The Rev. Jeff Kersey looks out over his massive church complex — 70 acres in all — and calls it The Promised Land.
Every Friday morning, the senior pastor of South Carolina’s largest United Methodist church walks the property with a group of men to pray over Mt. Horeb, its leaders, its message and its people.
Those prayers could soon put Kersey and his church — a thriving congregation with a $5 million annual budget — at odds with the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination.
Later this month in St. Louis, a special session of the United Methodist Church’s legislative assembly may vote on whether to drop language in its rulebook that bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained as ministers and forbids ministers from officiating at same-sex weddings.
If it does, Mt. Horeb, a conservative evangelical church in the heart of South Carolina, 17 miles from Columbia, the state capital, will likely cut the cord.
And the denomination, which claims 7 million members in the U.S. and 12.5 million worldwide, will lose one of its most flourishing churches.
Three years ago, Mt. Horeb built a $17 million auditorium, replete with state-of-the-art audiovisual capabilities and ringed with private prayer rooms where ushers offer one-on-one intercessions for those who need it.
The congregation finished 2018 with $2.4 million over budget. It has multiple ministries dedicated to reducing poverty in the town of Lexington. And last month, when it asked 500 members to sponsor a child in a developing country, 700 signed up.
Among its members are former South Carolina Gov. and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who during her tenure as governor opposed gay marriage.
“Our church is thriving and growing in incredible ways because we’re faithful to Scripture and welcoming people and fulfilling the mission of God here,” Kersey said.
Mt. Horeb — the name refers to the mountain Moses descended from with the Ten Commandments — is one of many Methodist churches facing a momentous decision.
If the General Conference votes to allow individual churches to ordain and marry LGBT people — the so-called One Church Plan — more conservative churches will likely bolt. If the assembly votes to keep or strengthen the prohibitions on ordination and marriage — the so-called Traditional Plan — liberal churches may back away.
Regardless of how the vote goes, churches on either side are ready to walk.
“I have publicly on many occasions said that both sides tend to underestimate the strength of the other,” said Bishop Mike Lowry of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church in Fort Worth.
Many expect the conference to be a turning point in the history of the denomination, founded in 1968 through the union of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church.
Already, an organized conservative group is waiting in the wings. The Wesleyan Covenant Associationis openly working to separate from the denomination if the rulebook is amended.
The group’s website describes the WCA as “a landing place” for congregations that want to maintain “an orthodox, Wesleyan Christianity.”
Some 1,500 United Methodist churches — nearly all of them in the U.S. — have joined the WCA, including Mt. Horeb.
While that’s a fraction of the denomination’s 44,000 churches worldwide (31,867 in the U.S.), many more disaffected congregations may join once the special session concludes.
Members of the WCA say they value doctrine above denominational loyalty. And that doctrine, outlined in the denomination’s Book of Discipline, holds that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Holding fast to that doctrine is one of the reasons Kersey thinks Mt. Horeb has been so successful: It has remained true to Scripture amid rapid societal change.
“I’m a believer that the church has to transform the culture, not the culture transforming the church,” he said.
Kersey argues that a slide away from orthodox Christian tenets is one of the reasons for the decline of mainline denominations — most prominently the United Methodist Church in the U.S.
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Source: Religion News Service