The Methodist Church Split & Empty Parking LotsGeorge Shamblin
I’m convinced even the most adamant critics of Christianity secretly find comfort in the stillness of Sunday noontime traffic jams, though few will ever admit it. Waiting in your car for the congested roads to clear can be a hassle, but there’s something oddly reassuring about encountering the overflow from America’s oldest institution. It’s a feeling that’s not so different from the sense of security when surrounded by our grandparents as children. We might have chuckled at their quirks or blush-worthy comments, but our world felt a little less secure once they were gone.
Even young Timothy, a pastor struggling with timidity, found solace in the spiritual legacy of his family tree, as his mentor Paul noted: I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelled in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well. For this reason, I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of timidity but of power and love and discipline. (2 Tim. 1:5-7). It’s no different than the comforting feeling we get when passing by towering steeples adorned with crosses and bells in our towns. Stained-glass sanctuaries, like grandparents, can exude a reassuring aroma of home.
I’m equally convinced that even the fiercest critics of faith feel a twinge of discomfort at the sight of empty church parking lots in their communities. They may never admit it, but it’s true. This saddens me, and many others, as we witness the fate of numerous Methodist congregations.
The Parking Lot Test
The Parking Lot Test speaks volumes about a church. As we drive around town on Sundays, nearing noon, the status of church parking lots tell a story. Overflowing lots convey one message, while barren ones tell another. While not perfect indicators of a church’s health, they do offer valuable insights.
You may have noticed an increasing number of empty spaces in many Methodist church parking lots near you. Most of these increasingly vacant lots belong to congregations that have completed the discernment process and decided to remain within the mainline UMC denomination (United Methodist Church). The discernment process is when local parishes take the time to decide whether to stay with the UMC or join alternative Wesleyan denominations like the Global Methodists. I’m not being mean-spirited, but I’d like to have an honest conversation with some ministers who stayed within the UMC and ask, “Did you expect anything less?”
The “You’re Safe” or “You’re Out” Test
The “You’re Safe” or “You’re Out” Test is relevant here. We were always told to stick to our convictions no matter what when we graduated from high school. From a Biblical perspective, we should let our yes be yes and our no be no, as James 5:12 tells us. Interestingly, when someone stands firm on their convictions, we may sharply disagree but respect their determination. A valuable life lesson can be found in here.
A high school kid named Stanley umpired a little league baseball game in my hometown. During a critical moment, he initially called a runner out, but then reversed his decision when confronted by the opposing coaches. It was a knee-jerk decision that led to chaos and dissatisfaction. He later told me the life lesson was clear: “Never cave under pressure from the crowd.” In other words, stick to your convictions no matter what.
The UMC’s initial shortfall was stepping out of the shadow of its founder, John Wesley. Unlike Timothy, who found solace among his spiritual predecessors and their convictions, many ministers today, when forced to choose definitively (“you’re safe” or “you’re out”), have aligned themselves against the Book of Discipline and, even worse, against the whole counsel of God and the authority of Scripture. This is proving to be a fatal mistake. You can’t define Methodism without John Wesley, just as you can’t define Reformed Theology without John Calvin or Roman Catholicism without the pope.
Although I’m ordained in a denomination other than Methodist and align myself in a different theological camp, it’s essential to acknowledge what set Wesley apart in the first place. He believed and behaved differently from his peers at Oxford University, earning titles like “Bible moth” and “Holy Club” member. He never wavered in his convictions, even when the culture ostracized him. It was commendable then, and it remains laudable today.