Recently there has been considerable interest in the blogosphere around the idea of the “Next Methodism.” This idea has elicited a spate of criticism and the predictable conspiracy posts. There is, however, no “Next Methodism” conspiracy. The Next Methodism is an idea. It is an amorphous concept that will become whatever we make it. Anyone can use this idea—progressive, conservative, “centrist,” the WCA, MFSA, RMN—anyone. The Next Methodism is still forming, and it is being molded within the free market of ideas.
When I began my PhD work, one of the courses I took was the Philosophical Study of Religion. One of the first things you learn in the study of philosophy is how to deconstruct an argument. This is not very difficult work. The most common and effective route is to attack the assumptions upon which an argument rests. Once you destabilize its foundational assumptions, the argument itself tends to fall apart.
Criticism is easy. When it is done well it is a routine, unremarkable intellectual exercise. As they say, “Any old mule can kick down a barn.” It takes far more intellectual energy, however, to set forth a constructive proposal. To envision how to make things better, to propose what a more promising future might look like, to set forth creative solutions—these are how problems actually get solved. And it is ironic that some of those who have so strenuously objected to the idea of a Next Methodism have been those who say we should agree to disagree.
I put my own ideas forward because I have been dissatisfied in many ways with a denomination marked by doctrinal indifference, numerical decline, infighting, and ecclesial disobedience. We cannot continue down the same path if we wish for our church to have a future. That’s not my opinion. It is a numerical reality. We have seen numerical decline in North America since our inception in 1968. We have retained, and even broadened, a massive bureaucratic structure born out of a post-WWII institution-building mindset. Our declining attendance numbers and financial resources cannot bear this structure for much longer. In our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we are losing more ground than we are gaining in the U.S. Our General Conference meetings are characterized by protests, infighting, and Machiavellian political machinations. Our social media groups are marked by vitriol and invective. Yes, there are vibrant ministries in the UMC. I’m not disputing this. As a denomination, however, we are sorely missing the mark.
In 1998 John Shelby Spong wrote Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A more accurate title might have been, Why Conservative Christianity Must Change or Die. Ironically, denominations that have most enthusiastically embraced the kinds of reforms for which Spong argued are among the fastest dying in the United States. Nevertheless, he was right about one thing: there are times when the church must adopt a self-critical posture and be willing to change course. The UMC is in one of those times now. The idea of a Next Methodism is not an option. It will be necessary if the good we are now doing is to carry on into the future.
If there are those who don’t like the vision of the Next Methodism set forward in recent blog posts, I would invite them to join the conversation. What does a positive future for Methodism look like to you? What do you want to see? What challenges will we face? What will our emphases be? Please, let the church hear your ideas. “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov 15:22, NIV).
Talking about the Next Methodism doesn’t mean that the UMC will split. It very well may split, but I’m certainly not assuming that. If I were a betting man, I’d say we will restructure our organization into a much looser connection. Whether or not this will constitute a “split” or “schism” is a matter of semantics. This having been said, it is certain that if we don’t get the ideas out on the table, if we attempt to silence other voices through shame, innuendo, and misrepresentation, there will be no “next” for the UMC.