The following remarks were delivered by UMAction Director John Lomperis on June 15 at the annual lunch of Cal-Pac Renewal, the evangelical renewal caucus within the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church.
This is an interesting time for us in our history as American members of the United Methodist Church.
The soft-Christendom culture America once had is ending. Those claiming no religious affiliation are on the rise, while we see more and more neighbors of other religions. Recent events have highlighted the advanced disintegration of the civil religion on which previous generations relied to uphold broadly Judaeo-Christian values in public life. The mainline Protestant denominations, once so prominent in our culture, are now increasingly ignored and irrelevant as they shrivel at rates that will bring them close to extinction by the end of our century. Mainline Protestant churches are increasingly numerically overwhelmed by their non-mainline evangelical counterparts. From a different angle, the combined membership of the six mainline Protestant denominations, the former cultural mainstream of America, has now permanently dipped below the total of American Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and adherents of non-Christian New Religious Movements.
But as the former mainline fades away, all is not a bed of roses for the rest of the body of Christ in America. Evangelical and Catholic churches are also being challenged with similar pressures towards the secular cultural conformity and theological shallowness which make for personal Christian affiliations with little staying power. In his new book, The Great Evangelical Recession, Pastor John Dickerson argues that our nation is entering a spiritual recession, citing ominous signposts about the erosion of evangelical churches’ cultural influence, financial support base, membership retention (especially among young adults), reputation with outsiders, and ability to keep up with population growth. He points out U.S. evangelicalism’s serious problems with misleadingly inflated numbers and with too much church growth coming from membership transfers rather than conversions.
Meanwhile, our ecclesial tribe, the United Methodist Church, is at its own turning point. On the one hand, we have long been so eager to keep up with “respectable” secular culture and more “respectable,” culturally mainstream churches that we have forgotten what is distinctive about us. Throughout this room, we know the experience of seeing children and other family members either drift away from church entirely or else migrate into traditions that are at least clearer about what they believe. If California-Pacific Conference leaders continue the same trajectory as the first decade of this century, your conference will lose about half of your current attendance and be down to a mere 36,000 members by the middle of the century.
Now how many of you have heard fellow United Methodists claim that our denomination’s disappearance here in the Western Jurisdiction is just an inevitable result of the secularizing culture around you?
But here’s some news: vibrant, growing Christian ministry can and is being done in even the most secular areas of our country. God is doing that in other churches and He can do that in ours, too, if we would faithfully follow Him. In a recent list of the five fastest-growing churches in America, three were located within the bounds of our Western Jurisdiction.
Enough decades have passed and we have lost enough millions of members to conclude that our prideful experiment of acting like a theologically liberal, culturally conformed, secularized, mainline Protestant church has failed – it has failed the members to whom we should have been ministering, it has failed the lost we should have been reaching, and God is not blessing it!
On the other hand, our denomination is now finally climbing out of the liberal mainline bandwagon. I realize that this may be hard to see in liberal annual conferences with which I have been associated, like New York, New England, and Northern Illinois, let alone here in Cal-Pac. But it is a demonstrable fact that if you look at recent General Conferences, votes on key theological issues, including but not limited to sexual morality, are trending in an increasingly orthodox direction. Adherents of theological liberalism feel like our denomination is, in the words of a leader of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), “slipping away” from them. Informed observers now realize that if they want a church which in its official policies accepts the values of the secular American Left, especially on homosexual practice and/or premarital sex, they will have to look somewhere other than our denomination. The Machiavellian, Golden-Rule-rejecting antics which the liberal caucuses cynically used to tie the last General Conference in dysfunctional knots will not be perpetually tolerated by our denomination.
So what will the new orientation for our denominational identity be?
I am convinced that our members and the mission field of an increasingly post-Christian 21st-century America will be best served by our church if we recover our historic identity as Wesleyan Evangelicals.
Many scholars of the international history of Protestant evangelicalism, of which Methodism was historically a part, cite the Bebbington Quadrilateral – from British historian David Bebbington – as offering a useful framework of four defining features of evangelicalism: high regard for the Bible as the final authority for faith and practice, centrality of the cross of Jesus Christ, emphasis on the need for personal repentance and conversion, and activism, energetically putting our faith into practice by spreading the love of God to our neighbors.
My argument is that these four elements of the authority Scripture, cross-centeredness, conversionism, and activism provide a helpful framework for grounding our own spiritual identity and serving our secularized American mission field – if we add a fifth, Wesleyan component: entire sanctification.
I will tackle each of these one at a time.
- Part 1: The Missional Landscape
- Part 2: Scripture
- Part 3: The Cross of Christ
- Part 4: Personal Conversion
- Part 5: Active Faith
- Part 6: Christian Perfection
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