ON HOPE FOR METHODISM:
A TESTIMONY (PART 5) - Curriculum
By Dr. Riley B. Case
(At the center of the present crisis in United Methodism are irreconcilable differences between those who hold to the historic faith in the Wesleyan tradition and those who believe that the fundamentals of the gospel must change to fit a changing culture. This series of articles is one person’s testimony on living through the events that have brought the church to the point of division.)
In January of 1969, a team from the newly formed Good News board was able to meet with Henry Bullock, editor of church school materials for the Methodist Church, and a team of editors. It was probably the very first time, at least for 40 years, that any organized evangelical presence in the Methodist Church had had any kind of “dialogue” with any official group within institutional Methodism. The topic for discussion was Sunday school material. The plea by the Good News group was for Sunday school curriculum material that could be used by evangelicals. The appeal referenced Para. 972 of the 1968 Discipline: “This literature is to be of such type and variety as to meet the needs of all groups of our people." The argument was straightforward: evangelicals were a group within the church and their needs were not being met. The presentation was not well received. The editors argued they and their writers were all “evangelical,” the material was Biblical and well-received, and they would not be moved by “fundamentalist reactionism." The account of the meeting and the response was widely shared by the official church press.
It might be helpful in our present-day when considering differences in the church to remember that church school materials and philosophy were key issues bothering evangelicals in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. Theological modernism dominated in the seminaries and the Christian education program as early as the 1920s. Modernism denied the doctrine of Original Sin (about which Wesley had said one is not a Christian who does not believe in Original Sin) and the Atonement. It argued that numbers of Bible stories were inappropriate for children. This meant in Sunday school that children no longer memorized Bible verses or even learned Bible stories. The emphasis was on loving one another and making responsible choices in life. Sin was not rebellion against God, but ignorance. Salvation was not being rescued from judgment but psychological wholeness. The work of the Church was not so much bringing people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ as it was working for the “Kingdom,” a political and economic order that felt and sounded very much like secular socialism. To make matters worse, it was mandated in the Discipline that only “official” materials be used in Methodist churches.
That did not sit well with many churches and the mandate was widely ignored. Charles Keysor, in his original Christian Advocate article in 1966 that launched the Good News movement, claimed 10,000 churches were not using official material. He knew whereof he spoke since he had come into the Methodist ministry from David C. Cook, an independent publishing house. Eight of the first nine churches I served were not primarily using Methodist material. But many of us believed the solution was not to encourage the use of other publishers but to convince the denomination to make material available that could be used in good conscience by evangelicals. Could the newly merged church do this? It was an appropriate time. There was an explosion of spiritual energy being released in evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal circles.
Those putting together the merged church had other ideas. Even though there was a strong evangelical presence in both the Methodist and the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church in the 1960s, those directing the merger ignored and dismissed the concerns of historic Christianity. The concerns that received all the attention were those dominated by the headlines of the day. Both the 1968 and 1970 General Conferences were characterized by demonstrations, lobbying, and the calling out of racism, sexism, militarism, capitalism, and “white privilege” (even though that term was not in wide usage at the time). At the 1972 General Conference, there was almost no interest in the report of the Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards. There was much interest in the report of the Social Principles Study Commission, as well as the Structure Study Commission.
When Methodism was organized in America in 1784, the charge to the pastors was “You have nothing to do but save souls.” When the United Methodist Church was formed in 1968, the charge could have been summarized as: you have nothing to do but to work for inclusion, equity, and justice (note the parallels to today). If there was a strategy it could have been summarized as the quota system and the passing of resolutions. Mandated quotas were so extensive that some boards had more than 200 members in order to get everyone represented (way too many for effective governance). Resolutions, mostly prepared by the boards and agencies and approved by General Conferences, would be placed in a new Book of Resolutions. By 2004 the Book of Resolutions had grown to 954 pages and was 2 ¼” thick. Included were 30 resolutions on Native Americans, 8 on racism, and 11 on women. There were 2 resolutions on evangelism and 2 on the family.
