(Editor’s note: This is the first of two columns on cracks inside United Methodism.)
It was one of those General Conference debates in which the regional accents of the United Methodists at the microphones were part of the drama.
Times were tough, and national leaders had struggled to raise enough money to cover the Church World Services budget. Thus, a delegate from the Bible Belt requested a budget increase smaller than the one sought by agency leaders.
Then someone from the urban Northeast “rose and spoke against his motion in a fervent, angry plea for more commitment and compassion for the needs of the poor and downtrodden. Her enthusiasm carried the day,” noted “The Seven Churches of Methodism,” an influential report on regional divisions in the United Methodist Church.
“Later, the delegate whose motion was defeated noted that his opponent’s enthusiasm for the poor would be better exerted in her own annual conference, which had paid only part of its World Service apportionment.”
That was in the early 1980s, just before decades of acidic battles over the Bible, sex and marriage began making headlines.
Methodists were already struggling with this reality: There’s no painless way to cut a smaller pie. And it already mattered that conferences in the most liberal parts of the United Methodist Church were shrinking, while numbers were relatively steady or rising in more conservative regions.
The cracks detailed in that 1985 report are even more relevant today, after repeated General Conference wins by a coalition of U.S. evangelicals and growing UMC flocks in the Global South, especially Africa. The denomination’s top court has approved parts of a recently passed “Traditional Plan” that would strengthen enforcement of current church disciplines banning same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” LGBTQ clergy. It also approved an “exit plan” for congregations seeking a way out.
“The Seven Churches of Methodism” was written by the famous Duke University sociologist Robert L. Wilson, who died in 1991, and William Willimon, now a retired bishop. It focused on life in seven U.S. regions between 1970-82, including church-school statistics that suggested future problems with active members and the young:
— The Yankee Church in New England was already declining rapidly, including a disturbing 48.5 percent drop in church-school numbers. Feminism and social-gospel trends were gaining strength, with one minister’s ordination delayed by his refusal to use gender-neutral terms for God.
— The Industrial Northeastern Church saw a rapid decline in its famous urban churches after World War II. Then church-school attendance fell 53 percent between 1970-82. This progressive region retained its clout in national boards and agencies, with some leaders claiming, “We may be getting smaller, but we’re getting better.” Wilson and Willimon noted: “There is no empirical evidence” of that.
— The Church South remained “traditional in theology and style,” to the point that many clergy still thought “people need to be converted” to Christianity. Some held “revival” meetings, as well as the Sunday night and Wednesday night services once common in Methodism. Statistics remained stable, with attendance twice that of any other region.
— The Southwest Church was the only region in which membership grew, while church-school numbers fell 20.3 percent. “The contrast in expectations between some congregations in Texas and in New England are so great that it is hard to believe they are in the same denomination,” wrote Wilson and Willimon.
— The Midwest Church remained “Methodism’s heartland.” But church-school numbers fell 36 percent, especially in urban areas, while churches at the “grassroots” remained strong. Leaders were already projecting an “image of being avant-garde.”
— The Frontier Church in the Rockies became a haven for many clergy migrating away from eastern pulpits, and would soon emerge as ground zero for LGBTQ activism. Church attendance was small but steady, while church-school stats fell 42.7 percent.
— The Western Church was “an enigma,” with crucial statistics falling while total population on the West Coast soared. Church-school numbers dropped 50.1 percent between 1970-82, even as the region’s leaders provided national leadership on the cultural and doctrinal left.
As for the Methodist future, Wilson and Willimon noted: “Those who have become accustomed” to making big national decisions “will not relinquish this power willingly.” Meanwhile, larger regions in the church — their financial clout was already growing in 1985 — “can be expected to want a greater say in the decisions over expenditures.”
Next week: Not all United Methodist fights are about sexuality.
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.