General Conference and the Future of the United Methodist Church

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

In a matter of days delegates from all over the USA and the world will be arriving for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. This gathering, occurring only once every four years, is intended to be a time of “holy conferencing” where the church focuses on theological, organizational, procedural and strategic matters so that the church might more faithfully serve Christ in the world. The last general conference which was characterized by a fresh wind of hope and optimism was the 1968 “uniting” conference held in Dallas, Texas which brought the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church.  The eleven general conferences since then (1972 until 2012) have been characterized by an increasing sense of despair and doom.  After all, 1968 was the last time the Methodist movement posted a net growth in membership.

We were once a powerful evangelistic movement.  Now, we are forever searching for new ways to manage our decline.  Endless studies and reports and commissions and re-structuring and new slogans (Open hearts, open minds, open doors) have ensued over the years.  None of these well intentioned initiatives have halted – or even really understood – the nature of this decline.  It will probably take a least three more cycles of general conferences before the following suggestions can be heard.  Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions to consider:

First, the University Senate of the United Methodist Church must insist that all United Methodist Seminaries (official and approved) embody a truly Wesleyan ethos and theology which is faithful to our history.  If you take time (as I have on many occasions) to talk to the pastors and lay people within the larger family of the Wesleyan tradition (e.g. United Methodist, Wesleyan church, Free Methodist, Nazarene, etc.) you will quickly discover that the United Methodist pastors and lay people are the least familiar with the core theological perspectives of John Wesley, including prevenient grace, sanctification, holiness, etc…  Most United Methodist Churches must reclaim what it means to be a Methodist church.  This begins in Seminary training and then must be reinforced in the life of the church.  Millions of dollars from the MEF fund goes to fund United Methodist Seminaries (Just for the record, not a penny goes to Asbury) without any concomitant insistence that the “product” of these seminaries is formed by a Wesleyan perspective.

Second, the bishops must certify that all pastors are historically orthodox.  It is essential that we remember that Methodism is a part of the great stream of historic Christian confession.  We resonate with Christians all over the world in our confession of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  We have permitted far too much doctrinal latitude within the church.  Men and women pastors who, for example, can no longer affirm the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and so forth should not be permitted to continue as ordained clergy.   We shouldn’t forget that Church discipline is one of the three historic marks of the church.

Third, the Seminaries who train United Methodist clergy must reclaim biblical preaching.  We were once known for powerful, biblical preaching.  Today it is not uncommon to sit in a Methodist church and hear very weak sermons.  They are weak theologically, intellectually, biblically and homiletically.  They are often based on bland moralizing and a few cute stories, but not the kind of robust Christianity of the New Testament which is powerfully proclaimed, intellectually compelling, theologically sound and biblically rooted.  Having spent most of my life in theological education, I am convinced that students can be trained to preach and teach well.

Fourth, United Methodist churches across the nation must learn how to engage a post-Christian culture. The Millennial generation self identifies as approximately 7% Christian.  This is only 2% from being eligible to be classified as an unreached people-group.  This means that all churches in North America must regain their missional footing.  We are a people on a mission.  North America is the fastest growing mission field in the world.  This, of course, involves social action, healing, evangelism, apologetics, radical service and much, much more.   But, we can no longer assume that we are at the center of Western culture.  We are now on the margins prophetically helping this new generation imagine the even greater realities of the inbreaking kingdom.

Finally, we must be a people of prayer and repentance.  The true church is always characterized by prayer and a spirit of repentance.  We have not been faithful to God.  We need His grace in our midst.  I was in Costa Rica in December and had the privilege of preaching at a general conference of all the Methodist pastors, District Superintendents and the bishop (Bishop Palomo).  It was truly inspiring to see all these men and women on their faces before God weeping for the sins of their nation, asking God to have mercy on his church.  I witnessed Bishop Palomo moving from pastor to pastor, praying for them and anointing them for renewed ministry.  I felt like I was in the middle of a movement again – it was the 18th century all over again, but in Costa Rica.

Return to our roots, remember the gospel, re-engage the world and stay on our knees – that is the simplest advice for the delegates of the General Conference to remember as they engage in the “holy conferencing” in Tampa, Florida.  It may be a few more years before the wider church can hear this, but keep planting those seed!   Let’s prepare for renewal today.  I, for one, have not lost hope.  Let’s expect God to do, as He did in Ezekiel’s day, a great miracle by breathing His life into these dead bones again.

