Wesleyan Wisdom: The slippage of conversion as a means of UMC church growth

We must, in the words of Harvard’s  Jorge Santyana, “know the past or we are condemned to repeat it.”   Knowing it, we must learn from our mistakes—liberal and conservative—and discover anew the  “road less traveled” so we can fold our grace theology with “God’s way of salvation” into our 21st century culture  and lead people to Jesus.

One does not have to be a “rocket scientist” to figure out that our membership and attendance decline in  The United Methodist Church and its predecessors is directly related to our decline in  professions of faith.   The clue to our present dilemma  lies almost  forgotten in our 19th century past.  From the days of Wesley,  Methodism grew by reaching and reclaiming  those of English, Irish, and German heritage who were  disenfranchised, dispossessed, disenchanted, or  disinherited.  The means by which people’s lives were dramatically changed was what we call “conversion.”  Most conversions were among the marginalized; that is not longer  the source of our growth.

During the famed “Second Great Awakening”(roughly 1790’s—1840’s) we grew from formation in 1784 to be the largest organization of any description(outside the government!) in America.  During that phenomenal growth and influence expansion into every hamlet and cove,  conversion dominated  the radical outreach and radical hospitality of Wesley’s theological children.   Our departure from a theology of conversion  to a theology of “gradualism” began before the Civil War!  One reason is the context—so many families were now rearing their children with Christian core values and church loyalty.

Horace Bushnell, a Congregationalist,   published Christian Nurture in 1847. He is usually considered the “father” of an  anti-conversionist educational philosophy  that, by the 1880’s, dominated Sunday School theology  and curriculum.  Prior to Bushnell, the preaching and family evangelization was to use any and all means of bringing a child to an identifiable conversion time and place.  In its earliest thought-form, the mission of the Sunday School was to lead every child to Jesus in an experience that involved much emotion.

Bushnell, on the other hand, insisted that a child brought up in a Christian home would never remember the time he or she was not a Christian.  The child was a participant in a Christian environment from the time of his birth. Bushnell even wrote, “Your spirit is to pass into them, by a law of transition that is natural and well-night irresistible.  Your character is a stream, a river, flowing down upon your children, hour by hour.” Insisting that individualistic conversion was anti-biblical, Bushnell  pointed to Peter’s baptism of Cornelius “and his household,” and the same verbiage for Paul in the home of the Philippian jailer when the earthquake occurred at midnight.

Therefore, the Sunday School class and cognitive learning of Bible stories replaced the camp meeting conversions whose context was a   emotionally charged  “song service,” sermon, and invitation to repent and be saved.  Theologically, Bushnell insisted that a merciful God would not condemn a child to hell if death came before “public conversion.”  As our seminaries came on line from 1857 onward, most  seminary trained clergy were influenced more by Bushnell than by the camp meeting preachers. A century later, James D. Smart of the Presbyterian Church, warned that Bushnell and his theological progeny had gone too far when     they implied or stated candidly that “the parents’ faith inevitably becomes the faith of the child.”

As early as the late nineteenth century, very little Wesleyan theology remained in our editorial board that determined Sunday School curriculum.  Out of Europe, where most seminary professors had done their graduate work, there flowered a highly optimistic view of human nature, ensconced in the larger framework of philosophy of religion. German theology was augmented in America by the “personalism” of Borden Parker Bowne and Edgar Brightman, both brilliant and winsome professors at Boston University  School of Theology.  The majority of faculty in our colleges beat a path to Boston or the University of Chicago! Annual conferences had  two theologies—one preached by the “seminary men,” and the other by the “approved supply” pastors who took the Conference Course of Study.

Also,  the holiness movement is an often-overlooked movement in Methodism following the Civil War.  Officially formed in 1867 in Chicago, the holiness movement developed a chain of camp meetings and eventually founded Asbury Theological Seminary.  Here the teachings and sermons of John Wesley were almost deified!   His doctrine of perfecting grace was rigidified into a “holiness code” that began with an emotional  call to salvation and  subsequent peer and pulpit pressure to become instantaneously filled with the Holy Spirit—an infilling that eradicated what they called our “carnal nature.”  Sanctification was defined as  a commitment to Wesley’s General Rules plus several other disciplines of behavior, dress, and Sabbath observance.  Theologically, those who were schooled in the holiness movement were taught to disregard all biblical criticism, to  resist to all forms of “modernism,” and keep the dying embers of revivalism alive.

In 1894,  institutional outcomes of the holiness conflict  was formation of the Nazarene Church, the Assemblies of God, and the Church of God of Anderson, Indiana. The Wesleyan Methodists, formed in 1843 to support abolition of slavery, moved into the holiness camp.   Most Pentecostal Churches had Wesleyan theology in their roots. Others who left later formed the Evangelical Methodist Church and  the Pilgrim Holiness Church. All of these are Arminian, not Calvinist, and all are Wesleyan.  In recent years, with lots of mergers, most  of the “holiness code” churches have evolved out of their moralistic legalism and  opted for contemporary worship.

The General Board of Education by the 1890’s had adopted John Dewey’s “progressive education” philosophy and Sunday School was touted as a positive learning experience, not a doctrinal tutorial.  Atticus Haygood, editor for Church School Literature for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, wrote and lectured widely  of his being “de-converted” to emphasize his curricula’s departure from the revival paradigm.  John Vincent did the same in the ME Church. Both were elected bishops.

