July 23, 2014

Scenarios for United Methodism’s Future?

Last week I blogged against United Methodist schism. In response, some have asked what scenarios I envision for United Methodism’s future. Here are some possibilities, starting with what I think is the least likely scenario and concluding with the most likely, and I believe, the most desirable, compared to the alternatives.

1. General Conference in 2016 in Portland, Oregon votes to liberalize or localize United Methodism’s biblical teaching on marriage and sex. A significant number of U.S. Evangelicals withdraw from United Methodism and create a new communion, possibly right there in Portland, with scores of delegates immediately relocating to a separate location to launch the new project. Some of United Methodism’s largest congregations will eventually join this new conservative denomination. Based on the pattern of what happened in other Mainline denominations that liberalized their marriage teaching, the new Methodist communion may include several hundred thousand members. (United Methodism in the U.S. currently has 7.3 million.) The departing congregations will, of course, lose their property to their respective annual conferences, as The Discipline stipulates. Some congregations will litigate, almost all unsuccessfully, after millions of dollars are spent. It’s also likely that departing conservatives will not cohere into a single new denomination but possibly two or more new denominations will emerge, based on theological, ecclesial and personality differences and preferences, as happened among departing conservatives from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Or some departing Methodists may join an already existing Wesleyan denomination, just as many departing congregations from the Presbyterian Church (USA) joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, while others formed the new Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. Some departing Methodist congregations, tired of denominational bureaucracy, will essentially go congregationalist, similar to churches that quit the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Others may form small subsets, perhaps in association with parts of overseas Methodism, whether United Methodist or other national churches, as happened with congregations quitting the Episcopal Church. In this scenario, as United Methodism solidifies its rejection of orthodox teaching on marriage, nearly all of African United Methodism, with nearly 5 million members, and gaining 200,000 new members annually, will quit the U.S. based denomination. Likely they will choose to form new national churches, with missional relations with the U.S. based forms of Methodism. The same may be true for Philippines United Methodism, and some of the small European and Asian churches. But United Methodism’s fracture over marriage will likely mean the end of an international Methodist denomination, in favor of dozens of new national Methodist churches, adding to the scores that already exist globally. There are about 70 million Methodists globally, of whom just over 12 million belong to United Methodism. In this scenario, most conservative United Methodists, belonging to congregations that do not leave, will be stuck choosing whether to remain or leave for a new church. Many, and ultimately, most will leave. United Methodism in the U.S., currently losing 80,000 to 100,000 members annually, after liberalizing, will start losing 200,000-300,000 members annually, similar to increased losses suffered by other liberalizing denominations under the same scenario.

2. After preliminary discussion at the 2016 General Conference, the 2020 General Conference votes to divide the denomination approximately between conservatives and liberals. Nearly all the seminaries go with the liberal side, as do most church agencies, as conservatives see them as intractable. There is tremendous upheaval, as thousands of congregations, directly or indirectly, must choose sides. Many conservative congregations in the north and west will vote to leave their liberal conferences. Liberal congregations in the south will vote to leave their conferences. Most congregations, including conservatives and liberals, will have very contentious debates and votes. In hundreds, perhaps thousands of congregations, the losing side will not accept the outcome and will form new congregations, or litigate against the winning side, or will dissipate as individuals leave for other congregations. In this ongoing division, hundreds of thousands of United Methodists, at odds with their congregations, or disgusted by the battle, will quit Methodism altogether. As the new conservative and liberal denominations begin to cohere, both liberals and conservatives realize their philosophical unity is less clear than anticipated. There are intense leadership and policy battles. Factions from both new denominations break off to form new bodies. A formerly United Methodism ultimately becomes 5 or 6 new denominations or loose associations. Many congregations, with or without their property, become independent. Many moderates are especially outspoken in rejecting their conservative and liberal new denominations, choosing to take their own paths. The African churches initially side with the new conservative U.S. based denomination but ultimately choose to separate into new national churches or into a pan-African denomination. The new U.S. conservative denomination, after several of its own internal schisms, experiences some growth, although unevenly. It ultimately becomes, in contrast to Methodism’s historic role as a great national and international denomination with wider influence in the global church and in society, an evangelical insular sub-culture. The new liberal denomination suffers accelerating membership losses, relies mostly on endowments in the absence of people, and becomes increasingly Unitarian Universalist in theology. As a refuge from its sharp decline, it may attempt to merge with other liberal, non-Wesleyan denominations, like the United Church of Christ, or maybe even the Episcopal Church.

