In light of current decline in the United Methodist Church and the recent announcement by Claremont School of Theology that they intend to begin training leadership for non-Christian religions, I've been reflecting on what will be necessary for the United Methodist Church to once again become a Christ-centered and Spirit-empowered denomination of thriving vitality. Here are three things:
- Gospel Clarity and Conviction - In 1 Cor 15:3, Paul refers to the gospel as that which is of "first importance." As far as Paul is concerned, the meaning of the substitionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ are absolutely essential to anything that can be called Christian. To say that the gospel is of "first importance" is to say that, without it, we don't have a church. If the UMC is to be revitalized, then we must come to grips with the absolute centrality of the gospel. It is the foundation upon which all of our ministry is built. I dare say that Claremont's decision to train leaders of non-Christian religions is a public denial of the gospel. The church's task is not to solve the world's problems working along with other religions. The church's task is to preach the gospel to the nations as the means of grace through which the Holy Spirit of the only Living God has determined to regenerate the spiritually dead and bring them into his family, his church, and his kingdom. The church's task then is to teach these converts to obey everything Jesus commanded. I hear some talk about the gospel in the UMC. What I don't hear is a clear and biblical articulation of the gospel. If we abandon the gospel of grace for a so-called gospel of social transformation to fix the world's problems, then we may very well find our denomination under the curse of Galatians 1:6-9. No church can get the gospel wrong and be successful. Without gospel clarity and the Spirit enabled conviction to declare the good news to the nations, we will not be revitalized.
- A Renewed Confidence in the Truthfulness and Authority of Scripture - Some parts of the UMC have thoroughly abandoned the authority of scripture in favor of their own preferences. This is perhaps most apparent in our denomination's debate over human sexuality and marriage. In the Old Testament, when the people of God neglected the Word of God, they lost it. God withdrew his Word and his presence and sent them into exile in a foreign land. Ultimately, when they rejected the Incarnate Word of God, they were likewise judged by God and fell to the Roman Empire in 70 AD. If we in the UMC do not recover our trust in the veracity of scripture and its authority, we should likewise fear that God will withdraw his life-giving Word from us as well. I long to see United Methodist pulpits all over the nation and world aflame with a passion for God and his Word. Without that, we have no hope for denominational vitality.
- Clarity of Mission - One of the main problems in the UMC is the separation between the people in the pews and the denominational Boards and Agencies. Many in these boards and agencies are basically running their own personal lobbying groups that do not necessarily reflect the mission, values, and discipline of the UMC. When Annual Conferences send petitions to the General Conference that might interfere with the particular interests of the Boards and keep them in check, they dispatch full-time people to undermine the effort in order to maintain their personal preference regardless of how well it fits with the denominational mission. In these challenging times, the UMC will have to trim down and be clear on what we are about. All the extra pet projects of Board staffers will not be sustainable. The Boards need to be evaluated on how well they are advancing the mission of the denomination, which is "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." If we don't trim off the excess and focus on the mission, we may not see a day of revitalization.
Much more could be said on the topic of United Methodist renewal. These three items may seem overly simple to those who have logged hours studying the decline in our denomination. They are, however, essential to what it means to be the church. Where the gospel is faithfully preached, the Word of God is honored, and the disciple-making mission of the church is advanced, with the blessing of God the church will thrive. I pray that God is kind to us that we may one day be faithful in these ways.