On the surface, the United Methodist Church (UMC) appears to be in deep trouble. Recently released figures place current membership at 9.9 million—a loss of one million in the past seven years. Restructure years ago caused problems that still aren’t straightened out. These include a $1.4 million deficit for 1974 and 1975 by the important Board of Discipleship, budget-crunch layoffs, and disgruntled personnel. Last year the denomination was left without a general church-wide magazine when United Methodists Today was axed. (Subscriptions were declining—there were fewer than 140,000 at the end—and deficits were rising.) Controversies over doctrine and practice have been a source of distress for a number of the church’s 39,000 congregations.

But there are some bright sides to the situation. Average attendance at the main worship service is up (3.6 million nationwide), and total income for all purposes in the last fiscal year topped $1 billion, an increase of $74 million over the previous year. At the Board of Discipleship officials seem to be getting things under control. The UMC’s communication cause is being served well by the high-quality United Methodist Reporter, a national weekly newspaper published by the United Methodist Conferences of Texas. (Circulation is nearing 325,000.)

Several organized groups have been lobbying for doctrinal and policy reforms along evangelical lines. The reforms would affect curricula materials, emphases of program agencies, assumptions underlying missionary work, how money is spent, and the like. The best known of the reform groups is the so-called Good News Movement, based in Wilmore, Kentucky, home of Asbury Seminary, an evangelical Methodist school. A related group is the Evangelical Missions Council (EMC). They have scored some gains but the going is tough. Last year the denomination’s world mission unit broke off dialogue with the EMC, seeing no point in continuing the talks. So far, the evangelical lobbying has been low key enough to avoid widespread dissension throughout the church.

One issue that did cause an uproar was raised last year by the thirty-member United Methodist Council on Youth Ministry (UMCYM). The elected body drew up statements affirming homosexuality as a valid life style and sexual orientation, and it served notice that it would call on the church’s quadrennial conference in Portland this April to approve the ordination of avowed homosexuals. In the ensuing tumult and arm-twisting, the UMCYM members backed off from the ordination issue. At a meeting this month they said they would go along with a proposal to ask the 984 conference delegates instead to commission a study of human sexuality. But they also said they would request the conference to remove a clause from a statement of social principles passed at the 1972 conference in Atlanta. The clause: “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Observers say there is virtually no chance of the UMCYM purge attempt passing. Many state conferences have already reaffirmed that section of the social principles, and a survey shows that an overwhelming percentage of United Methodists oppose homosexual behavior.

Such controversial issues easily catch the notice of the press while significant spiritual events and trends go unreported. The result is that the public image of the church becomes distorted.

This is at least partly true of the UMC. Early this month, for example, 2,300 UMC leaders of evangelism from throughout the country, their spouses, and others interested in outreach gathered at the Philadelphia Sheraton for the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism, an event that is held every four or five years. No secular newspeople covered it.

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The participants represented the broad mainstream of evangelicals in the UMC. Their singing was loud and joyful, and they frequently punctuated speeches with an “Amen” or “Hallelujah” or “Praise the Lord.” Nearly everyone attended the early morning Bible studies (in Acts) conducted by Presbyterian minister Lloyd Ogilvie. He spoke on the Holy Spirit’s role in evangelism. There were thirteen daily mini conferences. The one on the work of the Holy Spirit was jammed. Second in attendance was the one on local church evangelism.

“Something is happening; God is at work in our church.” Every day somebody volunteered an observation like that. “The renewal of the Holy Spirit within the United Methodist Church is not a dream but a reality,” declared evangelist Oral Roberts on the final night of the five-day congress. His comment drew enthusiastic response.

Among the main congress speakers was UMC evangelism staffer George H. Outen, 44, who has been nominated to head the denomination’s Board of Church and Society. Confirmation is expected next month. Many see the selection of Outen to run the social-action arm of the church as another sign of basic change, an attempt to provide a firmer biblical footing for the UMC’s social-action programs.

Outen, a black and one of the UMC’s outstanding preachers, speaks forthrightly of his “new birth” experience through personal faith in Christ. He comes down just as clearly and firmly on issues of social justice.

