Methodism’s Global Evangelical Transformation

A delegate handles prayer beads during prayer on May 12, 2016 during the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. (Photo by Paul Jeffrey, courtesy of United Methodist News Service)
A delegate handles prayer beads during prayer on May 12, 2016 during the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. (Photo by Paul Jeffrey, courtesy of United Methodist News Service)

In 1992 for the first time I attended the United Methodist Church’s governing quadrennial General Conference, meeting that year in Louisville, Ky. There were only a handful of delegates from African countries. Liberal church leaders from the U.S. seemed to dominate. American evangelicals, with whom I volunteered, seemed like a besieged minority.

Nobody there 24 years ago, including me, could have imagined our church’s transformation from a nearly U.S.-only mainline Protestant denomination to an increasingly evangelical and global body of over 12 million in which Americans will soon be the minority.

The results of that transformation were evident at the most recent General Conference, held May 10-20 in Portland, Ore. Thanks to African delegates, who now represent more than 40 percent of the church, United Methodism left in place its traditional definition of marriage and sexual morality (proposals for change were referred for study), quit its 40-plus year membership in an abortion rights coalition and support for Roe v. Wade, rejected anti-Israel measures, and also declined divestment against fossil fuels.

Evangelicals from America and overseas were elected to the church’s top court, the oversight agency for seminaries, and the agenda committee for the next General Conference. As the U.S. church continues to lose as many as 100,000 members a year, and theologically more conservative African churches gain more than 200,000 annually, these trends at future General Conferences likely will accelerate.

For 30 years, my entire adult life, I’ve worked and prayed for this evangelical shift but wrongly assumed the denomination would remain nearly all American. As a lifelong United Methodist who grew up in a suburban northern Virginia congregation in the 1970s, I observed United Methodism’s decline in this country firsthand as persons my own age disappeared. The denomination has lost 4 million members in the U.S. since the 1960s, and the average age is approaching 60.

While a student at Georgetown University in the 1980s I was elevated to church offices (young people are much and often prematurely sought!), attending the church’s Virginia Annual Conference, and chairing my congregation’s missions committee. I became alarmed by the denomination’s often controversial political stances amid indifference to evangelism and orthodox theology. My concerns in the 1990s led to my full-time employment to work for reformation of the denomination in which my family has had ties for over 200 years.

The United Methodist Church has traditionally been the largest mainline Protestant denomination in America, part of a worldwide Methodist movement that numbers around 80 million adherents.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
Mark Tooley

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