The United Methodist Church is a big tent theologically, and people with conservative or traditional religious beliefs make up the largest group under that spreading canvas.
Those are two key findings from a new United Methodist Communications survey of United Methodists in the United States.
The survey dug into views on various theology-related subjects, including the Bible, Jesus, salvation, the Resurrection and the afterlife.
The goal was to shed light on the beliefs of people in the pews of United Methodist churches.
“We speak a lot about the future of the church and what that means, but we don’t have a lot of information about what do the 12.5 million members really believe,” said Dan Krause, top staff executive of United Methodist Communications. “We’ve known that there were differences in our theology. At the same time, we’re trying to figure out where members sit in that diversity.”
The differences have not defined the church, however. The church has “held together by the grace and faith that transcend its differences,” Krause said.
“We hope the survey could be a source of hope and understanding,” he added.
Of those contacted, 44 percent identified themselves as conservative/traditional in religious beliefs, 28 percent as moderate/centrist and 20 percent as progressive/liberal. These terms were used to describe theological views only and do not necessarily reflect social or political views.
“Oftentimes we think the denomination is equally divided. It was important for us to see that the plurality of people see themselves as more conservative,” said Chuck Niedringhaus, who oversees research for UMCom.
The survey found that beliefs and priorities held by the self-identifying groups proved, in some cases, strikingly varied.
“There are significant differences in how we’re approaching being United Methodists,” Niedringhaus said.
For example, the survey asked whether the primary focus of The United Methodist Church should be saving souls for Jesus Christ or advocating for social justice to transform the world.
Eighty-eight percent of conservative/traditionalists said saving souls, while 68 percent of progressive/liberals chose social justice.
“Essentially, they’re focused on different ends of the mission statement,” Niedringhaus said, referring to the denomination’s official goal to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The United Methodist Church’s struggle for unity is hardly new, and its longstanding, split-threatening conflict over homosexuality is to be addressed at a special session of General Conference, occurring Feb. 23-26, in St. Louis.
The communications agency did a 2015 survey on United Methodists’ views on same-sex marriage, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision legalized such unions across the country.
The new survey did not ask about homosexuality or any other social issues, but instead sought to find out whether basic theological differences might be driving divisions within the denomination, Niedringhaus said.
The survey also did not address General Conference nor the plans that will be considered regarding the future of the church. The self-identification by survey respondents does not necessarily equate to support for -- or awareness of -- any particular plan coming before the assembly.
UMCom contracted with the firm Research NOW, which obtained online questionnaire responses from 541 U.S. residents last fall. (Logistical and informational challenges made it impossible to extend the survey to church members in Africa, Europe and the Philippines, Niedringhaus said.)
Research Now has a 1 million-person database, and within it are 46,000 self-identified United Methodists. The 541 survey participants were selected randomly from this group. All identified as members or regular attendees of a United Methodist church but with no formal leadership role.
UMCom has clergy staff members, representing a range of views themselves, who helped frame the questions, Niedringhaus said.
The survey was balanced geographically, so that areas where United Methodist membership is strong, such as in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, had more respondents than where that isn’t the case, such as the Western Jurisdiction.
The 541 responses gave the survey a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percent, meaning that if UMCom had surveyed all 7 million United Methodists in the United States, the results would have been within about 4 percent of the results in the survey. That’s an acceptable margin of error at the 95 percent confidence level, according to most survey organizations, Niedringhaus said.
On some matters addressed in the survey, there was broad agreement. For example, large majorities of all three self-identifying groups believe in Jesus’ birth from a virgin, his crucifixion in order to reconcile humans to God and his resurrection in bodily form.
By big margins, conservatives, moderates and liberals understand God as creator of heaven and earth and believe God’s grace is available to all.
But only 50 percent of liberals believe in a literal hell, compared to 82 percent of conservatives and 70 percent of moderates.
One question asked respondents to choose the most authoritative source of their personal theology.
The largest group of conservatives, 41 percent, chose Holy Scripture, and the second largest, 30 percent, said Christian tradition.
Meanwhile, the largest group of liberals, 39 percent, cited reason as most authoritative. The smallest, 6 percent, chose Holy Scripture.
An overwhelming majority of conservatives, 86 percent, said a relationship with Jesus is the only way to salvation. Sixty-four percent of moderates agreed with that, and 54 percent of liberals did.
The self-described moderates generally ended between conservatives and liberals in the results for specific questions. But often they were closer to the conservative position.
“I don’t think you can add the moderates and progressives and say that’s where the church is,” Niedringhaus said. “Theologically, many (moderates) are more traditional.”
The survey showed that women are more likely than men to hold liberal/progressive views and that church attendance is strongest by conservatives.
The average age of conservative respondents was 55, and that of moderates and liberals was 48.
Niedringhaus said there will be briefings on the survey for church agency leaders after the special General Conference.
“There’s a big theological gap,” he said. “At the very least, boards and agencies should be looking at this data.”
Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News Service. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.