There’s no denying that 2020 has been an extraordinarily difficult year for all and especially some of us.
We must address the fallen realities we face, without whitewashing.
Yet even in such trying times, we must not forget God’s many continued blessings.
All Christians must first of all be thankful for God creating us, saving us, and promising a wonderful future for us, a promise that is infinitely more secure than anything else we could ever find.
We have also seen several blessings in the last year particularly for members of the United Methodist Church (UMC) whose theological perspective has been variously labeled traditionalist, orthodox, evangelical, or Wesleyan:
1. Agreement on Separation
Some may see this as an odd thing to be thankful for. But for those who have been honestly observing our denomination, it is clear that the reality is that “United” Methodists have already been deeply, irreconcilably divided for many years. Heavy-handed efforts to ignore this reality while forcing bureaucratic facades of unity have fostered ever deeper, lose-lose conflicts.
Now all major factions in our denomination are supportive of passing a comprehensive separation agreement at the next General Conference.
There is much loss to mourn about this.
But for evangelical United Methodists, the coming separation represents a historic opportunity to be free of the negative influences we have seen cause so much spiritual harm, be free of the bullying from liberal bishops, and free of the ways in which the ministries of our congregations have been undermined by the current UMC connection.
The coming separation offers a hopeful opportunity to keep our properties and continue our ministries with a great many like-minded United Methodist congregations and conferences across the USA and around the world, avoiding both the scandalous lawsuits seen in other denominations and the draconian exit fees required by the UMC’s current church law. And then we could even begin planting faithful Methodist congregations in previously “closed” regions like the Western United States.
2. The Atlanta Traditionalist Leaders’ Summit
As more knowledgeable observers have long realized, the theologically conservative coalition within United Methodism has a large degree of internal diversity and differences, far greater than many outsiders realize.
Yet in March, over two dozen theologically orthodox leaders—not only renewal-group figures but also bishops and higher-profile pastors who had previously not been connected to renewal groups—met in Atlanta and were able to agree on a common vision and work together for a new, faithful Methodist denomination that would emerge from the coming separation. I experienced this meeting as a remarkable time of unity and convergence among our diverse positions, ethnicities, global regions, and constituencies represented, which was huge.
3. Planning for the New Methodist Denomination
It is difficult to overstate how much work is required to build an entire denomination. Many key decisions will ultimately have to be made by the new denomination’s founding General Conference. But so much needs to be set up to manage the new denomination in the interim period between the enactment of a separation plan and the time when a properly representative founding General Conference can meet.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and the Transitional Leadership Council have assembled some of the best minds for this work. While I am frustrated by the extended delay of General Conference, it has had the major silver lining of providing time to ensure that this work can be done as diligently as possible.
If and when separation is enacted next year, United Methodists wanting to continue in a context of keeping our historic, biblical doctrinal and moral standards can be confident that the structure set up for us to do so will be very carefully developed with broad input, rather than something thrown together hastily.
4. Continued Traditionalist Standards in the UMC
The delay of General Conference means that our biblical church-law standards forbidding sexually immoral behavior by our clergy remain binding church law, as do the enhanced enforcement requirements enacted by the 2019 General Conference. No bishop, annual conference, or high-profile group has any legal power to change that before General Conference can actually meet and enact separation.
Yes, I am aware of our standards being broken in some places, and this is bad.
But the reality is that there was already widespread disobedience before 2020.
Now various factors within and beyond the church seem to have helped us see at least a relative dampening of the widespread disobedience we were seeing previously.
As I noted earlier this week, there have been several instances since the fall of last year recent instances of United Methodist clergy facing some real measures of accountability for violating our sexual-morality standards. Such accountability not only stops harm to the church and vulnerable people, but also serves the important purpose, rooted strongly in both Scripture and the UMC’s own historic, official doctrine, of deterring other ministers against following such bad examples.
Whatever the surrounding factors, seeing fewer instances of our clergy elevating examples of sexual immorality is a good thing, even if it is not as complete as we would like it to be.
5. Our Continued Connectionalism
There have been a great many problems, often documented here, with the UMC’s denominational bureaucracy.
But there are also plenty of weaknesses with isolated non-denominational congregations.
Our denominational connections can be great blessings, making it much easier to connect people in ways that reach the lost, address urgent problems, and advance the Kingdom.
Within just the last few days, I learned of someone with a ministry need in a distant part of the country, and thanks to the networks within our denomination, I was able to help this person connect with a faithful United Methodist pastor nearby. When faithful seminaries in Africa suffer terrible losses related from the global pandemic, concerned United Methodists form a ready-made network of people who can help (as I encourage you to do here).
