ON HOPE FOR METHODISM -
A TESTIMONY (PART 2)
By Dr. Riley B. Case
United Methodism is moving toward a major division. The division is between a “traditionalist” understanding of Scripture and our Wesleyan heritage, and a “progressive” and/or “institutionalist” understanding of Christian faith. The progressive view believes that new truth is being revealed through science and/or culture and--say in regard to the practice of homosexuality--that the present institutional church is the arbitrator of how this new truth is incorporated into the life of the church. The present series of articles is one person’s testimony as to how this division has come to be.
Sometime in the early 1960s I received a phone call from my district superintendent asking if I was home because he wanted to see me. He would drive to my home (50 miles). This was unusual, even for that day. Normally we would speak over the phone or he would call me into his office. This must be important. It was. He wanted me to be the director for the Fort Wayne District junior high camp.
That kind of call would never take place today, no matter what conference. Superintendents today would not be that concerned over a junior high camp. Today a conference staff person would probably do the asking. It would be a conference more than a district camp. There would be no conference prestige in a camp director’s job.
But this was a previous time, back when our values were different. In our conference most of the programming was on a district level. Our junior high camps would always fill up at 180 campers. For these camps we recruited a volunteer staff of 35 persons. Our youth ministry was district and sub-district based. Our mission saturation programs were district, as was lay speaker training and clergy mentoring programs. There were district sponsored activities like summer picnics and Christmas programs for clergy families. There was tremendous morale.
I was a camp director for 14 years. I count those experiences as among the best of my years as a pastor. As I recall, our conference had only one paid staff person in programming. The district camp directors planned the summer and either picked or wrote their own curriculum.
During this time there was ferment in the larger religious world. This stirring did not arise out of the experiences of common, ordinary people but from cultural and intellectual centers. It was a top-down ferment associated with a certain kind of elitism. Death of God theology was becoming a fascination on college and seminary campuses. There was growing criticism of the church’s complicity in the society’s racist attitudes. Active independence movements globally led to intense criticism of past imperialism.
In 1967 I was invited to do a four-week continuing education event at one of our Methodist seminaries. The program was designed to re-tool pastors out of seminary for less than ten years. What I remember was not so much what was being said but how it was being communicated. Anger. There was anger over Viet Nam and racism and McCarthyism and institutionalism in general. Something major was wrong with America. Something major was wrong with the church.
I was hearing the same about my alma mater, Garrett. “Classical” disciplines in the curriculum were giving way to classes more “relevant” to the changing world scene. This basically meant less emphasis on Biblical subjects and more emphasis on political involvement, or how to effect social change. The student body was dividing into caucuses, advocacy groups, identity groups and political groups. When the Democratic Convention took place in Chicago in 1968 the word was out that the rallying place for the Weatherman, the most radical of all the political demonstrators, would be Garrett. At the same time there were sit-ins, class disruptions, and criticism of much of what the seminary was about (for a full account of this see Frederick Norwood, From Dawn to Midday at Garrett, 1978, pp. 193-212).
The president of the seminary resigned. In the spring of 1970 the school, for all practical purposes, ceased to function. Classes were cancelled. Meanwhile, student enrollment was dropping. The graduating class numbered 126 in 1962. By 1969 it had decreased to 44. In 1974 Merlin Northfelt, the new president, invited a number of us back to spend several days on campus to show us that Garrett had returned to normal. By that time, I was not sure what “normal” was. “Normal” certainly did not mean as things had been before. Somehow all of this was interpreted as relevance and progress.
This was spilling over into areas of my interest at the time—camping and youth ministry. In the mid-1960s our annual conference, which was enrolling 3,000 senior high youth each summer, was seeking to improve our program by bringing in “consultants.” One recommendation: too much preaching. Youth did not relate to preaching. So, we replaced “preaching” with keynote presentations (meant to inspire discussion). An on-site drama group provided most of the keynotes. The highlight of our institute program was Commitment Night, the time when we gave opportunity for youth to accept Jesus Christ as Savior. I remember a conversation with a member of the drama troupe, a seminary student. “Youth today,” he said, “no longer respond to words like ‘commitment.’ Commitment suggests a restriction of freedom. When youth get older they should be free to change their minds, to accept any religion, or no religion at all.” Evidently, for some, commitment to Jesus Christ was not the wave of our religious future.
Our conference was much too evangelical for that kind of thinking. However, parts of the general church were not. Again, criticism was coming not from local churches but from college and seminary age “youth,” caught up in the anger and dissatisfaction of the times. Youth, we heard, did not want to be treated like children. They were ready to deal with the serious problems of the world. This was what was behind the “youth” demonstrations at the 1968 and 1970 General Conference. Persons working on the new denominational structure bought into the “youth” arguments totally.
The new wisdom decreed that the Methodist Youth Fellowship had to go. The Methodist-EUB merger would give a good excuse. A new merged church required that previous Methodist and EUB ways of doing things yield to something new.
I had grown up in the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF). It was our church club. We had banners, officers, areas of service, even our own MYF benediction. Our motto was “Christ above all.” We made covenant that we would seek to win others for Christ. We carried MYF Bibles. Our Youth Service Fund supported mission projects of interest to youth. This was seen in the late 1960s as a “Kiddie Club” approach to youth ministry and did not fit the mood of the times. The words I heard on more than one occasion were “Mickey Mouse.”
Though I was deeply committed to the Methodist Youth Fellowship, I did understand that times were changing and that something new would need to replace MYF. I did not believe, however, that in the attempt to be relevant and “up with the times” would mean that the denominational youth program, for all practical purposes, would come crashing down (more on that later). Surely the Methodist-EUB merger would make us stronger, not weaker (more on that later). I was aware that all kinds of exciting things were happening in the larger evangelical world. Surely these developments would impact the new United Methodist Church for good. In 1955 I attended the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship Missionary Conference in Urbana along with 5,000 other students. Attendees expressed amazement at the huge turnout. There was optimism about reaching the lost for Christ. The Methodist Board of Missions was present with a booth. That excitement was just beginning. A few years later the same conference was attracting 17,000, the maximum the facilities could hold, and many were turned away
I would have had trouble believing at that time that the new United Methodist Church, at least in America, was about to plunge into fifty straight years of membership decline and that we would eventually become so divided between those holding to historic faith and those holding to a modern faith continually adapting to culture and modern thought, that separation would be inevitable.
That is our situation at the moment. In a few months conferences and local churches will need to decide what form of Christian faith they wish to identify with.
The next article—the disaster of the 1968 merger.