In an exciting new opportunity and direction to pursue, I was privileged to present my first academic paper at a conference today at the 2018 Wesleyan Theological Society. The theme of the conference is “Borders: Bane or Blessing”, and in the ecumenical studies category I have fallen hard on the side of borders being a bane for wider Methodist Gospel effectiveness in America. Some of you may get a kick out of what is essentially my call for one, unified, Wesleyan Methodist Nazarene Holiness denomination instead of the many (unnecessary) factions we have today. Truly, I believe our overall Gospel effectiveness as spiritual descendants of Wesley depends on it. Hope you enjoy. I’d love to dig deeper and discuss it further with you in the comments. As always, thank you for reading. We’re all in this together.
How Are the Borders amongst Wesley’s Spiritual Descendants Hurting Their Work?
Two young Anglicans in the 18th century dreamt of purer and holier living in Christ eventually birthing what would become a global movement of holiness of heart and mind and perfected sanctification made possible in the lives of true Christians. John Wesley described a Methodist as one whose, “…joy is full, and all his bones cry out, `Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten me again unto a living hope of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, reserved in heaven for me.’” From the vision, architecture, hymnody, and, yes, method of John and Charles Wesley grew a religious movement that at one point encompassed over 16.9% of the American population in its membership. However, through years of divisions, arguments, and borders erected amongst Wesley’s spiritual descendants, the spiritual witness and gospel effectiveness of the people called Methodists is greatly diminished.
At the time the key founder of Methodism died, though he had hoped to simply reform his precious Church of England, John had nearly 50,000 people registered in class meetings across Britain. At an estimated population of 8 million at that time, this movement had reached more people than he could have imagined, but its real flourishing would soon be happening on the American Continent. Under the administration of Asbury, Coke, Vasey, Whatcoat, and the faithful work of numerous sanctified believers, Methodism’s dramatic expansion could only be counted miraculous. It was not without incident, however.
As early as 1792 the first schism happened “when James O’Kelly rebelled against the appointment system and formed the Republican Methodists.” Roughly 100 years after Methodism’s inauguration on American soil it had faced at least 11 denominational splits. Each of these secessions cited the power of bishops, the evils of slavery, the emphasis or lack thereof upon entire sanctification, and loose behavioral standards such as membership in secret societies or style of dress, social justice issues such as the evils of alcohol or womens’ rights, or some combination of these as their reason(s) for leaving the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Yet the mainline of the Methodist Episcopal Church seemed unperturbed enough as to continue past these splits without enough major reform to heal the rifts.
Additionally, this record of schisms doesn’t include independent holiness groups and associations practicing some form of Methodism, under that name or not, that formed in the wake of revivals headlined by Methodist preachers. Many of these groups, official denominations or not, also faced further splits, continuing the dilution of Wesley’s holiness teaching and dream of unity, echoing Christ’s own call for the same. Despite these borders, by 1860, the statistical heyday of Wesleyan Christians, one in three American church-goers were Methodist in one form or another!
There have been mergers and collaborations happen among many of these groups leading to mainline groups such as the United Methodist Church, even as some splits have also continued. Subsequent new denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene and The Wesleyan Church have formed, repairing wounds made by the schisms of the past or bringing previously denied groups into the fold, if tangentially. There are also some Pentecostal groups still following a form of Methodist polity. The Pew Research Center suggests that collective Holiness and Methodist church attendance now encompasses only 5.5% of the American population. This squares with the World Methodist Council’s statistics showing nearly 6% of the American population attending its member churches as of 2016.
Statistical analysis researchers live by the reminder that correlation does not imply causation, and there is nothing prescriptively causative in the meager statistics presented and used for this study. They are illustrative of the fact that the spiritual descendants of Wesley have besmirched the legacy of holiness, fervent life change, and Gospel effectiveness he left for his followers to continue multiplying by their arbitrary borders. This presentation is less concerned with exactly why such vast declines in effectiveness have happened after a period of such rapid growth at its roots. The working premise is that a lack of commitment to theology, forms, and polity laid forth by Wesley resulting in such a mutilated Methodism has something significant to do with the problem. A dilemma spanning two continents, over 200 years, and roughly 15 main streams of spiritual heritage will not be solved with statistics, no matter how dashing the presenter.
