I recently reread a book titled John Wesley’s Journal, not something that should or would be on everyone’s short list of books to read for fun and pleasure. While instructive on Wesley’s travels and thoughts over a fifty-five-year ministry, it is neither light nor entertaining reading. But John Wesley’s journal is instructive into his thoughts and struggles during the early days of Methodism. Few have struggled more or worked harder than John Wesley for their faith.
My wife and I decided about five years ago to leave the Methodist Church until it could sort itself out. The infighting and lack of leadership just wore us out. Today it is a shell of the church Wesley formed, with world church leaders focused on WOKE ideology, LGBTQ+ issues, money, and power. Gone are the days of sacrifice, replaced with many self-serving bureaucrats. The parting issue for us was learning that the United Methodist Church (UMC) had joined with others to go into junior high schools to teach young girls the value of abortions.
I reread Wesley’s Journal as a reminder to myself of the change in the church from Wesley’s day to today. Within my mother’s family were many Methodist preachers, so growing up choosing a denomination was never an issue. Mainly from South Georgia, these were men of deep faith, sacrifice, and humility. None of them would be able to comprehend what has happened to the Methodist Church in recent decades.
We live in Georgia but believe that few Georgia Methodists know that John Wesley’s first foray into America was at Savannah in 1735. He dedicated his life to Christian conservative principles and at the time of his death on March 2, 1791, his Methodist movement had grown to include more than 71,00o followers in England and more than 43,000 in America. The denomination included almost 500 ministers and over 5,000 missionaries. Even today Georgia is still the stronghold for traditional Methodism, with the North Georgia Conference as the most active and perhaps the most conservative.
On Easter Sunday, April 12, 1789, at the age of eighty-five, Wesley was still traveling to spread the word and form his church. In his journal he readily admits his age limitations, but his spirit is still strong. Even at this advanced age he had traveled to Dublin and in his journal lists some foundational tenets within his definition of Methodism. According to Wesley his definition of Methodism included:
- To preach in the open air
- To pray extempore
- To form societies
- To accept the assistance of lay preachers
- To prevent or remove evils that we either felt or feared
This is not the United Methodist Church of today. Today’s UMC has been locked in a decades long battle with arguments over who owns what property, pensions, gay rights, same-sex marriage, gay clergy, abortion, and the interpretation of the gospels and the Bible. The core of the UMC has become a massive bureaucracy, with entrenched officials jealously guarding their turf. Today’s UMC is preoccupied with lawsuits over property ownership as individual churches maneuver to disassociate. Churches, like companies and countries, die from within. They often rot from their success when they attract leadership more concerned with power and self-aggrandizement than their core spiritual mission.
While church “leaders” have been locked in this battle, the church has been slowly fading away. Churches, unlike countries, have no lock on membership. Anyone can decide to become a member of a different denomination, or often no denomination just by walking out the door. They vote with their feet and their giving, and this is the plight of all traditional denominations. By not meeting the needs of their congregants, they encourage members to seek alternatives.
While the battle for the soul of the UMC has been waged, membership has waned. The decline of the church has come as parishioners see this shift in focus. The drive for money to run the central church leads to compromises in principles to gain or retain membership. Members are yearning for certainty and for the church to take a Biblical stand on current issues, not to yield to every fad to retain membership. Abandoning Wesley’s original principles has killed the UMC.
The peak for Methodist membership in the United States was reached in the 1970s with over 10 million members but this started a flattening of the growth curve with virtually no growth over the decade of the 1960s. By decade, membership has declined -10.8%, -7.0%, -4.9%, and -9.5% to only 6.2 million in 2020. The southeast is almost 40% of the remaining membership in the United States. Georgia alone accounts for nearly 7% of all membership with 437,481 members and 1,172 churches. With the southeast as the core of Methodism in the United States, and with Georgia as the dominant state within that region, it is understandable why the North Georgia Conference of the UMC has decided to defy church policy and clamp down on churches working their way toward disassociation. How this will play out can only be a loss for the UMC and remaining members.
With no real hold on members, and decades long declining membership, the only conclusion one can draw is that the real battle is over property and money. The UMC is legally constructed in a way where local members build, pay for, and often finance their local churches. However, once completed the physical property is owned by the UMC. So local churches must be willing to “buy” their way out of the UMC by compensating them for property that they have already paid for in the past. The UMC hopes this as a barrier to local congregations exiting the UMC. But it is a losing battle because any member can walk away from any church with no personal obligation.
The UMC may also have trapped itself with its policy of ownership of all church property. With declining membership and aging buildings, maintenance can be a struggle. The pandemic also played a role in declining membership as members were forced to stay home for years. With each congregation that closes the central UMC is left with the maintenance, insurance, and viability of each property. They are ill equipped to deal with the magnitude of the financial hole they have dug for themselves. They see their only way forward is to force congregations to stay within the UMC, or to buy their way out. Their short-term strategy is to fund this miscalculation with money from lawsuits, but that is only a stop gap solution.
In May 2022 a new organization was formed, the Global Methodist Church, which adheres to more traditional Methodist values and is more closely aligned with the original principles outlined by John Wesley. We believe it is this organization that members, and churches, are migrating to as they leave the UMC. But not all churches are taking this path. Some congregations, sickened by the UMC politics, are now choosing to remain independent and to associate with no mainline denomination. They see no value proposition in association with any denomination and it is this path forward that may prove to be the least political and therefore most viable for the future of Methodism. If a local church can remain financially viable, it can understand and meet the needs of its members more easily. It can adhere to the principles of Christ’s teachings and the Word of God that align with those who worship locally, and global political fights are of little interest. It can pick and choose missions locally, nationally, and internationally that align with their beliefs and follow Wesley’s teachings.
As we watch all of this from the sidelines, we are reminded of Matthew 21:12:
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
When congregants vote with their feet and their gifts it is rooted in Biblical precedent. Methodism is not alone in the struggle and other traditional denominations are feeling this pain. We must hope that a revitalization of Christianity rises from the ashes of the old denominations, and for Methodists we hope they understand and return to the tenets and church John Wesley worked so hard to build. We should remember Wesley’s first tenet, “To preach in the open air,” not to build edifices left to fight over as the church crumbles.