Rod Dreher in American Conservative thoughtfully responded to my Canon and Culture piece on his Benedict Option vs my suggested Wesleyan Option for surviving aggressive secularism. He asks this interesting question about the plausibility of cultural renewal from today’s Methodism:
Where did the spiritual and communal resources to fuel this aggressive Methodist confrontation come from? I can’t think of anyone in America who has done a better job than Mark Tooley of detailing the decline of Methodism in particular and the Protestant Mainline in general into an effete chaplaincy to secular liberalism. (Here is his latest on that front.) How did this happen? How can it be resisted, even reversed, within Methodism?
The question is especially relevant as United Methodism’s quadrennial governing General Conference meets in May. Once again conservatives and liberals will battle over the church’s official disapproval of sex outside male-female marriage. Thanks mainly to African delegates, the orthodox side will prevail. But liberals in the U.S. often defy the prohibition on same sex rites, while some conservatives despair of ever reversing the 50 year decline of United Methodism in the U.S., despite overseas growth.
So can Methodism ever again meaningfully affect much less transform culture?
There are about 70 million Methodists in the world, of whom about 13 million are in the United Methodist Church, with 7.2 million in the USA and the rest overseas, mostly in Africa, where the denomination gains over 200,000 annually. United Methodism globally is one of the fastest growing denominations, thanks to African churches, and despite a nearly 100,000 member loss annually in the USA.
American United Methodism is in a spiral thanks to, among other reasons, a USA church hierarchy that overall does not heed traditional Methodism, including the imperative of personal salvation and the pursuit of personal holiness. USA institutional United Methodism focuses on theological pluralism and various political liberation narratives. Like the rest of imploding American Mainline Protestantism, it offers no compelling purpose for evangelism.
But the bureaucracy and hierarchy of USA United Methodism is hardly the sum total of the contemporary Wesleyan movement. First, there are other USA denominations that are Wesleyan, most of which are orthodox and growing or at least steady, such as the Free Methodist Church, the Wesleyan Church, Church of the Nazarene, Church of God, plus the historic black denominations like the AME Church. Much of growing Pentecostalism is Wesleyan. And many growing nondenominational churches subscribe to a form of Wesleyanism.
Beyond the USA, there’s a wide universe of Wesleyan denominations, most of them orthodox and growing, which include tens of millions, or hundreds of millions if Pentecostals are included. These branches of Wesleyan spirituality in many cases are profoundly transforming their respective cultures, especially in Africa.
But Rod Dreher certainly was speaking of USA culture primarily or wider Western culture, much of which is more secular than the USA. I affirm that the Wesleyan Option for renewing church and culture through small yet outward focused disciple groups devoted to evangelism and good works is powerfully valid for confronting and surviving aggressive secularism. It’s a model for all Christians, not just Methodists. Wesley never intended to generate a denomination and intended his followers serve as a renewal order within wider church and society.
The Wesleyan Option seems especially pertinent to our own time in America when a strong majority still profess Christianity, and a large minority still regularly attend church, yet the spiritual and moral fruits are missing in a society now often called post-Christian. The commanding heights of our culture are indeed post-Christian in attitude. The robust, patient, forward looking confidence of the Wesleyan example seems appropriate to this challenge.
Despite its deep, nearly crippling problems, USA United Methodism still has an important role in renewing faith and culture. Its several million regular worshippers still outnumber most denominations, and many, many United Methodists remain orthodox despite longtime official policies. So too are thousands of its pastors, with many young clergy adding to their numbers. As the emerging African majority gains influence over official governing structures, orthodoxy will likely expand in the USA. United Methodism’s refusal to officially surrender to secular sexual standards, unlike other liberal Protestant denominations, will further align it with robust global Christianity.
American Christianity is very individualistic and prone towards impatience with existing structures. Its entrepreneurial spirit tends to prefer quitting old structures in favor of creating new ones, which is both strength and weakness. Wesley himself strive furiously to revive old structures. But his work generated new churches while also reviving the old church.
Similarly, USA United Methodism may yet generate new church bodies while still experiencing internal revival. Wesleyans both within and outside, along with other Christians, can benefit from Wesley’s example of disciplined, unintimidated church and cultural renewal, unafraid, as Wesley was, of men or Devils.