Comments

  • Nathan Gibson says:

    I have been in ministry for 10 years and have recently been trying to find a group/denomination that embodies the passions and depth the early church had. Sadly I do not see it in any American denom.

    The Pentecostals have plenty of enthusiasm but their theology is as shallow as a damp wash rag. Baptists allow their people to commit various sins and allow them to go right into hell b/c of some misguided loyalty to a tenet of Calvinism rather than holiness. Wesleyanism seems so desirous of looking like the world that it shows no difference…

    I crave having men like John and Charles full of passion to follow. I however do have the Holy Spirit and perhaps there will be a day that I can find those men or maybe I can become one. Who knows but when a man does step forward he will shake this nation and hopefully reintroduce repentance to a nation whose church only cares about programs and attendance.

    The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psalm 51:17 KJV)

  • Thank you Dr. Tennent. 5 days until the GC. Hope somebody involved in it reads this article within the next 4 days. More than ever before, I’m happy to have come to Asbury Theological Seminary. Hopefully, each brick that forms the beautiful 18th century British Colonial buildings we, ATS students and staff in Wilmore, walk in each day, reminds us of the wonderful work done in the past by those who came here first.

  • Anthony says:

    I am a Southern Baptist, now, but several years ago I visited an UMC church and decided that it wasn’t the church for me. The church did not teach within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy. It really is a shame, too, because I love liturgical worship, but what good is liturgy without orthodoxy and evangelistic fervor.

  • I thank God for your commitment to these virtues and for your leadership at our seminary! Reading this makes be proud to be a Methodist and Asbury Student.

  • Rurel Ausley says:

    I am a delegate from the Alabama West Florida conference and an ATS graduate…so I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. Unfortunately, you are correct, in that theological answers aren’t being looked at yet. When a boat is sinking, the cause is the last thing to be dealt with, it simply becomes all hands on deck to stop the sinking…I pray we can stop the sinking, and one day understand the reason for the sinking so that we can grow the Kingdom once again. Pray for all of us at General Conference.

  • John Meunier says:

    Can you point to some examples of contemporary (or historical) preaching that you would hold up as strong in all the ways you mention here?

    Many models of “good” preaching are held up these days. I am curious what you mean by the term.

  • JR says:

    Dr. Tennent, I admire your commitment and passion for the UMC. I do believe many evangelicals in the UMC are called to stay and continue to serve God in their churches, but may it, also, be time for an evangelical Methodist denomination to be birthed soon?

  • [...] Theological Seminary President Timothy Tennent wrote recently about his vision for the upcoming General Conference of the United Methodist Church. This story is [...]

  • Robert Brake says:

    Well needed and timely advice. It’s time to get back to the roots of Wesley.

  • CC says:

    I agree with the diagnosis of decline. Who could deny it? But, I’m afraid that backward is not the direction that will bring transformation. The Southern Baptists are dealing with the results of their own attempt to return to orthodox roots. The “Wesleyan” denominations referred to are no more effective than United Methodism in reaching a changing world. I believe that God is doing a “new thing”. This is another great movement of the divine/human encounter! Denominationalism that focuses, as we have, on self-preservation, may not survive this movement. As in past great movements our task is to be as faithful and true as we know how to be, then be ready to “move when the Spirit says move”. Do not despair…God is in control!

  • [...] Timothy Tennent on the future of the United Methodist church: We were once a powerful evangelistic movement.  Now, we are forever searching for new ways to manage our decline.  Endless studies and reports and commissions and re-structuring and new slogans (Open hearts, open minds, open doors) have ensued over the years.  None of these well intentioned initiatives have halted – or even really understood – the nature of this decline.  It will probably take a least three more cycles of general conferences before the following suggestions can be heard.  Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions to consider… [...]

  • Good words. Think your final point should have been your first point. Not confident that the Episcopacy as we know it can be expected to hold an orthodox line, especially when many of them are supportive of unorthodox teaching.

