Methodism in America is in the midst of change. It is not yet clear how exactly American Methodism is changing or whether change will lead to a bright future for my own denomination in particular (The United Methodist Church). But it does seem clear that it is changing.
During the three years I taught at Seattle Pacific University, I experienced life in a major U.S. city that is profoundly post-Christian. Moving from Seattle to the Atlanta metro area was a kind of culture shock, because cultural Christianity appears to be alive and well in many parts of the southeast. My sense is that within one generation the landscape of the U.S. as a whole will look much more like Seattle than Atlanta.
And so I’ve found my mind wandering again and again to this question: What is the future of Methodism in America?
Before I enter fully into these thoughts, let me assure you that I am aware of what a speculative enterprise this is. I offer these thoughts as ultimately nothing more than one person’s thoughts about the kind of Methodism that will be most likely to thrive in twenty years or so.
1. American Methodism will experience a paradigm shift as the desire to pursue cultural respectability becomes obsolete. American Methodism will slowly recognize its loss of cultural respect, eventually acknowledging it and then grieving it. Ultimately, American Methodism will emerge on the other side with a much clearer sense of its own identity, mission, and purpose and will learn to live authentically from these, even though much of what American Methodism stands for will be alien and perhaps even offensive to the broader culture(s) it is situated within. Moreover, given broader cultural changes, American Methodism will recognize that it must form people into a new worldview, and not merely a few ideas and practices that serve as self-help strategies adorning mostly unchanged lives.
2. American Methodism will recognize that the Holy Spirit has already given the people called Methodists a theology that is ideally suited for a post-Christian context. Methodists will preach the Wesleyan understanding of grace in its fullness with renewed conviction and boldness. Methodists will insist that God’s grace is for everyone, no exceptions. And Methodists will maintain that God’s grace saves us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who cancels (forgives) all of our sins. And Methodists will also boldly proclaim the audacious optimism of God’s sanctifying (life-changing) grace, which can enable us to love God and neighbor to the complete exclusion of sin. American Methodists will be known for their passionate belief in entire sanctification and God’s ability to changes lives radically.
3. American Methodism will recognize that the Holy Spirit has already given the people called Methodists a practice that is ideally suited for such a time as this. In a post-Christian context, a thriving faith community must not only proclaim the gospel, with the accents just mentioned, it must visibly demonstrate its proclamation by embodying what God makes possible. American Methodism will embrace social holiness (communal formation, especially through transformation-driven small groups) as a part of its fundamental and foundational essential practices. Participation in weekly small groups like the class meeting and the band meeting will be seen as more important than attending a weekly worship service. It will be impossible to be a member of American Methodism in the future and not regularly attend corporate worship and a small group focused on God’s work in your life.
4. As American Methodism passionately preaches entire sanctification and makes an uncompromising commitment to social holiness, it will find God’s deepest blessings through being in ministry with all of God’s children, especially those who seem beyond hope from a worldly perspective. American Methodists will not send money and resources to help those who cannot help themselves, but will be in relational ministry with them as a natural expression of their practical theology. As one example, American Methodism will recognize that recovery ministry is not something that a church lets an auxiliary group anonymously do in their building, but is something that is a core ministry of the church. American Methodists will not see this as a ministry for “those people,” but will seek complete freedom from addiction to the ways of sin and death together, by the grace of God. And many will experience the fullness of God’s amazing grace.
5. The boundaries of American Methodism will be blurred by close connection and cooperation with global Methodism. Methodist missionaries will both come to and from America. American Methodism at every level will be changed through relationships with brothers and sisters from across the globe, especially Africa, Asia, and South America. American Methodists will place significantly greater weight on the Methodist aspect of their identity than the American. Methodists across the globe will be united by a common mission to spread scriptural holiness across the globe.
There are so many possibilities for the future of American Methodism. It is impossible to predict with certainly what will be. I do know that when I think about this possible future, I get extremely excited. Come, Holy Spirit!
Kevin M. Watson is a Professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you.
A people with a positive vision for tomorrow will not perish, but shall indeed flourish… Thank you for that good word.
Randy Myers said:
This is certainly the great potential of United Methodism lying in the “DNA” waiting to be accepted, reclaimed, and lived out.
Allan Bevere said:
May what you said be so indeed.
