Currents in world growth shaping Methodist church, too

Boom in Christianity Reshapes Methodists

Rachel Zoll, Associated Press

The United Methodist Church is the latest Protestant group caught in the shifting currents of world Christianity. While the American denomination is shrinking at home, its congregations in the developing world are growing explosively.

Over the last decade, the number of United Methodists outside the U.S. more than tripled. The denomination’s largest district is now in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. At the next national church assembly, the 2008 General Conference in Texas, overseas delegates will have more say than ever in the church’s future—as many as 30 percent could come from abroad.

“Trends suggest that Christianity is going to continue to grow as a global phenomenon, and denominations that have thought of themselves as being predominantly North American in character are going to have to get over that,” said William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology, a Methodist seminary in Dallas.

Many in the mission-minded church see the new overseas ties as a gift. Yet as the experience of other Protestant groups indicates, there also is conflict ahead. Christians overseas have been deeply influenced by the zeal of the missionaries who brought them the faith. In the developing world, traditional Bible teachings aren’t questioned—they’re accepted.

As United Methodists debate how they should interpret Scripture on issues from salvation to sexual orientation, delegates from overseas will be a steadfast conservative voice in the fight.

“You definitely see among the African delegations a much more conservative perspective on issues of homosexuality,” said retired United Methodist Bishop C. Dale White, a liberal who oversaw publication of the book United Methodism at Risk: A Wake-Up Call, which contends that conservative groups are trying to take control of the denomination.

“In the past two General Conferences, we’ve seen a readiness of conservative American delegates to make common cause with the African delegates who very sincerely believe that in their context, if the United Methodist Church is open to ordaining gay and lesbian people, that it will hurt their outreach there,” White said.

A similar dynamic is eroding the 77 million-member world Anglican Communion, the loose association of churches that traces its roots to the Church of England.

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