I really like the Methodist church. Not because I'm a Methodist (I'm not), but because I really like John Wesley.
I've lived and studied at Christ Church College in Oxford where his portrait hangs prominently in the dining hall.
I've walked the length of Aldersgate Street in London searching for the place where his heart was "strangely warmed" to the point of conversion in 1784.
I've even been to his home, and church, a few blocks from that very road where I dared to climb behind his pulpit.
Though it wasn't easy.
Sitting in a nearby pub which turned out to be within a few blocks of my destination, I asked the person waiting on me if he could direct me to Wesley's home.
"John who?" he replied.
"John Wesley," I answered, emphasizing the last name, thinking my American accent might have been confusing.
"Never heard of him," he said. "But hold on, I'll go ask." After approaching three other workers, along with two regulars at the counter, he came back.
"Sorry, can't help. Nobody's heard of him," he said. "Who is he?"
"The founder of Methodism," I replied.
If I had puzzled him before, it had reached new heights.
Undaunted, I pressed on. "It's a Christian movement, well, it was a Christian movement within Anglicanism, and then it became a denomination. Wesley was its founder. His home is supposed to be near here."
At the word "Christian" he finally gave a look of recognition. Waving his hand and dismissing the entire conversation with a laugh, he said, "You're at the wrong place to ask about that sort of thing, mate."
I shouldn't have been.
I was in England, after all, and Wesley is one of her most historic sons. Educated at Oxford, Wesley was a member of the Church of England his entire life, though his successors would take his "methodical" approach to Christianity and begin ordaining ministers under the name "Methodist" shortly after his death. As mentioned, his portrait hangs prominently in Oxford's Christ Church College dining hall to this day.
And more to the point, it was precisely men and women as this, in pubs like this, which kept Wesley's passion for spreading the gospel fanned into a flame.
Sadly, this is symbolic of what's happening to the Methodist church as a whole. The church has lost 2.89 million members in the United States since 1970, dropping to 7.8 million today. Bishop Dick Wills of the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church calls it a "crisis" and muses out loud that the United Methodist Church is not even financially sustainable.
And, according to Wills, the cause? "It is growingly irrelevant to the culture."
But now a Call to Action proposal is being discussed by Methodist leaders. Blaming a lack of leadership for the denomination's struggles, it calls for better pastors, healthier churches and less bureaucracy. Put together by a team of 16 Methodist leaders, there is hope that the proposal will push the denomination to change.
Analyzing data from 32,000 Methodist congregations, the authors of the proposal found that only 15% were "vital" congregations, with strong preaching and lay leadership, and a mixture of contemporary and traditional worship. These "vital" churches are also the ones that tend to have growing memberships.
Of course, there are some in Methodist ranks who want nothing of it. They feel that instead of an emphasis on growing membership, there should be an emphasis on developing better Christians. Dan Dick, a Methodist blogger, has a point when he says, "If we don't know what to do with the … people we already have, there's no reason to believe that we'll do any better with another million people."
But why must we always pit evangelism against discipleship, as if they are at war with each other? If you don't evangelize, you won't have anyone to disciple; if you don't disciple people, you won't have any evangelists.
Jason Byassee, a writer and editor for Duke Divinity School's leadership education program, sees reason for hope in the Call to Action program.
"The good news is that everyone thinks there is something wrong with the system and wants to do something different."
From my vantage point, it sounds like 16 leaders returned to their church's roots and asked, "What would Wesley do?"
Answer? Methodist churches must reach people who are outside the church.
And the good news is that if the Call to Action takes hold, the Methodist church might just do it.
And then maybe the next pilgrim to London will be able to get directions to Wesley's house from the local pub.
James Emery White
"Methodists seek better pastors, vital churches to fight shrinking rolls," Bob Smietana, The Tennessean/USA Today, November 7, 2011. Online at http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-11-07-methodist07_ST_N.htm