3. Some Evangelicals advocate a formal schism at the 2016 and 2020 General Conferences and fail by a large margin to reach the two thirds votes required for constitutional change. In reaction, and having had high hopes of a new conservative denomination, many of them choose to quit United Methodism to create a new communion. Perhaps several hundred congregations join the new splinter denomination. After several internal divisions, it possibly experiences growth, following the pattern of other new denominations that split from Methodism in the 19th century, like the Free Methodist Church, Wesleyan Church and Church of the Nazarene. These denominations never became large but grew and persevered, largely retaining their historic Wesleyan theology. Or this new splinter denomination could follow the pattern of one of Methodism’s earliest splits, led in the late 18th century by James O’Kelley, who rejected episcopal governance and formed a Republican Methodist Church, later becoming The Christian Church. This church then divided over baptism and other issues. Some of its descendants joined the Stone-Campbell movement, while others ultimately merged into a Reformed denomination that later became part of what is today the very liberal United Church of Christ.

4. The General Conference in 2020, after it’s clear the church will not liberalize its sexual teaching, authorizes liberal congregations and clergy who cannot abide by church law on marriage and sexual ethics to depart the denomination with their properties and assets. Very few respond to the opportunity, perhaps a couple hundred congregations at most. They form a new liberal denomination somewhat similar to the small Alliance of Baptists that emerged after the 1980s conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. Like the Alliance, this new denomination is moribund in numbers and opaque in theology. As with the Alliance among Southern Baptists, very few liberals quit the main denomination to join the new body, preferring the continuity and stability of a larger communion.

5. The General Conference in 2016 and 2020 reaffirms the church’s biblical teaching on marriage and sex. By 2020, the Africans have become nearly half the membership of the United Methodist Church. Thanks to the 2016 General Conference giving them more proportional representation, the Africans and other internationals have nearly half the delegates at the 2020 General Conference, compared to 41 percent in 2016, making any liberalizing of the sexuality teaching thereafter politically and demographically impossible. Throughout these years, dissident clergy have persistently and publicly defied the church’s prohibition on same-sex unions, although the overall numbers never equal the claims implied by hundreds of clergy who proclaim their willingness to defy The Discipline. Enforcement of the prohibition is administered unevenly in different regions, exasperating conservatives. But liberal dissidents are not satisfied with a de facto laissez-faire policy in some regions, demanding formal change in church law. Both the 2016 and 2020 General Conferences strengthen penalties for disobedience of The Discipline by clergy and bishops. In 2020, the General Conference authorizes dismantling the ultra liberal Western Jurisdiction, whose membership has fallen below the membership of some annual conferences, and it is divided between the North Central and South Central Jurisdictions. Numerous annual conferences are also merged, and the total number of U.S. bishops continues to decline, as the African bishops slowly increase in numbers, although still not proportional to their membership strength. Africans are also given proportional representation on church agency borders for the first time, dramatically altering the landscape at liberal agencies like the Board of Church and Society. The 2020 General Conference creates a new agency devoted to teaching the church’s views on marriage, sex and family. In response to these trends, especially after a decisive 2020 General Conference vote on marriage, organized liberal resistance at the General Conference on sex issues effectively ends, similar to the end of “moderate” resistance in the Southern Baptist Convention after repeated conservative legislative wins. Most liberals do not quit United Methodism but become a smaller minority as the Africans become the majority, and some conservative areas of the U.S. church experience small growth. Effectively liberals become a subculture within United Methodism, just as Evangelicals were a sub culture for much of the 20th century. They also resemble the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Southern Baptist “moderates” who lost legislatively but did not quit, instead organizing into a caucus that administers its own interpretation of ministry. The new globalized United Methodism is increasingly evangelical but not as conservative as some U.S. conservatives might prefer. But it is largely theologically orthodox, pro-traditional marriage and moderately pro-life, while taking left-of center views on some public policy issues, resembling some aspects of the Evangelical Left. The U.S. church loses nearly 2 million members over 20 years before bottoming out at about 5 million members, then posting United Methodism’s first U.S. membership gains in over 70 years, starting in the 2030s, thanks to denominational emphasis on evangelism and discipleship. Nearly half of United Methodism’s seminaries are closed or become independent institutions. Most United Methodist seminarians in the U.S. attend non-United Methodist seminaries. The African churches double in membership across 20 years, reaching nearly 10 million, making United Methodism a 15 million member global denomination.

Note that none of these scenarios offers an easy or straight path forward. They are also fraught with controversy and uncertainty. There’s no escape from conflict or hard work across many years and even decades. But I believe that hope for an ongoing strong Wesleyan witness in American Christianity requires the survival and reform of The United Methodist Church, and that any schisms or divisions will likely create small, increasingly splintered communions that form sub cultures lacking the capacity and vision for effectively spreading scriptural holiness across the land.