The only core branch of this American, pan-Wesleyan family tree that reported growth in overall attendance, new conversions, and baptisms is The Wesleyan Church. Other core branches such as the United Methodist Church, Church of the Nazarene, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Free Methodist Churches all stagnated or outright declined, if they reported anything at all (AME) Though each of these show some gains in other parts of the globe, the North American conferences of these denominations are not necessarily paving the way forward with sterling records.
Although there are healthy or at least healing spots in these records, the broader Wesleyan body of Christ in America is undoubtedly still bleeding from amputations not appropriately carried out or healed in the past two centuries.
Statistics are simply numbers. The Church has, or at least should have always, been about human hearts restored to God through faith in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Each statistical decline is a heart not reconciled to God and fellow human beings. Each new addition is a heart waiting for discipleship and the ecstatic hope of sanctification. Each trend is a wave of the populace letting the Church know she is or isn’t meeting their needs. Each trend is a group of hearts that Wesleyans share the love of Christ with or push away in our lack of truthful hope and love.
The essence of the problem represented by these statistics and concerned quotes is that minimal fruitful effort has been done to right these wrongs. Each successive generation, as Witherington implies, has gone further astray from the primal, electric movement that Wesley founded by specific methods applicable to all who would seek a truer faith. It got so bad that, as Schenck notes, the very soul of Methodist care for the other was replaced by protective borders of the heart to save the insiders from those who were yet outside. Today the problem has only metastasized to the point where a born and raised Methodist could find more of what Wesley taught outside of Wesleyan streams than inside it. For some reason, each main branch of this desiccated facsimile of what Wesley founded appears content to continue producing diminishing returns, else why would they continue each moving away from each other?
Moses learned the practices of confession and restitution at the feet of the Lord on Mt Sinai. The number of times he humbled himself at the feet of God and the feet of his rebellious brethren are an example to any who would seek to rebuild bridges. In part of the Mosaic covenant laid out at the beginning of Numbers there is a word of exhortation to any who sinned against a brother or sister by doing harm, “They must confess their sin and make full restitution for what they have done, adding an additional 20 percent and returning it to the person who was wronged.” Can there be any doubt that the collective Methodist offspring have done grievous harm to each other by sins of pride, stubbornness, and injury by schism? When will full confession and reconciliation be sought?
In a potential positive turnaround, portions of the Wesleyan tribes have entered into full Communion agreements with each other. The AME, AMEZ, AUMP, CME, UAME, and UM Churches are leading the way in ecumenicalism. However, churches often keep track of what they value, but the publicly available records of each of these denominations shows that apparently none of them are tracking pastoral sharing or membership movement in and among this new consortium. What good are full Communion agreements if they do not produce actual, intentional unity in practice? It is not enough; in fact, it is more like removing the razor wire at the top of our borders only to find out somebody electrified them in the meantime. These agreements give the appearance of drawing others close, but without actionable results they actually create further tension by their disappointment and lack of effectiveness.
There are such radical examples of reunification presented throughout our Holy Scriptures. Abraham and Lot settled the differences amongst their men to part peacefully. Jacob and Esau met joyfully on the road after years of abandoned relations. Moses bowed before the Lord and the people of Korah’s rebellion to sue for peace. Ruth stayed with Naomi when it would have been easier not to. David brought Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth back to court and restored to him all the titles and possessions of his family although there was no need. Hosea provided money to his wife’s lover just to continue caring for her. In the New Testament Paul made amends with John Mark and even counted Barnabas an equal in ministry later in his life (Col 4:10, 1 Cor 9:6). Peter crossed cultural, religious, and moral lines for the time to build relationship and extend grace to Cornelius’ household. Of course, he learnt that necessary ability first hand after denying Christ three times and receiving gracious reconciliation from the Lord.
These examples, prefigured Old Testament stories or New Testament apostolic interactions, are only feeble shadows compared to the miraculous grace poured out by Christ to His creation by His blood.