  • Stacey says:

    I am praying for the UMC nationwide. I went to a Methodist church at the end of high school and another throughout college, though I was raised Baptist. Both Methodist churches were sound in their doctrine and strong in their mission to lead people to a relationship with Jesus.
    Whether Methodist or Baptist, we all need to do more than remember the gospel. We need to read it, know it and share it. We need to be unashamed as Paul was to share and live the gospel. We need to see that WE as a nation have waivered about whether WE FEEL the Bible is inerent and true. We need to get on our knees and BEG God to forgive our sin of unbelief. We need to stand on HIS truths because in the end HIS Word will be what stands forever. We are Christians who should be sharing the plan of salvation, unashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to stop apologizing for God and HIS Word!
    May God be with you and fellow Mehodist believers as you serve Him!

  • VRC says:

    Such lovely words, yet I wonder why LTS, your neighbor, and fellow educating institution was removed from the University Senate list. Could it be they posed “ungodly competition” to the great Christians?

  • Aaron says:

    As a Southern Baptist serving among many United Methodists in Nebraska I am thankful to hear your call, Dr. Tennent. “We were once a powerful evangelistic movement,” is true of more than the UMC. May God bring revival. May we as church leaders be broken & repentant.

  • Holly says:

    This post is “eerily” bringing to mind The Barmen Declaration of May 1934 that I’ve just finished reading in Eric Metaxas’ recent Bonhoeffer biography. Different circumstances — somewhat — but large parallels in the struggle for a rooted and Biblically orthodox church in a season where every fiber of a true Christian’s mettle was being sorely tested. And if you know this history, some of the extreme testing came from those “within” the German church, trying to placate a deceptive government/Reich; and kept twisting and abandoning basic orthodoxy to do so. Reading this book, this blog, has me staying on my knees for a return to our roots, a clarity and boldness in proclaiming Jesus Christ, and a hope that whatever evil swirls we will ENGAGE our culture with wisdom, LOVE, and unflagging adherence to the TRUTH of His Word.

  • Bill Adams says:

    That Sir, is a keynote speech.
    I’m no theologian, I’m not in the power structure, but I have read Mr. Wesley a bit as well as The Bible. On the large scale this is not what it should be according to either. On the local scale, our pastor preaches The Word.
    I’m not so sure we are using the right weights and measurers. How many are our churches reaching, how many are hearing the Gospel?
    You are talking about preaching The Word, accountability, and an absolute belief in what the Bible itself says. Not PC stuff, that hasn’t worked, and if it did it isn’t the gospel. So what if you gain members but have sacrificed the gospel for PCness. It is for nothing.
    We have logs in our eyes, thank you for giving a higher perspective.

    • Dear Dr. Tennent,
      Thank you for this article. I am delighted you are raising these issues. It is because of the concerns you raise that I was led to turn from investing in this political system of the UMC after being a delegate to GC and JC for many years and serving on the Board of Good News. My attention for the last 10 years has been focused on the work of the Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela, birthed with the aid for Bishop Paloma. In 2007 we also witnessed the birth of a Methodist conference in Venezuela and the election of our first bishop. The way you characterize the conference in Costa Rica is repeated in the conference in Venezuela as well as the Seminary. The Wesleyan spirit taught in the context of orthodox theology is shaping the work of the church and is helping to reach a nation which is the most secular and pagan in all of Latin America. Yet, the pastors who serve there do so with hope and assurance in the midst of great poverty and difficulty. I am blessed that the last 10 years of my 40 years of ministry have been spent in an environment not unlike what my Methodist preacher great-grandfather experienced during and following the Civil War as our church grew exponentially in the US. My heart breaks that every year of my 40 years of ministry in the UMC has been marked by continued decline. The restructuring which will consume this GC will not stop the decline, much less renew the church. Nor will the concerted attempt to undermine the authority of Scripture in governing the church. Your assessment is correct and a needed word for an ineffective church. Until our church reclaims the authority of scripture, we have no authority and hence no power to impact the world for Christ. Bless you.
      Warren Lathem, N.GA and Venezuela

  • [...] Traditionalist Tim Tennant, President of Asbury Seminary (an independent, evangelical seminary that trains many Methodists), suggests the Methodists need some “old time religion”.  His post offers three suggestions that may be summarized as imposing a conservative litmus test for seminarians: a) the UMC “must insist that all United Methodist Seminaries (official and approved) embody a truly Wesleyan ethos and theology which is faithful to our history,” b)  “the bishops must certify that all pastors are historically orthodox,” and c) “the Seminaries who train United Methodist clergy must reclaim biblical preaching.”  There’s more, but you get the drift. [...]

