Bill Bouknight: The turning tide of United Methodism

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Jesus promised that he would build his church (Matthew 16:18) and one of the surest ways we know to be obedient to God is to be faithful to the Holy Scripture. It was Jesus who prayed for the church, saying, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).

God seems to be using at least six factors in the continuing process of renewing and reforming United Methodism toward faithfulness to his Word.

1. Most evangelistically-minded churches grow, while others seldom do. Quite simply, too many of our United Methodist congregations don’t know how to reach out. Though most liberal United Methodists are compassionate, kind people, their churches seldom grow. One definite reason is theological. Most evangelical Christians feel a sense of urgency about lost people. They really believe that people who are outside a relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord are at risk of spending all eternity in a horrible place where God is totally absent. By way of contrast, many liberal United Methodists are universalists—believing that all persons are going to heaven regardless of what they believe or do. Such a belief makes evangelism irrelevant.

Recently I studied one particular annual conference in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. The ten local churches with the highest worship attendance figures for the previous year were quite diverse in terms of location (some are inner-city, others suburban) and in worship style (traditional, contemporary, and blended). But these ten churches have one thing in common—all of their senior ministers are evangelical/orthodox in theology. That same pattern probably prevails in most other annual conferences.
Jesus said that he came to earth “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). The Holy Spirit seems to bless those congregations that focus primary attention and resources on seeking, serving, and saving lost people.

2. United Methodist renewal and reform groups are making a positive contribution. The “granddaddy” of UM reform organizations is Good News, launched in 1966 by Charles Keysor’s article in the Christian Advocate. For 28 years, the Rev. James V. Heidinger II led Good News with prophetic courage and winsomeness. Now, the Rev. Rob Renfroe leads this vital agency of renewal and reform. Other organizations like The Confessing Movement, The Institute on Religion and Democracy, The Mission Society, Lifewatch, Transforming Congregations, and others have joined in the struggle.

3. High-quality biblical material has been introduced into the UM educational curriculum....

Read the whole article.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryAdult EducationEvangelism and Church Growth* Religion News & CommentaryOther ChurchesMethodist* TheologySeminary / Theological Education

9 Comments
Posted January 5, 2010 at 7:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. robroy wrote:

I really don’t see the justification of positive terms such as “turning tide” and “renewal”. He rightly points out that “liberal Christianity” is a dead branch that only saps strength from the vine. If the vine was being pruned, the vine would be smaller but healthier. I don’t see any pruning going on in the Methodist denomination.

January 5, 8:44 am | [comment link]
2. Knapsack wrote:

Let’s be gracious, Robroy—his point is that liberal churches and conferences are shrinking, closing charges, dropping staff, while more evangelical areas and congregations are growing vigorously.  The balance of decision making is shifting to those areas, and after the last General Conference, the attempt to disenfranchise the Global South conferences of the UMC was soundly defeated . . . and those votes will continue to grow as a percentage of the whole, as if African dioceses could vote in TEC.

If by pruning you only count intentional severing of ties, no, that’s not the Methodist way, but the dead branches are not being propped up or regrafted back onto the tree, either.

January 5, 10:06 am | [comment link]
3. Brian OP wrote:

The author quotes Matthew 16:18, when our Lord promises to build His Church, but the author conveniently ignores “where” our Lord promises to build His Church—on the rock of Peter’s Confession of Faith in Jesus as the Christ.  Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia to use an old Latin aphorism…

January 5, 10:19 am | [comment link]
4. Adam 12 wrote:

The Lord can also make worshipers out of stones themselves if he chooses. I think the important thing in Methodism is that they have a judicial review system that is working. TEC lacks that safeguard.

January 5, 10:49 am | [comment link]
5. Daniel wrote:

With apologies to Rev. Bouknight, I believe he is overly optimistic.  I spent 30 years in the Virginia Annual Conference of the UMC.  It used to be a solidly orthodox annual conference, and was the largest one in the UMC, much like the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

All it took was the election of Charlene Kammerer as bishop back in 2004 to take the Virginia Annual Conference on a hard turn to the left.  Add to this the recent election of Council of Bishops backed liberal candidates to the Judicial Council and you don’t have a whole lot of hope for renewal from the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The liberals are firmly in charge of the seminaries, Asbury notwithstanding.  Even if you graduate from seminary and get a conditional appointment to ministry, you still have to be approved by your annual conference’s BOOM (Board of Ordained Ministry) to be eligible for status as an ordained elder in full connection.  Additionally, the national church is now trying to get guaranteed appointments stopped, so elders in full connection would no longer be guaranteed an appointment.  Add in new job performance evaluations by the bishop’s cabinet of district superintendents, and the always available power of the bishop to move you anywhere at anytime (the ecclesiastical equivalent of Siberia), and I don’t see much reason for optimism.

The UMC is organized so that laity have very limited power to influence the national church, the national church hierarchy is firmly liberal and revisionist, and they don’t seem inclined to cede any of their power willingly or in the near future.

