The liberal tide in The United Methodist Church has been receding and the evangelical and orthodox influence is steadily increasing, observes one retired pastor.
If that continues, Bill Bouknight sees God renewing United Methodism toward faithfulness to Scripture.
"At this time, the theological and spiritual pendulum is swinging in the evangelical and orthodox direction," Bouknight, who currently serves on the Executive of the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism, wrote in Good News Magazine.
"The contemporary UM revival will continue only as long as its leaders and membership follow God’s recipe for revival as given in II Chronicles 7:14: 'If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.'"
Just 15 years ago a group of bishops took a public stand at the General Conference, UMC's legislative meeting, in favor of liberalizing the denomination’s position on homosexuality. A few years earlier, the UMC was linked to the controversial "Re-Imagining" event where participants prayed to the goddess Sophia, denied essential Christian doctrinal tenets and celebrated lesbianism. Members of UMC's Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries had attended the conference.
Following the "high point" of liberalism, as Bouknight refers to it, the denomination has steadily moved toward Christian orthodoxy in the last decade.
In 2008, UMC's highest legislative body rejected changes to its constitution and voted to uphold its ban against the ordination of practicing homosexuals. United Methodists chose to continue to hold the position that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching."
"On this issue (homosexuality) and a range of others, United Methodism was considered to be one of America’s most liberal denominations 25 years ago," Bouknight stated. "That perception has changed."
Public Religion Research's 2009 survey on mainline denominations found that United Methodist clergy were among the least likely to support same-sex marriage and civil unions. Also, while clergy in other mainline groups were more likely to identify as "modernist" in their theological orientation, Methodist clergy were evenly split between those who embrace traditional and modernist theological positions (39 percent vs. 39 percent).
Bouknight listed several factors that may be contributing to the evangelical leaning and renewal in The United Methodist Church. Churches with senior ministers that are evangelical/orthodox in theology tend to grow compared to churches with more liberal leaders. Renewal and reform groups that are opposed to the liberal direction of the denomination have also been making a positive contribution, Bouknight noted.
Also, the introduction of high-quality biblical material into the United Methodist educational curriculum seems to be helping the pendulum swing toward orthodoxy. Plus, the growth of United Methodism outside the United States, especially on the continent of Africa, where believers hold a high view of biblical authority, will likely transform the denomination.
Despite the turning tide, the denomination can always be tempted to "sell out to cultural values and desert its 'first love,'" Bouknight cautioned.
Moreover, United Methodists aren't in fact "united" and disagreement persists about biblical authority and the essentials of Wesleyan theology, he added.
For Bouknight, revival can only come and last if they stay faithful to Scripture and "contend for the faith."
The United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the country with nearly 8 million members. Membership has declined annually since 1968.