Where Have the Three Million Gone?

Friday, April 27th, 2018

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).


  • Susan Roehs says:

    I agree. I’m an ordained elder in the UMC who is very frustrated with the direction we are headed. I want to see our church focus on saving souls and speaking the truth. Thanks for your words.

  • I agree with author Collin Hansen, let’s get back (reverse course) to scriptural integrity, not against the theology or practice of John Wesley, but real Methodism. This has gone on far too long and churches are closing not growing. Let’s get back to God fearing Bible believing churches that have true growth.

  • Thank you for covering 1/2 of the issue solidly! The other 1/2? Unless we streamline accountability standards to uphold the discipline, it will not matter if the discipline is “ orthodox”. This will require a higher level of practical reformation, beyond what I am seeing in the wonderful but incomplete, theological leadership. For many pastors on the front lines; are we simply preparing to shift from one seminary driven theocracy to another that still neglects accountability.

  • In response to an article in Good News Magazine,Baltimore-Washington Defies Judicial Council
    I shared the following in a comment, which I believe to be germain to you blog.

    “Please excuse my naive question; but referring to our scriptures:
    1Co 5:6 “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
    1Co 5:7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.
    1Co 5:8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
    1Co 5:9 I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people.
    1Co 5:10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.
    1Co 5:11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.
    1Co 5:12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside?
    1Co 5:13 But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “PUT AWAY FROM YOURSELVES THE EVIL PERSON.” nkjv’
    So I humbly ask: why does not the General Assembly excise this leaven, and remove the offenders from the church? Why is the “can” being kicked down the road into 2019?

  • Mark Vern says:

    Thanks for this post! Question: is the 3 million decline from over the last 50 years of United Methodism? Or before or after ‘68? The reason I ask is, at what point was the UMC the vibrant movement and when did our decline begin? Is it possible to work backwards in our recent past to recover some of what’s been lost?

  • Tim, I couldn’t have said it any better. I am one of those who is still holding on, but no more kicking the can, or compromising. Asbury, class of ‘79, ATS ‘85.

  • Joseph says:

    The United Methodist Church is losing members not only to evangelical churches that seem “more Methodist” than the UMC, it is also losing members to Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

    I was strongly influenced by the testimony and teaching of four former United Methodists who are now Roman Catholic. After a long period of reflection, prayer, and study (including deep reading on church history and the Church Fathers), I too “swam the Tiber.”

    Among other things, I found the following to be quite “Methodist” (recognizing that is putting the relationship in the wrong order): The Catholic emphasis on holiness, spiritual disciplines, and accountability, along with its connectional system and episcopal oversight. And, as you know, Mr. Wesley believed in apostolic succession, the Real Presence, the importance of good works — all key elements in Roman Catholic theology.

    There are differences, of course, but I was amazed when taking the nearly year-long introductory (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) class at a local parish, how “Methodist” much of the material was. Indeed, the first chapter in the 900-page textbook, setting the tone for the entire book and class, was on holiness.

    I also was gladdened by the fact that Catholics sing many Charles Wesely hymns!

  • RL Light says:

    Amen! When all else fells stand, stand on the Rock.

  • Ken Fuller says:

    Absolutely on the mark. God deliver us from our apostate bishops and other lost leadership.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    It will take courage and resolve and donning the whole armor of God to withstand the wiles of the devil that will be unleashed on the church at the 2019 General Conference. Our bishops are too fearful and compromised to lead us anywhere but into the abyss.

  • MAAFU says:

    Dear Dr Tennent, what you’re saying about the United Methodist in America is so frustratingly true with Methodists around the Pacific. The same trend of people leaving Church can be seen in the Tongan Methodists in New Zealand and in the Uniting Church in Australia. It is my prayers that you and those like-minded brothers in the United Methodist Church will continue to stand for a strong uncompromising orthodox Christianity squarely based on Scripture.

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