What has happened to our church?


Editor’s note: Second of a four-part series

I was born into a Methodist family, a Methodist church, during a Methodist camp meeting, all of which were strong influences in my life.

I pastored 29 years in Mississippi and was on the staff at Lake Junaluska Assembly for 11 years. The move from the pulpit back to the pew and exposure to preachers and teachers from the U.S. and several other countries has given me a view of the church and life that I must share.  

Based on the diminishing numbers in the United Methodist Church and age level analysis indicating a further and more rapid decline, we have to ask the question, "What has happened to the Methodist movement; the Wesley and Asbury zeal?"

In seminary days we heard and studied much about "higher criticism." Some Bible scholars were assuming to analyze the scriptures until they knew more than the original writers. Criticism of St. Paul's writings was not unusual. One professor told us we should have at least 30 quotes from scholars in every sermon. That was in the late 1950s when many were led to believe that education would be the key to ministry. This era produced an obvious shift from scriptural and spirit powered preaching to a much greater dependence on academics. The figures show that it did not work.

The human heart hungers for what God has said and is saying to us about repentance, forgiveness, salvation, hope and peace with God and how to live in those relationships with God and each other. The scriptures are our authority on these and so many other matters.

Opinions do not preach well.

I have never found among the laity a desire to know about the J, E, D and P sources of the Pentateuch or how many Isaiahs there might have been. Simon Peter would not have known. Paul said, “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power." (I Cor. 2:4). Wesley and Asbury preached that way.

One of my friends who is an active member of a sizeable United Methodist church said, "My pastor preached a very good and inspirational sermon this morning, and we sang Just As I Am, but there was no mention of any response." No challenge to make a decision for salvation, rededication, prayer, or anything else that would encourage a response from the hearer. Have we become a "come, sit, listen and leave" church?

What happened to the challenging and persuasive invitations to which most of my generation responded decisively? How much more the need today of persons who are victims of the temptations and addictions of modern life to be persuaded of the power of God to deliver and sustain.

Have we become the church of professional people? Does the common man "hear us gladly" and find welcome and warmth in our congregations or our conversations?

What happened to the concept of the soul as in the New Testament and early Methodism? Are we focused on lesser matters?

Martin is a retired elder in the Mississippi Conference.