basis to Sunday school classes, so often plagued by poor teachers or unsound materials. If available nationally on a subscription basis at a reasonable cost; individuals, too, and the many small groups in our local churches would find this invaluable. It would help dent the widespread Biblical illiteracy among our people and would nourish their souls.

d) And I would renew Good News’ long-standing call to our Board of Discipleship for an alternate church school curriculum, written and edited by those holding a high view of the Bible’s reliability and authority.

e) There is one more proposal: We need skilled Bible expositors who will train United Methodist preachers in Bible preaching. Many preachers are criticized for not preaching the Bible, when we have never been taught how to preach it in our seminaries. Let’s pray that God will raise up someone with this vision in our day.

3. Another must for the United Methodist Church today is to embrace the many evangelical parachurch organizations and ministries which are, in fact, nurturing most of our best laypersons and clergy. Thousands of our youth are receiving vital nurture from Inter-Varsity, Campus Crusade, Young Life, and Youth for Christ. Adults and youth alike are being touched and changed through ministries like the Institute for Basic Youth Conflicts, Navigators, Institute for Church Renewal, and the many charismatic ministries. Then there are the evangelical magazines, radio and TV ministries, and publishing houses. The truth is that without these ministries feeding United Methodists through the side door, it is doubtful what kind of church we would have, if one at all. Yet, these organizations are frowned upon and often opposed by denominational leaders. I call upon our church to not only embrace these ministries, but to learn from them what United Methodist people are hungry for.

4. Renewal among the clergy must also begin soon if the future is to hold promise. In addition to a new sense of doctrinal clarity and a return to an authoritative Bible – already mentioned – I would like to speak briefly of three other crucial needs of the clergy.

First, we need a new level of servanthood more than a new level of professionalism. Second, there must be a new emphasis on the pastor as equipper and less emphasis on the “general manager” concept of the pastor. Third, there is a desperate need for us to have courage … courage to vote “No” sometimes, courage to follow the narrow way of Scripture, courage to be creative, courage to preach a costly gospel, courage to trust God more than the security of the connectional system. The most compelling recent illustration of our need for courage is the church’s failure to respond in any disciplinary way to Glide Memorial Church for hosting the prostitutes’ convention last year. The clergy must be renewed!

There can hardly be a reformation among the clergy until there is a radical revamping of the chief wellsprings of the church’s faith, the seminaries. Here the pastors are taught that teach the persons in the pew. Here the persons are taught that write and edit our church school curriculum. No other part of the church has played a larger role in shaping our present faith than the theological seminaries.

A few weeks ago a UM seminary professor told me that he had recently visited on the campus of one of our more conservative seminaries, interacting with students and faculty. He told me with concern that he had found no more than three persons among the entire faculty who would affirm the resurrection of Christ from the dead. John Lawson, who for some years had been teaching church history at our Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, gives his view as an insider on the state of theological education in his book, An Evangelical Faith For Today. He writes of the seminaries:

It is common knowledge that some teaching which is regularly, and indeed customarily, given in seminaries is contrary to Scripture, and to the chief planks of the historic Christian faith, and to the doctrinal standards of the responsible Christian denominations. We are not referring to minor doctrinal issues which, in the past have divided the denominations. … We have in mind the leading essential elements of the practical gospel of salvation. The most painful thing is that seminarians often receive teaching that is diametrically opposed in important particulars to the articles of faith to which they have to subscribe at ordination.

Lawson concludes:

Someday there will have to be a great awakening, a far-reaching repentance, and a painful reappraisal.

The time for that great awakening in our seminaries is NOW.

The time for that far-reaching repentance is now. Let’s begin that painful reappraisal now.

5. The final point that needs to be made is this: If the UMC is to ever be a renewed church, the evangelical wing of the church must flourish. Some things that will encourage the evangelical wing of the church to grow depend on the general church. I could call on the leaders of our church to recognize our right to be in the church and not to question our loyalty. I would call on our bishops and district superintendents to not try to “balance” churches which have had a uniquely evangelical character, by deliberately appointing pastors who are liberals or merely institutionalists. I would call on the church to face the issues raised by evangelicals openly. Avoiding controversial issues breeds more division than honestly confronting them.


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