The United Methodist crisis goes critical
The UMC split carries big lessons for American Christianity
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American Christianity is changing before our eyes. The United Methodist Church was America’s third largest religious body for half a century, after Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention. Before that it was second largest for about a hundred years, and at one point it was the largest denomination in the nation.
All that is now history, as United Methodism is in a free fall, which is a loss for U.S. society and American Christianity. What is going on?
It comes down to a theological crisis, with conservatives increasingly alienated from the theological liberals who constantly pushed for LGBT inclusion. As of July 2022, nearly 6,200 United Methodist congregations have been approved for exiting the denomination with their church property. They represent 20 percent of the denomination’s churches in 2020 and perhaps include more than one million members. At least another 21 state conferences will meet this summer and fall to approve hundreds more exits. So there may be 7,000 exiting churches before the deadline at year’s end.
There will be yet another explosion next May, when United Methodism’s governing General Conference meets for the first time since 2019. With so many traditionalists gone, the convention will likely delete its current bans on same-sex rites and sex outside of male-female marriage. It’s unlikely but not impossible the convention will approve a new exit process. Even so, hundreds more will find a way, even if losing or paying full price for their buildings, which the denomination owns.
By the end of 2024, at least 25 percent of U.S. United Methodism will have exited. Harder to calculate will be the hundreds of thousands of traditionalists in the remaining churches who will exit as individuals, just leaving their churches. By the denomination’s own count in 2019, 44 percent of members are traditionalists. By the end of next year, United Methodism, which had 11 million members in 1969, might be down to 4 million, with a very grim demographic future.
Most but not all exiting churches are joining the new Global Methodist Church. But the GMC in many ways is more of a network than an old-style denomination. It won’t have major agencies or its own publishing house, much less a bureaucracy requiring large payments. It doesn’t have its own seminaries, although it recognizes certain preferred seminaries. Congregations will own their own properties and have much more authority over their pastoral appointments than United Methodism, where bishops autocratically have control.
Hundreds of exited churches, and perhaps a couple thousand, will remain, at least initially, independent of denominational ties or, instead, will form their own separate networks. United Methodism’s break-up isn’t just about its own internal schism or the collapse of liberal Protestantism but reflects the wider post-denominational trend of American religion. Very few U.S. denominations are growing, although the liberal ones are declining the fastest. The only segment still showing growth is identified as “nondenominational.”
As Christianity Today recently reported about the rise of nondenominationalism:
“There are six times more nondenominational churches than there are Episcopal congregations, and five times more than Presbyterian Church (USA). If nondenominational were a denomination, it would even be larger than the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest denomination in the US.”
Arguably, the Southern Baptist Convention, although itself declining in membership, is the last of America’s great national denominations, with millions of members, seminaries, agencies, national leaders, and a strong self-identity. No less arguably, much of nondenominationalism is Baptist in ethos. Its churches are typically credobaptist in doctrine, congregationalist in polity, and non-liturgical in worship.
Methodism, which is paedobaptist, liturgical, and connectional, with an episcopal polity, prevailed in the 19th century and early 20th century. It built influential institutions that shaped America while loosening its theological foundations. The collapse of denominationalism has essentially meant a Baptist ethos now prevails in American Protestantism. Nondenominational churches shun bureaucracy and minimize tradition. They are entrepreneurial, experimental, evangelistic, and typically striving for primitive Christianity emphasizing the Bible and the born- again experience that unites individual believers with God.
During the Second Great Awakening, Methodists were competitive partners with Baptists as they together superseded the old colonial established churches in favor of voluntarist revivalism. Today, as old United Methodism fractures, it is an open question whether Methodism can again be a major force in America. Global Methodism and other Wesleyan networks might remain small and insular, left behind by the continued growth of nondenominational Christianity.
A new Methodism, without abandoning its historic commitment to connectionalism, will align with and learn from growing entrepreneurial evangelistic nondenominationalism. Methodism grew in early America and is now growing globally thanks to its distinctive emphases on the availability by divine grace of holiness and sanctification for all who heed Christ.
United Methodism’s demise might unleash a revived Methodism as a restored evangelistic movement in America. Christians both denominational and nondenominational can pray for that kind of Methodism once again to proclaim scriptural holiness throughout the land.
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