The following commentary is by Riley B. Case, associate executive director of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church.
Dr. Case served for many years as a pastor and district superintendent in the UMC’s North Indiana Conference (now the Indiana Conference).
He is the author of Evangelical and Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon Press) and has served as a delegate to five UM General Conferences.
This opinion pieced was originally published in a slightly longer form in the Confessing Movement’s e-publication, “Happenings Around the Church.”
Links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com. — Ed.
It is nice to be liked. United Methodists are well liked, at least according to a recent survey (PDF) by Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research. Sixty-two percent of Americans have a “favorable” or “somewhat favorable” opinion of United Methodists.
This is compared with favorable opinions of 59 percent for Roman Catholics, 53 percent for Southern Baptists, 37 percent for Mormons, and 28 percent for Muslims.
New survey, but nothing new
Over the years, several surveys and studies have reported somewhat similar results. Methodism, at least for the past 100 years, has reflected American popular religious culture. Methodism gave to the country gospel hymns, Mother’s Day, chicken-and-noodle suppers, and “the right hand of fellowship” (traceable back to campmeeting days).
United Methodists are middle-class. They are common, ordinary people. They do food pantries, deliver Christmas boxes, and always cooperate in the community Good Friday services.
In every state, in almost every county, in almost every little community and even in the open country, there are United Methodist churches, sometimes big brick churches with steeples, sometimes little frame churches.
The teachers, the owners of small businesses, the farmers and the skilled workers are very often United Methodists. United Methodists are the backbone of the Rotary Club, the home ec club, and the Girl Scouts.
Methodists through the years have been good citizens, good neighbors, and have been optimistic about the future of the country.
So, there is no surprise that most Americans think favorably of United Methodists.
United Methodism has a well-established ‘brand’
Much is made today of “branding.” United Methodism has it. The American public’s good impressions about The United Methodist Church ought to work in our favor.
Those of us who work with evangelical renewal groups within The United Methodist Church deal continually with pastors and lay people who want to opt out of United Methodism. It is dead, liberal, hierarchical, and bureaucratic, they say. We in the renewal groups urge people to stay.
There are a number of reasons why some of the greatest opportunities for ministry are in The United Methodist Church. The UM Church has the doctrine and the polity — to say nothing of the money — to be an influence for good in the world.
Because of Methodism’s favorable impression many people seeking a new church home will give the local United Methodist Church a try. They may not stay, but at least Methodists get a chance.
When I was an active pastor doing house-to-house visitation (a lost art these days, I am sorry to say), I was always accepted — even with strangers. United Methodists just by the name have a “foot in the door”; they just need to “make the sale.”
A downside to our popularity
Christians should beware when all people speak well of them — especially in pagan territory. During its early years in England and in America, Methodism was a despised sect.
Methodists were enthusiasts (too excitable); their camp meetings were out of control; their preachers were uneducated. They sang “ditties” instead of stately hymns. They offended people by talking to them about their souls. They opposed “worldliness,” which included Sabbath breaking, dancing, card playing, gambling, alcohol, and fancy dress.
For the first 75 years of their presence in America, Methodists would never have won any popularity polls. But Methodism grew. From 1784 to 1850, a period known generally as the Second Great Awakening, Methodism grew from 3 percent of America’s religious population, to 33 percent. It was in part because Methodism during this period thought it better to be despised for the gospel than to be respectable in the world.
It is time for the church to come up with something better than “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” as its slogan.
The UMC’s current emphasis on vital congregations is fine, but it needs to be understood that leadership and exciting worship and other marks of vital congregations must be based on commitment to biblical doctrine and biblical moral standards.
People talk about making United Methodism a movement again, instead of a dead institution. This will require new directions.
New life in Methodism will have to come through individuals, small groups, and local churches that will affirm with conviction United Methodist doctrinal standards, traditional Christian views on morality, and John Wesley’s passion of souls.
New life will come when United Methodists talk more about Jesus (this would lower our favorable rating in a hurry) and insist of the new birth as a condition of church membership. New life will come when people witness to miracles, to the presence of the Holy Spirit in their churches, and to changed lives.
Let us pray for the day when The United Methodist Church’s brand isn’t just that we’re nice people, but that “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23).
Such a message has always been “a stumbling block” to some “and folly” to others (1 Cor. 1:23), “but to [those] who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
|•||Podcast — George Hunter: Can the once-great Methodist movement become a movement again?|
|•||‘Assessment’ report: United Methodism faces compound crisis|
|•||Riley Case: ‘Operational Assessment’ shows UMC has lost its way|
|•||Renewal & Reform Coalition releases letter to Council of Bishops|
Related articles and information
|•||UMC renewal demands vital local congregations | Andrew C. Thompson, UM Reporter (June 7, 2011)|
|•||Call to Action: Reordering the Life of the Church | Website of the UMC’s Call to Action Steering Team|
|•||The complete “Operational Assessment” report (PDF) and Appendices (PDF) | Call to Action Steering Team (June 29, 2010)|
|•||Tone deafness and the Call to Action | Rob Renfroe, Good News (September/October 2010)|
|•||United Methodist ‘Call to Action’ finds 15% of UM churches highly ‘vital’ | Mark Tooley, UMAction—IRD (July 17, 2010)|
|•||Call to Action offers signs of crisis and hope | Heather Hahn, United Methodist News Service (July 13, 2010)|
|•||Momentum builds for major church change | Bishop John L. Hopkins, United Methodist News Service (April 12, 2010)|
|•||Call to Action seeks to increase church vitality | J. Richard Peck, United Methodist News Service (April 9, 2010)|
|•||Church leaders seek consensus on plans for change | Kathy L. Gilbert, United Methodist News Service (Nov. 12, 2009)|
|•||Connectional Table OKs new plan to study church | J. Richard Peck, United Methodist News Service (Nov. 9, 2009)|
|•||Committee assesses life of church | Linda Green, United Methodist News Service (July 22, 2009)|
|•||Bishop Palmer says church is in ‘sweet spot’ for change | Kathy L. Gilbert, United Methodist News Service (May 14, 2009)|
|•||Methodism’s coming death spiral | Donald Sensing, WindsOfChange.net (Nov. 15, 2007)|
|•||40 years of vision for United Methodist Renewal (PDF) | James V. Heidinger II, Good News (November/December 2007)|
|•||‘Open Hearts’ slogan is marketing, not theology | Andrew C. Thompson, UM Reporter (July 12, 2007)|
|•||United Methodists poised for ‘open house,’ media campaign | United Methodist News Service (Aug. 30, 2001)|
The video below was produced for the UMC’s General Council on Finance and Administration: