The Deeper Issue Facing the United Methodist General Conference

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

Every four years the United Methodist Church comes together for General Conference, a time for “holy conferencing” and for discerning the future of God’s mission through the “people called Methodist.” Social media is ablaze with defiance as protestors are determined to shut down the conference over the issue of homosexuality. It seems like every four years this issue dominates the headlines. I am not among those who say that this issue is “much ado about nothing.” This is a central issue that is profoundly related to the Christian view of the body. I have already published (between October and December of last year) fourteen separate blog articles outlining a Christian theology of the body, drawn largely from the remarkable work of John Paul II.

What is clear is that as North America moves more rapidly into a post-Christian phase, we are experiencing the beginnings of a radical reassessment of the body which renders the body morally neutral. The church has been profoundly short-sighted in thinking that if we just accept homosexuality, then we will finally be “at the end of something” and we will finally return to a church which can focus on its mission to “make disciples for the transformation of the world.” Beloved brothers and sisters, we are not at the end of anything. We are only seeing the first-fruits of changes which we cannot, as yet, even imagine.

However, in a broader sense, one of my prayers for General Conference is not about this issue at all. As a church, we cannot even begin to move towards a trajectory of hope unless we first realize how profoundly broken we are as a Christian movement. Our problems will not be solved if we just manage to cobble together enough conservative votes to maintain the church’s current view of human sexuality. Our problems run far deeper. As important as it is, our inability to speak clearly on the issue of homosexuality is but a presenting issue of a far deeper malady.

Our brokenness as a church is in two main areas. First of all, we are increasingly disconnected from the global Christian movement and the historic faith of the church through time. We, of course, love to discuss our global connections. However, ecclesiastical connections are meaningless unless they are rooted in our unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We seem to be losing our capacity to articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ and the historic confessions of the church with clarity. One of the persistent myths among United Methodists is that our denominational decline is just part of a larger narrative of Christian decline in North America. This is a myth. The percentage of Americans who consider themselves evangelical, affirm the authority of the Bible and are committed to historic Christian faith has not declined in the last half century. It has remained at about 25% of all Americans. What has declined has been the affiliation of those Christians and the general “falling away” of millions of “cultural Christians.” The United Methodist Church has suffered declines because, like other mainline churches, we had a disproportionate number of cultural Christians (Christians in name only). Our public stances against clear biblical teaching have made evangelicals less inclined to join our churches.

Second, we have nearly lost our Wesleyan heritage. The great themes of Wesley such as prevenient grace, the means of grace, the call to holiness, the Trinitarian soteriology, and the profound rooting of social responsibility in the gospel have all been lost. Wesleyan preaching has been lost for a full century now among United Methodists, but at least we had the hymns of Charles Wesley. However, even that is slipping away. We need about 50 years to reclaim the gospel and our Wesleyan heritage. Oh, that we would, once again, be known as a “people of the book.” Oh, that we once again would have “nothing to do but save souls.” Oh, that our motto would, once again, be “holiness unto the Lord.”

The greatest challenge of this General Conference will be whether the people called Methodists will return to our vibrant evangelical history, or continue along a path of decline. There are huge swaths of the church arrayed against any renewal as an evangelical movement. They want a more progressive future whereby we can re-make the gospel according to our liking. They want a church which is disconnected from both historic faith and historic Wesleyanism. I long for a church which embraces both.


  • Josh says:

    I totally agree. The whole fight to keep the Discipline’s language and keep us together is missing the point. As a pastor in the UMC in NA, it is clear that we are not doing well at all. The whole thing is about to collapse as faithful givers die away and the present generation, who does not (rightly so) give their loyalty to a denomination but to Christ will walk away if needs be.

    There are a lot of things that I love about the UMC and that I deeply appreciate. But it does not take a genius to see that things are going to change, whether people want them to or not. My fear, and I am already seeing it, is that people are going to get ugly fighting over the dwindling resources and the toxicity of the situation is going to put the nail in the coffin. As it is, I personally dread going to any kind of conference or district events or meetings. And that is not how it should be. We should love being around our brothers and sisters in the Lord!

    I am just taking it day by day. I greatly appreciate the work of Seedbed and the New Room Conference. I really don’t know how any of this is going to turn out. I do know that I and many other Asbury students and people in the pew are very iffy about our future in the UMC. I mean, it’s hard enough doing ministry in a broken, hostile culture. Why would we want to deal with this same mess in our own church? I mean, it gets really going to church/clergy meeting with people whom you do not trust and honestly, would rather not be around.

    • Amen, and amen! Twenty years ago, my wife and I had serious concerns about joining our local UM Church (coming as we did from various evangelical affiliations previously); concerns about the ‘progressive’ (then called ‘liberal’) theology predominant in our conference, even though the specific church we felt called to was thoroughly evangelical. Despite the leadership of a solidly Biblical bishop and two faithful District Superintendents (including the current one), the conference has fallen further and further away from anything we recognize as true, Biblical, Wesleyan faith and practice. Alarmingly so. Nonetheless, God has not rescinded His call and continues to bless our ministry in partnership with our local pastor of 11 years. There remains much that is worth contending for in the UMC, and the weapons of that warfare are not of the flesh but of the Spirit.

