By Dr. Riley Case
In the early 1970s Charles Keysor, founder of the Good News movement, sounded an alarm about the future of the newly formed United Methodist Church. Given cause by the Methodist-EUB merger, and riding the crest of the social and religious upheaval of the 1960s, the 1972 General Conference had approved a radical restructuring of the denomination which institutionalized the progressive theology of that day. There were problems in the church before; but the new direction of the church, using Keysor’s metaphor, would head the good ship United Methodism toward the rocks of the shore. The church embraced doctrinal pluralism, mandated social engineering by way of quota systems, created independent superboards, supported various forms of liberation theology, exalted the place of social action at the expense of evangelism, and sought to be prophetic by passing resolutions (from no Book of Resolutions at that time to a book today of 1,084 pages).
Keysor was not without hope, however. He observed that in the larger religious scene God was doing a new thing through those committed to a new evangelicalism. Loosed from the limiting features of an earlier fundamentalism the new evangelicalism had spawned the Jesus People, the charismatic movement, a world-wide Pentecostal revival, and a proliferation of new parachurch ministries. The turmoil of the 1960s had been harsh in its criticism of the organized church, but it was the mainline and liberal churches that took most of the hit; less so the evangelical churches. The 1960s were hard on institutions that were characterized by form without substance; and that description fit the mainline churches. Orthodox and evangelical churches, on the other hand, had the substance-the basic salvation message that Christ died on the cross to save humankind of an eternity without God-and those that were able to adapt new forms (as in, for example, music) while keeping intact the historic truths of the faith would thrive.
The hope for United Methodism, Keysor thought, was that the evangelical renewal bringing life to the larger Christian world would also infect United Methodism. Discouraged United Methodists should stay with the denomination because a new day was possible. The key to the new day was in reclaiming Methodism’s doctrinal heritage. One of the major differences between spiritual vitality and spiritual barrenness was in faithfulness to the proclamation of the essentials (Wesley’s word) of the faith. The Junaluska Affirmation of 1974, which represented an evangelical understanding of our doctrinal standards, would serve as a rallying point for this evangelical renewal in The United Methodist Church.
A look at The United Methodist Church, American Christianity, and world Christianity forty years later lends itself to the observation that Keysor was a prophet. In the last forty years the most progressive church of all, the United Church of Christ, has lost over one million members, or 50% of its 1969 total. The United Methodists have lost exactly 3,215,789 members, or 30% of its original number in that same period. This averages out to about 154 members per week, or the size of an average congregation. If the more than three million members lost by United Methodists would be gathered into one denomination, it would presently be the 8th largest denomination in America. Meanwhile the Assemblies of God Church has grown by over 400% in the same time period. The Church of the Nazarene has grown by 44%.
The figures for world Christianity are even more dramatic. The church is in decline in areas where the preaching of the evangelical faith has been compromised (as in Europe, Australia, and Canada). It is thriving and growing where the Bible is taken seriously and the gospel is proclaimed without apology (China, South America, and Africa).
In terms of American United Methodism, the church is declining or growing pretty much in direct proportion to its theological orientation. It is declining in progressive areas (the west coast and the northeast) but thriving, or at least holding its own in areas with greater evangelical presence (mostly in the south). What is now the California-Pacific Conference claimed 218,000 members in the late 1960s. Today that figure stands at 88,000. The conference, fed by seminaries such as Claremont, which wants to train Muslims as well as Christians, has lost 60% of its membership in the past 40 years. By contrast the North Georgia Conference, which also claimed 218,000 members in the late 1960s, now numbers 321,000 members, a 33% gain. What is the difference between the two conferences? The one quantifiable difference is theology.
The last time a Happenings article made reference to “progressive conferences” and “evangelical conferences,” there was some sharp reaction saying that characterizing conferences or churches in this way (theologically) was not helpful and tended to divide rather than unite the church.
That kind of reaction, we submit, is at the heart of United Methodism’s current malaise. This article would argue that it is precisely the failure to recognize the reality of theological orientation that blinds us from planning strategies or making decisions that could stem not only the hemorrhaging of members but also the loss of influence of the church. Apart from the question as to whether progressive theology or evangelical theology is more attuned with reality, one should at least recognize the statistical fact that progressive churches are declining while evangelical churches are not. And yet when Dr. Fred Miller, a consultant with the research team studying the church for the Call to Action team reported to the bishops, he commented that the findings of his company went beyond the debates between theological liberals and theological conservatives. According to Miller, the research said that theological orientation “doesn’t make a difference for having vital congregations.”
The statement needs to be challenged. The consulting firms did not even examine the theological orientation of the churches in any meaningful sense (if they did it does not appear in the full report). If there is an identifiable variable that distinguishes growing churches from dying churches other than theological orientation, then let us see the evidence. It is good to talk about passionate worship, involved lay leadership, and children and youth programs as marks of vital congregations, but the important question is, what is the theology that drives passionate worship and involved lay leadership? If, as it has been said, United Methodists don’t care or don’t know anything about theology, then our situation as a church is even more dire. Then we are truly an institution with all form and no substance.
This brings us back to the statement of the 36 retired bishops who want the church to change its position on the practice of homosexuality. These bishops have the right to make such a statement, of course, but why should anyone listen? Are these not the same bishops who have been in leadership in the church during these last forty years when the church has lost 3.2 million members? The bishops are not calling for the church to stand on the Scriptures and the traditions of the church against the secular culture but for the church to stand with secular culture against the Scriptures and the tradition of the church. Have we not learned anything from these past forty years? The issue is, of course, much larger than homosexuality. It has to do with doctrinal integrity and basic Christian moral standards. Do we sacrifice these for the sake of modernity, or shall we stand firm in the midst of the shifting sands of modernity?
The Confessing Movement and the other renewal groups believe that there is a basic core of faithful United Methodists who wish to stand firm in the faith once delivered to the saints. We believe the time has come when those who wish to stand firm in the faith should stand up and be counted. It is time to reaffirm our confidence in a gospel that has the power to transform lives.
Stay tuned for further developments.
(If you would like to reference back copies of these Happenings articles, as well as other writings by Riley Case, go to rileycase.com. The articles are listed by title.)
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