This year’s process for United Methodist congregations to exit their denomination has been predictably messy, but the results are often creative. Some churches fall just short of the two thirds congregational vote required, ensuring a congregational split.
One recent example is Collierville United Methodist Church outside Memphis. Several weeks ago 64 percent of the church voted for exit, falling 24 votes short of the needed two thirds, 773-493. The defeated majority could have given up and scattered. Instead the following Sunday 342 met at a nearby funeral home, effectively founding a new traditional Methodist congregation. They outnumbered total worshippers at the old church. Their new name is First Methodist Church Collierville.
So, liberals and institutionalists “won,” but their victory is empty.
The old church is stuck with a large modern church property it can no longer fill plus its old historic downtown sanctuary, and a large debt of several million dollars that’s possibly unsustainable. I spoke at this church 11 years ago when it had an evangelical pastor and clear direction. Subsequent pastors have been more liberal, and the current pastor tragically opposed exit, guaranteeing a calamitous division. It’s a miracle that traditionalists got 64% despite the pastor’s opposition. When I spoke at the church over a decade ago, there were 1500 worshippers, which subsequently fell by two thirds. A traditionalist pastor could have avoided this once great church’s demise.
Yesterday the new church worshipped together for the second Sunday, and they’re attracting refugees from other United Methodist churches.
Avoiding some of this acrimony, a United Methodist church in Arkansas, with an average 1886 worshippers, voted to divide itself into three congregations. Liberals at Fayetteville’s Central United Methodist Church, the largest United Methodist congregation in the state, will keep the main property. Its satellite campus in South Fayetteville, with 300-350 worshippers, will become independent, buying its current property, an old Methodist sanctuary, for one dollar. And the current pastor and church staff will found a new congregation, funded by $500,000 from the old church. A leader in the new church said they’re “excited about launching a new Wesleyan orthodox theological church.”
There are other creative examples across Methodism, where traditional believers are founding new congregations that can achieve what churches in the old denomination could not. They are losing old properties but gaining so much more. The old congregations are stuck with unsustainable properties and perhaps will not survive, or at very least face a grim future.
United Methodism in the coming years will be closing and selling thousands of church properties. In some cases, maybe new traditional Methodist congregations will buy some of those properties, returning them to their original purpose of Wesleyan Gospel proclamation. Most discarded old United Methodist churches will likely sell to nondenominationals, or be demolished by developers, or become condominiums, restaurants or microbreweries.
Historic Methodism began as a renewal movement that evolved into a new church for new times. The cycle continues. At least 3,000 churches so far have voted by the needed two thirds margin to exit United Methodism, taking their property, and winning their freedom. Perhaps 1,000-2,000 more will do so before this year’s fast approaching deadline. But many new congregations also are emerging from old churches that declined to exit.
Amid messiness, division and death there will be new life. United Methodism, founded in 1968 as a large national bureaucracy committed to liberal Protestantism, has declined every year of its existence. That decline will now fast accelerate. Traditional Methodism will endure and prosper in new contemporary situations, becoming “new” by reaching people in practical ways.