If God is willing to promise and fulfill the creation of new hearts within believers, if Christ’s resurrection destroys the death of sin within Adam’s progeny, if the Spirit continues to sanctify and miraculously work today, then why are the people called Methodists, founded in part to promote the promise of holiness, not actually living out the pursuit of these promises by seeking the same deep reconciliation taught in the Bible and enacted by Christ?
In the over 200 years since Wesley his followers have strayed from their simple mission to get entangled in perhaps important but non-essential concerns that have only caused harm to the work and witness of his descendants.
This does not deny or decry efforts that have been made in the direction of unification; this simply suggests that they are not enough. This does not deny that amid schism there have still been gains in different places and times across the country; it does acknowledge that statistically the developing parts of the world are far more effective at spreading the Gospel through Methodism than the Americans. This does not deny that theologically excellent advances have been made across the breadth of American Methodism in its various forms; undeniably, though, these advances have not translated into similar practical excellence of life change rendering the theological advances rather moot.
It is time for a fresh wind of true reconciliation, repentance, humility, and bridge-building. Full Communion is irrelevant if it does not change wider Methodist practice, especially with other Methodists. Once upon a time, following Wesley’s lead, Methodists lived with a holy dissatisfaction at life to strive for personal and corporate life-change without exception for denominational border, but today pan-Methodist culture appears to operate with a denominational dissatisfaction without exception for changed life aside from a few statistical pockets. This status quo must go the same way of a sinner’s heart, cleansed and justified in God’s light for purer and holier work. Theodore Runyon provides a mission statement for a fresh way forward: “Moreover, this holy dissatisfaction is readily transferable from the realm of the individual to that of society, where it provides a persistent motivation for reform in the light of ‘a more perfect way’ that goes beyond any status quo.”
Now is the time to reject the status quo of denominational barriers and pursue deep reform.
BREAK THE BORDERS
Without doubt, not a single one of the borders amongst Wesley’s spiritual descendants has actually increased or helped the work of the larger witness of the pan-Wesleyan movement. Each border erected has been built over the gaping wound of schism, and wounds cannot heal with the excessive pressure of reinforced walls and the necrotic foundations of attitudes that find healing an unworthy pursuit. Yet not one of these borders was erected because of a truly necessary issue in the scope of Methodism’s raison d’etre. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop reminds all who call themselves Wesleyans, “We who would aspire to a more authentic Wesleyanism should explore again and again those areas in holiness theology and practice which are biblically central and unchanging and skirt those areas which are tentative and subject to constant openness of mind.”.
Our great spiritual father himself said, “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three – that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness.”
It seems difficult for a denomination to only be concerned with repentance, faith, and holiness, yet when the Gospel of Christ is distilled down, all else is extra! The Churches concern themselves with schools & universities, publishing houses, social justice initiatives, charitable concerns and more, which are well and good if they derive from Wesley’s main doctrines and lead people to them. If any of these or other concerns endemic to the Church become an end to themselves apart from repentance, faith, and holiness, then they have technically ceased to be concerns the Church NEEDS to deal with. Mission drift has been tolerated for 200 years too long.
Though the issues seemed so important at the times of each schism – the strength of the episcopacy, lay representation and authority in denominational decisions, the itinerancy of ministers, support or opposition to slavery, lack of holiness promotion, other social justice issues like women’s rights or membership in a lodge or consumption of alcohol, and more were actually separate issues from Father Wesley’s main concerns of repentance, faith, and holiness. Simply because of cultural pressure the Methodist Churches are actually contemplating further schism over another issue not central to the cause of unity with Christ over sexual identity. Yet for all of these “stands for truth”, by and large Wesley’s spiritual descendants in America are serving less than 6% of the population, and that’s a number that is shrinking. In other parts of the world where they do not have the luxury of meddling with theological intricacies and must focus on basics such as repentance, faith, and holiness, the pan-Methodist Churches are statistically growing in typically mind-blowing Wesley-an fashion. Yet the American Methodists continue to operate with the arrogance that led to each schism initially and appear unwilling to do enough hard work of humility to seek reunification with one another. Is Methodism’s statistical insignificance in America so unsurprising?
