And Are We Yet Alive?

Praying For The Coming Revival of United Methodist Church in America.

By Dennis W. Miller, Foothills District Superintendent.

Every four years the United Methodist Church holds a very special gathering of its leaders. This gathering is called General Conference. The delegates, no more than 1,000 total, are elected from their geographic regions and come together from around the world. This quadrennium, the General Conference meets May 10-20, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. In a tradition that dates to back centuries, major Methodist gatherings often begin with the Charles Wesley hymn, And Are We Yet Alive? My prayer is that next week in Portland, the answer will again be a resounding “Yes!”

Last month, however, I was saddened to read our latest statistical report. In 2015, the West Ohio Conference experienced a net loss of 6,895 members. Membership in the conference is at a rock-bottom, all-time low since my days as a teenager in MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship). In 1984, our United Methodist membership in West Ohio stood at 341,159. Today in 2016, our membership stands at 168,895. This represents a loss of 172,264 members over the past thirty-two years.

The trend in West Ohio is happening throughout American Methodism. In fact, since 1972, our denomination has reported a net loss of 4.9 million members – from approximately 12.1 million to 7.2 million. All this has occurred while our country’s population has continued to grow. To put things into better perspective, in 1972, 1 out of every 17 Americans was a baptized member of the United Methodist Church. That ratio now stands at 1 out of 45.

Is there any hope? I believe there is! In spite of our challenges, I remain optimistic. I am proud and grateful to be a United Methodist pastor because I believe United Methodists have an understanding and approach to the gospel to which twenty-first century people will respond. Therefore, as one who possesses a deep love for the church of Wesley and a passion for our denomination’s revitalization, I believe we need to do three things:

First, we must recapture a sense of identity. We must regain the vision that John Wesley and the early Methodists had. We must claim the sense of our doctrinal boundaries and realize that the acceptance of theological pluralism is unhealthy. While it is true that the distinguishing marks of a United Methodist are probably best illustrated by a commitment to the basics of Christianity and by a Christian lifestyle rather than by assenting to a particular litmus test of beliefs, today some United Methodists have crossed over the line and embraced unorthodox beliefs and doctrines that “strike at the root of Christianity." Because of this, I believe it is time we reaffirm and confess our faith in Jesus Christ as the unique Son, Savior, and Lord. At my ordination several years ago, I was asked by the Bishop before several hundred clergy and lay delegates at Lakeside, “Are you persuaded the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and are the unique and authoritative standard for the Church faith and life?” I responded proudly by saying, “I am so persuaded by God’s grace.” Then I was asked, “Will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word?” I boldly declared, “I will, with the help of God.” It is my prayer that all ordained clergy will remain faithful to their vows of ordination and do their very best to revive those suffering from doctrinal amnesia and recapture a sense of identity.

With this sense of identity, we must also recapture our sense of mission. Early Methodist preachers were determined to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land. They did this by stressing the significant need for God’s redemptive and Spirit-filled life. A popular phrase among many early Methodist circuit riders was, “I first preach Sinai, then I preach grace.” John Wesley once said, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergy or lay, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon Earth.” Having recaptured a vision for souls, the message of holiness and social reform will also be recaptured.

Secondly, we must repent as a denomination for ministering in the flesh and not in the Spirit. For too long we have placed our security and trust in ourselves. I recall a seminary professor of mine saying to our class years ago, “When United Methodists are faced with a problem, it is very easy for us to look to an organizational solution for the answers instead of looking to God.” In doing so, we have built up a sense of denominational pride. We need to pray God will humble us and make us a denomination whose only desire is to seek the face of Jesus. I also believe that United Methodist clergy need to repent of our selfishness. Many of us (and I include myself) have become like the priests of Eli who were people-pleasers and concerned only with their own needs and desires. Too often we focus only on the five “P’s” (Paycheck, Parsonage, Pension, Popularity & Prestige). In addition, many of our laity frequently place personal preference over purpose. They continue to ask, “What can the church do for me, instead of what can I do for God and His church.” They often cry, “Bless me! Bless me!” and constantly sing, “I shall not be moved” when it comes to adopting a Wesleyan model of changing ministry methods to reach unsaved friends and family. I am convinced that God will only bring revival and renewal when we repent of these things.

Finally, we must open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit and allow God to direct our future. We must be like little Samuel in the tabernacle who said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” We must allow the Holy Spirit to shake us out of our comfort zones and open us up to new ministry possibilities as we recapture our Wesleyan heritage (renewal of prayer, fasting, small group discipleship and Christian conferencing). In doing so, our focus will shift from selfish ambition to seeking justice, healing and hope for the millions of people living in poverty, oppression, violence and despair. Truth be told, revivalism has always been part of our Methodist heritage. After years of religious frustration, on May 24, 1738, John Wesley experienced a renewal in his own life that birthed a movement, eventually changing the course of human history. What Wesley once knew only in “his head,” he now knew in “his heart.” Ablaze with the Spirit, the world instantly became his parish. His divine Holy Spirit moment at Aldersgate became the catalyst for societal reform. Fighting injustice of all kinds, those known as “Methodists” shook the moral, economic, cultural, and political foundations of 18th century England. One by one, as hearts were “strangely warmed” by the love of God, a Church arose to confront the evil forces of immorality and transform a corrupt system of oppression, while reaching out to the poor and marginalized. Today many historians argue that the Wesleyan renewal saved England from a potential civil war and tremendously influenced 19th century American culture and ethics. What God did through the early Methodists, God wants to do today! Charles Wesley’s question remains our question today: And Are We Yet Alive? My prayer for this month’s General Conference in Portland is: “Do it again, God, do it again!”

*The photo on this page was taken at the Foothills District Spring Conference in Zanesville, Ohio on Sunday evening, May 1, 2016. Hundreds of United Methodists from 10 southeastern Ohio counties gathered to pray for General Conference.