Where Have the Three Million Gone?

It is rather odd that so many United Methodists leaders speak and blog about their fears of a split in the United Methodist church. Apparently, some cataclysmic split is in mind, rather than an acknowledgement that we have already been in schism for decades, and millions have already left the church. I read an article recently by Collin Hansen from The Gospel Coalition titled, “Why I Am No Longer a United Methodist.” In the article, he makes an observation which I have found true in my experience. He says that wherever he goes in renewal circles and meets with people who are committed to historic orthodoxy, he finds former United Methodists. It is not a small number; it represents hundreds and hundreds of Christian leaders who were born and raised United Methodist, but who have left to join other movements (and around three million in general membership decline). He says, “every evangelical group I’ve known since 2000 has been stocked with former United Methodists.” That, in itself, is not why I am bringing up this article. It is the why they left which I find so fascinating. They did not leave United Methodism because they became disenchanted with the theology or practice of John Wesley, but precisely because of it. Hansen writes that he left to “find the theology of George Whitfield and Howell Harris.” I left, he writes, “to learn the spiritual disciplines that sustained the Wesleys amid their conflicts with the established church leaders and quests to reform British society. I left to find the spiritual zeal that made my grandfather belt out the Methodist hymnal as cancer ravaged his body. I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.”

This observation needs to be heard by United Methodists across our land. We have a spiritual treasure that is in jeopardy. We have lost our connection to our own vibrant heritage. There has never been a movement which so powerfully united evangelical fervor rooted in historic orthodoxy with social engagement and societal witness. What is at stake is not merely a resolution of our struggles over human sexuality, though that has become the presenting issue before us. What is at stake is nothing less than the apostolic witness. What is at stake is our commitment to Scriptural Christianity. What is at stake is our own vibrant heritage of vibrant evangelism, church-planting, travailing prayer, ardent discipleship, and our identity with the poor.

Hansen has spoken to hundreds of former United Methodists who said that “to find their Aldersgate experience of love for God who justifies sinners, they had to leave the United Methodist Church. To hear preaching that stirs the mind and affections with unshakeable confidence in the Word of God, they had to leave the United Methodist Church. To find theology that would steel them to stand with Jesus and not be swept away by theological fads, they had to leave the United Methodist Church.” He acknowledges, as I do, that there are thousands upon thousands of United Methodist pastors who still stand for all of these things and who faithfully minister the gospel week in and week out. He acknowledges that there are millions of current United Methodists who still stand in hope that this great heritage can be restored. I am among those. But, we should not be naïve. There are powerful forces aligned firmly against our own heritage of Scriptural Christianity. There are powerful forces who are determined to re-shape our heritage into something unrecognizable to the vision of our beloved founders. There are powerful forces who want us to normalize what the New Testament explicitly forbids. We must rise up and say “no” to anything which would trade our sacred history for the latest mess of cultural pottage.

As the February 2019 General Conference draws closer, there will be attempts to suck us deeper into the dead sect pit we have been digging for so many decades. There will be a steady array of leaders lining up to tell us that our best hope is in the moral abyss known as the “Local Pption.” When that is voted down (for the third time, in case anyone is counting) the backup plan will be to find a way to “kick the can” down the road another four years. Perhaps . . . appoint another group to “study the issue.” Neither option is acceptable. I have spoken to dozens and dozens of evangelical United Methodist leaders across the country and I hear this over and over again: The local option is not acceptable. Kicking the can down the road is not an option either. This is the time for a decisive shift towards, not away, from our biblical heritage. We’ve been trying to accommodate the surrounding moral chaos of our culture for fifty years and it has been a total disaster. Why not reverse course? This is the time to be summoned back to our own history and vibrant faith. We are still the only Christian movement in American history which has planted a church in every county in the country. We can be that movement again. We truly can. We have a fierce struggle ahead of us. Looking at the forces arrayed against us, it is humanly impossible. But, “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).