United Methodist Survival

Recently, in Where is Our Church’s Center, I quoted Jeremy Smith quoting Lovett Weems. I’m going do that again. Weems says:

The survival of any denomination or congregation is not a worthy goal.


I am not afraid, however, that the United Methodist Church will cease to exist anytime soon. Humanly speaking, we are a big institution with a lot of institutional inertia. The United Methodist Church will exist in some form for many years to come.

For me, the question is whether (and how) the many different understandings of Christ, the Gospel and the Church that exist within United Methodism will (or even can) each thrive under the same roof.

Wesley said:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.  John Wesley, August 4, 1786, Thoughts on Methodism

Jeremy Smith is correct, however, when he says that simply resurrecting 18th century Wesleyan forms in the 21st century isn’t the answer. I think that is true for a number of reasons.

There are really only a few ways this can work itself out for the United Methodist Church.

  1. One of the power-groups within the church “wins” by convincing the most of the 7+ million United Methodists that they are right, and the entire UMC is revitalized around the new consensus. This seems to me to be the least likely outcome.
  2. A yet-to-be discovered way ahead emerges and creates a new consensus that revitalizes the church.
  3. One of the power-groups within the church “wins” politically. The other groups either are driven from the centers of power or tire of the battle. The victors claim the United Methodist “brand” and attempt to revitalize the denomination around the new center. The dissenters form new institutions in which their distinctive visions of Christ, the Gospel and the church can also thrive.
  4. In the name of institutional loyalty (or whatever else might be driving people), we all stay within the UMC but continue to bicker, weakening the institution as a whole AND injuring ALL of the causes over which we are fighting. Everybody loses. Even in this scenario, the UMC survives. Indeed, even a dead star leaves a white dwarf behind.

Only outcomes 1 or 2 might restore numeric growth to the UMC in the United States. Neither outcome, however, guarantees growth. It is also possible that they might create a church that is more committed to its core principles, but numerically smaller.

Outcome 3 also might lead to a smaller but more self-aware and confident church, but not necessarily so. Experience seems to show that extended battles wound churches’ collective psyches. The victorious remnant can perpetually live in the partisanship and narrowly defined vision that characterized the struggle.

Outcome 4 is a lose-lose situation for everyone.

There is a model of church in which each of the various streams could live and thrive together, but I really don’t think we’re up to it.

More later.