16 Responses to Scenarios for United Methodism’s Future?

  1. Pudentiana says:

    Well thought out and evidently written by a man with a good grasp of both history and human nature. For the UMC to remain a global denomination, we must depend on the Holy Spirit, not on strategies, but I believe the last scenario is the best.

  2. David Turner says:

    And sometimes Mark, God has a plan that can not be predicted by anyone. I vote for that one. That His will be done on earth as it is heaven.

  3. Brian says:

    Why can’t one of the scenarios be that there is a Holy Spirit revival where liberal United Methodists are led by the Holy Spirit to accept a Biblical view that divorce, abortion, and homosexual activity is sin. This would lead to a truly united United Methodist Church that would actually make a big difference in the world.

    • John S. says:

      For the same reason he didn’t list my scenario and because he wants to avoid the wishful thinking the early years of (non)response to the liberal challenge. (To commit the error of reading the author’s mind by myself.) He is working with standard human responses and predicting God’s response is an exercise fraught with peril.

    • John Thomas says:

      well, because just as you state liberals will be convicted by the Spirit to change their beliefs, liberals claim that the Holy Spirit is leading the church (like other mainline churches) to change their interpretation of Scripture regarding LGBTQ persons, and if conservatives simply hear the stories of LGBTQ persons and their personal holiness witness, hearts and minds will be set right and the UMC will truly be unified…

      • DMurphy says:

        John, while it might seem like love to hear the LGBTQ stories and witnesses and try to adjust everything to suit their tastes and lifestyle choices, you can’t discount the power of the scriptures that have held true for thousands of years, nor the traditions that have been handed down to us over the same period of time. God has provided us with rules and informed us that we are all born into Adam, thus born into sin. We have to understand the basic premise of the gospel before we can even begin to call ourselves Christians or Methodists.

  4. Tom says:

    Good analysis, Mark. I think your are unnecessarily pessimistic about the separation outcomes in terms of follow-up divisions. I also think you overestimate how conservatives would react to continued disobedience. I think many more conservatives would end up leaving the local churches if nothing is done about the disobedience.

    BTW, in 2016 the Africans have 38% of the church members, but 30.1% of the delegates. There will have to be drastic changes in the formulas for Africa to bring them up to nearly half of the delegation. The formula changes being considered would essentially shift representation from Europe and the Philippines to Africa, so no real net gain in central conference representation. The European and Philippine delegations are split on the sexuality issues, so shifting to African delegates will strengthen conservative voting strength. But it will still only bring the conservative vote from outside the U.S. to around 38% from the current 34%.

  5. ges_Who says:

    Encouragement and warning to the churches
    How long will Believers be under the “spell” of division? When will Believers put down their pride and manmade theologies and take up the One True Doctrine, untouched by man? We sit in our manmade “warring” camps divided instead of United through the Holy Spirit. The world spins out of control and the Church is no longer a Light on a hill to the world but a faint glow of a time long gone – as each [theology] camp grows proud and infected by subtle threads of Satan. Will the Church recognize its misguided veiled ways? Will the Believers be able to remove the scales of blindness and truly hear the Counselor, the One Who Unites – the Holy Spirit? Those who claim the Lord Jesus Christ should repent, turn from man’s wisdom and pride and allow the Comforter to point us back to the Narrow path so we can travel together, encourage each other in the Lord and be the Light on the hill as we were meant to be.

  6. Don Wilson says:

    Very well thought out Mark, and I agree with your assessments from a secular perspective. In summary most of them are, hold on, maintain status quoi till 2020 then Christians will be a majority and we win. Problem with that is that God does not work from a majority .

    • John Thomas says:

      whoa, “then Christians will be a majority and we win”– are all those who don’t share your exact beliefs therefore not Christians? We’re all brothers and sisters in Christ.

  7. DMurphy says:

    Eventually the wheat and chaff will be separated, the goats and sheep set on their proper sides. This denomination is seeing an onslaught of evil, as other denominations have and will, but the important thing to know is that The Kingdom is a grass-roots movement. It always has been and always will be about bringing the gospel to individuals, with individual accountability to our Lord, Savior and King. For the last 30 or 40 years, the UMC has been too focused on being Methodist and too little focused on our main mission, and it’s revealing itself more and more.

  8. wesleyangun says:

    It is one thing to support civil rights for LGBT people so they are treated equally before the law. It is another thing to reinterpret Christian doctrine to accommodate and justify sinful behavior, whether hetero- or homosexual. Local Pride festivals are not just about equality—they are about hyper-sexualized behavior that Paul warned the early Church about in his letters.

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