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.