January 5, 11:46 am | [comment link]
6. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Well, let me take a mediating position here, somewhere between the author’s rosy optimism and the gloomy pessimism of robroy (#1) and especially Daniel (#5).  I particularly welcome the latter’s testimony, which is based on 30 years of experience in the UMC.

First, Bill Booknight is right in celebrating the rapid and dramatic growth of the UMC in Africa, which is part of the identical international organization as the UMC in the US, and which is likely to continue to grow and assert more and more influence in the direction of the denomination as a whole.  That’s the most promising for the future of the UMC, I think.

2.  I likewise think Booknight is right to celebrate the enormous impact that the DISCIPLE course (and its Christian Believer offshoot) has had, helping inspire and equip millions of Methodist laypeople for ministry as well as mature Christian living.  Former bishop Richard Wilke deserves lots of credit for initiating and persistently promoting that splendid series of in-depth Bible study materials (sold by Abingdon naturally).  I’ve tuaght DISCIPLE myself and regard it highly.  It’s far superior to TEC’s very liberal and academic EFM program as a means of discipleship and lay training.  Record numbers of Methodists are engaging in serious Bible study in small groups on a weekly basis, which is very promising indeed.

3.  However, unfortunately Bill’s first point is quite questionable and simplistic.  I don’t think statistics bear out his glib claim that “Most evangelistically-minded churches grow, while others seldom do.”.  The second part is true enough, but sadly it seems that the majority of even “evangelistically-minded” churches are stuck on a plateau.  There are LOTS of reasons why churches grow or decline, and the theological position of the pastor or congregation as a whole, and even their desire to share the gospel, are only two of them.

4.  But there are two marvelous United Methodist writers who have done extremely important research about these matters, and provide a much more reliable and instructive perspective.  And the two I have in mind are Dean Kelley (and his classic book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, 1972, 2nd edition in 1985), and above all, the incomparable Lyle Schaller, dean of church consultants.  Both have contributed greatly to our understanding of these crucial, complex matters.

David Handy+

January 5, 1:36 pm | [comment link]
7. robroy wrote:

Daniel nails it: “The liberals are firmly in charge of the seminaries.” The denomination is toast.

January 5, 3:30 pm | [comment link]
8. C Heenan wrote:

I served as a deacon and elder in the North Texas Conference of the UMC for 13 years and left at about the time of the low point the OP mentions. I don’t believe that any of my appointments to various churches were influenced by my conservativism, but when I was in the ordination process I recall being very apprehensive about the makeup of the Board of Ordained Ministry that examined me. It was made up of clergy with very different theologies and after I had been examined I was informed that I had been approved for ordination but that the decision hadn’t been unanimous. It seemed an unhelpful piece of information at the time.

I also think that the system of appointments is a significant factor in this. If you’ve not been part of it it’s hard to describe the effect it has on your relations with other clergy. Since there are only so many “good” appointments it can lead you to perceive every other clergy person as a rival.

I believe that the ordination and appointment processes will have the effect over time of making the UMC into one thing or another. The mechanism is there to squeeze out one side or the other.

Craig+

January 5, 5:25 pm | [comment link]
9. Rev. Daniel wrote:

I would like to add another optimistic note for a couple reasons:
1) I graduated from one of our official UM seminaries about 3 years ago - and while I certainly had liberationist/revisionist professors in my time there, I also had a couple tradtionalist/catholic and a couple Wesleyan/evangelical professors while there, and certainly had the opportunity to get a solid and persuasive orthodox perspective (if not a holistic orthodox pastoral formation).  My brother is now studying at a different official UM seminary and has also reported having some really great orthodox/classical professors.  And that’s not even factoring in non-official seminaries like Asbury.
2) I cruised through the theological examinations of the ordination process in my Annual Conference (Louisiana) without having to worry at all about my catholic/paleo-orthodox perspective.  The key is that conservatives need to be able to articulate VERY clearly (and graciously) what they believe and that it does in fact reflect exactly what our official doctrines put forth in the Book of Discipline anyways.  If you can do that (as I said, graciously) you should have no problem getting ordained - not in the South anyways.
3) In my experience (limited though it is) more of our campus ministers are evangelical than revisionist, and many many of our future pastors are entering seminary via the campus ministries and surely maintain those campus ministers as resources for asking questions about “the real world” beyond seminary.
4) As far as I can tell, there is a growing interest across the Church in re-appropriating Wesleyan theology in United Methodism (witness the roaring success of the recent release of The Wesley Study Bible) and this will draw us (consciously or not) closer to the classical/orthodox theological stream because that is exactly what Wesley - the high-church AND evangelical Anglican that he was - represents.
5) Our continuing commitment to the ecumenical movement forces us toward the theological center (if we have any integrity).  That is, since (for example) we’ve signed onto the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, it becomes difficult for us to (officially) distance ourselves from a theological vision that includes sin and justification by faith in Christ and indeed some of these ecumenical documents have come to be used in our seminaries (as the JDDJ was at mine).
While there is certainly a long way to go - and the Church will no doubt lose many more members along the way - I am cautiously optimistic about the future.

January 5, 6:23 pm | [comment link]
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