At one point in history, following the 1968 merger of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church that became The United Methodist Church, Methodism was substantially, and quietly, steered toward a generic mainline destination. What I am about to report was never prominent in the public discussions before, or after, the merger (emphasis added). In those years, I was on the staff at the Board of Evangelism, and then on the Perkins faculty, and then on the staff of the Board of Discipleship. In those years, some senior denominational executives were informing staff people that what the merger was really about was becoming a “New Church.” These leaders were good people who meant well; like leader-groups in most generations, they convinced themselves that they knew best. So becoming a New Church would involve one major shift: our church would become much less Methodist and much more mainline – like the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and so on.
We had already drifted in that direction; now we were being navigated in that direction. Ironically, much of Methodism’s theological academy was becoming more Methodist; scholars like Albert Outler, William R. Cannon, and Frank Baker produced the greatest generation of Wesleyan scholarship. But a constellation of denominational executives agreed that they knew better than the early Methodists and their own scholars. The accelerated shift from a Methodist to a mainline identity did not just happen. We were pushed.
Indeed, in those years, the 1970s and 1980s, we managed to become more mainline than our partners. Today, Lutherans are more consciously and recognizably Lutheran, Presbyterians-Presbyterian, and Episcopalians-Anglican, than United Methodists are consciously and recognizably Methodist. We gave up much more than our partners did in the hope that they would welcome us into the mainline club of denominations (9-10).
So, the move from Methodist to mainline was not simply a natural shift, though it may have been initially; we were strategically directed and brought down this path. But what are the repercussions of this move for the people called Methodist? Hunter identifies three.
While most mainline churches moved from Europe to North America as institutionalized national churches, Methodism did not. We were a renewal movement within the Church of England. In institutionalizing as a mainline church, we left our identity as a vibrant movement behind.
Drawing on the work of Scott Kisker, Hunter suggests that the shift to mainline “sucked much of the identity, vitality, and reproductive power out of our once-great movement” (10). Hunter provides two quotes from Kisker that are worth repeating here. First, “When we became mainline, we stopped actually being Methodists in all but name.” Second, “For us in so-called mainline Methodism, our ‘mainline’ identity is killing us and we must surgically remove it if we are ever to regain our health” (Hunter, 10).
Another consequence identified by Hunter might be called our Methodist identity crisis. He suggests that most Methodists have no idea what it means to actually be Methodist. What do we believe that sets us apart and gives us a reason to exist? It has long been cliché that one can be a Methodist and believe whatever she wants. But this poses a variety of problems, not least with regard to evangelism and church preservation (not to mention growth), because “we cannot observe, anywhere, a long line of people eager to join a church that does not know what it believes, or who it is, or so easily changes its mind” (10).
What do you think about Hunter’s assessment of the shift from Methodist to mainline? Have you observed consequences of this shift other than those observed above? What are the best resources for getting a better handle on this shift? Is renewal possible? Is there a way of regaining our movemental Methodist identity and vitality?