Sunday School was the engine  of church growth for over a century.  In 1957, seven of every eight professions of faith in The Methodist Church  came through the Sunday School.  There, they were imbued with  a Sunday School curriculum totally devoid of references to original sin, Jesus’ dying on the cross for our sins, or instantaneous conversion.  Quietly and without much protest, evangelism faded from the agenda.  When James D. Smart, a Presbyterian, and Shelton Smith, a Congregationalist, tracked candidly our trek into a theological desert, they found our abandonment of evangelism in the roots of religious education movement and our seminary faculties(both were seminary professors). In 1903 the “Religious Education Association” was organized, with the deliberate omission of the word “Christian.”  One of the convention speakers was John Dewey, father of the public school philosophy of progressive education. Another highly influential teacher was  Ernest Chave of the University of Chicago.  Chave wrote candidly that “supernaturalism denotes faith in a personal God and, as such, is outmoded superstition.”  Professor Smart wrote of Professor Chave, “To him, the Bible, since it is full of supernaturalism, is no longer a readily useful instrument for religious education.  It is likely to mislead the growing mind seriously.  Instead we must  look to the psychologist, sociologist, and historian with their scientific investigation of human life. Religious education cannot look backward to the prophets and apostles or to Jesus Christ. Rather we must coordinate the latent spiritual forces of society to tell us the truth about man.” To Chave and others, “the developing wisdom and idealism of humanity is equal to its problems.”    Larger churches in all mainline denominations began to hire “DRE’s”—“Directors of Religious Education”!

The majority of  laity were unaware of the import of “higher-up” theological shifts.  In most Christian homes of the 19th and 20th centuries at least until the 1940’s, children were being taught from birth some “memory texts” from the Bible, table graces, bedtime prayers, and regimented readings  from a popular book called Hurlbert’s Stories of the Bible which left them a life time acquaintance with Bible characters and Bible stories.   “Perfect attendance” in Sunday School was emphasized in millions of families.

After World War II, camps and youth assemblies became the setting for personal discipleship.   By 1964, United Methodist began to emphasize confirmation as the path to personal Christian discipleship. It became a “rite of passage,” but very few found confirmation classes to be life changing.

Under the radar screen of most mainline denominational leaders and clergy, a theological sub-culture was born, survived for decades, then thrived.  With the growth of Fundamentalism in the 1920’s, The Baptists and holiness sub-groups had only one  question for being a Christian. “Are you saved?” became the shibboleth for conversion.   If a child or youth or adult could not identify a time and setting when he or she was saved, then the conclusion was that you are lost!  Even if you said, “I think so,” you were considered spiritually lost.

Gradually, para-church movements like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusades, several college campus organizations(Intervarsity Fellowship, Crusade for Christ, Navigators, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, etc) developed marketing patterns that motivated people to make a “decision for Christ.”

The formulae for being saved varied but were for the most part centered on beliefs rather than emotional assurance of saving grace.  The belief  quiz usually began with your recognition that you are a sinner, your belief in the Bible as the word of God, and your belief in the substitutionary theory of the atonement.   If you answered affirmatively to these “spiritual laws” or if you would pray the “sinner’s prayer,” you got a handshake and a guarantee that you were now saved.  Almost all the neo-evangelical groups were Calvinist in theology and insisted on “believer’s baptism” by immersion.

So here we are, dying on the vine.  Grace theology is our message; we have yet to develop an effective method of radical hospitality and radical outreach with the mission’s being to bring people to Christ and to the church.  Vacuums get filled invariably; let  us not sleep our way through this present time.  The day is far spent.

UMR Columnist Dr. Donald W. Haynes is a retired pastor, an adjunct instructor at  Hood  Theological Seminary, a Church staff “visitor,” and a follower of Jesus. He is also the author of “On the Threshold of Grace — Methodist Fundamentals.”

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Dr. Haynes,

Again, an excellent piece. As much as anyone, you have continued toward our recent past as our problem and our more distant past as much of the solution. How sad to read of us losing Wesleyan theology and then proceeding to lose any relevance in the world.

For those looking for a good place to start into real Wesleyan theology — yourselves or with your congregations — Dr. Haynes's "On the Threshold of Grace" would be an excellent place to start. And for a *very brief* primer, you could see me article, "Why I Love Wesleyan Theology": http://teddyray.com/2013/01/08/why-i-love-wesleya


Ugg – and pardon my typos.

"continued *pointing* toward"
"could see *my* article"


So if you have an emotional reaction to a message you are saved and if you don't have an emotional reaction you aren't? If your emotions change are you no longer saved? This sounds like the old Puritan "conversion experiance" debate. Who would have thought it, the UMC should become more Puritan.


Perhaps we could go backward to what worked — conversion. I notice that the Assemblies of God grew by 3.99 percent from 2011 to 2012, unlike our 1.22 percent decline in the U.S. All the evidence that I have is is that the United Methodist Churches in Africa are much more pentecostal than we are.I also note that no one provided a Biblical basis fro moving away from the "progressive education" / "modernism" movement. In this case, it looks like backward is the way forward.

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