The United Methodist Church is in trouble! I know that United Methodist don’t like to hear this but, it is reality. Bishop Will Willimon states that 1969, was the last time United Methodism saw a net increase in membership. Have we become preoccupied with numbers? It is as Bishop Cannon used to tell us in United Methodist history at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, “behind every number is a person, and behind every person is a soul.” Everyone has an opinion as to why we have seen a steady loss in our membership. I want to give you my viewpoint.
Part of our steady loss of membership is that we have lost our identity. In other words, we don’t know who we. What we know as The United Methodist Church came about in 1968, with the merger of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethern Church. We are 44 years old as a denomination. A comparison can be made to what psychologist and others that study the human psyche, call a mid-life crisis. Part of the mid-life crisis is that we begin to wonder if our lives have meaning and we may even wonder what we believe in this the late summer of our lives.
If you ask many United Methodist what differentiates us from other denominations they cannot tell you. Most will mention John Wesley and that’s about all they know. They cannot tell you what we believe about the sacraments as a matter of fact some can’t tell you what the two sacraments are. Goodness gracious if they can explain United Methodism’s understanding of grace they are really knowledgeable.
Individuals in United Methodism like to say the reason that we are loosing members is because we are allowing lesbians and gays into the church or we have not changed the language in The Book of Discipline in which homosexuals are told that they are incompatible with God’s grace. There may be some truth to both or one of these arguments, but in my view it is that we have forgotten the great theological truths of United Methodism.
We as United Methodists have always believed that God’s grace is available to all. John Wesley the father of Methodism taught us that grace is understood in three stages. First, there is the prevenient Grace of God. This is the grace that goes before us even before we even have the ability to understand what grace is all about. It goes before each person when they enter this world and is even active before we understand Wesley’s second stage of grace which is justifying grace. This is the grace of God that comes when we understand who Jesus Christ is and the place that he has in our lives. This is the grace we receive when we accept Jesus. Lastly, there is the sanctifying grace of God. This is the grace that we can receive after accepting Jesus. This is the grace that makes us desire to be made perfect in the love of Jesus Christ.
Sanctification helps us to live the kind of life that Jesus want’s us to live. It helps us to practice the first commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and all your strength,” (Mark 12:30, NRSV). However, the test if we are practicing the first commandment is if we are being true to the second greatest commandment which is to, “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other greater commandment than these,” (Mark 12:31, NRSV). I am confident that if we would once again emphasis the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification then we would see renewal within United Methodism.
Lets quit arguing about this other stuff and let people be who God has created them to be, and get down to the business of the church. Let our preachers begin to preach with authority the doctrine of sanctification even if our church members don’t want to hear this truth. It’s like Bishop Willimon says, we preachers are not called to be liked by our congregations we are called to preach the truth. Let us as United Methodist’s begin to put into practice loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. This is the reality of Christianity love Jesus and love people. If we do this, then we will see a revival in United Methodism. I hope to see United Methodism renewed within my lifetime. By the grace of God she will be renewed.