Christ actually gave us the clue to helping change the world and see lives transformed with holiness: Unity. The American Methodists will continue a statistical slide into obscurity if they do not make intentional, enveloping overtures at merging at executive and grassroots levels with Abraham’s generosity, Jacob’s penance, Moses’ humility, Ruth’s perseverance, David’s promise keeping, Hosea’s pity, Paul’s appreciation, Peter’s words, and Christ’s sacrificial nature.
Armed with these Biblical qualities, a renewed vision for Wesleyan essentials, a mission focus for life-change to the exclusion of extraneous details, and an acknowledgment that there is far more that Methodists share than what divides them, a full Wesleyan Methodist Nazarene Holiness merger is the only solution to repair the damage of the borders amongst Wesley’s spiritual descendants and turn pan-Methodism again into a culture shaper, a world leader, and a true light in the darkness rather than a dimming ember.
Pie in the sky? Utopian? Impossible? Only if repentance, faith, and the radical transformation of holiness isn’t truly possible for individuals, communities, or yes, even whole denominations.
 John Wesley, in his sermon “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-plain-account-of-christian-perfection/
 William Wallace Bennett’s a History of Methodism for our Young People (1878) cited a collected American Methodist (made up of at least 3 cited streams of Methodism) Sunday attendance of 6,528,209 out of a total population of 38,558,371 in the 1878 US Statistical Abstract of the United States = 16.93%
 Haines and Thomas, An Outline History of The Wesleyan Church, p. 26
Michael Warren. A chronology of state medicine, public health, welfare and related services in Britain 1066 – 1999
 Haines and Thomas, p. 33
 African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1796/1821), Primitive Methodists (1811), African United Methodist Protestant Church (1813), Reformed Methodists (1814), African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816), the Protestant Methodists (1828-1830), the Wesleyan Methodist Connection (1843), Methodists Episcopal Church, South (1845), Congregational Methodists (1852), Free Methodist Church (1860), Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (1870)
 Black and Drury, p. 31.
 ibid. p. 22
 International Pentecostal Holiness Church, https://iphc.org/introduction/.
 http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/ (2016)
 19,555,039 in attendance out of a 2016 USA population of 323,100,000, https://www.census.gov/popclock/
 The AME Zion Church the final core denomination used in this study as one of the World Methodist Council member churches, did not provide comparative statistical data.
 Ben Witherington III, The Problem With Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism, p. 172.: “The problem has not been primarily with Wesley or his immediate theological successor Richard Watson. The problem has been with their successors, very few of whom were experts in the Bible and many of whom cut their theological teeth on non-Wesleyan teething rings, for example, on German idealism.”
 http://www.missioalliance.org/the-scandal-of-the-wesleyan-memory/: Dr. Ken Schenck suggests, “In the twentieth century, however, as the rest of evangelicalism reacted against the social gospel, many grass roots Christians in the Wesleyan tradition found their intuitions turn against helping the needy, against helping immigrants, against anything associated with liberalism, including care for God’s creation.”
 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-im-no-longer-a-united-methodist/: Collin Hansen, editorial director of http://www.thegospelcoalition.org writes, “I left [Methodism] to find the theology of George Whitefield and Howell Harris that converted the Welsh… to learn the spiritual disciplines that sustained the Wesleys amid their conflicts with established church leaders and quests to reform British society… to find the spiritual zeal that made my grandfather belt out the Methodist hymnal by heart as cancer ravaged his body.”
 Numbers 5:6-7, NLT
 Theodore Runyon, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today (Abingdon, Nashville 1998). p. 168.
 Wynkoop, A Theology of Love, 2nd ed. Beacon Hill Press, 2015.
 John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley. Nazarene Publishing House and Zondervan Publishing House. Quote from volume 8, p. 472.
 John 17:21, NLT: “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me (emphasis mine).”
 Remember, 33% of the population to 6% in roughly 150 years
 Among the American member churches of the World Methodist Council, the collected Articles of Religion/Faith only show variance among half a dozen points – the rest are all shared in wording and ideal among 20 articles.