The United Methodist Church (UMC) began losing members in the United States shortly after its inception in 1968. Some United Methodists nowadays thus advocate for “getting back” to the status quo in the 1960s as a solution. But this fails to understand how rapidly changing American cultural and political ideas affected Methodism according to Dr. Kenneth Collins, professor of historical theology at Asbury Seminary and board member of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Collins argued in a new academic paper that Marxism, identity politics, and other radical ideologies have altered society and infiltrated United Methodist institutions with ongoing implications for the denomination today.
In November 2017, Collins presented a paper entitled “The Missio Dei in the United States: The Challenge of a Baffling Cultural and Political Context” at an academic colloquium co-hosted by the UMC’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) and the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools (AUMTS) at Boston University. The paper will appear in the forthcoming book Missio Dei and the United States: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness, published by GBHEM later this year.
Collins presented a striking chart at the outset of his paper that chronicled the declining number of UMC adherents in the United States since 1970:
Much ink has been split attributing this troubling trend to a lack of faithfulness to orthodoxy and Wesleyanism, while urging the UMC to return “back to Wesley” in response. Others have advocated for a “sola sixties” fidelity to returning the UMC to its supposedly pristine state in the 1960s.
But Collins said the causes of this decline, and thus the response, remain more complicated. He argued that reinvigorating Methodism and redeeming American society requires greater nuance. This must involve understanding the cultural changes prior to the UMC’s creation, the tumultuous social context of the 1960s, and the cultural changes that have occurred since then.
Collins wrote that declining UMC membership traces back to growing cultural hostility toward Christianity. This trend stretches back at least as far as the American Civil War, when the Methodist Episcopal Church – probably the most influential branch of Methodism at the time – essentially buckled under cultural pressure. He explained that “the Methodist Episcopal Church basically abandoned the intellectual defense of Christianity in the face of its emerging critics.”
Methodism, reflective of Mainline Protestantism in general, began shifting its message from Gospel proclamation to promoting mere moral codes. But cultural acceptance of this morality began waning quickly. Collins identifies the moment when America began to reject Christian ethics in earnest:
By the time Prohibition was repealed in the 21st Amendment in December 1933, the nation had grown weary of this reforming cause, which had taken on ultraist proportions, and of those who had championed it. Indeed, Robert Handy in his engaging work, A Christian America, marks the year 1935 as the time when the cultural leaders of the nation, chaffing under the recently imposed Protestant morality with its array of taboos, set in earnest to remove Protestant leaders from cultural power.
These trends only gained steam during the following decades. By the time the UMC came about in the 1960s, Collins wrote “revolutionaries and radicals” had hit their stride:
The United Methodist Church formally emerged during a decade in which the rise of a new movement was to have enormous consequences for American culture in general and for the political climate in particular. The moral and cultural space that Methodism had once enjoyed in the early twentieth century with its social principles and reforms was soon taken over during the 1960s by revolutionaries and radicals who were unceasingly critical of most religion but especially the Christian faith.
The movement in question identified as the New Left. It embraced Marxist theory and developed identity politics as an extension. The movement targeted the Church and other pillars of traditional society in an effort to replace or co-opt them during “the move to a centralized state.”
Ultimately, Collins said “the embrace of identity politics” subsumed the New Left. This led to “a reworked leftism that hardened the distinctions of race and gender to set up a veritable tribal structure within American society.”
Not even the United Methodist Church remained exempt from this social transformation.
This ideology based on “the troika of race, gender and social class…and eventually sexual orientation” became “so culturally pervasive” that it infiltrated nearly every level of the UMC, from seminaries to annual conferences. Collins shared one rather shocking example from a workshop at the Kentucky Annual Conference:
During one of the sessions a sheet was passed out that contained the distinctions of white/black, male/female, gay/straight, rich/poor and numerical values of pluses and minuses were assigned to each category. Some of the ministers in attendance began to recognize that this calculus could easily result in racial and gender stereotyping, and even shaming, in which any given person was deemed guilty and blameworthy simply by being born into a certain group. Indeed, not even Jesus Christ would fare very well in such an analysis with two strikes, and possibly three, against him.
One tragic result of this worldview shift is that it has sidelined the Gospel. Both social engagement and individual sanctification become primarily viewed as political rather than spiritual.
For example, Collins cited the example of prominent British Methodist minister Cedric Mayson who completely distorted the Christian theology of personal transformation. Mayson not only equated Christ’s work with that of other religious and political leaders, but described it in essentially communist terms: “Human renewal from Jesus and Mohammed to Marx and Castro has always been through small groups with a social purpose and a living experience.”
To reinvigorate the UMC’s Missio Dei (meaning “God’s Mission” for the Church), Collins offered three main recommendations.
(1) Restore the Gospel to its rightful place: “First of all, the church must repent of its spiritual idolatry, on the one hand, in overvaluing the sinful and divisive narratives of American political and cultural life and, on the other hand, in undervaluing the gospel narrative…”
(2) Recommitting to “loving persuasion” instead of “a frontal assault” against the opposition: “This means, of course, that ‘political’ means and other top down approaches (in which the will of one particular group triumphs over the other) should be broadly abandoned…”
(3) Revamping the Church as a spiritual hospital for broken people: “to become a loving and healing presence among peoples who have suffered so greatly, who have become alienated from one another due to the ‘group speak,’ the divisiveness and rampant ethnocentrism of identity politics.”
While Collins wrote mostly with United Methodists in mind, surely his recommendations apply to the Church more broadly. All Christians ministering in America would do well to consider and take his observations to heart if they desire to reach their culture more effectively.