Subsequent generations of Free Methodists have faced different challenges from the first. Rapid growth and geographical spread in the first three decades of the Free Methodist Church (FMC) had, by 1890, exposed a need for more centralized oversight and institutional alignment. Evangelism had brought thousands of new believers into newly established Methodist societies (local congregations), and leaders among both clergy and the laity worried that converts were not being properly discipled to understand and embrace Christian holiness. But how best to address these concerns?
Implementing Rigorous Behavioral Standards
Some voices called for more rigorous standards of behavior for all Free Methodists, especially when it came to what not to do. In many cases, prohibitions that had begun in solidarity with the poor took on a life of their own as vices. Drinking alcohol and caffeine, smoking tobacco, wearing jewelry of any kind, gambling, dancing, and the new amusements called “moving pictures” were all banned in early 20th-century editions of the Book of Discipline, the FMC’s rulebook for life together. Proponents of these measures hoped that virtuous behavior would lead to lives characterized by holiness.
Shift from Evangelism to Discipleship and Pastoral Care
Other voices argued for a greater emphasis on discipleship and pastoral care over evangelistic efforts. One committee reported to the 1894 General Conference, “There are too many preachers who, instead of devoting themselves to earnest, faithful pastoral work, and to feeding the flock of God, want to be running hither and thither as evangelists.” Later in the 20th century, there was much Monday-morning quarterbacking of this shift, critical of the turn away from evangelism as the FMC’s top priority. But at the time, spiritual formation and congregational care were pressing needs that demanded attention from those who would call themselves shepherds.
To meet these needs, Sunday school and Christian education programs for all ages were developed and implemented across the Conference, and the publishing house that would become Light & Life began to produce holiness discipleship resources. It also became more common for pastoral clergy to lead a single society rather than two or more congregations as in the circuit-riding days. This allowed pastors to engage with congregants throughout the week for care and formation—though until 1947 there was a limit on the number of years a pastor could serve one society before reassignment. Today, pastoral appointments are a collaborative process between the regional bishop, annual conference leaders, and the local congregation.
Maintaining Evangelism through Cross-Cultural Missions
Concern for Christian living and congregational life drove many FMC initiatives at home in the U.S., but evangelism remained a priority through cross-cultural missions. The General Missionary Board was incorporated in 1885, and by the early 1950s was supporting dozens of missionaries in 14 countries, including Egypt, South Africa, China, Brazil, and the Philippines. Since the mid-20th century, the largest growth edge of Free Methodism has been outside the United States (a reality shared, as we’ve seen, by many Wesleyan Holiness churches). Today, there are more than 10 times as many Free Methodists outside the U.S. as inside! FMCUSA is one of 13 General (national) Conferences that make up the World Conference of the Free Methodist Church, which was founded in 1999.
Advancements in Women’s Leadership within the Church
B.T. Roberts’ biblically grounded conviction that women, as well as men, should be ordained and released for leadership in the church and beyond was not realized in the FMC until well after his death. In the last General Conference he attended (1890), the vote to extend ordination to women was defeated. It was an enormous disappointment to him—and, presumably, to Free Methodist women who had experienced a call to ministry! By 1911, women were offered limited ordination (as deacons) but it wasn’t until 1974 that a resolution passed “giving women equal status with men in the ministry of the church.” Today, women serve at every level of leadership in the FMC, including on the Board of Bishops.
Facing 21st Century Challenges and Societal Changes
The 21st century presents its own challenges and opportunities to this generation of Free Methodists. Like most evangelical traditions, the FMC is facing both the loss of Baby Boomers to aging and religious attrition among Millennials and Gen Z. In the wider culture, social turbulence abounds due to shifting ideas about gender and sexuality, the outsized significance of political allegiances, and widespread fears about the future, whether because of climate change, societal breakdown, or geopolitical strife.
Free Methodists hear in this upheaval a fresh calling from God to draw from the life-giving well of our heritage. As we explored in an earlier lesson, our Wesleyan Holiness distinctives manifest as mission carried out in three particular ways:
We are more relational than propositional.
We will take our cues from Jesus’ earthly ministry: to begin with people, not with beliefs. This isn’t to say that beliefs are irrelevant or unimportant! But Truth is a Person (see John 14:6), and so our orientation is toward meeting needs and restoring lives, not toward promoting a statement of faith.
We are more centered-set than bounded-set.
This has profound implications for ecclesiology. When it comes to life together (how we do church), communities can either emphasize their boundaries—who and what is in or out—or their center. We will focus on moving together toward our center (deeper life with God), rather than on defending our boundaries.
We are more descriptive than prescriptive.
God has been initiating encounters with human beings since time began—and shows no sign of giving up the habit! We want to be more interested in watching for and experiencing moves of God than in defining beforehand how these are allowed to happen. We will choose trusting openness, in expectation that Christ’s Spirit will reveal what God is up to and empower us to participate.
Whatever the future holds for the Free Methodist Church, we will prayerfully align ourselves with God’s ongoing work to redeem and sanctify a holy people to continue Christ’s saving mission in the world.