Help is on the Way: A New Wesleyan Network in a Post-Denominational World

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

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.

Comments

  • Great word, Dr Tennent. I agree wholeheartedly. The realization that there is more at stake here than even the future of a denomination is overwhelming. But a great crossroads, God does even great works of restoration and new beginnings. Real question is do we have the courage to follow where the Spirit leads us. Many blessings, my friend.

  • Dr. Tennant, I am certainly intrigued by new networks of churches that go beyond denominational affiliation. But I wonder, when you talk about “those committed to historic faith,” what do you mean? In your mind, do I, as a person who affirms the creeds–virgin birth, bodily Resurrection, and all–and who likewise wants to open the institution of marriage to people who identify as LGBT, fall outside those bounds? And if so, is there a reason we are calling it “historic faith” when what we really mean is “historic understandings of sexuality?” I honestly don’t mean to antagonize. I am just trying to understand your argument, as I do my best to be faithful to our shared covenant. At any rate, peace to you and yours.

  • I started to ask how this is different from Maxie’s Wesleyan Covenant Network, but then I saw that this is posted on the WCN website. So I suppose that’s an answer!

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  • Brett says:

    This is an interesting concept. However, if the network would be open only to churches and clergy, where does that leave individuals who live in areas where no churches/clergy would participate in the network? Having stepped out of the Deacon ordination process because of the confused state of the UMC, particularly in the PNW where I reside, I am now attending a non-denominational church. I have been wanting to find a way to be part of a world-wide Christian Wesleyan connection that is less about the denominational system and more about Christ, so am very interested in your concept, but don’t see how I could be a part of it as described.

    • Betsy says:

      Join the club, except I have chosen to stay with the local UMC I have been part of for a long time because “being Methodist” is way too much part of who I am. My biggest problem is they are clueless what a confused denomination they are clueless they are part of a confused denomination; a reality that I am only now beginning to wrap my own head around. For the moment, for me, this is a breath of hope, a long overdue realistic plan. From the get-go I knew the Wesleyan revival I picked up on would not be stymied.

      I just read Jack Harnish’s comment; how is this anymore schismatic than the Reconciling Ministries Network? As someone stated elsewhere, orthodox Christians did not start this war. The UMC seems incapable of responding to our questions and concerns; the “progressives/enlightened” ones are convinced they are right and everybody else is wrong. So what else is supposed to happen?

      This goes deeper than same-sex marriage. I spent a significant amount of time the last few years cruising the internet listening to a myriad of voices and had the stunning realization that it involves a lack of consensus when it come to who God is and who we are; the interpretation of scripture and who should we trust to interpret it; the church’s role in relation to society; the church’s mission; the role of General Conference and the Book of Discipline in the life of the church.

  • David Goss says:

    I think this has the potential to be the perfect response. It is inclusive rather than exclusive and yet requires a strong statement of faith and doctrinal commitment. Amen, Dr. Tennent!

  • Yes. I am going. Anyone want to join me, let’s talk.
    -David Turner

  • Thanks for a splendid article, Tim. I heartily agree that a key element is covenant with content. U.M. membership vows fall short of a covenant, given that they do not specify or require very much.
    As a United Methodist, certain realities trouble me. Eg., giving tithe money to a local church some of which goes to prop up some of the flawed connectional machinery, misguided leadership, and ineffective programs of a declining denomination that is moving toward something like the UCC denomination, in both polity and theology. I would rather give financial support to many of my needy students who I have good reason to believe will help fulfill the Great Commission.

  • Josh says:

    I’m very thankful for this as well. As a student pastor who will be graduating and going through ordination, I find myself not sure about committing to the UMC. As someone who’s actually served in the connection, I have seen firsthand that it’s broken mess. The latest crises has brought to light the big problem of accountability of clergy in the UM. There’s not much at all. In fact, I followed two different pastors who should have not been in the ministry but were allowed to remain because of the good ol’ boy system. The result was that they almost destroyed too healthy churches (and the truth is, they both will probably eventually die). I seen this growing up in my home church. We were sent pastors who should have not been in ministry and they hurt it bad. I have come to believe that the itinerancy is not good and healthy for churches. It might have worked when America was a bunch of colonies but it’s not good at all now.

    There’s also just a terrible clergy culture in the UMC. C.S. Lewis spoke about “practical atheism” and that would describe the spirit of a typical clergy meeting to me. Many of our people in the pew are no better either. It blows my mind to hear the things that local church leadership tells some of our pastors (“I was here before you came and I’ll be here when you’re gone”; “we don’t want to reach out; we’re just a family church”). Also, I would guess that a majority of UM churches are not Methodist at all. That is, they don’t practice classes, bands, evangelism, etc.

    A covenant would be awesome. Put for the vision, beliefs, doctrine, etc. and – if you want to be a part of it, then commit; if not, then go somewhere else. I came back to the UM because I became convinced that the Wesleyan way was the best way to live out basic Christianity and make disciples. But ironically, I have encountered few clergy or churches who are actually practicing Methodism in real life.
    I want to practice real Methodism right now. And I have actually been successful at starting it in two of my little churches. We have bands, catechesis, and family-based discipleship time for our youth. I have watched adults and children be just transformed by the power of coming into contact with the Holy Spirit and God’s Word. It’s been amazing.
    I don’t know how all this is going to work out but I am going with you down this path of reclaiming our heritage and making disciples of Christ in the Wesleyan way.

