In my last post, I laid out the challenges posed by the changes between the context in which Wesley read scripture and the context in which we live. In this post, I will use those insights to address the question, “How can we remain faithful to our Wesleyan heritage and communicate the Gospel in a way that will be heard by the nones and dones?”
In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated grew in America from 16.1 to 22.8 in only seven years, representing approximately 65 million people. In the same year Millennials surpassed Boomers as the largest age group in America.
Rather than the church impacting Millennials on its moral stance, the church is viewed as judgmental and hypocritical, driving people away from organized religion. Millennials want a church that unifies rather than divides and where all their friends are welcome. In a 2016 report entitled “Why the “Nones” Left Religion Behind,” 20% of the respondents reported a dislike for organized religion, meaning that they affirmed statements such as “I see religious groups as more divisive than uniting,” and “I think that more harm has been done in religion than in any other area.” This is one of the main reasons that young people who self-identify with the categories of “nones” and “dones” continues to grow.
Some observers of the decline of church affiliation may argue that this is the purification of the church and that it is scriptural (i.e. the parable of the narrow gate in Matthew 7:13). However, from an evangelistic position the church is charged with proclaiming the gospel, and it is important to acknowledge that something about us is impeding the communication of the message. The nones and dones are completely turned off by the institutional church and have no appetite for organized religion.
Just as John and Charles asked the first Methodist conference in 1744 “what to teach,” we, too, in the Wesleyan tradition are invited to use the same theological resources at our disposal and offer the Good News in a way that Millennials can hear and receive the message. Obviously, what we have been doing isn’t working as Americans, especially young people, are abandoning the institutional church at alarming numbers.
According to GCF&A between 2005 and 2015 attendance at UM churches is declining by an average of 52,383 people per year. In 2015 economist Donald House told a combined group of the Connectional Table and the GCF&A: “By 2030, the denomination in the United States will either have found a way to turn around, meaning it is growing, or its turnaround in the United States is not possible.”
And these numbers were calculated before the election of Karen Oliveto as bishop and the 2017 decision of Judicial Council stating that the election was against church law. Unfortunately, these high-profile cases are what get publicized in the secular press and this hardline stance can be interpreted as being judgmental—further alienating Millennials.
The theological methodology of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is still a common heritage to a divided denomination. In spite of differing interpretations, I hope that all United Methodists can agree that Scripture, tradition, reason and experience are authoritative sources. Perhaps, we might differ on interpretation of Scripture and the order or weight placed on the sources, but I hope we can agree that they all have a place in our theological methodology. This is a common heritage that unites us and can keep us at the table.
I believe that our greatest divide is that certain sectors give more primacy to Scripture and tradition, while other sectors place more authority with experience and reason. These tendencies might be representative of the values of Boomers and Millennials, which generally live within modernist (belief in the Truth) vs. post-modernist (truth is relative) views toward authority.
I believe that these two sectors and values don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We can honor everyone’s experiences and engage in respectful dialogue. Using Paul’s metaphor for the church in 1st Corinthians 12:26 teaches us that “If one part suffers, every part suffers…” We can hold these different perspectives in creative tension and listen to the experience of the other. Similarly a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” A house—just like the Quadrilateral—needs all four sides. The Quadrilateral keeps us whole and allows God to reveal to us through all four theological sources. We need the wisdom of Scripture and tradition, while we also need to listen to the value of experience and reason to interpret Scripture according to new information and the current context.
At the same time, the church needs the perspective of church members who are Boomers, as well as those who are Millennials. The Holy Spirit speaks to our heart through all four sources and can speak to us through the experience of another. When we stop listening we put up walls as barriers that impede God’s revelation to us. All the sources give us check and balance in our theological interpretation. While I can hear God’s voice speaking to me through the wisdom literature, I can also hear God speaking through the testimony of a Central Conference brother or sister and a member of the LGBT community. It is very difficult to maintain this creative tension, but God calls us to be the unified body of Christ.
As a professor of Mission and Evangelism, I attempt to teach seminary students to be culturally competent, work across cultural boundaries and communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way that it can be received and understood. A closed-minded stance in our theological method and interpretation may hinder how we communicate that message for future generations of Americans.
I would hate for The United Methodist Church to miss the opportunity to “spread Scriptural holiness throughout the land” to a growing sector of the U.S. population—especially the younger generations of nones and dones. God is alive and continues to work through the Holy Spirit and reveal to us through the four sources of the Quadrilateral and through the experience of others.
John Wesley preached in his sermon on the “Catholic Spirit:” “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” Let us remain open to listen to God through all theological sources and remain open to each other’s experiences—to create a place where we can say “all my friends are welcome.”
 Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” May 12, 2015 accessed May 16, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
 Pew Research Center, “Why the “nones” left Religion Behind,” August 24, 2016, accessed May 16, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/
 Heather Hahn, “Economist: Church is in Crisis by Hope Remains,” UM News, May 20, 2015, accessed May 16, 2017, http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/economist-united-methodist-church-in-crisis
 Matthew 12:25