United Methodists Attempt to Put New Life Into Their Religious Spirit : Church With Declining Membership Stages Morale-Boosting Rally at Shrine Auditorium

Times Religion Writer

If any church body has needed a rousing, morale-boosting rally, it has been the United Methodist Church.

Membership has been steadily declining for more than two decades. Once the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, United Methodists are now a distant second to Southern Baptists.

The 9-million-member United Methodists still outnumber Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, but many observers say all four established churches are floundering in a "mainline malaise" of uncertain direction.

These denominations are in a "deep funk . . . no longer at the center of things as they once were," wrote sociologist William McKinney, a member of another mainline body, the United Church of Christ.

The malaise was recently attributed to churches being "boring"--or so said David Preus, bishop emeritus of the former American Lutheran Church--or being, in the words of Daniel Weiss, general secretary of American Baptist Churches, "so sophisticated that many (churches) have become embarrassed about being 'religious.' "

So, what happens when you attempt to show yourselves, and anyone else looking, that the fire is still there, that it's great to be, for instance, a Methodist?

Virtually Filled Auditorium

Southern California Methodists tried to say just that last Sunday, virtually filling the 6,300-seat Shrine Auditorium for a music festival that weaved in history, recitations of Methodist beliefs, and a talk from their bishop, Jack M. Tuell. Earlier, they perused displays of the "church in action" in the Shrine's exhibition hall where roaming clowns worked to convey a sense of gaiety.

The capacity crowd perhaps should not be surprising. Tuell oversees about 400 churches with 130,000 members in 10 California counties and Hawaii.

But Methodists, like other mainline Christians, rarely hold large gatherings other than to conduct church business.

The Rev. Don Locher, who headed the planning committee, said he hoped to revive the kind of rally Methodists held in the 1940s: "I think people need events that assert their identity."

On that point, the event was undoubtedly successful and very Methodist: Tuell plainly stated the freedom to disagree religiously from both pulpit and pew; ethnic minorities were visible through the whole production (and hymns sung preceding the show included one each from African-American, Latino, Asian-American and American Indian heritages), and the church's social conscience was accented in a script that mentioned "sin" only once ("the sin of racism.")

But the kind of open exuberance taken for granted at an evangelical or Pentecostal gathering is uncharacteristic for many mainline Protestants and did not manifest itself at the Shrine Auditorium, even when solicited.

Not an Evangelistic Rally

An evangelistic rally this was not. If it had been, the parking lots would have been filled with vehicles bearing messages such as "Beam Me Up, Lord" and "Christians Are Not Perfect, Just Saved."

An informal spot survey of a 200-car parking lot nearby revealed only five vehicles with the subtle Christian "fish" symbol and one license plate frame that went so far as to say, "Happiness Is Trusting Jesus." By contrast, four license plate frames said, "Happiness Is Being a Grandparent." Six cars had stickers or license plate frames identifying the owners as United Methodists--a denominational emphasis usually absent in evangelistic circles.

Nevertheless, organizers appeared to hope for outward displays of joy.

Church publicity emphasized that this was a "celebration" and that "celebrities" would be present--although the most recognizable "name" was comedian-actor Stu Gilliam.

Although appreciative with applause for the 300-voice choir, a symphony orchestra and a portrayal of Methodist founder John Wesley by actor-minister Bobs Watson, the audience was not rousingly enthusiastic. The biggest spontaneous response came when gospel singer-composer Jester Hairston, leaning on crutches, led a spirited rendition of his "Amen Chorus."

The bishop, clearly trying to stir the gathering, talked about sounding trumpets, carrying banners and having pride in "United Methodist zeal." Tuell repeatedly urged his audience, with limited success, to say "amen!" in response to his questions instead of a muted "yes" or "yeah!"

Yet, Tuell's frank and reasoned words about the United Methodist Church's freedom of pulpit and pew was warmly received and caught the flavor of the liberal-to-moderate denomination:

"No United Methodist pastor is asked to echo the opinions of his/her congregation or to avoid controversial issues. He/she is asked to be thorough in study and preparation, and then is summoned to speak the truth without fear or favor," he said.

"Is that utterance in accord with the majority view of the congregation? All right. If not, (it's) still all right. . . .

"Similarly, no person in the pew is asked to be a rubber stamp for the preacher's views. He/she is expected to give the preacher a thoughtful and respectful hearing, remembering the years of study and prayers that have gone into the preacher's words, and remembering that the preacher is carrying out the awesome assignment of seeking to speak for God.

"Then the person in the pew is expected to think for himself or herself, to agree or disagree as mind and conscience dictate," he told the audience.

"So the sermon becomes a meeting place of free minds before Christ."

Methodist 'Zeal'

Similarly, Tuell said, United Methodist "zeal" does not relate to a narrow point of view, but to caring for others.

The bishop said a "shock wave went through the Christian world last fall" when Detroit's Roman Catholic Archdiocese announced the closing of 43 urban parishes. (The number has since been reduced to about 30.)

"Los Angeles is not Detroit," Tuell said. But trends at work in city life could endanger the church presence in Los Angeles in another 30 years, he pointed out. "We must not allow that to happen; we do not intend to desert the city," he said.

Two days later, Tuell said overall reaction to the event was "very positive." He said his cabinet officers discussed the possibility of repeating something like it every three or four years.

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