  • Bill Goff says:

    Tim, great idea! I think the hitch will be money And property. If you leave will you keep your property (like the former Episcopal Churches that lost their property). Also if you stay will you have to sent your money into the corrupt denominational headquarters? Will be interesting.

  • Scott Adams says:

    Just to be clear, the “former” Episcopal Churches in South Carolina have NOT lost their property. The decisions in the courts so far have fallen on the side of the local churches. Of course, that battle is not over…maybe for years.

  • Scott Adams says:

    Some pretty heavy-hitting comment-ers on this one! I notice (even in my own thinking) how readily we slide into words and phrases that reflect our affinity for “institutionalism.” I can hardly resist it…even though I at times loathe it! And, even though Dr. Tennent speaks of groups of Wesleyans around the world, I thought I sensed him very intentionally avoiding the “bent” toward institutionalizing this. I have joined Seedbed’s reading of “Tongue of Fire” written in the late 1800s when the Methodists began losing the anointing and the unction. The book calls the church back to an ear toward the power of the Holy Spirit and away from the institution/denomination it had become. Isn’t there a contemporary book that calls the Christian church in America to remain “on the frontier?”

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Dr. Tennent is firing in the right direction, but almost immediately the issue of marriage & sexuality reared itself in the comment section. We expected it, didn’t we? Even though Dr. Tennent proposes a network of churches rather than a denominational structure, there will be an intensification of social pressure (and otherwise) on all Methodist clergy and churches to embrace a radical new doctrine of marriage & sexuality. The tide is already washing away rocks on the beach. Don’t think for a moment that a “network” will provide sanctuary from the institutional entanglement! Apostasy fights with a vengeance to blot out traditional understandings and to reconstitute the mind of the church.

  • Jack Harnish says:

    I have no idea what a “marketable and holy association” looks like, but it still sounds like schism to me, and I regret that Asbury Seminary is offering to lead the way.

  • Mary Page says:

    Lol we wonder what is wrong

  • […] recently posted a possible solution for the current crisis in the United Methodist Church. It is based on the following five principles […]

  • David Drury says:

    Thanks for your leadership, Dr Tennent. I already plan to be there, as are many of our leaders of The Wesleyan Church. Dr Lyon, our General Superintendent, will also be speaking at New Room and she plans to be present as well.

    May the Holy Spirit guide, and provide.

    -David Drury
    Chief of Staff, The Wesleyan Church International Headquarters.

  • dawna says:

    This article greatly disturbs me. I am looking for a theologically liberal denomination other than Unity or UU. Wow..i am shocked of such thinking by this author. This is a new day. Can we not have courage to accept change as all humans throughout the eons have done? Why do most of you seem to be lodged so deeply in the past? Is sentimentality worth the deprogression, deevolution of the advancement of human thought and ideology? What about the next generations…will they appreciate the changes you seek to impliment in the UMC and the larger world?
    You appear to be a group of backwards mostly male republican type traditionalists. If I find my local UMC to be of the type you envision..where is a liberal christian to call home? I would not last one day there. Future Christians, if Christianity is not extinct, will describe Christianity in their own terms, likely more theologically progressive, less rooted in the the thinking of the past. Do you care that the Christian church of the future may suffer complete extinction with this theological rigidity? I hate to break this to you….but, this is the way of the world as one generation passes and the next is born. I have NO respect for you mr whoever wrote this piece. Do you not have any sense of concern for responsibility for the needs of if our future religious citizens?
    Change happens.

  • Aybido says:

    Certainly there is a time for building consensus around a grand strategy. But I hope we are getting to the point of action.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvSZ_HQmZgQ

  • Jenny says:

    I wish I could come, but I’ll be in the middle of fall semester. I like what I hear though, we need something! Thank you Jesus for ATS, Seedbed, and Goodnews Magazine!

  • Dear Dr. Tennent,
    I am a former Methodist from a family with over a century of participation in the Methodist church. I converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1999. I have read a number of your articles including one dated from May of 2014 entitled Orthodoxy or heterodoxy which describe the tumult the UMC is experiencing. You have stated the issue very well, truly it is about Orthodoxy, but I would make one addition. The choice is Orthodoxy in the Church; the One, Holy and Apostolic Church, with the living tradition. I faced this choice; heterodoxy in Methodism or Orthodoxy in the Church. Truly every man must face this choice while there is still time to repent. The saints rejoice when another soul joins the communion of the church and abandons partial truth for the fullness of the truth. In that communion, we can say and understand Christ is Risen!

  • […] “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… 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.” (“Help is on the Way: A New Wesleyan Network in a Post-Denominational World”) […]

  • As much as people want to have their own way, the Holy Word does not change. Liberal theology cries for God to not exclude them because they cannot or will not comply with His laws and expectations. Nevertheless, a well known adage is “if you cannot control it, destroy.” Liberal theology is out to do just that. The first major moves have been on marriage and sexuality. What comes next? Polygamy? Incest? Lies? Slander? And more. People are going to get what they want and if the Divine law opposes it, they will change the Divine law to the point that it is but an ancient and extinct philosophy.

  • […] Tim Tennet, president of Asbury Seminary, articulates the situation in his denomination this way: “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”Tim Tennent in “Help is on the Way: A New Wesleyan Network in a Post-Denominational World” […]

  • …”episcopal silence is a response”…
    “Silence means we do NOT know how to lead the church out of this crisis.” I believe you meant to insert a NOT in this sentence. Great article. Bill