United Methodist evangelicals growing amid UMC decline
At the United Methodist Church, money’s tight, factions are readying exits, and social justice takes priority in witness. However, the denomination’s “traditionalists” — so named for their support for the accuracy and authority of the Bible, especially regarding LGBT marriage and clergy — are growing in number and telling others how Jesus saves.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, the largest of the groups forming out of the UMC, champions evangelical beliefs and values. WCA President Keith Boyette tells The Christian Post more than 3,000 churches have affiliated with the association, and the number is steadily climbing, though the next General Conference won’t be held until August 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns.
“There’s been no pause at all for us,” Boyette says. “We’re working vigorously toward a new, theologically conservative, global Methodist church.”
WCA will not be that church, he adds, as he heads the Transitional Leadership Council attempting to bring together scripturally sound Wesleyans from across the world. “The association will act as a midwife in launching the resulting denomination,” Boyette states.
Birth pangs are coming for others as well, with the Liberation Methodist Church proposed by a “progressive” faction meeting in Dallas, Texas. That wing would be interested in “intersectionality” and be “trauma-informed” on racial and sexual diversity issues, and champion people of color and LGBT individuals in leadership, per notes from working groups at the convention.
The churn in factions led the UMC to plan a 26% cut in its budget even before the General Conference hotel’s cancellation of reservations this spring forced a delay in the meeting. Giving has been down across the board both before and after the virus’ outbreak, with some conferences having to lay off personnel or reduce their hours.
Forestalling worse news has been the federal Paycheck Protection Program, in which nearly three-fourths of UMC conferences have participated. More than 750 United Methodist organizations have received PPP funds ranging from $150,000 to $5 million, according to an analysis by the denomination’s news service. American UMC members account for 99% of the budget for churchwide ministries, it also states.
In the United States, UMC membership has dropped, with Caucasians responsible for most of the loss and racial minorities showing a slight increase in numbers.
Traditionalists decrying a lack of respect for Scripture have lamented that United Methodist evangelism lately has consisted mainly of spreading the social gospel of good works rather than the spiritual freedom of The Great Commission. In more than 18 months, only a couple stories of well over a thousand on the daily UM News feed have reported people accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.
“Social justice is important — the transformation in us never ends — but the first step is beginning a relationship with Christ,” says the Rev. Thacker Haynes, senior pastor of the United Methodist churches in rural McLean and Heald, Texas. As chaplain for the Clarendon College rodeo team, he’s annually led several to the Lord and baptism for more than a decade, with 14 at an event last year.
“Some of these students haven’t moved on to a four-year college, and we’ve seen their lives change dramatically since they were baptized,” he told CP.
Haynes describes his churches’ members as “97% conservative.” He says they likely will become part of a new evangelical Wesleyan denomination or go independent of any affiliation.
Other congregations can’t wait. Northside United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tennessee, voted overwhelmingly this year to leave the denomination and change its name to “Northside Church.” It will join the Free Methodist Church, a small Holiness body headquartered in Indianapolis.
“As the UMC has become so divided and is heading toward a split, we simply decided that God is calling us to remove ourselves from the ongoing conflict and focus on Christ’s mission for us to share God’s love with all people and lead people to be followers of Jesus Christ,” Senior Pastor Don Thrasher wrote in a news release. “We are a people with a deep love for Scripture and the long-held biblical traditions of the church.”
The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Boyette recommends that, if possible, evangelical UMC churches wait on departing until next year’s General Conference, which he believes will approve legislation allowing them to keep their property and receive a share of $25 million in reserves. He says congregations leaving early have been paying “anywhere from six to seven figures in exit fees” to the UMC, which rarely allows a speedy conclusion and sometimes won’t allow them to keep their real estate or other assets.
“We’ll have everything but the light switch turned on” with the new denomination when that General Conference convenes, Boyette quips. Churches can save time and money by joining that biblically based body after the vote on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, known widely in the UMC as “The Protocol.”