If the church I love divides

April 7th, 2017

I grew up in a time of coming together. I didn‘t know enough then to realize that coming together is not the norm for the Christian community. Except for those times when social forces external to the community were at work, we Christians have historically separated ourselves from one another, often to our gain if not to our credit. 

Sometimes the divisions are ideological, i.e., doctrinal or theological. Sometimes they are over ethical or political issues. These schisms, as they are called, are rarely, if ever, amicable.

I wonder if the great depression and WWII had something to do with the coming together of people in the free world. Could those inertial forces have influenced the reunification of the three branches that created The Methodist Church in 1939? That reunion wasn’t perfect. We had to create a Jurisdictional compromise that set our African American members aside and protected our regional prejudices. 

I was only a child when those three branches came together but I remember the feeling of pride we shared in becoming the largest Protestant Church in America. Upon reflection, the boasting I remember seems a little embarrassing, but it didn’t last long because the Southern Baptists soon took that vain shtick away. When we came together with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968, I was there as a first time delegate for the General Conference celebration. It was one of the highlights of my life and still is.

I like very much being a United Methodist, however...

If the church I love divides over this homosexual conflict, I will grieve greatly and probably for the rest of my days, which may not be long since I am an old man. If that does happen, I intend to stay with those who still believe in “Free Grace for all and in all,” and who hold out for Open Hearts, Open minds, and Open doors, even if we of the remains are the minority. I don’t mind being in the minority. The church has always been at its best when it is in the minority. When the chips are down, the church needs to get it right.

The Roman Empire compelled the church to come together once. The Romans valued order and they intended for the church to be a uniting force in the empire. The Romans greatest invention was cement for the making of concrete. They determined after Constantine to make concrete of Christianity to hold the Empire together — or else. 

After this forced coming together the church grew like crazy. Like a ship sailing with favorable winds, it quickly became the premier institution of the empire. Its bishops became princes and its coffers overflowed. It became the one true church universal [Catholic] with one true faith [orthodox]. It looked as if the days of glory had dawned. But there were unintended consequences.

Historians believe that when the empire embraced Christianity it changed the church more than the church transformed the empire. The church had sold its soul for a huge mess of pottage. I can’t help making the connection to current events. 

I remember in the late fifties and well into the sixties, when it first became apparent that Methodism was losing the race to be the largest denomination among American Protestants. Our church had enjoyed phenomenal growth from the Revolution through most of the nineteenth century. We were, except for the Quakers and Judaism, the smallest religious body in the country at the end of the Revolution. By 1850, we were the largest religious body in North America. 

That great religious revival that swept across the land during the nineteenth century deeply shaped our sense of identity, and when it began to wane there was wide-spread alarm. Many of our leaders were panicked over our failure to keep up. We had all kinds of United Evangelistic Missions and growth programs designed to recruit and gain new members. 

It was the main theme of our district and conference program meetings. There was a lot of reminiscing about the good old days. Camp Meetings, revivals, and dramatic growth were our past and there were herculean efforts to recreate the great revival. There was plenty of guilt to go around for those of us whose churches weren’t growing like our leaders thought they should.

I became interested in denominational demographics during that time and began to study trends and reflect on causes. I realized that our church was failing to keep up with the growth of the national population and hadn’t been keeping up for quite a while. The glory days of the nineteenth century had actually passed during the first decade of the twentieth.

During the nineteenth century, Methodism was primarily rural and agrarian. The goal was to have a church within three or four miles of every one so people could get there in an hour in a wagon or on a horse. The advent of the automobile and the decline of the small farm changed all of that. During and after the depression, thousands of small rural churches began to disappear. Migration from those small membership churches to the urban centers did fuel the growth of many of our great urban churches into the twentieth century, but on the whole Methodism didn’t make the turn from rural to urban very well. It is a wonder that the decline in membership was not more pronounced.

We actually lost members during the depression, 

and did not see significant growth again until after WWII. Veterans came home, married, started families and searched for their cherished roots. Church membership flourished again — for a season. It was great. The first church I served out of seminary doubled in size over a six year period and, vainly, I thought it was all about me. 

In the sixties it got harder. We were in a national struggle with our conscience over two things at once: Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Local congregations were conflicted. The anger ran deep and made it harder to be a pastor. A few folks sought churches that were more compatible with their reticence to change. Some just stayed away for comfort’s sake. 

Lifestyles were changing, too. There was more affluence. Camping and outdoor life were increasingly attractive to families. Vacation and travel were more universally accessible. I remember saying in a gathering of pastors who were lamenting the decline of summer attendance at the outset of that period that my people hadn’t gone to the Baptists; they had gone to the lake. It resonated.

At the time of the merger with the Evangelical Brethren denomination, membership in The United Methodist Church peaked just below twelve million members, but that 1968 crest was followed by a long downward curve, some years steeper than others, and the overall trend since has been one of steady decline. 

After the merger, support of denominational funds was based on a formula proportionate to membership. A denomination-wide scramble to “clean up the rolls” occurred that contributed significantly to this decline in membership numbers.

Some of the membership loss derived from more honest statistics. During the days when pastoral achievement was measured in membership gains, there was a lot of fudging. Some pastors were notorious to the point that others of us made jokes about them. One who boasted his church had the largest membership in the conference was known to meet new persons, invite them to church, return to his office, and add them to the rolls. The church he served once reported 3,000 members. A good friend of mine succeeded him and did a thorough inventory. The actual membership was a little over 900. 

In 1969, I moved to a church that was reporting over 1200 members. When we were finished with updating the rolls we had a little over 850. We were never able to find names to go with over 160 of the reported numbers. There is no way of knowing how much effect this kind of improved record keeping had on the overall picture, but it was substantial. 

Another important demographic factor that went almost unnoticed by people focused on the numbers was the effect that birth control and family planning was having on the membership of all denominations. Since the post-WWII decade, when growth came easy, the size of American families has diminished markedly. Fewer children mean smaller confirmation classes, mean fewer members who remain loyal as adults.

Walter Fenton and other Good News propagandists would have us believe the membership decline is largely about theological issues and ethical conflicts. Preferring to blame it on “liberals” and “progressives,” they appear to be totally unaware of recent studies showing that the “Nones” are the fastest growing segment of the population. A major driving force behind this turning away from the American Church is disenchantment with “Evangelicals.”

Fenton predicts the collapse of our ‘apportionment-based connectional’ denomination. Like the Mark Twain story about the mistaken appearance of his obituary in the N.Y. Times, the [“Good News”] news of the death of The United Methodist Church may be premature.

There is an episode in Wesley’s Journal where he describes a conflicted congregation at Gateshead near Newcastle. It’s a lesson in eighteenth century conflict management. Wesley pays a visit to examine the classes and appraise the situation. Half the membership is lost in the struggle. As he travels back to London, he reflects that “the half is more than the whole.” 

Wesley believed what was left was a healthier community of grace without the discord and dissension that dominated the Society at Gateshead. It is not my choice for it to be so, but if we must divide, I want to be with the People Called Methodists who believe in free grace and embody it with open minds, open hearts, and open doors. We may be a better church after the some have had their “or else” way.

A lesson I learned from demographics and from reflections on “Gateshead” have led me to the conclusion in these later years of my ministry that the future of United Methodism is in service and self-giving instead of “church growth” and self-seeking. Works of healing, charity, and kindness are far more important in the Community of Grace than institutional success. Like Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s “While I’m on my feet” appeal, I live to say more for a church whose mission it is to “lay down its life” for others.

comments powered by Disqus