  • Jim Perry says:

    Thank you for this call to action. We have lost the simplicity and the power of the gospel.

  • Mike Voigts says:

    Thank you, Dr. Tennent. Once again you have clearly articulated the core issues facing the UMC today. The solution to this denomination’s many issues is beyond human capacity. May God’s Spirit move through our delegates!

    • AMEN! AMEN! AMEN! Indeed, houses of worship that are divided against themselves cannot stand. We are divided over the authority of scripture, over worship stlye, over music, over doctrine and over issues of morality. No wonder those on the outside looking in decide to stay on the outside. No wonder there is no power to conquer sin— thus creating fertile ground for all kinds of addictions and immoral behavior that grip the people of God in defeat. We, as a Church, are as confused and without moorings as they. The blind cannot lead the blind…..praise God for leaders who are speaking the truth with boldness….we are indeed hungry for it…. though we may not know it.

  • Roger says:

    Thank You Dr. Tennent for your most invigorating article. The question is how many delegates will have read or heard of this position prior to GC 2012. The people in the Pew are very uninformed of what is happening the Methodist Church today; and Pastors know just a little more due to their contact with the DS. From all the articles I have read, this will be a close vote conference on many issues. Godspeed in all your efforts.

  • Greg says:

    Thanks, Dr. Tennent for sharing your insights. Many of us share these same concerns and will be doing our best to speak, vote and live these truths. Hope to see you at the luncheon at GC.

    • Sonia says:

      Craig I couldn’t help but think of this psgaase 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Preach Christ boldly! The simple profound message of Christ is the power of the Church. If we depart from proclaiming this, we have nothing. Preach Jesus.18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.19 As the Scriptures say, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent. s 20 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish.21 Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.22 It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom.23 So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. 24 But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles,s Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.25 This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.

  • You gentlemen and ladies fret about religion and man’s law. Christ is in the background of your musings. Focus on Christ. He was simple in explaining to go forth and with confidence teach the Gospel. The church is wilting because they do not preach the Gospel with confidence.

  • the problem with the church of today and not just the methodist church (but many other denominations) is that it has no convictions. we as a church don’t stand up anymore and preach against sin rather we appease people into thinking that what they are doing is okay…..that they can come out of the closet instead of clean the closet. we spend so much time thinking up our own doctrine when the bible makes pretty clear in a majority of instances what sin is for people. God has never had gray areas in the bible it is either sin or it is not.
    people are seeking for God who can set them free from sin like he did when he walked the earth. they want more than what the church of today are giving them and that is why they are seeking a spirit filled church that has life to offer them…..john wesley in his day was a fiery preacher that preached with conviction…..there are not many pastors that preach with conviction today for fear of people being offended or preaching a watered down gospel to be politically correct. everyone prays for revival but revival starts with us and how much of God’s spirit we want…..God is willing to pour out his spirit on those that want it….lets start preaching His Word with a spirit of conviction so people can’t help but feel conviction, not condemnation when they come to the altar to receive Jesus. let’s start to pray for a spirit of compassion for people but not condone their sin…and watch Jesus Christ set the captives free.

  • MAINLINE DENOMS DON’T NEED TO DIG TO DEEP TO FIND OUT WHY THEIR CHURCHES ARE IN DECLINE.

    How about your social justice policy that says the government should have compassion for the poor and have programs to feed the poor. That is the mission for the church.

    The policy that goes against Israel.

    Homosexuality and the churches verbal gymnastics of acceptance as biblical and Christ-like.

    And some even have pro-choice policies as well.

    These churches hardly resemble the church that Jesus raised up in 3 days in His death, burial and resurrection.

    Immoral behavior? What did Christ die for?!

    The world is changing the church, and the slogan/logo that UMC has designed is more of the same. It still has a rainbow look in the colors and even the rainbow over the cross. Is that a stretch that the church is up to the same stuff of the past decades. Making disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World?

