A Way Forward

Published October 10, 2022 by John Allen in 

As we consider the future of how we will do Church, the following is an overview of the theological priorities that, for me, should be at the core of our decision-making process. I begin this analysis by noting what I believe is at the heart of the UMC crisis.

Accountability for Bishops, Clergy, and Churches

In my opinion, the core of our current denominational drama is a lack of accountability for bishops, clergy and churches. Christians are called to live in accountable communities – accountable to God and one another. A system of accountability for all those in leadership is essential for the future of the Church.

Built into our denominational identity is what we call the “Discipline of the United Methodist Church.” It includes our founding documents, theological beliefs, social principles (positions on social issues in our culture) and organizational structures. Over the years, there has been an unspoken unity of purpose, vision, mission and direction that clergy, bishops, and organizations would follow our disciplinary covenant.

An accountability structure is built into our covenantal bond, but in some geographical areas of our denomination, upholding these core principles has been a loose process. Our leadership has begun to use the term “big tent” to describe our theological diversity. But when the “tent” becomes so large that it includes those things outside our evangelical roots, we lose our zeal for the great commission to make disciples for Jesus Christ. Holy conferencing becomes a social debate that distracts us from our primary mission to spread scriptural holiness and the salvation of Jesus.

Granted, those on the extreme edges of this theological drift are a minority in our denomination. There is still much within the UMC to be celebrated through our work in communities and regions around the world. But the time has come to ask some tough questions about the future of the UMC. Has the tent become so large that the message of Jesus, the Christ, has been lost in the noise of the cultural wars? Have we reached the point where true reform and a return to our scriptural roots are beyond reach? Is it time to seek another direction to fulfill the evangelistic vision to reach the world for Christ?

If the time has come, I stand upon the following statements as a guide for our future.

Orthodox Theology That Stands on Scriptural Authority

The authority of Scripture is the fulcrum that drives who we are and why we do what we do. As the 21st-century church considers its identity, Scripture must drive its future. In addition to Scripture, the long-standing creeds (that include the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed) should inform how we see Scripture. In addition, the works of John Wesley (his 27 articles, notes on the New Testament and general rules for living) hold the Church in theological accountability.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

Indeed, the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12

Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.

Matthew 7:24

Trinitarian Theology with Christ-centered Ministry

The Church of the 21st century must maintain its Trinitarian roots. We worship the God who is Three-in-One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The uniqueness of this statement must be maintained and held without compromise. Further, the divinity and uniqueness of Christ as the Savior must be at the forefront of who we are and how our ministry is shaped.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

John 14:5-7

Local Church Centered

The strength of God’s work through Jesus Christ happens at the local level. The days of large bureaucratic organizations are long gone. There is a need for a smaller, leaner organizational structure that can resource cooperative ministries, missions and resources. The goal of this lean organization is to enable and enhance ministry at a local level (instead of local ministries supporting a larger organization).

The local church is the front line of ministry. We are sent into the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to make new disciples for Jesus Christ from Carrollton to the ends of the earth. As such, the larger organizational structure’s function is to ensure local churches are equipped to lead people to Jesus.

If a denomination is genuinely oriented around the local church as the front line of ministry, then it makes sense that we must empower the local church. Freedom to structure a local church’s organization is critical to this goal.

Next steps?

  • Pray (James 5:16).  Pray for your pastors, the church staff, our church family, our Annual Conference, and the entire denomination. Pray for the “will of God to be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • Don’t believe everything you hear or read (1 John 4:1). Many are writing and saying things through the news and social media that are fabrications and not facts, some of which conflict with Scripture or are mischaracterizations. As a Christian, it is imperative to be biblically discerning.
  • Do not move in fear (See 2 Timothy 1:7). Realize that the Methodist Church has expressed multiple iterations throughout its history (Methodist, Methodist Episcopal, United Methodist, Free Methodist, Nazarene, etc.)  As recent as 1968, we were simply The Methodist Church before merging with the Evangelical United Brethren. In hindsight, history will demonstrate this merger was an experiment that, when blended with other factors, did not work. Regardless, the church has shown over time that it will continue to exist, even if the name changes. As a people called Methodists, we have a future, no matter what.
  • Move in truth with grace (John 1:17). While we hold to biblical truth, let us move in grace and compassion for all people. We welcome people into our small groups and worship gatherings who battle against all types of struggles. While standing for biblical fidelity, let us remember to always operate in a spirit of love with the transforming power of the Gospel offered to all persons. Let us move in truth with grace. That is what Jesus does; this is who we are called to be.
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