The pastor of my northern Virginia church spends little time behind the pulpit, preferring instead to pace back and forth between the front pews. “Are you alive in the Spirit?” he shouts, drawing scattered amens. The music is mostly traditional hymns with organ and choir, but the occasional acoustic guitar-wielding young woman will belt out a folk-tinged contemporary tune.
At one recent service, the minister called those in attendance forward for intercessory prayer by reciting James 5:14: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” More than half the congregation streamed forward, some clutching Bibles.
These weren’t Pentecostals or worshippers at nondenominational megachurches. They were Methodists. Methodism was for much of its history known for evangelism, fiery preaching, camp revivals and deep personal piety. As it has atrophied, so has mainline Protestantism.
Today, even lifelong spiritual descendants of John Wesley are hard pressed to explain what is distinctive about their church. United Methodism has experienced flagging membership for decades. Some who have left cite theological drift, a lack of focus and the replacement of Biblical orthodoxy with cultural faddishness and social-gospel liberalism.
To bring worshippers back to the fold, the United Methodist Church launched a $2 million television advertising campaign at the end of August. As TAS reported at the time, it’s open to question whether the message — “The Journey” — will do much to counter the denomination’s generic reputation. As David Holman wrote, the ads emphasize a welcoming church, but to discover “that the church is Christian would require independent investigation.”
Some Methodists are striving to make this fact plain. By some estimates, the United Methodist Church is home to at least 2.5 million evangelicals. This is larger than the total membership of many thriving conservative denominations. It also greater than the U.S. membership of the Episcopal Church, as well as that of the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ combined.
SINCE THE MID-1960S, THERE have been organized efforts to reassert theological orthodoxy and reclaim the church’s denominational heritage. In 1966, a Methodist ministerial student named Charles Keysor responded to the leftward drift at his seminary by publishing an article laying out the evangelical convictions shared by many of his coreligionists.
Keysor received over 200 letters in response, many of them from pastors leading Methodist churches. The favorable reaction moved him to help found Good News magazine, a publication for traditionalist Methodists. Good News was the beginning of many evangelical ministries in the church. Currently, the largest is the Confessing Movement, with over 630,000 members in 1,400 churches. The movement’s mission statement asserts, “Our purpose is to contend for the apostolic faith within the United Methodist Church and seek to reclaim and reaffirm the church’s faith in Wesleyan terms.”
In recent years, these ministries have achieved some results. At the church’s 2000 General Conference in Cleveland, United Methodists voted to affirm traditional teachings about the Trinity and Jesus Christ as Savior and to require evangelism in the curriculum for ordination. Despite protests, traditional teachings on homosexuality were overwhelmingly upheld. The church also voted to oppose partial-birth abortion and support voluntary prayer in public schools.
At the 2004 United Methodist General Conference in Pittsburgh, the church again reaffirmed its opposition to homosexuality and rejected same-sex unions. United Methodists became the first mainline denomination to back political action against same-sex marriage when delegates voted to support “laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” While strong dissenting voices remain within the church (often amplified by the media), the majority votes for these traditionalist positions ranged from 60 percent to 80 percent.
Eighty-five percent voted that clergy must remain celibate while single and monogamous if married. Adultery, premarital sex, homosexual behavior and performing same-sex ceremonies were included as chargeable offenses that could result in a church trial.
THE TRADITIONALIST RESURGENCE IS partly due to improved evangelical organization and partly attributable to demographics. Sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke reported in 2000 that United Methodist congregations with evangelical pastors have rising attendance and revenues.
Even shrinking evangelical-led congregations, they found, were declining at half the rate of churches with less orthodox pastors. Many of the large congregations with more than 1,000 members, by contrast, have orthodox leadership. The conferences in the South and Southeast with the highest proportion of evangelical pastors and conservative churches are even experiencing growth.
Another change has been the absorption of Methodists from outside the United States into the denomination. The non-U.S. membership now represents 30 percent of the church. As denominations ranging from Anglicans to Catholics have found, African Christians in particular tend to be orthodox in faith and morals. In the United Methodist Church, they have proven reliable allies to traditionalists at General Conference. Their proportion is scheduled to grow at the next conference in 2008.
Theological liberals still dominate the boards and agencies that speak for the church between conferences, as well as the seminaries that educate its pastors. Traditionalists are still defeated on many votes and sometimes feel they have been ignored by church officials even when they prevail.
It’s also possible that demographic shifts have produced not renewal but a role-reversal: conservatives will grow in influence as liberals increasingly act as dissenters, leaving the net result on church unity — and the clarity of Methodism’s message — unchanged.
But there is good reason to hope that United Methodists are indeed on a journey — one that will lead back to the faith of our fathers.