He sees three trends ahead in the UMC’s social-concern emphases: programs and priorities will begin at grassroots level, not at the top; they will be grounded in the Gospel “with Jesus as a frame of reference”; and they will have proper motivation (growing out of response to the Gospel).

At one point in his address Outen sparred with an earlier speaker, Bishop William R. Cannon of Atlanta, who filled in when President Ford sent word that he could not be the keynote speaker as planned. Cannon declared that evangelism should have top priority in church life. But he also suggested that polarization impedes pursuit of the priority. He criticized the present-day emphasis on racial and ethnic differences which, he charged, cause polarization. In this connection he denounced quota systems in hiring and placement, especially in the the church. Outen replied that he doesn’t like quota systems either, “but they are a necessity precisely because of our past and current sins.”

UMC evangelism executive Ross Whetstone in an interview agreed that tides of spiritual renewal are flowing in the church. He notes great interest in the Holy Spirit, some of it within the charismatic context, much of it not. This, he says, is due in part to the cultural shift going on, a move from the rational to the sensate, brought on by the electronic age and a depersonalized world. “People are searching for significant personal experiences,” he concludes.

Whetstone is identified as a charismatic himself, but not a hand-waving one. He has conducted a number of conferences, often with an emphasis on healing, “to help United Methodists come to terms with the charismatic movement and to help experience-oriented churchmen understand the more rational-oriented part of the denomination.” He warns against “the cult of goose-bump strokers who get latched onto a spiritual high and never get into the life of the world” and against the dangers of misunderstanding and divisiveness.

Whetstone and others distinguish between charismatics and classical Pentecostals. The latter teach that glossolalia is the sign of Spirit baptism, while many charismatics say it may be a sign. There are other gifts of the Spirit, not just tongues, says Robert Tuttle, a parish minister of evangelism. Discernment is a needed gift today, he says.

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Oral Roberts, however, came close to declaring that tongues as a prayer language is for every Christian although the gift of tongues (for public ministry) is not. Much of his nearly two-hour address dealt with glossolalia.

Many individuals in the UMC are involved in Bible study groups and lay-witness campaigns. A number of ministers and leaders also point to another trend: an increasing number of local churches are devising ongoing programs of evangelistic outreach in their communities and are no longer relying simply on a yearly preaching mission to fulfill the Great Commission.

That, said an old-timer at the congress, is a sure sign that the United Methodist Church is coming back to life.



Many Americans are concerned about the moral drift of television programming, according to a TV Guide poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey. The poll, involving more than 1,000 viewers, showed that 71 per cent feel too much violence is depicted, and that 54 per cent think there is too much emphasis on sex.

Last year TV executives established a “family viewing time” policy to prevent programming “inappropriate for viewing by a general family audience during the early evening hours.” This policy has been under attack by writers, actors, and producers who claim it is a form of censorship that has inhibited them. The TV Guide poll showed that 82 per cent of the viewers surveyed favor the policy while 7 per cent oppose it and 11 per cent have no opinion. But more than half of those polled had not known of the family viewing time and could not respond until pollsters told them what it is.

It is no secret that theological liberalism has fallen upon ho-hum times. Gone are the social-action crusades and mass demonstrations that provided a platform—and sometimes diversion—for many in the liberal camp. God has moved into the Secular City, and now there’s a growing sacred quarter that has helped to quiet the whole town. Many of the former liberal ideologists have settled down to rethink basic spiritual issues. Some even concede that not everything they formerly did in the name of God was necessarily of God. The charismatic movement, which has spread to liberal circles (including seminaries), has undone decades of demythologizing of Scripture. Conservative churches and schools are growing, and evangelicals are speaking out on the justice side of social concerns but, unlike many similarly minded liberals, from a solid biblical foundation.

A year ago a group of prominent theologians and other church leaders met at Hartford Seminary and hammered out an “Appeal for Theological Affirmation.” The Hartford paper identified and rejected thirteen “dangerous” trends in theology, including some pet premises of hard-core liberalism (see February 14, 1975, issue, page 53, and February 28 issue, page 32). The majority of the signers were themselves classified as liberals. In effect, they were saying there are limits to liberal theology, and here are the boundaries.

All of these developments distressed avant-grade types like Harvard’s Harvey Cox, well-known American Baptist theologian and author, and others who interpreted them as trends toward theological escapism. This month Cox and twenty other Boston theologians and church leaders struck back with a position paper of their own: “The Boston Affirmations.”

