Looking Beyond Our Pain to the Future of the Wesleyan Movement

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019

I just returned from New Room Conference which brought together around 2,600 pastors, leaders, and lay people in the church for renewal and crying out to God for awakening. It is truly amazing to see so many people who speak theologically with a “Wesleyan accent” from across so many different Christians strands all united before God with one voice, desperate to see the church renewed in our day.

One of the phrases from New Room which will stay with me for a long time came from Jon Tyson on Thursday night. Jon is an Australian and has no knowledge of what is going on within the United Methodist church. Nevertheless, the phrase which really struck me as applicable to our situation as United Methodists was the phrase, “crystallization of discontent.” This, Jon explained, is that point where you say, “Hang on a minute, this is not what church is supposed to be.” It is the point where you realize that it is time for a big change. It is that moment when you realize how wrong it has been to sit and watch the church be dismantled through false teaching. It is that “holy discontent” which comes over you when you realize that you can never again accept the prevailing narrative of decline which normalizes our sad state and blame it on the surrounding culture.

There is no need to rehearse how many of our episcopal leaders have not “held firm to the trustworthy word as taught,” nor have they “rebuked those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Tens of thousands of us across the nation have reached that crystallization of discontent. Let’s just name it: We are in chaos, the Discipline is not being adhered to, and we have been plunged into division, and an almost certain divide. It is heartbreaking. I meet people all over the country who were born and raised as faithful United Methodists who, with great anguish and tears, have moved to other denominations where the Word of God is more faithfully proclaimed. These United Methodists simply express their grief quietly, without fanfare, with their feet – 500,000 members per year. This has been happening year after year, after year, after year. They are leaving the church, and no one is telling their stories. It is wrong for a young person who is genuinely struggling with their sexual orientation, or experiencing some form of gender dysphoria, to be shamed by their peers. But it is also wrong for someone to be publicly shamed for seeking to be faithful to what the church has always taught. It has been painful for millions of Methodists around the world who are seeking to faithfully adhere to a position that continues to remain the official position of the church (and one which Christians have embraced since the first century), and yet be called a “virus” needing extermination, or the embodiment of “evil, injustice and oppression.”

It is increasingly clear that the 2020 General Conference will not be focused on “if” we will have a separation, but the “terms” of that separation. Across the denomination delegates are already reading the details of the Bard-Jones Plan, the Indianapolis Plan, and the UMCNext plan, all efforts to separate the United Methodist church into two or three different expressions or denominations. I will speak to the pros and cons of these various plans at a later time. However, for now, I would like to remind us to not forget the big vision which awaits all orthodox Methodists who will, at some point, wake up to the birth of a new church, the precise name of which we do not yet even know.

We have a wonderful opportunity which awaits us, but we must not be set free from one trap, only to fall into a new one. The new church cannot just be the old United Methodist Church with no more fights over a few lines in the Discipline. If we only emerge as a group of disillusioned post-United Methodists, we will miss the future opportunity which awaits us. Our future will depend on tens of thousands of new Christians who will have no memory of these sad, tragic days. The entire Discipline needs to be re-written, dramatically reduced in size, and cast to reflect a far more missional, apostolic mindset. (If we want to “start” with an earlier Discipline, then perhaps we should start with the original 81 questions and answers in the first Discipline created at the Christmas Conference in 1784!).

We must have a clear strategic map which sets forth what the first ten years of the new church looks like. We will finally have the privilege to plant new churches from one end of this country to another. We must also have a clear strategic plan to plant 4,000 new churches (approximately 400 per year) over the next ten years between 2020 and 2030. Those 4,000 new churches should also, from the start, be planting fresh expressions as well. From the dawning of our first day as a new church, we must not even think of ourselves as a new national church, but as a globally-networked church that is closely tied to our brothers and sisters in the Majority World (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). Those churches, in turn, will end up spawning tens of thousands of new believers (not just transfers) into the church of Jesus Christ. I envision a church where no one can serve as a bishop unless they are also the pastor of a church. In the early church, all the bishops were also pastors. In fact, all bishops should probably simply be known as presiding elders. I envision a church where most pastors are also overseeing at least one new church plant. This new post-2020 General Conference church must function more like a “network” or a “fellowship” than a denomination laden with bureaucracy.

