Recently some of our United Methodist bishops have been underscoring their commitment to “Big Tent United Methodism”. (See, for example, For United Methodists, the Center Is Not Holding from Religion News Service, 8/19/2022). The effort to promote “Big Tent Methodism” throws shade on the newly launched Global Methodist Church, of course. The implication is pretty clear: “Those people and local churches leaving the United Methodist Church are narrow-minded, phobic in who knows how many ways, and, if they don’t get their way, they just quit and go home. Shame on those ‘Little Tent Methodists’”
The implication is clear, but that simply isn’t the case. Many theological conservatives are done talking about the size of the United Methodist Tent. Local churches disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church are leaving behind the “Tent of Interminable Denominational Conflict” and putting up the “Tent of Christ-Centered, Holy Spirit-Given Revival”. Many have endured the unraveling of United Methodism far too long. They are done with being told to sit down and be quiet. They are not giving up or giving in. They are moving on.
Theologically conservative United Methodists have engaged in all of the administrative and legislative processes since the beginning of the UMC in 1968. The conservative majority has consistently prevailed on the major legislative issues related to doctrine, sexuality, marriage, and ordination. Even at the specially called General Conference of 2019, called as it was to resolve our differences on these matters once and for all, the theologically conservative delegates prevailed.
Progressive bishops and pastors, along with a number of annual (regional) conferences, and the entire Western Jurisdiction of the USA, declared in no uncertain terms that they would not abide by the General Conference decisions. They would, instead, dissent, disrupt, and disobey the order and discipline of the democratically decided church policies. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference, in June 2019, voted by an 85% majority to join the dissent, disruption, and disobedience.
Since the progressives didn’t get their preferred legislative outcomes, they have refused to abide by the decision of the worldwide church. But they did not quit and go home; the progressives have stayed and revolted. Clergy have betrayed their ordination vow to the United Methodist Church, “accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline…” (UM Book of Worship, Service of Ordination, p.676). Many of our progressive bishops, pastors, and denominational administrators, by refusing to comply with the decisions of the Judicial Council, have rendered the leadership of The United Methodist Church unaccountable to its own doctrines, policies, and procedures. The General Conference has become largely irrelevant since its decisions are so often disregarded by those who have pledged to uphold them.
As a result, many theologically conservative United Methodist congregations, whose commitments have prevailed legislatively and who support the current Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, are leaving.
Theologically conservative Methodists and the congregations of which they are members are leaving the mythical Big Tent behind to set up a Revival Tent. The “tent”, of course, is a metaphor for the organization, or institution, or, in our case, the church. What is supposed to happen in “the Methodist tent”?
John Wesley who, along with his brother Charles, launched the Methodist Movement in 18th Century England, wrote of the personal, experiential situation in which all of us find ourselves:
“I have thought I am creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God and returning to God; just hovering over the great gulf, till a few moments hence I am no more seen. I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, the way to heaven--how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book].” (John Wesley, Preface to the Standard Sermons, 1746).
Here’s something we all, along with the Wesleys, agree on: All of us live each day in the valley of the shadow of death. Each of us has an “expiration date.” John Wesley described this foundational concern that confronts every person. He directed us, and the Methodists coming after him, to the source of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and the foundation for living lives aligned with Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit within us, surrounded by a community of Christian believers around us, so that we might be witnesses to Christ in word and action throughout the community and world beyond us.
Christian believers can and should, without question, be engaged in the pressing social, political, and justice matters in which they find themselves. This engagement grows from a prior personal, living, and growing commitment to Jesus Christ. Theologically conservative Methodists often conclude that the current United Methodist Church is focused on promoting the morality of Jesus without what Wesley called the “changed heart” from which that morality grows.
The often-quoted mission of The United Methodist Church is to multiply disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world. The focus, however, seems to be strongly on social and political agendas attempting to legislate or advocate for the “transformation of the world.” The Global Methodist Church puts the focus on evangelism and Christian formation. It is the priority of transformed lives that leads to transformed communities and societies.
Rather than fighting about a place in the Big Tent of United Methodism, increasing numbers of theologically conservative Methodists are putting up the Revival Tent for the express purpose of introducing others to the transformational gospel of Jesus.
Maybe you and the congregation of which you are a part are ready for a new tent, too.
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If you want to check out what the next Methodism looks like, here are two resources:
Multiplying Methodism: A Bold Witness of Wesleyan Faith at the Dawn of the Global Methodist Church by Jeff Greenway and Mike Lowry (Columbus, Ohio: 313 Publishing, 2022)
For a more extensive overview of the future beyond the United Methodist Church, check out The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism, edited by Kenneth Collins and Ryan Danker (Seedbed Publishing, 2021)