What an eventful year 2019 has been in the history of the United Methodist Church! And we will likely see more twists and turns before the year is over.
We are painfully well aware of the many challenges within our beloved, troubled denomination: the dysfunctionality of the Council of Bishops, the demonization of traditionalist believers, etc.
But especially in this season of Thanks-giving, we must not forget about the many things for which evangelical United Methodists should be grateful to God this year:
1. The adoption of the Traditional Plan by the 2019 General Conference
Our successful efforts to overcome the major barriers we faced in both defeating the liberal plans and enacting the Traditional Plan – entrenched institutional opposition, cynical any-means-necessary parliamentary tactics, an ultimately defeated proposal to delay implementation, etc. – were no small thing. And despite what others may say, this was a MAJOR victory for biblical faithfulness, for accountability, and for bringing some much-needed checks and balances to the overly broad powers of liberal bishops.
Yes, there are many challenges and uncertainties facing us, particularly between now and the May 2020 General Conference. But the passage of the Traditional Plan puts us in a much stronger position for moving forward into a faithful future than any other result from the 2019 General Conference could have done.
2. The now-widespread recognition of the depth of irreconcilable differences in our denomination
This may seem a bit odd to include in a list of things for which to thank God.
Obviously the depth of our divisions – to the point when we do not have basic agreement among top leaders in our denomination on such core questions as if Jesus Christ was eternally sinless or instead had “his bigotries and prejudices” from which He needed to be converted – are very sad, and truly tragic.
But all of that is nothing new. To paraphrase my late boss, Diane Knippers, you cannot adequately treat a disease without first having a clear diagnosis. For years, those of us struggling to talk about the deep problems – for the sake of bringing helpful solutions – have continually run against seemingly insurmountable barriers of denialism, avoidance, and subject-changing.
Now at long last, these walls are finally crumbling down, with leaders across our theological spectrum finally admitting what many of us have already known about the depth of our divide.
This growing recognition of reality is essential for forging constructive, responsible solutions for the future.
3. The 2019 General Conference’s endorsement of “gracious exits”
Yes, I am aware of the problems with the details of the legislation adopted by 52 percent at the 2019 General Conference.
But despite all the entrenched and at times rather ungracious opposition by denominational officials and some liberal activists, it is a rather huge development that our denomination’s highest governing body extensively debated and has now come out as officially supporting the basic concept of gracious exits for congregations who feel a conscience-bound need for them.
Yes, I realize that effective implementation will require some follow-up at the 2020 General Conference.
But hopefully this has set a formidable foundation for the future sorting to come being handled so that we may treat each other with a little more grace and a little less greed, and with a bit more love and a bit less lawsuits, than the ugly debacles we have seen in other denominations of tens of millions of dollars being spent by former co-parishioners suing each other over church properties.
4. The judicial survival of eight key accountability provisions of the Traditional Plan
Under the leadership of Bishops Bruce Ough of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area and Ken Carter of Florida, the increasingly partisan Council of Bishops has gone to extreme lengths in trying to attack and undermine the Traditional Plan, again and again.
By my count, there were seven separate attempts by the Council of Bishops and other liberal leaders to try to have our denomination’s supreme court, the Judicial Council, heavy-handedly intervene to prevent us 2019 General Conference delegates from enacting part or all of the Traditional Plan.
This includes three separate efforts at the Judicial Council’s last session this fall, all of which failed.
There is now nothing that anyone can legally do before the next General Conference to prevent these eight new accountability provisions – which are so important for protecting our church and its people from further harm – from becoming effective church law on January 1, 2020.
5. United Methodism being an American denomination no more
It was recently reported that our denomination’s non-American membership is on the verge of surpassing our number of U.S. members, and we may have already passed that tipping point.
The prospect of us being a uniquely global denomination is more than just a coming dream – it is a present reality.
Some understandably feel threatened with this development. We see some reacting with plans and efforts to protect and restore liberal white American supremacy in our denomination, by systematically segregating and marginalizing non-American United Methodists.
But our denomination’s increasingly global nature is a great gift.
And we must remember that this development comes primarily as a result of God working powerfully through African United Methodism, winning so many people into lives of Christian discipleship and into our churches.
We American United Methodists could learn much from our African brothers and sisters in effective disciple-making if we would only be willing to share more seats at the table and avoid unwise, already-rejected proposals to create unnecessary new committees, conferences, or other structures structures to segregate American and African United Methodists from each other.
6. The shift of General Conference power to the Global South
The 2020 General Conference will have 20 fewer American voting delegates and up to 50 more voting delegates from the Global South (Africa plus the Philippines) than the 2019 General Conference.
The more international General Conference becomes, the less influenced we can expect it to be by negative trends in U.S. secular culture, and the better prepared it can be to respectfully challenge the blind spots all of us have within our respective cultures.
7. The diverse strength of theologically traditionalist United Methodism
For all of the unpleasantness, the 2019 General Conference prominently displayed how the theologically traditionalist United Methodism is a global rainbow coalition of men and women of all ages and backgrounds from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and around the USA. We can expect this global nature to continue into any new context for traditional United Methodism that may emerge within the near future.
In the increasingly ethnically diverse mission field of the United States, we have earlier reported how adopting the proposals of liberal caucuses like UMC Next is a proven recipe for making denominations become older, whiter, and less reflective of the growing demographic diversity around us.
We can imagine a very different long-term future for theologically orthodox United Methodism. We have already seen a Hispanic caucus, the National Chinese Caucus of The United Methodist Church, and the Association of Korean United Methodist Churches all recently take official steps to align themselves with other theologically traditionalist United Methodists.
8. The continued growth of Asbury Theological Seminary
This fall, Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky reported its sixth consecutive year of consistent growth in enrollment.
While this is not a narrowly United Methodist development, we can certainly celebrate the growing influence and strength of this multi-denominational bastion of evangelical Methodism, which is now one of the largest seminaries in America of any stripe. This reflects rather well on the good work of key evangelical United Methodists steering the school, such as President Timothy Tennent, and IRD board member Kenneth Collins (Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies).
And the growing strength of Asbury can only bode well for its continuing positive influence in our denomination.
9. Continued evangelical leadership of fastest-growing congregations
Year after year, Len Wilson, Creative Director at St. Andrew UMCin Plano, Texas, has taken the time to compile a list of the top-25 fastest growing large United Methodist congregations in America.
And year after year, we have consistently found that, despite some exceptions, the overall trend has been clear of a strong majority of these fastest-growing large congregations being shepherded by senior pastors known to be theologically orthodox.
The 2019 edition of Len’s List is no exception to this continuing trend.
10. The faithful ministry continuing to happen in congregations around our denomination
While most of it makes no headlines, God is continuing to work powerfully in tens of thousands of United Methodist congregations around the world. People are being saved. Relationships are being restored. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are growing into deeper lives of Christian discipleship. Powerful impacts are being made in communities.
As my friend, WCA Council member Chris Ritter reported a couple weeks ago: “People can still find Jesus in a broken, divided, and dysfunctional denomination. I meet this week to prepare for our 28th baptism in 2019.”
To God be all the glory!