The Next MethodismFebruary 1st, 2022
There is an understandable excitement about the launch of the “next Methodism” out of the ashes of the current tragedy known as the United Methodist Church. One of the more helpful publications which sets forth the vision for “what’s next” can be found in the publication, The Next Methodism edited by two fine Methodist theologians, Ken Collins and Ryan Danker. This publication was followed by a gathering of leading Methodist theologians in Washington D.C. on January 21-22.
There are several key themes which need to be reviewed and remembered as the Global Methodist Church prepares for its launch in the fall of this year.
First, the GMC cannot be built on the foundation of what we are “against” but must embrace a positive vision for a truly Wesleyan future. One of the false narratives which has gained significant traction is that the split in United Methodism is over the ordination of men and women who are in same-sex marriages. However, for those of us who have followed this struggle for many decades it is more than obvious that the struggle over human sexuality is but a symptom of a much deeper malady which, in the end, could not be resolved. This point was made quite forcefully by the late Billy Abraham in the first chapter of The Next Methodism. His chapter, entitled, “Doctrine or Death,” masterfully points out the various “Acts” which have led to a full doctrinal collapse and the loss of biblical authority and Christological clarity in the church. Act One was the confusion that the replacement of the ecumenical creeds with Wesley’s 44 canonical sermons and his Notes to the New Testament led to the false idea that Wesley was not committed to the grand ecumenical tradition. Abraham points out that what Wesley rejected was not historic orthodoxy, nor doctrinal precision, but some kind of dead orthodoxy which is disconnected from the vibrant preaching of the faith and a careful study of the New Testament. Acts Two was the rise of social activism and human experience which further distanced Methodism from historic doctrinal confessions. Albert Outler’s valiant attempt to introduce the quadrilateral was intended to restore “Scripture” to its primary place as the final adjudicating authority over tradition, experience and reason, but it was quickly co-opted and turned into an “equilateral” that allowed human experience to silence the clear teachings of the New Testament. In Act Three the United Methodist church further distanced itself from the grand ecumenical tradition, replacing it with a form of pluralism which allowed endless innovations of both faith and practice. In Act Two we lost our Wesleyan heritage. In Act Three we lost our very identity as a distinctive Christian movement. The failure of many of our official UM seminaries and episcopal leaders to guard our Christian identity led to our current untenable situation where we no longer have any viable basis for unity in mission, doctrine or experience. This is why General Conferences end up being staged fights, rather than holy conferencing. The impending division is fundamentally about the positive vision of reclaiming our Christian heritage, both biblically and Christologically.
Second, the Global Methodist Church must reclaim our deep commitment to “spread Christian holiness throughout the world.” The GMC cannot and should not be merely the gathering place for disaffected United Methodists who have “had enough” of the church’s dysfunction and are looking for a fresh landing place. The GMC must become a vibrant church planting movement which is deeply committed to vigorous church planting. Without a clear commitment and strategic plan for church planting the GMC will soon falter and find itself, quite tragically, caught in its own eddies and unable to become the forceful river of renewal and transformation which is the historic sign of a true church. Historically, if you examine each of the over 40,000 denominations in the world they can be traced back to some renewal movement. Sometimes these movements were based on the recovery of biblical truths which had been lost, or they were responding to a fresh move of the Spirit in their midst. When a church “breaks away” or, in our case, is being swept out the door onto the streets via this so-called “legislation” known as the “protocol” then we risk being a ragtag group of churches with no dynamic force of renewal that carries the movement forward with the kind of dynamic evangelism and church planting which normally characterizes any new church movement. I fully recognize the argument that the Protocol may be “better than the alternative,” but we must face the cold reality that we are now in a position of having to create or at least nurture a renewal movement under our own feet. I don’t know of any historic examples of this, but I am quite confident that it cannot happen without a deep commitment to fresh church planting among people who have no history with the struggles we have been engaged in over the last four decades.
Third, the clear underlying message of The Next Methodism is that we must be committed to serious theological education with a strong Wesleyan accent. Without a deep commitment to theological education we will inevitably find ourselves in one generation re-fighting all of the same issues which we mistakenly believe that this separation will free us from. The other option is that the GMC will quickly drift into a kind of generic evangelicalism which will rob our movement of the wonderful dynamism between evangelical fervor and social responsibility which has so profoundly shaped this nation and which the world so desperately needs. I am not referring only to a well-trained clergy (though that is vital), but also to a deep commitment to catechesis of new believers and a rebirth of the class meetings and bands which so nobly equipped the church to be Christians in the midst of a decaying civilization.
So, the emergence of the GMC as a new denomination will, in some ways, be the easy part. The real challenge will be enculturating these newly gathered believers into a strong vision of the church committed to reclaim historic faith, to plant thousands of new churches globally, and to theologically educate a whole new generation in the distinctive and life-giving emphases of Wesleyan Christianity.
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