Most recently (November 2009), the bishops issued a “pastoral letter” (PDF) asserting that “God’s creation is in crisis” and calling United Methodists to practice “social and environmental holiness by caring for God’s people and God’s planet and by challenging those whose policies and practices neglect the poor, exploit the weak, hasten global warming, and produce more weapons.”
Writing in the March/April issue (PDF) of the We Confess newsletter, Dr. Bill Bouknight, associate director of the United Methodist Confessing Movement, suggests that the Council of Bishops would have provided better spiritual leadership by issuing a letter that set forth the urgent need for the UMC to reclaim its doctrine and its mission.
Below are excerpts from Dr. Bouknight’s article, “What We Wish the Bishops Had Written,” written in the style of a Council of Bishops’ letter:
The early Methodists provided many services for people, especially for the poor, ministering in areas of education, prisons, health care, and financial stewardship. But always their first calling was to call people to repent of sin and to trust in the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross for their salvation.
“Know your disease!” said [Methodist founder John] Wesley. “Know your cure! You were born in sin; therefore, you must be born again, born of God” (Works of John Wesley, II, p. 185)
Brothers and sisters, our primary mandate from Scripture is “to go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). With sorrow and shame, we confess that we have not been faithful to that mandate. With the exception of a few regions of our Church, [such as in] Africa, we have lost our evangelical focus and passion.
In contrast to the Early Church in which “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47), we seem to have forgotten how to assist God in reaching lost people with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ….
The number of new members received [into the United Methodist Church] by profession of faith is less than half what it was in the 1950s. Over 40 percent of our local churches did not receive even one new member last year by profession of faith….
God asked Ezekiel the prophet, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel replied, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know” (Ezekiel 37:3).
And indeed, those dry bones became alive again by the gift of God’s Spirit. The same can happen in our beloved UMC.
With humility in our hearts and with a passionate desire to see the UMC become a mighty movement for God, we, the Council of Bishops, urge all United Methodists to join us in taking the following steps:
1. Following the example of John Wesley, let us observe a weekly fast, repenting for having failed to be an obedient church and especially for having failed to declare the cross-centered gospel to lost persons.
We bishops confess that we have failed to fulfill a promise we made when we were consecrated — “to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church” (Book of Discipline, ¶404.1).
2. We call the Church’s attention to the following fundamentals of the gospel, as expressed in our Book of Discipline:
• All people in their natural condition are lost souls who need salvation.
“We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil” (Article VII, Articles of Religion).
“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (Article VII, Confession of Faith).
“We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation” (Article XIII, Confession of Faith).
• The only way to be saved is to repent of sin and trust in Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior and Lord.
“Christ was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men” (Article II, Articles of Religion).
“The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world…and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone” (Article XIX, Articles of Religion).
3. We bishops resolve to teach a course at least annually within our respective Annual Conferences on the basic beliefs in our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. We will invite clergy and laity to attend. Then we will urge our clergy and laity to replicate that course in their respective charges.
4. We urge all ministers to extend regularly an invitation to Christian discipleship in the context of their worship services. Worshipers should be invited to repent of their sin and to trust in the crucified and risen Christ for their personal salvation.
5. We deplore the fact that approximately 43 percent of our local churches did not receive a single new member by profession of faith last year. We pledge, with the assistance of our district superintendents, to meet with pastors of those churches in order to offer to them specific suggestions for helping God lead persons to make professions of faith.
6. We affirm that the single most important criterion of a local church’s faithfulness in ministry is that new disciples are being made and new members being received by profession of faith. Our Lord’s last mandate — “Go and make disciples” — is and should be our first and most important task.
Brothers and sisters, we will undergird these commitments with daily prayers for the renewal of the UMC. Please join your prayers with ours. God may yet make our “dry bones” live again. Rather than becoming a “dead sect” as Wesley feared, we may yet become a mighty worldwide movement for Jesus Christ.
Lord, come quickly and let it be so!
Bill Bouknight retired from the pastorate in 2007 after more than 40 years of serving churches in South Carolina and Tennessee. He became an associate director of the Confessing Movement in August 2008.
Dr. Bouknight is the author of The Authoritative Word: Preaching Truth in a Skeptical Age (Abingdon, 2001), and If Disciples Grew Like Kudzu (Bristol House, 2007). He was educated at Duke University, the University of Edinburgh, and Yale Divinity School.
The initial meeting of what became the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church was convened in 1994 by Bishop William R. Cannon, Dr. Maxie Dunnam of Asbury Theological Seminary, and Dr. Thomas C. Oden of the Drew University School of Theology.
Their purpose, in the words of the late Bishop Cannon, was to call the church “to renew itself through adherence to the standard teachings of Christianity and the basic doctrines of the United Methodist Church.”
A study published in late 2002 by the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that approximately 40 percent of UM pastors “either support the ideals of or participate in” the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church.
|•||Bill Bouknight: Methodists are saying ‘No’ to their leaders|
|•||Bill Bouknight: The bad news from General Conference ‘08|
|•||Bill Bouknight: The good news from General Conference ‘08|
|•||Podcast: Bill Bouknight on ‘The Resurrection of Jesus Christ’|
|•||Bishop Lindsey Davis speaks to the Confessing Movement|
Related articles and information
|•||We Confess newsletter (PDF) | Confessing Movement (March/April 2010)|
|•||Conference data comparison 2007-2008 (PDF) (all five U.S. jurisdictions suffered a net loss of membership in 2008; not a single conference in the Northeastern, North Central, and Western Jurisdictions showed a gain) | Background Data for Mission, UM General Board of Global Ministries (March 2010)|
|•||Confessing Movement issues statement on unity | Daniel R. Gangler, United Methodist News Service (Sept. 28, 2005)|
|•||Address to the UM Confessing Movement national conference (PDF) | Bishop Scott Jones (Sept. 23, 2005)|
|•||Turning the Mainline around | Michael S. Hamilton and Jennifer McKinney, Christianity Today (Aug. 1, 2003)|
|•||A message to the United Methodist Church (PDF), adopted at the Confessing Movement Conference in Tulsa, Okla. | Confessing Movement (April 19, 1998)|
|•||Confessional statement of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church (PDF), adopted unanimously at the inaugural Confessing Movement Conference in Atlanta, Ga. | Confessing Movement (April 29, 1995)|
|•||Do we need a Confessing Movement? | Steve Harper, Good News magazine (March/April 1995)|