Carol Hampton said:
Wow … I am going to have to re-read many times to totally absorb it. But as a first read I sure feel the potential of the Holy Spirit coming alive in this culture and time.
If America is moving from Atlanta to Seattle in this generation, what ought Methodists be doing now? In what ought Methodism be investing in Seattle now since Atlanta will be a relic? Also, what will “Atlanta Methodists” do when they realize that Seattle is their back yard? Also, what shall we make of current “Atlanta Methodists” who have nothing but derision and scorn for Seattle?
Tish Sarracino said:
Holiness cannot be encouraged without the recognition of its antithesis -sin. We are a fallen people. That is why Christ exists. If we do not recognize that we are fallen, there is no need for Him. The Methodist Church is and has been on a direct road to purely social ministry, abandoning basic Biblical tenets. I am praying for a “rebirth” for this denomination that my family and I have been a part of for at least nine generations, but I will be worshipping elsewhere until the leadership of the church turn their hearts back to God.
Wally Snook said:
As Seattle United Methodists, there are a number of us trying to remain true Wesleyan United Methodists. This does not mean struggling to get the church back to the ways church used to be; that won’t happen! When people no longer come to church because “it’s the right thing to do”, then people will no longer flood in our “open doors”. Instead, we are trying to follow Wesley’s admonition to “Offer them Christ”. This is very difficult here, especially when so many in the churches have no personal relationship with Jesus.
We are promoting your books “The Class Meeting” and “A Blueprint for Discipleship” as tools for the transformation. Those churches who have established class meetings are finding and deepening their relationship with Christ. We have found that we truly need each other and need to pray for each other.
Rather than derision and scorn, we need your prayers that we maintain our social holiness and an openness to the Holy Spirit leading our ministries.
Thank you for your five predictions.
Wally Snook with our Wesleyan Covenant Connection
Emmanuel Afful said:
Indeed only a few will have the “spirit of the prophets” to be optimistic about a better future for our denomination as it faces the many-sided challenges that seem to offset us from what was handed to us by our fore-bearers. I greatly appreciate the emphasis on the Holy Spirit in those predictions! I am also enthused about the last point made since I am an African serving a UMC here in the States. It is my firm belief that our connection would become more prophetic in the pursuit of spreading social holiness through the harnessing of our cultural differences, and embracing the giftedness of each other.
Kevin Watson said:
cegr76 – I am not sure I understand your comment, so my apologies if I misconstrue what you are saying. What should Methodists do now? In general, I’d say we should start living into that future now and, by the grace of God, bringing it to reality.
What will ‘Atlanta Methodists’ do when they realize that Seattle is their back yard? Methodists will have to accept that our glory days of influencing the broader culture are over. My intention was not to say that the dominant culture of either of the cities I mentioned were good or band. I see positives and negatives in them both. My point is that Methodists need to deprioritize seeking to influence the broader secular culture and recommit to being faithful to the gospel whether the culture gives us accolades for doing so or not. Painting with very broad brush strokes, I tend to see a desire to influence culture as a passion that is actually one of the few things that it truly unifying (and often problematic) in contemporary United Methodism.
Finally, I’m not sure what you mean by your last question. I think you are pointing to the current tension between theological positions in United Methodism. (Methodism in Seattle tends to be more progressive and Methodism in Atlanta tends to be more conservative). My post was intended to be about the cultural contexts Methodism finds itself within, but by that I was not at all suggesting that Methodist theology and practice would be conformed to their particular cultural contexts. In fact, I would argue nearly the opposite.
Wally – Thank you for your comment. It is great to “see” you online! I hear you saying you felt scorn and derision from this post. I apologize for that. I was not feeling derision or scorn for you or the Pacific Northwest in general as I wrote this post. I know these are trying times and I wish you and the Wesleyan Covenant Connection nothing but the very best.
Scott Brown said:
Steve White said:
“American Methodists will place significantly greater weight on the Methodist aspect of their identity than the American.” Amen! Perhaps even more weight upon the Christian rather than the Methodist aspect?
Sarah Flynn said:
Seems to me that SEMethodism is a cultural prisoner of a mythical past. When that collapses in the face of secularism it seems unlikely that 18th c.Methodism will emerge as a successor. There have been holiness movements before that split off from the Umc. The Nazarene, the Salvation Army and others. Perhaps you envision more of these happening. In which case the progressives will end up forming an inclusive church similar to the UCC. in short, a unified UMC with only one theology and polity seems unrealistic. Either the UMC decentralized or it will splinter. In fact the church is already diverse and it is the attempt to coerce a unity that does not exist that is driving it into schism. That effort to force uniformity is a reaction of fear in the face of increasing secularism and the loss of cultural dominance by white evangelical Christianity.. A fortress mentality will not rescue the UMC from cultural irrelevancy
David Fox said:
The more basic issue facing the UMC in the US would be addressed by the question, “What percentage of your congregation will be alive in 15 years or so?” Doctrine and social policy hardly matter when there is no one left to be concerned about these. The briefest glimpse of what has happened to churches in the UK and Canada augurs very poorly for the US. Even now, a quarter of the US population goes about their lives in a manner similar to that of atheists with no prayers, participation, or religious activities regardless of what they term themselves. The fact that the situation of the UMC is not all that different from other denominations raises broader issues.
My prediction is that conservatives will not allow the declining liberal congregations to depart with their valuable real estate. This will hasten the liberal membership drop. However, US conservatives will not be happy when they become a minority in “their” denomination and may eventually seek church homes elsewhere. It does seem like a no-win situation.
Chip Johnson said:
I would hope that you would develop (expand and illustrate) these “thoughts” more.
As you stated, this is a speculative enterprise. Hasn’t # 5 already occurred or isn’t it in process now? As for the “American” in Methodism wainning, I hope you are right as our faithfulnes to God has been, in my observation, secondary to the state or at least inseparable from it.
I appreciate your vision. I have been listening to the myriad of voices across the United Methodist Church for a little over 4 years–the spectrum of theologies and other understandings present within the denomination is mind boggling. It explains why I learned a whole lot about nothing in particular and why I had to distance myself from church to learn what all I did not know and understand about Christianity of the Methodist persuasion. While monitoring GC2012, the image that came to mind that best described the church was a gianormous square raft with umpteen oars lining the sides each paddling the best it knows how. Without meaning this as a critique of either group as to rightness or wrongness–just as an observation–I now see the progressive non-compliance and the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association as two competing subset of oars who are now trying to steer the church in their particular direction. Although on one level I root for the WCA, on another level, I am frustrated that I am part of a church that has degenerated into competing factions jockeying for position and power. In working through my thoughts, I came up with another image for the American branch of The UMC:
The American branch of The United Methodist Church has become all about unrestrained/uncontained diversity—we are like water spilled on the floor running every which away. The only thing that stops the church from fracturing is a common belief in the connectedness of the United Methodist Church—it is the only thing we have left in common. That is a mighty shallow dam that leaves us a mile wide and an inch deep! Methodism came into existence because of a specific theology, and purpose—the structure evolved as a way to support those two things. The concept of “connection” arose out of people connecting themselves to John Wesley and as a result connecting themselves to his specific understandings about what the church should teach and what the purpose of the church is. Currently we have neither of those things in common.
Once I came to that image, I came to the same conclusion as Sarah Flynn:
” In short, a unified UMC with only one theology and polity seems unrealistic. Either the UMC decentralized or it will splinter. In fact the church is already diverse and it is the attempt to coerce a unity that does not exist that is driving it into schism.”
I agree with Mark Tooley that schism would only result in grassroots chaos. As part of a local church which is pretty oblivious to the storms that are brewing, my sense is everybody needs to stop trying so hard to force a “unity that does not exist” and basically let things play out as they will. After all, for almost 50 years, Americans have not been knocking down the doors to become United Methodists. If I understand correctly, the Western Jurisdiction–as well as other geographic areas of the church that are predominately progressive–is the poster child when it comes to failing to entice people into the doors of the church.
In the meantime, we need Wesleyan scholars like you casting a vision of what should or can be!
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Michael Shugart said:
Methodism seems to be becoming more liturgical and Wesley -centered than Christ-centered. Leaders are calling parts of God’s Word AND the Book of Discipline ‘stupid, ungodly and cruel. Why don’t we just admit it and capitalize the words ‘holy and catholic ‘ in the Apostleos Creed?
We are Christians who happen to go to a Methodist Church.
An encouraging word…
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