By Rev. Glenn Martin
Editor’s note: Fifth in a series
Lent has historically been a time of sacrifice, of self-examination, of honesty and repentance. This article is given as an appropriate confession of truth as relates to Methodists over the period 1944-2005. May we be realistic in our self-exam, repentant and sacrificial in our response, and seek the living Lord who will receive “effectual fervent prayer” for guidance and power in recovery.
What a dynamic were the people called Methodist in the formation and conscience of this nation. The circuit riders moved with the pioneers across this vast and fertile land refusing to let hell or high water stop them. They won souls and planted churches in every county in America. Historians tell us that a Methodist church was planted every day for decades as late as the early 20th century.
Divisions of the Methodists were brought together in 1939 to become “The Methodist Church.” The records I received from Archives and History are from 1944-2005. Beginning with 1944, they report by quadrennium through 1965.
• 1944 membership — 7,979,163
• 1948 — 8,567,772; gain of 588,609
• 1952 — 9,065,727; gain of 497,955
• 1956 — 9,313,278; gain of 247,551
• 1961 — 9,884,484; gain of 571,206 (five years)
• 1965 — 10,275,196, gain of 390,712
The figures show an average gain of 109,335 per year for 21 years. InfoServ reports 10,289,000 members when 738,000 Evangelical United Brethren were added in 1968 to form “The United Methodist Church.” Those total 11,027,000, which is the largest number in the history of American Methodism.
If we had continued the gains of 1944-1965, we would now number 15,400,440 members. Population growth in the United States in the last 40 years should have increased our rate of growth. Why do we now have fewer than 8 million Methodists in the United States when we had the heritage and potential to “spread scriptural holiness” throughout this blessed country? The moral and economic bankruptcy of America is directly connected to the failure of my generation to “offer them Christ” and “to spread scriptural holiness” across this land.
Self-examination and bitter tears of repentance cannot suffice for the fruit we could have borne, but they can help us to come back to the God of mercy who can give us a new beginning.
The resurrection can never be truly celebrated without repentance. A stimulus package of advertising, promising to build more churches and reach more people does not connect to root causes.
Wesley’s fear of our becoming a form without power is now a reality. Which way forward? We can begin by moving from denial to honesty.
Martin is a retired clergy member of the Mississippi Conference and a regular contributor to the “Advocate.”