As United Methodists gathered last week in Fort Worth for their General Conference, there were encouraging signs that the denomination may be headed in a more evangelical and conservative direction. That's good news – for the church, for the poor whose plight is worsened by bad economic policy, and for all those who can benefit from a Methodist community united in its traditional commitment to personal and social reform rooted in the Gospel.
The General Conference, which meets every four years, is the only governing body that can adopt and amend legislation for the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, consisting of eight million members.
Evangelical renewal groups were once again on hand to encourage traditional Christian views, as well to attempt to reform a denomination that has long been controlled by left-leaning political activists.
Speaking of mainline Protestant boards and agencies, Methodist theologian Thomas Oden describes what is at stake: "These church bureaucracies have offered the mainline churches an unsupervised playground for experimentation in political messianism, utopianism, sexual liberation, and anti-market economics."
At the General Conference, traditional views on human sexuality were reinforced, and biased anti-Israel divestment measures disintegrated. While Methodists narrowly reaffirmed their alliance with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), positions respecting the sanctity of life are clearly gaining ground.
Dissenters of traditional teaching on sexuality staged another accusatory protest on the convention floor aided by some bishops. They were called "witnesses" by the Council of Bishops.
But the real witnessing is coming from evangelicals and renewal groups, who are often singled out for persecution and marginalization by an entrenched liberal bureaucracy. They are remaining faithful, hoping they can recover the historic evangelical witness and bring a rebirth to the denomination.
The growth of Methodism in Africa is also bringing new life to a denomination whose missionary agency often expresses greater interest in liberation theology than evangelism. While United Methodism is shrinking in the United States because of theological ambiguity, Africans have long been speaking passionately about the evangelical heritage at the core of Wesleyan theology.
The number of African delegates at General Conference as well as other like-minded international delegates will only increase in the coming years, and with that comes greater influence.
On economic matters, United Methodist leaders have long been influenced by the type of narrow thinking articulated best by the contemporary Religious Left. Little has changed in this regard, and one look at the denomination's social principles or even the more economically woeful General Board of Church and Society will give more market-friendly members cause for alarm.
An agenda calling for further wealth redistribution and expansion of the welfare state was unsurprisingly rubber stamped at General Conference again. The view that God might not categorically support expanding state control of the economy is nowhere to be seen.
It is unclear whether African Methodists will be inclined to support the same kind of stale call for government collectivism to alleviate poverty. They may be much more open to a balanced view that values pro-growth economic policies to help alleviate poverty.
When John Wesley founded Methodism in the eighteenth century, it was a movement built upon a rich spiritual revival intent on reform within the Church of England. The most important reform was rightly rooted in the Gospel message of the new birth which personifies the inward and outward transformation of the believer's heart.
Wesley understood first that the spiritual condition must be changed before the social condition could be improved. Sadly, this ancient truth is lost on some denominational leaders.
George Whitefield, another eighteenth century Methodist revivalist, first took the Gospel message to the poor, despised, and marginalized coal miners of Kingswood, England. He recorded the scene: "Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces." It must have been a sight to witness such a profound transformation. One coal miner simply explained, "We never knew anybody loved us."
Methodism has historically been characterized by rapid renewal, reform, a holistic love and care for the poor, and always by its vibrant evangelical proclamation. Let it again be so.