There are millions of Christians around the world who are praying earnestly for the renewal of a global Wesleyan movement. From the North American perspective things look quite gloomy since the largest Wesleyan movement on this continent, the United Methodist Church, is in such deep crisis. We have always been a “big tent” church and enjoyed a very healthy diversity which is necessary to keep any movement vibrant and living out all the contours of the gospel. The “people called Methodists” are not known to be overly sectarian, but have freely drawn insights from across the church. However, when any movement begins to lose touch with the historic faith of the church, then it is diversity gone awry. It quickly becomes the first gong of the death-knell, since, historically, decline, demise and death inevitably follow in that wake.
The United Methodist Church has been in the death spiral for nearly a half a century, seen primarily in the loss of millions of members, the dramatic decline in catechesis, and a diminished enthusiasm about evangelism. (There are many noble examples of local UMC churches who have valiantly bucked these trends. I am referring only to the movement as a whole). However, the crisis has been accentuated in the last few years because of the open defiance of the long standing covenant (Discipline) which heretofore has bound all United Methodist clergy. It is nothing less than breathtaking to witness dozens of clergy and bishops who now openly defy the Discipline without the loss of their credentials. Holy conferencing used to mean that our debates every four years really mattered. Now, it doesn’t really matter what is “decided” at General Conference in 2016 if ministers are free to ignore it. The few trials which have taken place make a further mockery of the church by giving clergy a “guilty” verdict and then punishing them with a “one day suspension.”
The crisis heightened to the point that over 100 pastors met together in Atlanta during the summer of 2014 and crafted a formal letter to the Council of Bishops requesting that they reaffirm their episcopal authority to uphold the Discipline as they promised in their consecration service. (8,500 lay people also signed the document). We are still awaiting a response– or even an acknowledgment to that letter. Rob Renfroe, of Good News, has written several editorials bemoaning this lack of response from the Council of Bishops. He is correct. This would never happen in the local church. The deep wound is hard to ignore. However, I think that it is important to recognize that episcopal silence is a response. Silence means “we do not have sufficient unity to respond.” Silence means “we do know how to lead the church out of this crisis.” Silence means “don’t look to us for leadership.”
So, those of us who are committed to the global renewal of the Wesleyan movement must act, for the “night is at hand.” The problem is that we ourselves are divided. Some long for some resolution or legislative action at General Conference which would allow us to remain faithful to the gospel and remain United Methodists. Others are so disillusioned and upset that they are ready to start a new denomination and follow the same path as those who for all the same reasons left the PC (USA), The Episcopalian church, etc. But, let me suggest that there is a solution which can unite these two groups and help us bring renewal regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen in 2016. We must move beyond the current impasse where those who want to stay in the UMC are regarded as weak-kneed and naïve and those who want to create a new denomination seem angry and divisive. We must come to see that we live in a new context where staying “in” or getting “out” of a denomination is becoming more and more irrelevant. There is a post-denominational revolution taking place and we seem to not have noticed.
The deepest need, in my view, is not a new denomination, but a restored covenant. We can be faithful Wesleyans without a denomination, but we cannot be faithful without a covenant. We need to move beyond denominationalism to the new reality of a global network of Wesleyans who choose to live in covenant with one another. Various names for this network have been given, all with various “pros” and “cons.” Right now, the name is not as important as the concept that this new network would be open to any and all churches. Churches and clergy who remain committed to historic faith, but who choose to stay within the United Methodist Church after 2016 and beyond may join the network. Churches and clergy who feel that they can no longer in good conscience stay in the United Methodist Church are also welcome to join. The network will be open to all those who wish to live under covenant and are committed to the Wesleyan message and historic Christian faith. The network will restore the discipline and covenant which has been so tragically lost. This will not be a new denomination, but a network of churches – a marketable and holy association – which cuts across geographic lines.
Let me also remind us that the Wesleyan movement is a global reality, well beyond United Methodism, comprising many movements and denominations and tens of millions of people. This is an, “If your heart is as our heart, give us your hand,” invitation; a call for the historically orthodox Wesleyans of the World to join in covenant relationship. Be clear, this is neither a call for schism or structure but for solidarity in our shared and treasured way of faith and mission.
I encourage pastors and lay leaders who are committed to the historic faith in the Wesleyan voice, to make a commitment to attend the New Room Conference (sponsored by Seedbed) on Wednesday September 16 through September 18th, 2015. We will spend Friday afternoon in focused conferencing around this network and its possibilities. The conference will meet in the Nashville area. Registration is available at newroomconference.com. Between now and September many of the details will be worked out and various proposals will be ready for discussion.
The bottom line: do not lose hope in the global renewal of the Wesleyan message! This crisis is giving birth to something much better than what we had in 1950 or 1850. Asbury Theological Seminary is committed to supporting this network by training 800 new church planters, by helping to organize the network (though the network will be independent of Asbury) and through promoting a massive resurgence in Wesleyan framed evangelism and discipleship which is shaped by 21st century realities. We are convinced that with a restored covenant and an open door to re-evangelize and disciple men and women, we can become, once again, a vibrant Christian movement.