by Dr. Bill Bouknight

At the 2008 General conference there will be tremendous pressure and temptation to just rearrange furniture on the decks of the good ship UMC. Any time the church has the opportunity to correct its real flaws, Satan, the master salesman, suggests that we just reorganize something or conduct another four-year study.

The fundamental problem afflicting the United Methodist Church in America is spiritual. A symptom is that we are receiving only about half as many new members by profession of faith as we were in the 1950’s. For the first time since the 1930’s our membership total has dropped below 8 million. Our latest statistics show that our average church attendance is at its lowest level since the UMC was founded in 1968. But many of us are still in denial about the decline of the UMC in America. Why are we in decline? I believe that the UMC in America is no longer sure what its “Good News” is. And when a denomination does not have clarity about its central message, it cannot declare it with confidence or conviction. Our bugle sounds more like retreat than reveille.

Most Wesley experts list six foundational doctrines that our founder considered essential for the people called Methodist. There is one that is conspicuously missing from contemporary preaching. That one is Atonement, Jesus Christ atoning for our sin through his sacrificial death on the cross. There has been a concerted effort in many of our seminaries and in much of our denomination to separate salvation from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and to relate it to a general concept of social justice, inclusion, and liberation. Listen to 100 United Methodist sermons across America and (unless it is Passion/Palm Sunday) hardly one will mention that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins. Theological termites have eaten away the heart of our gospel. Across much of Methodism, the preaching of the atoning cross has been suspended. Not so much rejected as just suspended.

Many United Methodists believe that our message is simply, “God loves you, and we’re trying to.” That message is not wrong, just tragically incomplete. It omits the heart of the faith, and it reeks of cheap grace or “sloppy agape.” It skips the major problem of humanity, which is sin, and the lengths to which our loving God went to overcome it.

It is providential that our UM logo consists of a cross and the flame of the Holy Spirit. God has given us the recipe for renewal, right there on the logo — the message of the cross delivered through the power of the Holy Spirit. The cross proclaims two messages simultaneously: first, how awful is our sin that a cross would be required to atone for it; and secondly, how awesome is God’s love that he would agonize and die on a cross for sinners like us.

My old Scottish teacher James S. Stewart used to say, “If God in Christ has not borne our sins on the cross, we have no good news to preach.” A cross-centered gospel is the only message that can save souls, change lives, and transform us into a mighty movement for God. St. Paul summarized this message so well in II Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”