Virginia United Methodism has essentially shut down. A 100 page document crafted by church authorities outlines how local churches might some day reopen. Long after the pandemic is over, perhaps some congregation will have successfully navigated through that document. Anticipate the Second Coming, or at least United Methodism’s formal split, before many achieve that navigation.
So for the last month I’ve enjoyably attended a Southern Baptist church. Initially its congregation reconvened in its parking lot after worshiping only online during the pandemic. Fortunately it returned inside before the worst of Summer heat. Everyone is masked and carefully distanced. The sanctuary is very large and has a balcony. Socializing seems to be minimal.
The original congregation was elderly and dwindling. So the current young pastor, who grew up United Methodist, was dispatched to “replant” it. (I interviewed him here.) The operation seems to have been successful. Congregants are overwhelmingly young, mostly families. At age 55 I’ve usually been the oldest person in the room by many years with possibly one exception.
It’s somewhat hard for a lifelong Methodist to adjust to Baptistry. There’s no liturgy, and the service lasts nearly two hours. There are several long and robust pulpit prayers by pastor and elders. There are several hymns, all of them wonderfully familiar and venerable. Surprisingly the Eucharist has been served several times over the past five weeks I’ve attended. Little sealed disposable cups with wafer and juice are distributed. The sermons, which are vigorous and rich with biblical content, are 40-50 minutes. Methodist worship is typically one hour with a 20 minute sermon.
Yesterday’s Baptist sermon, which was 50 minutes, was about Christian sexual morality. It was both adamant and tasteful, relying on theology familiar to orthodox Christianity in all major traditions. Sex is for husband and wife, no exceptions. It warned against temptation, from which Christians are to flee.
The roof did not collapse. Nobody screamed. Nobody ran for the doors. Everyone seemed to listen attentively. The pastor cited both divine judgment and mercy. He warned against self righteousness and said he also must be careful. He’s publicly and bravely written about his own struggles as a younger pastor.
After the service I walked to a nearby restaurant. The neighborhood of upper middle class homes in northern Virginia included many yard signs and flags touting socially liberal messages. Yet this successfully replanted Baptist church is very traditionalist. So strange!
Not really. Churches and religions of all sorts generally only thrive when they challenge and exact high standards. Few people are impressed by or drawn to religions that expect little or merely echo talking points found in the surrounding culture. Religions typically decline or die not because they’re controversial but because they’re seen as boring or irrelevant. Methodism once appreciated this insight.
Over the weekend I discovered this delightful 1954 British movie about Methodism’s founder John Wesley. Local Methodist leaders complain to him that some Methodists are getting drunk and defying the Sabbath. Wesley says they must be admonished to improve or removed from the rolls. Early Methodism grew by expecting high standards. And it was controversial for doing so. The film portrays Wesley banned from pulpits and forced to preach in fields, defying bishops, facing down mobs. And his followers grew.
Lacking such verve, Methodism in America has deflated for nearly 60 years. In northern Virginia, where I’ve lived all my life, the collapse is especially visible. Once great churches are now empty. The church that was nearly the cathedral church of local Methodism when I was young now literally has no congregation. It’s now a rental space housing four thriving relatively new non-Methodist congregations in a supposedly secular area.
Recently I was telling the pastor of a large nearby Anglican church, which recently built a new sanctuary, that Anglican church planters in a few years in northern Virginia should be ready for many Methodist properties to become available after United Methodism’s anticipated schism. There are about 100 United Methodist churches in northern Virginia. About 90 will side with liberal Methodism and likely fewer than 10 will side with traditional Methodism. But those 5-10 conservative congregations will receive many refugees from the other 90 liberal-aligned churches. The ever shrinking numbers of liberal Methodism can’t sustain those 90 churches, which likely fairly quickly will close and merge down to 40-50 churches. Anglican and evangelical congregations looking to buy or rent property will have many opportunities.
Last week a longtime Methodist in northern Virginia phoned me. I was sharing some of the above info with him and he was surprised there weren’t more traditional Methodist congregations in the area. He said his own declining congregation had in a poll by 75% preferred liberal Methodism on sexuality issues. I replied that would be average in this area. Pastors have not preached United Methodism’s official traditional standards and beliefs about new birth, sanctification and holiness. They have instead aligned with the surrounding culture. The fruit is half-empty church buildings with grim futures.
Despite the bad news for Methodism in northern Virginia, there’s no threat of my becoming Baptist. My convictions and habits remain Methodist. Whenever my local congregation, which has a traditionalist pastor, is allowed to reopen, hopefully before the End Times, I’ll gratefully be there.
And I’m looking forward to a time, after United Methodism’s split, when traditional Methodism will be free to plant new congregations and proclaim unpopular Gospel teachings that will challenge and engage new audiences.