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The New Methodists: An Update

Methodism was born out of a passion for evangelism and discipleship, a passion which the Anglican Church from which they came refused to fully embrace. That passion crossed the Atlantic and exploded across America, making Methodists the largest Protestant denomination in America and the largest missionary force in the world. As Southern Baptists began to hit their stride in the 20th century, they were often compared to Methodists because of their zeal for evangelism, discipleship, and missions. And then things changed. A growing number of Methodists began turning their attention away from evangelism and discipleship because social issues of the day were considered more crucial, more pressing, more in need of immediate attention. They did not abandon evangelism and discipleship. They simply stopped paying attention to it and put their zeal and passion elsewhere. Their decline began, and Southern Baptists became the largest Protestant denomination in America. Methodist scholar W. E. Sangster was a giant in the field of preaching in the mid-twentieth century. In 1938, he wrote a little book to warn his fellow Methodists of where their reordered priorities were taking them. It was entitled Methodism Can Be Born Again. If you only look for one long out of print book this summer, I highly recommend that you look for this powerful, prescient volume. I found my copy in a used bookstore in Australia. Here are three quotes of what Sangster saw coming for Methodists. “Recent statistics are as dismally impressive as past statistics were startling in their triumphs. One turns over the sad record of recent years and finds a fearful wastage at work.” “So the decline goes and no sober observer expects a swift reversal. A child can easily foresee the outcomes of all this unless it is stopped.” “God can do something with the faithful, beaten to their knees, but who can manage a man who thinks that all is well with Methodism because things are not too bad in his corner.” WOW! Knowing what happened to Methodism after they failed to heed the warning of Sangster in 1938, makes the statistical results of what happened in the SBC over the last decade a bit terrifying. It was so for me as I was writing my just released book The Best Intentions. In 2009, I shared many times a message entitled “The New Methodists” in which I suggested the SBC was becoming the new Methodists. Baptist Press considered the message so controversial that they refused to release a story on it, which was quite unusual for a major address coming from an entity head. Clearly, I was not the first entity head to say something controversial, but saying the SBC was beginning to decline was judged too radical an idea for Southern Baptists to hear. In 2010, I was the only entity head who refused to endorse the Great Commission Resurgence proposals. I thought they were more likely to accelerate decline than reignite a passion for reaching our world with the gospel. After the passing of a decade, the state of the SBC is clear. For the first time in SBC history, we are firmly in the grip of decline. The decline of the SBC is still a reality many Southern Baptists refuse to accept and do not want to discuss. Ignoring reality does not change it. Southern Baptists are no longer becoming the new Methodists. We are the new Methodists. Across the board statistical decline? True for both. Smaller missionary force at home and abroad? True for both. Annual meetings dominated by controversial social issues and little or no discussion on how to address decline? True for both. Don’t expect NAMB to address the drop of the average number of baptisms per church from 7.2 per church in 2011 to 3.2 per church in 2021. A growing number of churches withdrawing from or minimizing support for their national body? True for both. If Southern Baptists are unwilling to do what is necessary to change their direction with sustained attention to breaking free of decline for at least a decade, look around at Methodists today to see the Southern Baptist Convention of tomorrow.

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