      • Jay Archer says:

        Thank you again Dr. Tennent, for your putting into clarifying words my own deep concerns. They will help me in my articulating what must be addressed as we all pray for God’s overall and step by step guidance for walking into what God has in heart and mind for us. Thank you. Reverend Jay Archer, Fairfield Glade United Methodist Church of the Tennessee Conference.

  • Allen C says:

    I agree with most all of what Dr. Tennent has said with the exception of one point. Where he talks about the ‘rooting of social responsibility’ being lost, I think this is incorrect. It has not been lost but it has been perverted so to speak into something that it was never meant to be.

  • John Wesley nailed it over two hundred years ago: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

  • Nate Natsen says:

    I’m not a United Methodist but one verse comes to mind: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership can righteousness have with wickedness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? ”

    In the United Methodist church sadly fails on this verse alone. I’m shaking my head. Thankfully, most of Christendom knows and avoids this formerly great church. My advice is to kick them out and stay true to the gospel, live out 2 Corinthians 6, or there will no longer be a church, or at least, one that has any commitment to God’s truth.

  • Wayne Garvey says:

    Finally … someone who is willing to speak forth God’s call to HOLINESS, a call totally missing in “discipleship” which caters only to doing what feels good and “seems right in men’s eyes.” Thank you, Dr. Tennent!

  • I teach Lay Servant classes. My Basic class last Saturday wanted to get rid of doctrine (until I explained what it was) and didn’t know what the Incarnation was. I firmly believe that most Christian Formation has to be done in small groups, but this won’t work if we aren’t teaching from the pulpit also and if our small group leaders are ignorant. We have a crisis right now where we don’t want to require our Laity to be educated before they lead. I am not certain all of our clergy know what they believe well enough to teach from the pulpit (based on what I see in the life-long Methodists in my classes).

  • Bill Hughes says:

    Thanks Tim,

    I am very thankful to God for your leadership and clear writing about the issues before us. Let’s keep remembering that “we will see His face, and His name will be on our foreheads” Rev. 22:4

  • Gary Bebop says:

    The alliance against evangelical renewal is resolute. They have invested so much in progressive redesign of the church that allowing something anomalous (should as a Spirit-directed revival) to occur would be unthinkable. Evangelicals should also count the cost. They should be determined to obey Christ, come what may.

  • Honestly the UMC should just split and divide the property accordingly. I came to know Jesus as a child raised in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. I have seen some amazing miracles in my life. My wife and I feel in love with our local UMC church and joined. Its obvious now that the influence of modern culture is attempting to rewrite history (in my opinion). I think I would rather see us split into a conservative and progressive church. I like you UMC people, 43 years old and 8-9 years in the UMC. But I don’t want to spend my life arguing over what I think is an open and shut case. Agree to disagree and split the property and resources by vote.

  • Sara Kelly says:

    I agree that we are stepping away from Wesleyan Theology and it has changed not only with the moderate Christian members but also with the equally moderate clergy coming out of our seminaries. I have been a Methodist all of my long life and I am very concerned over the loss of dedication to what made our Methodist movement change the world in the 18th century. The world has changed us, driving us away from the Bible-based fundamentals that we must have, starting with John Wesley’s favorite Scripture upon with he based his theology: Matthew 22:37-40.

  • Matt Horan says:

    Trinitarian soteriology… Tough to say, even tougher to teach, still tougher to live out.

  • Wonderfully said, Dr. Tennent! However, I agree with Nathaniel. The UMC is too far past its roots, and the foundation is severely cracked; we need to split and stop prolonging the inevitable. Calling a moratorium, appointing a commission, and waiting 2, 3 or worse, 4 years to devise a man-made solution (when one hasn’t been devised as yet) is sheer madness. Nothing has changed in many GCs– part of us want to follow Jesus and His teachings, and another part wants to be politically correct and use God’s Word in their own manmade interpretation to fit their own use and rationalize their choice of lifestyles under the guise of “loving others.” Jesus was radical! He confronted one caught in sexual sin by directing her to, “Go and sin no more.” We need to be radical in following Him as well! We cannot go on this way. We are called to spread the Gospel and make disciples. Nowhere in The Great Commission does Jesus infer that we are to secularize and politicize that call. The UMC has lost thousands of members because of our refusal to take a firm stand for the inerrant Word of God, and it will continue to lose members, while the non-denominational Bible-preaching, Gospel-expounding churches grow exponentially. We are called to follow Jesus–not a denomination that interprets Scripture at will and bows to pressure from groups who insist that their way is better and more socially acceptable than Jesus’ teachings. After 45+ years in the UMC, I am asking the Lord to direct me as to whether I should leave this denomination. A denomination that doesn’t adhere to the “black-and-white” Word of God and chooses “gray areas” instead is not where I want to be when Jesus returns.