The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged to become the United Methodist Church (UMC) on April 23, 1968 and become one of the largest Protestant churches in the world at that time. Both denominations arrived at the union following several years of mutually declining membership, and both hoped the merger might lead to a stronger, growing denomination.
The new denomination included 11 million members; 42,000 churches; 33,000 clergy; and 4 million worship attendees (36% of the total membership). Of the 200 million citizens populating the United States at that time, UMC membership represented 5.5%.
Although clergy numbers and the percentage of worship attendees increased over time, the UMC has steadily declined in membership and churches every year. In 2015, church membership included 7.3 million members (34% decline); 32,600 churches (22% decline); 44,500 clergy (35% increase); and 2.9 million worship attendees (4% increase). During the nearly 50 year interim, the U.S. population grew to 320 million (60% increase), while the UMC proportion of the population shrunk to 2.3% (34% decline).
But, the UMC is not alone. Other denominational churches have likewise experienced decline – Catholic, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and the United Church of Christ, to name a few. Conversely, independent and nondenominational churches had grown to more than 12 million members and 35,000 churches in 2010. Combined, they were the third largest American denomination behind Catholics and Southern Baptists.
What happened? Why have mainline denominations continued to shrink while independent churches keep growing? One factor seems to relate to increasingly fundamental differences between formerly united movements. These divisions within denominations also seem related to significant shifts in American culture as a whole.
Some contrasting perspectives within the increasingly untied United Methodist Church are summarized below. Note the similarity to issues dividing other denominations, as well as the progressively untied state of America as a whole.
The Bible – Advice vs. Authority
- While some believe people wrote the Bible and, therefore, people can edit or ignore it at will, others believe the Bible – in its entirety and in its original languages – is literally God’s uneditable Word. While some view the Bible as containing interesting advice, myths, and stories worth considering, others view the testaments as containing authoritative commands, factual historical accounts, and foundational truths that anyone ignores at their own peril.
God – Concept vs. Creator
- Some view God as an idea, a construct without proof, or a cosmic force without personality or interpersonal temporal or eternal significance. Even if God is real, it seems unknowable and certainly not worth one’s allegiance. Others view God as more of an impersonal tyrant, ancient ancestor, a good luck charm, cuddle buddy, homeboy, mascot for the home team, or benevolent friend to thank blithely or turn to in times of need. Others view God as the owner of the universe – creator, sustainer, destroyer, remaker, or whatever He wants to do – who seeks a personal relationship with everyone, who simply asks that people live within the guidelines He designed into His creation, and who has an excellent retirement plan for those who seek and obey Him, and less desirable plans for those who do not.
Jesus Christ – Saint vs. Savior
- Many view Jesus Christ as a saint who may or may not have lived in history on the planet. If so, he is certainly dead now, perhaps worthy of emulating and honoring in some ways, but not someone to literally follow, seek, or obey unconditionally. Others view Jesus Christ as the Savior of a sinful, dying world without whom there is no hope, no life, no purpose, or really, no anything at all. To them, He is the Supreme Commander in Chief of everything and everyone ever, is alive in Heaven right now, will return to rule, will raise from the dead everyone who has ever lived to a second eternal life or death, and who is worth fearing, loving, obeying unconditionally, and serving with one’s all.
Salvation – Just Fine vs. Justified
- Many are quite happy enough with themselves and life that they do not generally sense a need to be saved from anything. If they have problems, they can turn to family and friends, or the law or force or intimidation, or money or self-help or work to help make more positive things happen. They also believe that if there is a God and an afterlife, He is certainly benevolent enough that their goodness, or at least less wickedness compared to truly evil people, will suffice to win them entrance and favor. Others believe no one can meet the standards of a holy God. So they trust the inside man, a divine/human savior, who stands in the gap between good deeds and perfection and buys entrance tickets into His place for all of His friends and calls them clean – not because they are, but because He covers for them. Meanwhile, everyone who does not trust in this particular savior is consigned to punishment while everyone else gets a heavenly party for the ages.
Atonement – Abuse vs. Answer
- Many believe that a god who would allow evil if he could stop it, including not only permitting his own child to die but requiring it for any reason, is the ultimate child abuser. Others believe that Jesus is literally the only answer to God’s personal requirements for forgiveness, holiness, and justice.
Eternal Life – Attitudinal vs. Actual
- Many believe that eternal life is something people choose to believe in to give them hope and purpose, but it is not real. Sort of an “attitude is the paintbrush of the mind” concept, it helps people better cope with their temporal existence in a meaningless, cyclical march of time, chance, random mutation, and survival of the fittest. Others believe everyone will die, and that Christ will actually raise everyone from their first death to endure a second eternal life or death. When Jesus mentions that many will mourn upon his return (i.e. Second Coming), he implies that perhaps many will finally say, “OH, MY GOD!” for real because they finally understand who he really is, and yet it will be too late.