While we do not need to be in the same denomination as everybody, remaining part of a large, geographically widespread denomination helps us to do so much more for the Kingdom together.
6. The Women’s Equality Amendment
For evangelical United Methodists, our support for the dignity of women, including in church leadership, flows directly from our biblical, Wesleyan faith.
So we celebrate the overwhelming adoption of an amendment to the UMC Constitution affirming that “both men and women are made in the image of God” and therefore of equal value, and lamenting the long, ongoing history of unjust discrimination against women and girls.
Okay, so this did not happen in 2020. But this annual Thanksgiving list is about blessings “in the last year,” and this amendment was officially adopted in November 2019, so that seems close enough.
While we lament the shameful demagoguery and political grandstanding with which some bishops chose to convey broadcast a hurtful, false message that our denomination had somehow “voted against women” previously, while unfairly demonizing those with theological concerns about one sentence that was not truly part of the amendment, UM Action was on record as urging the passage of the correct version of the women’s equality amendment.
Furthermore, this saga demonstrated how any proposed amendment to the UMC Constitution needs to genuinely earn widespread, more unified evangelical support in order to be adopted.
7. Growth of Orthodox Methodist Seminaries
The two main seminary options for orthodox United Methodist ministers-in-training have become United Theological Seminary and Asbury Theological Seminary.
As reported earlier, while this has been a generally very difficult time for seminaries across the theological and denominational spectrum, these two are bucking the trends and seeing impressive growth.
This offers much hope as orthodox United Methodists prepare for the future.
8. The Departure of Glide
As Dan Moran reported, historic Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco recently made a deal to leave our denomination.
Like #1, this may seem odd to celebrate. But the real time for lamenting the loss of Glide was many years ago. Even many liberals have agreed that the congregation is now really post-Christian. It was back in 1967 that senior pastor Cecil Williams removed the cross from the sanctuary, reportedly “to make Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, and atheists/agnostics feel comfortable….” Liberal officials of the California-Nevada Conference have lamented how its “Sunday celebrations” have become merely “uplifting concerts” which “lack the fundamentals of Christian worship,” with “the great majority” of church participants identifying as non-Christian: Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, atheist, and agnostic.”
Meanwhile, Glide kept having a leavening influence in our denomination. Rev. Karen Booth’s Forgetting How To Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution documents Glide’s role in spreading the sexual revolution in our denomination, particularly by fostering the career of the notorious pornography-hoarding United Methodist minister Ted McIlvenna (about whom you can read more here). In more recent years, Glide pastors have been featured speakers at liberal United Methodist events. Glide provided the platform from which Dr. Karen Oliveto – with her bizarre views of defending demon possession and also judging Jesus Christ’s alleged “bigotries” – was elevated to becoming the UMC’s first openly same-sex-partnered bishop.
Yes, some details of Glide’s separation may still need a little time to take effect, and we have a much broader separation coming after that. But this departure moving forward, so that evangelical United Methodist congregations no longer have to be unequally yoked with Glide for a day longer than necessary, is itself worth a major sigh of relief.
9. New People Reached through Online Worship
I realize that this season has been very difficult and has brought very painful losses in our churches. And I do not believe that online worship can ever fully replace communities gathering in person.
But it is also true that the global pandemic has pushed a great many congregations to start various new technological ways of offering safely distanced participation in worship services, when they were not previously doing so. Pastors have found great value in continuing this even after lockdowns are eased.
I have learned of several evangelical United Methodist congregations whose new electronic worship options began this year have served to not merely maintain participation, but also to expand and reach new people.
Whenever and however new people are reached for Jesus Christ, this is always cause for rejoicing!
10. Our Faithful Pastors
Yes, I know painfully well how the UMC includes far too many ministers who do not faithfully shepherd and love the sheep.
But a great many of us are blessed with faithful, caring, orthodox pastors.
And they have continued lovingly shepherding our congregations through perhaps the most difficult time in their ministries: The loss of in-person community. The need to figure out new technologies. Extreme financial challenges. Having to respond to communities overwhelmed by new waves of sickness, layoffs, depression, substance abuse, etc. Parishioners with bottled-up frustration over all the losses and limitations on 2020 sometimes harshly taking their anger out on their pastors depending on how they do or do not respond to social-distancing, racial-justice concerns, or other major challenges of the day. Very few were trained for any of this in seminary!
Most of you reading this probably have a pastor who deserves, and would greatly welcome, at least a quick note or email offering your encouragement and letting them know that they are loved and appreciated.