In short, we must think differently. We have much ground to reclaim, so we must be nimble, looking more like a “movement” than a “denomination.” From the start we have been distracted into thinking that this was a struggle over human sexuality. This struggle, despite the presenting issues, has always been about revelation, Christology, and mission. So, our “goal” is not merely to re-affirm the biblical definition of marriage, as important as that is. I wish it were that simple. Rather, it is a re-affirmation of our entire Christian identity and all of the rich textures which have marked us as Wesleyan Christians. Our goal is nothing less than the complete revitalization of the global pan-Wesleyan movement. The greatest tragedy of the last fifty years of United Methodism has not only been the inability to articulate a biblical vision of the body and human sexuality, or even the inability to teach and preach out of our blessed tradition, but the full blown erosion of so much of what identifies us as Christians.

So, if you are feeling tired and beleaguered, or your hope has grown dim, please hold on a little longer. You are reaching that “crystallization of discontent” moment. There is a new chapter about to unfold. The “faith once for all delivered to the saints” will again be preached from our pulpits. The spiraling decline in membership is about to hit the nadir point, and there will be a day when every region of the country will be reporting how many new Christians have come to the faith and how many new churches have been started. Some of these new churches will be found in coffee shops, Home Depot break rooms, homes, store fronts, school cafeterias. These expressions reach beyond what will be happening in the buildings we may be able to retain. But, the main point is that we will have had a rebirth as a movement.

As one of my colleagues here at Asbury Theological Seminary said after the 2019 General Conference, “That cracking noise you hear is not just the sound of a church breaking up, but the cracking of an egg which is giving birth to something new.” May this hope sustain us through the days ahead. The last 75 years of Methodism has been challenging, demoralizing, and deeply disappointing, but we have reached the seam point. The next 75 years will be astonishing, multiplying and glorious. Buckle your spiritual seat belt!

Comments

  • Harlan Goan says:

    Timothy:

    You may not remember out conversation last Thursday at New Room, waiting for the Stakeholders Dinner. Wow! This is leadership. This is Holy Spirit inspired boldness. This is confronting darkness, in all shades, with the purity of God’s Word. Thank you.
    I respectfully suggest in this new movement that we need to abolish this clergy-laity cast system and identify the ministry just like the NT. Amen on your Bishop/Elder insight. There are many of us who have been called to proclaim and teach God’s Word since early in life that doesn’t fit into this old paradigm. I only wish I could have attended Asbury. Ephesians 4 describes this relationship best and Alan Hirsch shared some very interesting insights last week (5Q). Tim, thank you for being a strong voice, for showing leadership and courage. I look forward to your next post. Blessings. Harlan

  • I.W.S.R says:

    I’m all for awakening. But the New Room Conference was beyond charismatic. We need to grab on to more cessationist tendencies as a movement if we are to get anywhere. It was great briefly meeting you. I’d make it a point as well to call out heretical things pouring into our churches such as the New Apostolic Reformation, supported by one of the speakers, Jack Deere. Blessings.

  • BPatMann says:

    Ultimately, the only plan that will work is one in which the parishioners of each congregation get to decide to which denomination their congregation will belong, rather than the conferences deciding it for them, and in which the UMC resources are divided fairly according to the number of parishioners that wind up in each denomination.

  • My gratitude for the commentary and the very hopeful spirit it shares. As much as this stirs hope within me as a local pastor once again I hear a voice that says, “wait a little longer.” While we wait we are compromising with sin and with the world. The strong and truthful language Timothy shares sets forth that the rebellion against The LORD is indeed deeply rooted with many symptoms. While we wait we are subjecting ourselves to authority that is bogus because it has stepped away from God’s Authority. The United Methodist Church (so called) has become a “god” that many are willing to worship rather than take a prophetic against it. After wrestling with this for months upon end my personal conclusion is that I have to step out from under that “bogus authority”
    to let those I share the Word with daily know I am absolutely serious in the Authority of God’s Word. I will continue to pray for the kind of renewal of which Timothy speaks and believe it is coming. But the coming needs to begin now, and I am not willing to wait one more day for the beginning of my part in that renewal. While we wait someone may be led to destruction by those evil (yes, used that word) false teachers and teachings that are NOT waiting to implement their lies and schemes.