    I don’t think so.

    These churches are not making deciples, they’re raising up heretics.

  • Al Gwinn says:

    Tim, great word! May it be so!

  • Roger Kugler says:

    Great essay Dr. Tennent! But I have to ask- is not 45 or so years long enough to get it “right?” I and my family left the UMC when our young children started asking their their Sunday school teachers why they didn’t believe Jesus died and was resurrected. We just could not raise our children in that environment. I fear that by the time something is done within the UMC, there will not be any Bible believers left. Maybe it’s time to undo what was done in 1968 and stop wasting so terribly much money on administration, studies, focus groups, general conferences, annual conferences, conferences to see if we need more conferences……. The old joke about “What does a Methodist do when they have a problem–form a committee!’ just is not funny anymore. THAT money should be used to minister the sick, dieing, unloved and fallen, THEN they will see we are Christians and ….. we won’t have to worry about declining membership!

  • John Adams says:

    I am neither Wesleyan nor a Methodist, but I am an Asbury graduate and have always appreciated your gift for telling the truth graciously. I will certainly join you in praying that the UMC will stay on track Biblically and that the winds of revival would blow once again among the heirs to John Wesley’s impressive legacy.

  • Frank Wells says:

    Im curious – what seminaries are you referring to that do not follow biblical roots or Wesleyan theology? Are there some that don’t?

  • Anne Pinckard says:

    We need to get away from the Book of Discipline and back to The Holy Bible. Many churches and pastors rely on the Book of Discipline more than they do God’s Word. We serve a loving and forgiving Lord and Savior.

  • [...] and Reform Coalition website. If you’re interested in my take on things, I direct you to an April 18 blog entry from Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary. He feels pretty much the same [...]

  • Larry White says:

    This article is so true and I love the UMC but there is so much that is lacking in the theological education of the UMC. We do need to return to Biblical preaching and teaching so that the gospel will be preached throughout the land. God bless Asbury and the work that they are attempting to do. May God be with the UMC as they seek to go into the future leading souls to salvation and drawing souls into a deeper walk and a spirit lead life. I am one of the graduates from 1984.

    • Don Furlong says:

      I am only a parent of a student at Asbury, but I suggest you all experience, if you haven’t already, the Walk To Emmaus. http://emmaus.upperroom.org/resources
      Created to reinvigorate the laity and clergy and lift up leaders in the local church, it will rekindle your fire. I heard a teenage girl say it best: “I came thinking I would learn more about my God; I didn’t know I’d leave with a personal relationship with Him.” Check it out. It will change your church.

  • I believe we need to stop the practice of having pastors serve so-called Federated or United Churches where the doctrinal differences as s far reaching as the Notrh pole is from the South pole. This puts the pastors in positions that are most uncomfortable to say the least as some of the so called United Churches have a policy of firing their pastor if they preach anything that makes people uncomfortable in the pews or even in the greater community where they serve. It’s ime for the Methodist people to stand alone for their faith and lift up God in the true Spirit of the Risen Lord and being the power of the Holy Spirit back into our pulpits. To do this we need to rid ourselves of all the bishops who refuse to live within an function within the confines of the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

  • Quora says:

    The UMC has gone from approximately 11 million members at its inception in 1968 to only 7.5 million today in the United States. What are the main factors that have contributed to such a drastic decline?…

    > We [the United Methodist Church] were once a powerful evangelistic movement. Now, we are forever searching for new ways to manage our decline. Endless studies and reports and commissions and re-structuring and new slogans (Open hearts, open minds, op…

  • Ben Turner says:

    Greetings Timothy
    I am an English evangelical, early fifties and John Wesley is my greatest hero.
    I love (sadly/tragically) your third paragraph. And the second and fourth.
    Managing decline seems to be an accurate description. Yet I see and know so many thriving evangelical churches planting in schools and other venues whilst the wonderful Methodist buildings are under consideration for redevelopment.
    Can you put me in touch with those of your viewpoint in England who believe in the evangelistic and Biblical foundations of true Methodism and have some energy to reignite the spirit of John Wesley. Prayer and repentance are so vital.
    Blessings
    Ben