Facing the Challenge Squarely

As a white American United Methodist, I am cognizant of the influence imbalance that has been long a characteristic of the relationship between Americans and Africans. Therefore, to be honest, although I am honored to be asked to share a few thoughts by means of Theological Voice of Africa, I am also aware of how little I understand conditions on the ground for African United Methodists, even though, through African friends, I am learning.  I make, therefore, some general observations, with a handful of suggestions about how we might find ways to work together, to encourage faithful, effective witness in service to our Lord Jesus Christ, in view of the serious challenges we face.

While African United Methodism is growing energetically, American United Methodism is in steep institutional decline. For all our talk about places of vitality on the American side, the general picture is bleak. Indeed, what we call mainline Protestantism in the United States, of which United Methodism is a major part (along with Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.) is no longer mainline, no longer the dominant Christian expression, and has not been for decades. A British scholar, Stephen Bullivant, in his recent book Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, shows how steep the mainline decline is: “By one informed estimate, in the space of sixty-odd years, mainline affiliation has [gone] from 52% of the US population in 1952, down to 12% in 2018” (Nonverts, p. 75). A main reason for this decline is not, as other writers for Theological Voice of Africa have pointed out, conflict over sexuality. It is more the case that mainline Protestantism – including United Methodism – has so readily accommodated increasingly individualistic attitudes toward religion, which has fatally damaged the unity of the church. Bullivant quotes Margaret Bendroth, who states, “Of all religious groups today mainline Protestants seem the most deracinated, the least bound by historic Christianity…mainline churches seem to alter their ancient creeds, liturgies, and baptismal formulas at will, readily accommodating their beliefs and behaviors to modern sensibilities” (p. 89).

We see, therefore, that our United Methodist issues go much further than disagreements about sexuality. Although denominational leaders have made much of the fact that our doctrines are not changing, in practical terms, core Christian beliefs are up for grabs in a significant number of congregations and annual conferences. This trend inevitably weakens our whole ecclesiastical body. It has put us on the pathway to denominational extinction. African United Methodists have every right to question the value of staying unhesitatingly loyal to a denomination in such a difficult state. I am a lifelong United Methodist, and a preacher’s kid, to boot. As I once again pastor a congregation, after twenty-five years in higher education, I find myself asking how to remain loyal to my membership and ordination vows, but to do so with both eyes wide open and unswerving commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord, and his kingdom of righteousness as the top priority of our lives.

With these thoughts in mind, I offer three points of orientation for some strategic thinking:

  1. We Americans need to learn to listen to you Africans much more than we have done as a general rule. I mention my appreciation for the Rev. Kennedy Mukwindidza and the Rev. Jacob Maforo in this light. I was Jacob’s college professor years ago, and we became good friends. I am grateful for the relationship with these two brothers. They have helped me understand more adequately what is happening in African United Methodism.
  2. It is more important than ever that we find ways to foster relationships with one another in the Body of Christ. Where American and African congregations have formed relationships through mission trips and cross-cultural exchanges, let’s strengthen those ties. Those congregations can leaven the lump by inviting other congregations nearby to participate in such exchanges. This goal takes much effort, I know, but as we look at our circumstances, it is all the more important for us to know each other and to support each other well. By getting to know each other through various exchanges, we can better support one another.  
  3. To accomplish the second point, we need to maximize available internet technology to strengthen existing ties and grow more of them. I realize that internet access is perhaps only intermittently available in many locations and data usage is expensive. Nonetheless, certain questions arise, such as “Are we doing everything we can with what we have available now? If not, what can we do more?” Another question: “Are there ways to improve what is currently in place?” The answer may be “no,” but if no one is asking this question, then we need to ask it. We should always ask how to maximize the various media (especially Zoom) for conversation, prayer, study, and strategic thinking.

These thoughts are my opening gambit at imagining how we strengthen our bonds. Let us build strong relationships, and then strategize together for faithful witness to Christ within our denomination. We stick together. We work together and we trust the One whose resurrection has conquered the power of sin and has swallowed up death in victory.

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