Wesleyan Wisdom: The Babylonian Captivity of the UMC

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

“Hegemony” is not a work we often use in casual conversation, but it means “dominant leadership.”  From the 18th century through much of the 20th, the so-called “Enlightenment” enjoyed a hegemony over many disciplines, among them science, philosophy, and theology.  The ingenious minds of men like John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, Baron Montesquieu, and Charles Darwin re-hung the hinges of secular history and reshaped both Christian theology and biblical studies.  The commonplace foundation of Enlightenment thinking was that humankind has the ability to define and identify truth, which could be determined through reason. Likewise, these thinkers believed that the human individual was capable of self-government.  This mode of thinking was reflected most clearly in the formation of the American government as designed by the Enlightenment influenced founding fathers, generally celebrated today in American politics.

Many of the founding fathers who put pen to paper called themselves “Deists,” denying the involvement of God in the affairs of human history.  To the Deist, we are moral beings whom God created to in turn create a moral order—on our own.  Only a minute minority since the early 1800’s would call themselves “deists,” but in reality, we have embraced a convoluted form of deism!  We have reduced the “faith once delivered to the saints” to a tepid version of personal morality and “clean living.”  Diana Butler Bass, who grew up United Methodist, wrote that the paradigm for being a Christian in her childhood United Methodist church was identical to the credo of her father’s Rotary Club!  In short, we became a mile wide and an inch deep in our Christian discipleship. We covertly substituted “church” for “Christ” in our credo.

In 1520, Martin Luther dropped a bombshell when he described the Catholic Church’s hegemony as “the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.”  He suggested the primacy of scripture as the return from the “exile” which he believed Catholic/Empire control had taken the Bible, with scriptural interpretation controlled by the voice of the Church. The Bible that Gutenberg had printed in 1455 was in Latin not in German, but Luther soon drew on Gutenberg’s invention to publish the Bible in German and make it the vernacular of the people.  The result was the Reformation—prompted by the liberation of the scripture!

My fear, with some measure of documentation, is that the 20th century was another time of “Babylonian captivity of the church.”  Russell Richey, the historian of American Methodism, has said that “Whereas in the 19th century Methodism’s focus was on evangelism and missions, in the 20th century it was on education and ecumenism.”   Neither is inherently bad, but both involved using old models and identity from the past to develop a Christian education that was quite tepid, and a focus on ecumenism which led us away from the task of making disciples. By the 1960’s these emphases led the church into a near collapse.

XnEdBuildingAlmost every church built a “Christian Education Building” to accommodate the large Sunday School attendance of the 1940’s and ‘50’s.”  But LOOK magazine struck a nerve when in 1957 their cover story was titled: “Sunday School—the only school in the world that is not a school.” In their survey of people who had a long chain of perfect attendance pins, they discovered that little had been learned!  The chickens came home to roost in the failure of the Sunday School to make disciples.  Today most of those classrooms, once filled with children, youth, and young adults, are staff offices, parlors, or literally empty.

Ecumenism was the second 20th century obsession in most denominations.  By 1900 Methodist “unification” had become a perpetual quadrennial priority.  The first “merger” was a common hymnal in 1904 and again in 1935. Then, in 1939, came the demise of the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The result was a nation-wide “Methodist Church.”   The Evangelical Alliance and United Brethren merged in 1946 to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB). Then, with no apparent inkling of what was about to happen in the 1960’s, most Methodist and EUB energy was spent on merging the two. In 1968, when the United States reached its most conflicted year since the Civil War, the churches were celebrating the formation of The United Methodist Church and the abolition of the Central Jurisdiction.

These were not “bad,” but they did not meet the challenge ascribed in the Bible to the tribe of Issachar: “They understood the times and know what God wanted Israel to do.”  We did not understand the times and did not discern what God wanted us to prioritize.  Sunday School plummeted and has never recovered. The brightest and best of our leadership devoted its energies to negating our Wesleyan accents.   With the neglect or virtual opposition to evangelism, we began a long atrophy that weakened both muscle and viability.  Medical science postponed the judgment because people lived longer. The economy boomed in the 1970’s and again from the mid 1980’s-2007, enabling fewer people to “balance the budget.”

Meanwhile, all denominational loyalty faded rapidly with the “Generation NeXt” and the Millennials.  Even from the 1930’s our rural churches were losing in membership and community influence.  Later, we lost the only industrial community churches from the coal mining towns to steel mill towns to automobile manufacturing towns to textile towns.  Once “country kids” who went to college or migrated with jobs stopped being Methodists or EUB’s in their new communities, only the upper middle class suburban churches “held their own.”  With the demise of the “greatest generation” who were also the “booster generation,” our attendance and membership declines increased.  Reality is that we have lost from nearly 11,000,000 members to less than 7,700,000 and the decline continues unabated.

Since the 1960’s the accent of our preaching and our “Book of Resolutions” has been issues on of social justice, but we have done little to develop congregations who are biblically illiterate, thanks to the paucity of our teaching, and a congregation whose discipleship is based more on church loyalty than a biblical faith which leads us to become counter cultural.  Thus, in politics, in public school curriculum, in gun control, in issues around human sexuality, in the “affordable health act,” in immigration law, and in economic conflict about “redistribution of wealth,” we are frighteningly divided.

This is, in a nutshell, the story of the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” in the 20th century.  It’s pretty much the same story for most of the so-called “mainline” denominations. As one who received my first appointment in 1954, I have to acknowledge that my generation of clergy, including those elected bishops and appointed to direct our general boards and agencies have “eaten the seed corn,” and not been able to avoid this captivity.

What is the route of the “return from exile”?   What shape and content can bring us to the revitalization of congregations rather than polarization, decline, and eventual closure? What contemporary translation does an old gospel song have?:

 “Revive Us Again, fill our hearts with thy love. 
Let our souls be rekindled with fire from above.
  Hallelujah, Thine the glory, Hallelujah, amen!
 Hallelujah, Thine the glory, revive us again.” 

 In 2011, Bishop William Hutchinson, preaching at the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, moved the congregation to an unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Fifty seven people came on stage that night, publicly affirming their call to ordained ministry!  Sadly, while we as a denomination have not been able to keep that fire burning, Bishop Hutchison’s sermon,  preached from a thousand-year-old hymn, might contain God’s secret for our wonderfully endowed denomination’s return from exile:

 “Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire
 Thou the anointing Spirit art who dost Thy sevenfold gifts impart
The blessed unction from above is comfort, light, and fire of love.
    Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight.

Anoint and cheer our soiléd face with the abundance of Thy grace
Keep far our foes; give peace at home; Where Thou art guide, no ill can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son and Thee, of both, to be but One
That through the ages, all along this may be our endless song

     ‘Praise to Thy eternal merit, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

If that be merely rhetoric; where is our hope?

But if that be the mantra for a new baptism of spiritual depth and servant dynamism, Wesley’s accents will ring anew and the Spirit will breathe new life into a  church who has forgotten that, in the words of Bishop Bevel Jones, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

As for strategy, let us turn to another bishop: “The conference does not make disciples, but conference-led leadership (starting with the bishop) can create a spirit of expectation that every local church will thrive and make disciples and come alive!” (Larry Goodpaster)

By God’s grace,we can come back from “exile.” YES WE CAN!  It is God’s will; is it ours?

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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