Faith in History
The Rise and Fall of American Methodism
Many individual congregations did not adopt an overtly political emphasis, and many local Methodists have felt alienated from the national denomination's priorities. And of course there are individual Methodist congregations in America that are thriving. Among the common features of these churches are gospel preaching of a sort that John Wesley would recognize, and robust strategies of outreach that would please the old circuit riders.
An overemphasis on politics is certainly not the exclusive cause of shrinking numbers in Methodist churches: other contributing factors might include theological (not just political) liberalism, the marginalization of intentional Christian commitment at flagship Methodist universities, and various other struggles common to churches across the theological spectrum, such as aging membership and competition from non-denominational mega-churches.
The overall situation of the Methodist Church looks quite different in global perspective, however. United Methodists are growing in other parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. On any given Sunday, there are probably more people in Methodist churches of the Congo than in America.
The surging strength of African churches, which are overwhelmingly conservative in theology, has begun to change the character of United Methodist General Conference meetings—the quadrennial global assemblies of the denomination's leaders (the next one is slated for April in Tampa). The growing number of African delegates is one of the main reasons that Methodists have not yet endorsed ordaining homosexual pastors or blessing homosexual unions. And those regions of the U.S. that have seen the strongest support for normalizing homosexuality within the church have also lost members the fastest.
The American Methodists' experience of decline is a cautionary tale for all churches, including conservative ones. Evangelical church membership in America today is only holding steady, at best, and we may well look back in a generation and see a story of American evangelical decline similar to that which the mainline churches have experienced in the last forty years.
Especially those evangelical churches that position themselves effectively as a wing of the Republican Party might expect the same descent as the mainline. Obviously, there are politically-relevant doctrines concerning the biblical view of life, marriage, and sexuality that remain essential for evangelical Christian teaching. But seeking to fulfill the church's mission primarily through political advocacy appears to be a key historic ingredient in denominational decline.
Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is a Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. Follow his writings via Facebook and Twitter.