Ministry – Choice vs. Calling
- Many view “going into the ministry” as a choice people make, like picking a college major or deciding where to live or who to marry, because it either makes them happy or they have a genuine desire and/or talents to help people. Others believe true ministry is a response to God (a sense of “calling”) evidenced by gifts and talents, passion, and often very specific guidance to serve Him and others sacrificially no matter when, what, where, how, or how much.
Miracles – Allegory vs. Actual
- Many view miracles as stories with a point, but either not actual events, or perhaps actual or embellished events with natural explanations. Others believe the God who created the universe actually did Himself or through others the supernatural things chronicled throughout scripture. No magic, no simulation, no virtual reality, but actual, literal miracles in every single case, just as recorded, and many more that were not recorded (John 20:30 and 21:25). Some believe God still performs miracles today.
Religion – Rules vs. Relationship
- Many believe religion is essentially behavioral rules, while others believe their religion is based on an actual, interpersonal relationship with the one and only eternal God and a community of like-minded believers from the past, present, and future.
Resurrection – Fiction vs. Fact
- Many believe resurrection is a fictional idea without merit or substantiation. If anything, believing in a resurrected savior or eventual resurrection of people is more akin to believing in Santa Claus – as long as one “believes” and remembers, one keeps the spirit of “Jesus” or others alive. Others believe Jesus Christ actually came back to life after being killed and buried, that He is literally alive now in Heaven making preparations for eternity, and that everyone who has ever lived and died will be brought back to life again to face a final judgment and assignment to either eternal life or death.
Sin – Decided vs. Defined
- Many believe “sin” is what people decide is not acceptable at any given time in history. What is or isn’t “sin” can be decided by decree or vote by a person or a representative group of people, and, as such can similarly be redacted, redefined, removed, or repaid as they see fit. Others believe “sin” has been defined by God in scripture, and that He alone holds ultimate power of forgiveness and/or veto.
Law – Legalism vs. Justice
- Many believe that law is a human construct based on series of legal codes, decisions, and maneuvers managed and manipulated by people. Others believe law is a tangible system aimed at implementing an intangible code of divine justice within social frameworks, and that the arbiters, formulators, and regulators of the system actually work for and under the authority of the Supreme Judge of all, God.
Marriage – Secular vs. Sacred
- Many view marriage as a secular paradigm that can be defined at will, by popular vote, or by judicial decree, and managed by governments and organizations. Others view marriage as a divine covenant of holy matrimony defined and designed by God as a lifetime commitment between a man and a woman.
Politics – Government vs. God
- Many view politics as a system of governing authorities, powers, and rules implemented, sustained, and revised by and for people for use in business, civics, communities, education, religion, sports, etc.. Arrogance, manipulation, money, and power are dominant forces. Others view politics as a system of governance designed and implemented by God for the good of people. Humility, cooperation, love, and service are dominant forces.
Sexuality – Personal Satisfaction vs. Pleasing God
- Many view sexuality as a means of gaining personal and/or mutual physical and emotional satisfaction by whatever means is deemed acceptable. Others view sexuality as a gift from God to be expressed within specific boundaries He designed for our safety and pleasure, specifically a lifetime covenant relationship of marriage as defined in scripture.
Unborn – Choice vs. Child
- Many believe an unborn child is not really a person, yet, and that – even up until the moment of taking its first breath outside the womb – others should have the right to choose to terminate its existence without consequence. Others believe an unborn child – from as early as the biological moment of conception – is a human being worthy of the same protection and provision as any living human outside the womb. Many also believe that the intentional taking of these lives by any means, nearly 60 million children in the United States alone since 1973, is generally a most grievous evil and tantamount to premeditated murder.
Universe – Evolution vs. Creation
- Many believe the universe began, developed, and continues over time without outward assistance of any kind. Others believe God personally created the universe and everything in it, and some believe He additionally continues to sustain it and remain actively involved.
The differences in actions, lifestyles and perspectives emanating from the views outlined above cannot be overstated. The distinctions are so foundational and polarizing, unity seems not only elusive, but hoping for it or pursuing it nothing less than farcical. Although Jesus prayed for unity among believers (John 17:20-23), he also warned not to think he came to bring peace on earth.
“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword…a man’s enemies will the members of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-36).
If so, is it possible that Jesus’ sword of division also extends to dividing denominations wherein they divide along such distinctively core beliefs? For traditionalists who hold to historically biblical views, the lines are fairly clear, and the evidence of the swung sword for many is their exodus from denominational churches. They seem more willing to leave because they generally accept the authority of scripture and use God’s Word as the foundation for their new churches. At the same time, remnants within denominations who have been fighting for renewal have their efforts regularly stymied by those who claim rights and authority based on alternate biblical interpretations, trending cultural, intellectual, and social movements, and pleas for kindness, majority rules, tolerance, and unity.
Meanwhile, progressives seem less inclined to leave because they generally derive their authority from the denomination itself. Apart from the clear authority of scripture or the historical weight of a denomination, their own words carry far less power. At present, United Methodists are still officially united, but practically untied. Although what the future holds remains to be seen, the issues that divide are fairly consistently clear. Most of our questions and issues revolve around what to do and how to do it given these mostly irreconcilable differences.