  • “I would like to remind us to not forget the big vision which awaits all orthodox Methodists who will, at some point, wake up to the birth of a new church…In short, we must think differently.”

    Spot-on! But what does “thinking differently” mean?

    Maybe it means: (1) looking around the wider church/worship/Christian environment at what’s flourishing in the US today; (2) keeping and improving the (relatively few) elements of the UMC that have worked reasonably well; and (3) anticipating the societal trends that suggest changes needed to prepare for the future.

    The era of hierarchical protestant denominations is over, dead, kaput. The UMC is the last of the “Seven Sisters” to fade into senility. It was already happening – the aggressive LGBTQ movement just sped up the deformation. And for that, staid Methodists should thank them for the jolt.

    Independent, non-denominational congregations are popping up all over America. Some fail. Many succeed – more than a few spectacularly. So why/how is that happening?

    It’s because their operational spirit is entrepreneurial. Their leadership is frontline responsive to the congregation (not the D.S. who drops by when there’s a problem, or the distant bishop – some of whom have their official photo taken holding a shepherd’s staff! Like the laity are sheep, baa-baa-baa).

    Their theology is direct, simple and, above all else, Biblical. Though not in the way with which many liberal progressives agree. Too bad.

    Many of these congregations are nimble, flexible and creative as only a self-directed operation can be.

    The pastor is employed by the laity – not appointed by a bishop. There are no “boards and agencies” over the horizon who are funded by laity who have no idea what those layers of bureaucracy do. (In some cases, if they did know, they’d wouldn’t approve.)

    The expectations of the people in the pews has changed – and not overnight. It’s been happening for decades while UMC “leaders” were not paying attention. They were attending meetings.

    In short, thinking differently is going to require new thinkers. Because, frankly, the old ones have run out of ideas.

    • Jim Conner says:

      Any resources which need to be divided among the division of UMC need to have subscribed to the church Discipline. That has been the ruling documents since it’s inception. I was raised in the UMC and fully subscribed to the Weslyen Principal of holiness. As young adults, when we observed the UMC moving away from these principals, we sadly moved to another Weslyen Church. We hope & pray the UMC is able to successfully make the transition back to its roots & once again flourish as it did in the beginning! God Bless all.

  • Terry Fennig says:

    I know you do not need proof that Jesus transforms lives but this author does not just share his testimony, he went a step further getting a seminary degree at Biola to understand the theology of why Jesus calls us to turn away from our earthly affections to know Christ. He has a beautiful heart and if you ever need an interview or speaker I recommend Becket.
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    The powerful, dramatic story of how a successful Hollywood set designer whose identity was deeply rooted in his homosexuality came to be suddenly and utterly transformed by the power of the gospel.

    When Becket Cook moved from Dallas to Los Angeles after college, he discovered a socially progressive, liberal town that embraced not only his creative side but also his homosexuality. He devoted his time to growing his career as a successful set designer and to finding “the one” man who would fill his heart. As a gay man in the entertainment industry, Cook centered his life around celebrity-filled Hollywood parties and traveled to society hot-spots around the world–until a chance encounter with a pastor at an LA coffee shop one morning changed everything.

    In A Change of Affection, Becket Cook shares his testimony as someone who was transformed by the power of the gospel. Cook’s dramatic conversion to Christianity and subsequent seminary training inform his views on homosexuality–personally, biblically, theologically, and culturally–and in his new book he educates Christians on how to better understand this complex and controversial issue while revealing how to lovingly engage with those who disagree. A Change of Affection is a timely and indispensable resource for anyone who desires to understand more fully one of the most common and difficult stumbling blocks to faithfully following Christ today.

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  • Terry Fennig says:

    I do have a question about Timothy Tennant’s vision. I love his vision and would be completely on u are with churches springing up in homes, breakrooms, cafes etc. I puzzle over the role of bishops, etc. If we are doing something spontaneous with the leading of the Holy Spirit would these small fellowships be expected to report to the denomination? If facilitated by someone not ordained in the traditional sense then what does a denominational structure supply? Would it not seem more like a tether? How is denominational oversight even accomplished. There is a significant % of our church family ready to sprout wings. I remember a speaker explain that at the roots of feminism is a spirit of division. I’d like to hear the thoughts behind Jesus and the Holy Spirit needing a denomination in order to get the job done.