Being pessimistic is easy, especially about The United Methodist Church. Among the other advantages, pessimism liberates from responsibility. If the worst is certain, then no exertion is required. Just enjoy the satisfaction of vindication as disaster unfolds.
Of course, there is plenty to distress in United Methodism. The Philadelphia area clergy on Saturday who defied church policy on marriage are just the latest chapter in the more than 100 year liberal Protestant deconstruction of Christian orthodoxy. We already know where that trajectory heads.
G.K. Chesterton wrote that every heresy is typically a dull rehash while orthodoxy is always a fresh adventure, cutting across history like a knife that never dulls. Opponents of orthodoxy often tout their claimed inclusiveness and diversity, but the end result is often very exclusive and monotone. Yet orthodoxy, if attuned to the Holy Spirit, summons together endless diversity of persons and cultures cohering on essentials while cheerfully differing on non essentials.
In his refreshing new blog “Voice from the Holler,” Jason Vickers of United Methodism’s United Seminary in Dayton discusses hunting (see above photo), country music, skeet shooting and the joys of Midwestern culture in southwestern Ohio (!). He also edifyingly shares the good news of his school’s robust recovery from near death by inclusively embracing orthodoxy. Down to 130 students eight years ago, United now has more than 600. He explains:
In our case, being more inclusive meant being more hospitable to evangelicals, Pentecostals, and charismatics. We didn’t have many students, but the majority of our students at the time could be categorized as center-left mainline liberal-progressive. We were committed to diversity in theory but not in practice. The reality was that we were neither warm nor welcoming to the majority of Protestant Christians in the world, which is to say, to evangelicals, Pentecostals, and charismatics. From a business point of view, this was, in a word, stupid. We were fighting for a share of a rapidly shrinking pool, namely, center-left mainline liberal Protestants!
We knew that if we were going to “reach out” to evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic Christians, we were going to have to re-brand ourselves (note the crass language of business). And so we agreed as a faculty to focus our branding on three things: 1) basic Christian Orthodoxy; 2) holiness; and 3) church renewal. Gradually, prospective evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic began to inquire about our school, and within a year, they began to show up. Of course, we did more than just paste these labels on our website. We also revised our curriculum to reflect these commitments. And we began to reach out to groups like Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (a charismatic oriented United Methodist renewal group).
In creating a new identity for United, Vickers recalls that the new team coalescing at United knew what it was doing but didn’t discern what God was doing. He writes:
We didn’t realize that the Holy Spirit was already assembling a group of people who were all committed to 1) basic Christian Orthodoxy; 2) holiness; and 3) church renewal. We didn’t foresee that God was about to bring to United not only evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic students, but also evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic faculty and staff.
Vickers notes that struggling seminaries often search for a programmatic silver bullet, thinking their enrollment problems are “strictly sociological and economic,” without realizing “their deepest problem might actually be theological.” He also suggests that most “prospective students are looking for…a school whose faculty knows that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding’ (Prov. 9:10).”
As United’s story illustrates, not every trajectory is downward, and pessimism is not always justified, even in United Methodism. God still presides, and renews, and sends often pleasant surprises, for which we can be ever grateful.