Can the UMC Survive? (Part II)
Despite abundant reports of creeping paganism, a homosexual insurgency, and clergy publicly giving voice to theological errors, America’s second-largest Protestant denomination is not yet ready for the scrap heap and may be on the way to renewal, say some of its clergy.
“We certainly have our troubles,” said Rev. Jamie Westlake, pastor of the Cypress Lake United Methodist Church in Fort Myers, Florida. “We certainly have our struggles, but the pendulum is swinging away from progressive theology.
“Like all mainline churches, we may well turn out to be a sinking ship on the way down, or a dinosaur near the tar pits slowly moving toward extinction. But I don’t think it’s time to give up on us as yet.”
A Shrinking Membership
Pastor Westlake was responding to a Chalcedon article about the growing influence of “goddess” theology in the UMC (see “The United Methodist Church: Weeping for Tammuz,” http://www.chalcedon.edu/articles/article.php?ArticleID=273). But the UMC’s troubles don’t begin and end with paganism.
“Here’s a church that’s lost a third of its membership,” said Bishop Will Willimon of the UMC’s North Alabama Conference. “We’ve lost 2 million members; our membership has declined every year for 20 years, and the median age of our clergy is over 50 — and yet none of that is ever discussed at a General Conference.”
The UMC is also grappling with a “gay-affirming” movement whose leaders include ordained ministers, bishops, and elders. In defiance of church rules and teaching (to say nothing of the Bible’s teaching on the subject), these Methodists always generate publicity when they demonstrate for homosexual “marriage” and the ordination of practicing, unrepentant homosexuals (see “Pro-Gay United Methodists Rally Outside San Francisco,” http://www.ird-renew.org/site/apps/nl/content2.asp?c=fvKVLfMVIsG&b=391221&ct=2042645).
Finally, there is the hard-left, big government political activism of some highly visible UMC personnel (see “John Lofton on the Immorality of the Federal Budget,” Faith for All of Life, March/April 2006) — not well received by much of the laity, Pastor Westlake said.
“I wish the UMC would declare a moratorium on saying anything about politics until we have some understanding of what the gospel is,” he said.
“People look at our church,” Bishop Willimon said, “and see this pale reflection of either the political left or the political right.”
But aside from paganism, politics, and bitter arguments over homosexuality, Bishop Timothy Whitaker, the UMC’s Florida Area resident bishop, pointed to another, deeper problem affecting the denomination: its captivity to popular culture.
“All of the mainline Protestant churches are in the flow of an American culture that values diversity and personal choice,” Bishop Whitaker said. “Ours is probably the most pluralistic denomination in the country, given our wide geographical distribution.
“In 2004, 41% of our congregations reported not a single profession of faith — that is, a person coming forward to profess his belief in Christ for the first time. This is a profoundly disturbing statistic.”
Bishop Willimon agreed.
“People see us just falling into the arms of the culture and not offering any better world,” he said. “But look at television, look at the movies. This is what the modern world looks like — horrible, degrading, animalistic. It distresses me that Hollywood movies are telling the truth about this culture, and we aren’t.”
In Alabama, Bishop Willimon said, neither goddess worship nor homosexuality is an issue troubling the church.
“People in Alabama aren’t interested in Sophia, or homosexuality,” he said. “Our problem here is The Purpose-Driven Life [by Rick Warren] and the ‘emergent church.’ Evangelicals seem to be saying, ‘Let’s boil it down to one sentence.’ So you have an utter and complete lack of Trinitarian discourse, and Christian music today that’s all ‘me and Jesus, what Jesus means to me.’ The God that is preached and sung to in contemporary worship has been cut down to ‘something we get.’ So for me, it’s much more disturbing when my pastors buy into Rick Warren, hook, line, and sinker.”
Theological drift, he said, is of particular concern to Wesleyans.
“For Wesleyans to be orthodox takes a lot of care,” he said. “I see a kind of creeping Arianism in our theology — that is, a failure to assert the fullness of both Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Wesleyan theology is always in danger of degenerating into mere moralism.”
“I don’t think the issues are purely doctrinal,” Bishop Whitaker said. “Methodism follows a way of salvation developed in the Wesleyan Revival. It’s a distinctive theology. But about 100 years ago, we stopped practicing the way of salvation that was distinctive to us. We drifted away from things like our covenant services, love feasts, small groups. Those were our ‘methods’ — that’s why we were called Methodists. But we have lately become indistinguishable from any other Christian group. We’ve suffered a theological deterioration over a long period of time.”