The four-page Boston statement amounts to a reaffirmation of the Church’s need to be involved socially—on liberal terms. “The living God is active in current struggles to bring a reign of justice, righteousness, love, and peace,” the paper begins. It goes on to show how God delivers from oppression through human instruments. Illustrations of such activity are drawn from the Church’s past. But, cautions the paper, “the question today is whether the heritage of this past can be sustained, preserved, and extended into the future.” It is gloomy about the answer: “Society as presently structured, piety as presently practiced, and the churches as presently preoccupied evoke profound doubts about the prospects.”

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The paper sees “the transforming reality of God’s reign” in such “witnesses” as “the struggles of the poor to gain a share of the world’s wealth,” the “drive for ethnic dignity against racism,” the “endeavor by women to overcome sexist subordination,” and “the voices of citizens and political leaders who demand honesty.”

The signers assert that they “cannot stand with those secular cynics and religious spiritualizers who see in such witnesses no theology, no eschatalogical urgency, and no Godly promise or judgment.”

Those behind the Boston Affirmations are members of the Boston Industrial Mission Task Force, a social-action group formed in 1974. Social ethics professor Max Stackhouse of Andover Newton seminary did most of the editing.

Immediate reaction came from several framers of the Hartford statement, including Rutgers sociologist Peter Berger. “The Boston group wants to nail us down to a particular agenda which, broadly speaking, is a left-liberal agenda,” he observed. “It’s a very serious mistake to say that this is what Christians are to be concerned with.”


African Unity

It is not unusual in Africa for church meetings to begin a little late, but there was an unusual reason for the late start of a worship service in Monrovia, Liberia, this month. The service in Zion Praise Baptist Church was a part of the program for the first full-term inauguration of Liberia’s president William Tolbert.

The service was delayed because Tolbert, who is also pastor of the church, was not there. It was an invitation-only affair, and the sanctuary was packed with political and ecclesiastical leaders as well as the diplomatic corps. While they waited, the rumor circulated that the president had gone to the airport to pick up the guest of honor. Among those waiting was a Southern Baptist pastor, William Self of Atlanta, Georgia, who was one President Ford’s special envoys to the inauguration.

Self said that the back door swung open an hour and a quarter after the stated starting time, and President Tolbert came in carrying his swagger-stick, which is topped by a carving of the head of Christ, and walked up the aisle to a chair beside the communion table.

The atmosphere was “electric” when his guests followed him to the front, Self told a reporter. The man he picked up at the airport was none other than Uganda’s Muslim president and the chairman of the Organization of African Unity, Idi Amin. The Ugandan field marshal, in military garb and with a pistol on each hip, took his place in a chair at the opposite end of the table from Tolbert.

After the opening liturgy, something else unusual happened in the Baptist pulpit from which Tolbert usually preaches. A robed Anglican priest, Burgess Carr, delivered the sermon. Carr is the controversial cleric who is general secretary and chief spokesman for the All-Africa Conference of Churches. He is also a Liberian.

Carr preached from Joel 2, and in the last half of his seventy-five-minute sermon gave his description of the “locusts” in contemporary African life. On his “locust” list were the elite, those practicing nepotism, those from outside who exploit Africans, rich business people (including blacks), and dictators. He called for personal integrity, morality, and hard work to restore the country after the ravages of the marauding insects.

In his conclusion, Carr conceded that his message might have sounded like a political speech to some in the audience. If that offended President Tolbert, he did not show it. Instead, he climbed up into the pulpit with Carr and embraced him while a university choir sang the concluding anthem. At a later state banquet, Carr was an honored guest.

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Self, one of three Americans named to represent President Ford at the festivities, was at a loss to explain his appointment. The only explanation he could offer was that because of Tolbert’s international reputation as a Baptist preacher, the White House wanted to include a Baptist pastor from the United States in its delegation. (A few months earlier Self had visited President Park of Korea on a fact finding mission involving allegations of religious persecution.)

Tolbert is a past president of the Baptist World Alliance. When he first assumed the nation’s leadership upon the death of his predecessor, Evangelist Billy Graham was one of the special American envoys at the inauguration.


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