January 22, 2013

Evangelical United Methodism: A History of Struggle, The Present Turning Point, and our Future of Opportunity

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The following remarks were delivered on Saturday, January 19 in Nashville, Tennessee by IRD’s United Methodist Director John Lomperis at a breakfast fellowship meeting he organized.  This meeting was held for interested participants in a national, four-day, quadrennial training for United Methodist annual conference leaders, which was sponsored by the denomination’s general agencies.  

Since this is an “evangelical” gathering, it seems appropriate for me to briefly describe what I mean by that loaded and often misunderstood term.

Personally, I find it helpful to use David Bebbington’s landmark description of the four characteristics which define the evangelical Protestant tradition, of which Methodism has historically been a part.  The first is an emphasis on the Bible as our final authority on all matters of doctrine and morals.  Thus, you have the common spiritual practice among evangelicals of a daily “quiet time” of personal prayer and studying a Scripture passage.  The second is the centrality in preaching and teaching of the cross on which Jesus Christ died for our sins.  The third is an emphasis on conversion.  Whether or not we go to church or were born into a Christian family, we all have the personal responsibility of responding to God’s call by repenting of our sin, putting our trust for our salvation in Christ alone, and beginning a new life of discipleship.  The fourth is activism, energetically participating in the Kingdom work of evangelism and combatting social ills.  These four elements of the centrality of the Bible, the cross, conversion, and activism are known by scholars of evangelicalism as the Bebbington quadrilateral.

Now as Wesleyan evangelicals, ongoing discipleship after conversion, and yes, even the possibility of God’s gift of entire sanctification, are especially important to us.

And yes, this does have implications for some of the hot-button questions within our United Methodist Church today.

For example, we are pro-life not because we are unsympathetic to the desperate situations many women find themselves in or because we condemn or reject mothers and fathers who have lost a child to abortion.  Rather, we understand that the Church of Jesus Christ is called to follow our Lord’s example of protecting and defending the most vulnerable people who have been created in God’s own image.  We are committed to actively finding creative solutions to support babies and mothers in those desperate situations.  And we must offer people with any sin in their past, including abortion, the healing and new life that is available through the blood of Christ.

We also believe that evangelism must be an urgent priority for United Methodists, because the people we seek to reach are not, primarily, potential padders of our membership numbers, untapped sources of tithes and offerings, or even disconnected individuals searching for community, but rather because they, like all of us, are sinners in need of a savior.

Those are just two examples.  I don’t pretend to have the final, definitive answers about all of the specific ways in which these values should be applied.

But that’s my take on the identity of evangelicals within our denomination.

Now one of the fundamental, underlying themes I have noted in these recent discussions about the future direction in which our denomination should be led is WHAT IS our identity as the United Methodist Church?  Who are we as a collective community?

Now from an evangelical perspective, we have seen some confusion about our theological identity that has been rather destructive.

But we must remember that such struggles with being faithful, in teaching and practice, to what God has called us are nothing new.

Just look at all the terrible struggles in the first-century church addressed in the New Testament epistles.

Just look at how in 1784, American Methodism was formally established with such a strong commitment to ending the “abomination of slavery,” and then how quickly we retreated in the face of some admittedly powerful societal and financial pressures.  The history of American Methodism in the 19th and early 20th centuries is full of accounts of spiritual lethargy, desire for mainstream cultural respectability, and simple pandering to certain donors fostering a decline of our trademark spiritual practices like class meetings as well as inroads of new theologies that had more elevated views of humanity married to lower views of God.  Through the twentieth century, what eventually became the United Methodist Church saw a disproportionately large influence of theological liberalism in our denominational hierarchy while evangelicals, largely excluded from the upper echelons of denominational power, continued on, faithfully serving churches, building ministries, and winning people to Christ at the grassroots level.

This last General Conference caused a lot of frustration for many of us.  I encourage all of you to read a four-part exposé I wrote for our website about what really made the General Conference so dysfunctional.

But in spite of all of that, one thing that is now clear is that, at least for the forseeable future, our United Methodist Church will NOT be going the disastrous way of the Episcopal Church or the United Church of Christ.  This is becoming widely acknowledged by people across the theological spectrum.

Thus, we seem to be at a historic turning point.  Just in 2008, the Rev. Dr. Scott Kisker, a Wesley Seminary professor for whom I have great respect, posed the question for our denominational identity in the title of his short book, which I encourage you all to read: Mainline or Methodist?  But now, the great Wesley scholar, Billy Abraham, has concluded that it is no longer accurate to classify the United Methodist Church as an American mainline Protestant denomination.  Rather, we are a GLOBAL church.

So where do we go from here?

There are of course risks for our future.  I probably do not need to rehearse for you the well-known pressures of our U.S. membership decline, and the unsustainability of rising financial needs and a top-heavy denominational hierarchy meeting declining income.  And over the last several days, I have heard a lot of accurate analysis of current, post-modern trends in American culture, such as the growing popularity of simultaneous dabbling in multiple religions and a general growth of relativistic worldviews.  But I have not heard as much clarity as I would have liked to have heard on whether the church should simply pander to these new cultural trends, or rather sympathetically understand our audience while still inviting them into an eternal Kingdom that stands apart from any secular culture.  We would do well to remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous lament that far too often, the church has acted as a thermometer, passively rising and falling with the ever changing pressures of the surrounding society, rather than as a thermostat which takes its bearings from outside of its immediate environment and influences its surroundings for the better.

But I also believe that God has given the people called United Methodists today some incredible opportunities.  We will remain the second-largest Protestant church in North America for quite a while, even if we fail to reverse our membership decline.  Our connection encompasses a huge, inter-connected network of people, churches, ministries and institutions with rare capabilities for collective actions and resourcing.  In almost any community in America, there is a United Methodist church somewhere nearby.  Thanks to our worldwide nature, we offer some great opportunities for global connections to a world that is increasingly excited about trans-national and cross-cultural connections.  Throughout the United States and around the world, God is still working through countless faithful United Methodist clergy and laity as they spread Christ’s love and bear fruit in inviting people into new lives of repentance, Christian faith, and discipleship.

We must also never forget that we are stewards of a great theological heritage which offers very helpful correctives to unhealthy tendencies in modern American Protestantism to either, on the one hand, avoid the importance of personal conversion and commitment to Christ, or on the other, to not place enough emphasis on ongoing growth in holiness of heart and life after becoming a Christian.

Finally, we serve an awesome, powerful triune God Who can raise the dead to life, and Who can bring revival, reform, and redirection to our beloved United Methodist Church.


  • Daniel F. Flores

    John, thank you for re-stating the “Bebbington quadrilateral.” I was also at the #QTE13 event,but did not know of the IRD gathering. I am glad for your ministry and witness in the UMC. May your tribe be increased.
    Daniel