By Bill Bouknight
Over the past 15 years, we have witnessed the cresting and subsequent decline of the liberal tide in American Methodism. Simultaneously, the influence of evangelicalism and orthodoxy has been steadily increasing within the last decade.
As measured by membership and influence, the United Methodist Church has been in decline for the last 40 years. A definite low point for the denomination was November 1993, when United Methodists participated in the infamous “Re-Imagining Conference” in Minneapolis. Sophia, the goddess of wisdom, was worshipped, the doctrine of Atonement was ridiculed, and lesbianism was glorified. At least one United Methodist helped plan that conference, and it was an approved continuing education event for many staff members of United Methodist general boards and agencies.
Most UM bishops made no public response to this heretical display. Only a handful of UM leaders such as Bishops William Cannon, Earl Hunt, and Tom Stockton denounced certain teachings of that conference as being contrary to United Methodist doctrines and ethical standards. Despite the silence of most UM leaders, the Re-Imagining Conference had a sobering impact on the denomination—serving as a wake-up call within United Methodism.
The liberal tide in the UM Church, promoted by some bishops, general boards and agencies, and seminaries, began to ebb. Liberalism’s high point may have come in 1996—the year when 15 UM bishops took a public stand at General Conference in favor of liberalizing the denomination’s position on homosexuality. Since then, liberalism has been in decline and the evangelical influence has increased. This trend was clearly evident at the General Conferences of 2000, 2004, and 2008. The apparent rejection in 2009 of most of the 32 constitutional amendments by the Annual Conferences of the church just confirms the theory that a gradual course correction has been occurring within the grassroots of a misdirected Methodism in North America.
The most contentious issue in the struggle between the liberal and evangelical elements of the UM Church is the practice of homosexuality among members and clergy. On this issue and a range of others, United Methodism was considered to be one of America’s most liberal denominations 25 years ago. That perception has changed. A 2009 survey of Protestant clergy on the issue of same-sex marriage illustrates how UM clergy differ from others. Whereas 67 percent of United Church of Christ clergy and 49 percent of Episcopal clergy favor same-sex marriage, only 25 percent of UM clergy do. Though human sexuality dominates the national debate in the UM Church, underneath that issue is a more fundamental one—the authority of Scripture.
Jesus promised that he would build his church (Matthew 16:18) and one of the surest ways we know to be obedient to God is to be faithful to the Holy Scripture. It was Jesus who prayed for the church, saying, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).
God seems to be using at least six factors in the continuing process of renewing and reforming United Methodism toward faithfulness to his Word.
1. Most evangelistically-minded churches grow, while others seldom do. Quite simply, too many of our United Methodist congregations don’t know how to reach out. Though most liberal United Methodists are compassionate, kind people, their churches seldom grow. One definite reason is theological. Most evangelical Christians feel a sense of urgency about lost people. They really believe that people who are outside a relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord are at risk of spending all eternity in a horrible place where God is totally absent. By way of contrast, many liberal United Methodists are universalists—believing that all persons are going to heaven regardless of what they believe or do. Such a belief makes evangelism irrelevant.
Recently I studied one particular annual conference in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. The ten local churches with the highest worship attendance figures for the previous year were quite diverse in terms of location (some are inner-city, others suburban) and in worship style (traditional, contemporary, and blended). But these ten churches have one thing in common—all of their senior ministers are evangelical/orthodox in theology. That same pattern probably prevails in most other annual conferences.
Jesus said that he came to earth “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). The Holy Spirit seems to bless those congregations that focus primary attention and resources on seeking, serving, and saving lost people.
2. United Methodist renewal and reform groups are making a positive contribution. The “granddaddy” of UM reform organizations is Good News, launched in 1966 by Charles Keysor’s article in the Christian Advocate. For 28 years, the Rev. James V. Heidinger II led Good News with prophetic courage and winsomeness. Now, the Rev. Rob Renfroe leads this vital agency of renewal and reform. Other organizations like The Confessing Movement, The Institute on Religion and Democracy, The Mission Society, Lifewatch, Transforming Congregations, and others have joined in the struggle.
3. High-quality biblical material has been introduced into the UM educational curriculum. The Disciple series and Christian Believer program have anchored thousands of United Methodists to the Bible and to Wesleyan theology. The Walk to Emmaus ministry and the small-group movement have merged solid biblical education with Christian fellowship and shared prayer. Most revivals in the history of the church are triggered by a Spirit-led rediscovery of Scripture. The current movement of the Spirit is no exception.
4. Even one seminary can make a difference. Approximately one out of six UM clergypersons is being trained at Asbury Theological Seminary. Though Methodist in heritage and tradition, Asbury is not an official seminary of the church. Because the 13 official UM seminaries are forced to compete with Asbury, the smart ones are actively trying to recruit orthodox faculty and evangelical students.
5. Ph.D.s can contribute to the renewal of United Methodism. A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE) has sponsored over 100 bright students (usually orthodox in theology) who have completed their doctoral degrees. These “John Wesley Fellows” are becoming faculty members and leaders of UM colleges and seminaries. United Methodist seminary students are getting a far more orthodox and scripturally-centered education than they would have received 30 years ago.
6. The amazing growth of United Methodism outside the United States, especially on the continent of Africa, will transform the denomination. If current trends continue, it is estimated that within 15 years there may be more United Methodists in Africa than in the United States. Most African United Methodists are evangelical and orthodox and embrace a very high view of biblical authority. Thus it is not surprising that most African United Methodists oppose liberal activism.
What will be the future of the UM Church? Currently, the denomination is locked in a battle over scriptural authority (but debated in terms of sexuality). Many liberals are unhappy because they feel that their consciences are being violated by the UM rules governing human sexuality. Some liberals hope that a “middle ground” can be found, allowing each jurisdiction to fix its own standards governing sexuality. Traditionalist leaders are convinced that any middle ground that compromises scriptural standards would be devastating. However this conflict is resolved, it will not address the underlying disagreement over the interpretation and authority of Scripture.
The current stalemate is tragic because it robs the UM Church of vitality and distracts her from her mission. The UM Church has the word “United” in its name, but there can be no real unity as long as such fundamental disagreement persists about biblical authority and the essentials of Wesleyan theology. Martin Luther famously said, “Don’t trouble me with questions about unity when the Word is compromised.”
At this time, the theological and spiritual pendulum is swinging in the evangelical and orthodox direction, but the church is always tempted to sell out to cultural values and desert its “first love.”
The contemporary UM revival will continue only as long as its leaders and membership follow God’s recipe for revival as given in II Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
The Holy Spirit will provide power for a renewed United Methodist Church if we will be faithful to Scripture and will “contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:4).
Bill Bouknight served 41 years in full-time ordained ministry until his retirement in 2007. He served twice as a delegate to United Methodism’s General Conference and currently serves on the Executive Committee of the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism. He is a recipient of both the Harry Denman Evangelism Award and the Philip Award for distinguished service in evangelism. Dr. Bouknight is the former chairman of The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church and the author of several books, including If Disciples Grew Like Kudzu (Bristol House Ltd.).