The phrase “a way of salvation,” he explained, refers to a distinctive church culture and is not meant to imply that practicing it, or any other works of the flesh, results in anyone’s salvation.
“There are different covenants by which Christians — saved by God’s grace, and the Holy Spirit — live out their Christian lives together,” he said. “This particular covenant, Methodism, really helped certain people to be faithful, and obedient, and to grow in the grace of Christ. But beginning 100 years ago, we’ve lost that.”
Will the UMC Split?
Pastor Westlake said he feared the UMC might actually split between liberals and conservatives.
“Many expect it, and nobody wants it,” he said. “But I don’t know how you can sustain that level of disagreement [about homosexuality and politics].
“If the church changes its position on homosexuality, I would have to leave the church. But it wouldn’t be me leaving the church; it’d be the church moving away from me.”
“I keep telling people that the word ‘inclusive’ is not a Biblical word,” Bishop Willimon said. But he does not expect the faction pushing for “inclusiveness” to win out — or even to survive long enough to force a split.
“All this ‘progressive’ stuff coming out of Wisconsin, California, Oregon, and Washington,” he said, “reflects the views of a few affluent, over-50 Americans. They’re getting old and dying out. They are declining so fast, they are closing churches, and they’re not going to be a factor in the future. These avant-gardes and progressives — they’re just old.”
But what about high-profile UMC leaders, including bishops, who promote feminist or goddess theology, recommend Gnostic reading lists, demonstrate for homosexual “marriage” and ordination, and publicly question or even renounce key tenets of the Christian faith — all without suffering any disciplinary consequences?
“One of the problems with our system is that there’s very limited accountability,” Westlake said. “We have no strong executive. So when you walk into a UMC church, you really don’t know what you’re going to get. We have very diverse churches, theologically and politically, and we don’t have a strong tradition of church discipline.
“The only way to hold a bishop accountable is through other bishops, and that’s very difficult. Even in a case of blatant clerical malpractice, bishops aren’t going to run around calling other bishops heretics.”
“It’s not normal for one bishop to publicly disagree with another — but sometimes it’s necessary,” Bishop Whitaker said.
Whitaker himself did just that in 2002, when he published an essay taking issue with Bishop Joseph Sprague (since retired), who had made public remarks questioning the virgin birth of Christ and the exclusivity of Christ as the only path to salvation (see http://www.flumc.org/bishop_whitaker/Response%20to%20Bishop%20Sprague.pdf).
More of such dialogue is needed in the UMC, Whitaker said — but it must be done civilly.
“People want to play Crossfire, and the game of blogs, in dealing with ecclesiastical matters, and I deplore that,” he said. “We must not trivialize theological issues.”
Signs of Renewal
Meanwhile, said all three clergymen, there are signs of renewal in the UMC.
“I travel all the time,” Willimon said, “and I do get to see some amazing witness. The next generation of Methodists excites me. They like a God who is demanding and judgmental and robust, and complicated. What the Trinity is doing with people under 40 is really exciting. And we have some seminaries, like Asbury and Duke, who are rediscovering their vocation for an orthodox theology.”
“Will gets around a lot more than I do,” Whitaker said, “but here in Florida, I don’t see people fleeing our churches.
“Our Disciple Bible study program, launched in the 1980s, has provided a source of great renewal. It’s become a feature of a lot of healthy, growing churches. And now, long overdue, the Council of Bishops is assessing what our mission is, in this world today, and how we can accomplish it.”
“The pendulum is swinging away from progressive theology in the regions of the country where the UMC is growing, in the Southeast and Southwest,” Westlake said. “This means that more evangelicals, conservatives, and orthodox folks will be serving as delegates to the General Conference over time. And once the Africans become full members, there’ll be even more conservatives in our church.
“Right now, I’d say that about 70% of what’s happening in the UMC is good, and right. If I felt that the 30% of things that are going wrong would win the day, I’d leave the church.”
“The way out is theological,” Bishop Willimon said. “We have a God who likes nothing better than to harass deceitful, betraying, half-believing people.
“We have no problems today that Jesus Christ has not already encountered and overcome.”
 The United Methodist Church in America has more than 8 million members, almost 45,000 clergy, and more than 35,000 local churches.
Topics: Church, The, Culture