This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

A Split Among the Arkansas United Methodists

Valley Grove by McGhiever (CC BY-SA 3.0)
There's trouble among the United Methodists of Arkansas, and it's no surprise.

If you've looked over some of my recent posts here you'll know that the current split happening the United Methodist Church holds a certain fascination for me. It was the denomination of my maternal grandfather, and when I was growing up Catholic it was one of only a few Protestant denominations that I'd heard of in northeast Missouri. Locally the two best known churches were Southern Baptist and United Methodist, although we did have a tiny Church of the Nazarene congregation as well as one or two Assemblies of God. Beyond my background, it's intriguing to me as an observer of human sociology. What people believe, how they behave toward one another, and what holds them together or pushes them apart is to me the core of human religious social dynamics. 

Having finished college at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas (way back in 1999), it caught my eye recently when I saw Cabot and Searcy mentioned in connection with some United Methodist difficulties. It seems that this past November the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church refused to ratify disaffiliation agreements for three churches in which there was a super-majority in favor of leaving. The churches in question are located in Jonesboro, Cabot, and Searcy. I don't know if I ever went to Jonesboro, but I doubt it. Searcy I got to know quite well, living there for two years. As for Cabot, I drove through there on my way to either Jacksonville to visit a church or to Little Rock to do some shopping. 

The Jonesboro and Searcy United Methodist parishioners have opted to sue for their freedom, since the conference wouldn't give it to them. The Cabot UMC took a path I find much more interesting. The majority, who wanted to go the independent, conservative route, simply left. The final Sunday as a single congregation was on Christmas, and the very next week 320 now-former members gathered at a local school for worship separately. They left behind only 130 people at Cabot United Methodist Church, and evidently only one of their pastors stayed on. 5 choir members were left, which was not enough for them to continue. Even the organist was gone. 

On the brighter side, some wealthy individual stepped up anonymously to pay off the mortgage on the UMC building, giving them some security as they sort themselves out. There was evidently even enough left over to help with some expenses in the meantime, giving the church some runway. Additionally, a university student was found to play the piano for worship, and 16 people have expressed interest in joining the choir. With fewer people, some of the more timid are perhaps finding the courage to step up and take a more active role. 

What I find darkly amusing, on the other hand, is the optimistic view about church growth that the pastors of the two groups are expressing to the press. The lead minister of the split-off group cited "research" that he believes indicates that "new churches reach new people." In reality, new churches tend to attract people who are already believers and looking for a new church. Similarly, the minister of the UMC parish that remains was quoted as saying that "[b]iblically, churches split and more people come to know Christ [as a result]. So that's not a bad thing." I'm not sure where the 'biblically' part comes in, unless he's talking about the conflict between Paul and Barnabas over Mark, which resulted in each going his own way in preaching the Gospel. That feels like a little bit of a stretch in terms of application in this case.

The general reality for Christianity in America today is that it is in decline. As evangelicals continue to oppose human rights in favor of a puritanical view of morality. take a hateful stance against those who differ from their vision of the world, and attempt through Christian nationalism to regain coercive power over others, their mask is off and more people are seeing the ugly truth. While I believe that both of these specific churches may well find a way to grow again along their own paths, the demographic trend away from their beliefs, whether mainline or evangelical, will only continue to decline.

And that's good for all of us. 

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