My area of involvement at the time was youth ministry as the conference coordinator. Youth were included in the new quota systems. This meant, as far as the at-large membership of the various agencies was concerned, the following: “Not less than 20 percent of the total membership of each board shall be under 35 years of age, with not less than 10 percent between ages of 25 and 40, not less than 5 percent between the ages of 19 and 25, and not less than 4% 18 years or under at the time of election” (para 803.2, 1972 Discipline).
I was, at least at first, encouraged by the emphasis on youth involvement in church affairs. I had worked on two occasions to get youth elected as General Conference delegates. I nominated youth for conference committees and, then later, for general church agencies. After a few years, however, I became convinced that mandated youth quotas were not such a good idea after all. Youth did not make good board members. They missed meetings because of other involvements; within a year or two high school students became college students with different interests; they simply lacked experience and know-how.
But, according to denominational wisdom, youth concerns must be heard. The 1972 General Conference created the National Youth Ministry Organization (NYMO), a mostly free-wheeling independent agency that would be run by youth for youth. But, caught up in the secular spirit of the times, this meant not a ministry to youth in districts and local churches but efforts to address the problems of society. NYMO passed resolutions on social issues and used the Youth Service Fund (a fund raised by youth in local churches and conferences for missions) for grants to controversial groups including those involved in gay advocacy.
The result, if the word can be used, was disaster. In late September 1976, a consultation for conference and district youth coordinators was held in Nashville. Some of us were well aware of a new philosophy of youth ministry which dated to the early 1960s: youth were not to be given answers, but rather tools so they could find answers for themselves (so much for teaching the faith once delivered to the saints). The old Methodist Youth Fellowship, which had served the church well since the 1940s, had been discarded in the merger. How had the new philosophy fared? The report: in 1967 under the former Methodist Board of Education there were 13 youth staff persons, 15 secretaries, 52 full-time conference youth directors, and 1,200,000 pieces of curriculum material published quarterly. In 1976 the merged church counted one part-time adult in youth ministry, one secretary, and 400,000 pieces of curriculum materials per quarter. Church school enrollment numbering seven million in 1966 was in sharp decline (by 1986 it would number fewer than four million).
There was discussion about what was behind the decline. There was talk of changing times and cultural trends. There was less talk about the widening gap between local churches, which still were tending to carry evangelical understandings of the faith, and a leadership enamored with social change. The gap was exacerbated by the new structure of 1972. The new church had created an overload of bureaucracy featuring four super-boards (Discipleship, Higher Education and Ministry, Church and Society, and Global Ministries) that operated like independent fiefdoms. One of these, the General Board of Church and Society, would spend its time directing the church’s efforts in matters of social justice, equality, inclusion, and the new world order. In the previous restructuring, the Board of Evangelism and the Board of Education were downgraded to divisions within the Board of Discipleship.
It should be said that the Curriculum Resources Committee (CRC), part of Discipleship, was one of the only agencies of the church to make an effort to take seriously the Doctrinal Statement’s reference to “pluralism.” The committee made an effort to recruit evangelical writers, formed a Task Force on Pluralism, and chose several evangelicals as at-large members of the Committee. It, however, still operated with a one-size-fits-all philosophy. Published material was considered suitable for everyone in the church: city or country, conservative or liberal, black or white, sophisticated or unsophisticated.
I was privileged to be made an at-large member of CRC in 1980 and volunteered to be part of the Ethnic Minority Task Force. In 1984 several of us petitioned the General Conference to provide curriculum to serve the needs of black members of the church. One size fits all did not serve the needs of all groups in the church. The petition authorized $400,000 to develop a curriculum by blacks for blacks. The petition was not supported by the General Board but nevertheless was approved by the General Conference. It says something about the influence of the boards that the material was never developed.
The recounting of the events of this article gives one person’s perspective on how and why the church faces inevitable division in the months ahead. While many local churches, districts. and conferences were still thriving through the 1980s, the signs of serious problems were becoming evident. In less than 20 years after the merger, Sunday school enrollment decreased by 2.1 million members and church membership declined by 1.8 million, or about 90,000 per year.
And it would get worse.