The United Methodist Church has been in at least numerical decline for a generation. Here in the South we look at Baptist churches with envy, since they’re usually bigger, richer, and more powerful than ours. When we hear about denominational statistics, we hear “UMC, down; SBS, up.” Well, not any more: the SBC has now plateaued. Finally some company in our misery!
Ed Stetzer has a commentary on the plateau event and has generated many interesting comments. Much of what he – and they – say sound pretty familiar to me. Change the “SBC” to “UMC,” and adjust a couple of terms here or there, and it sounds like what I’ve seen in the UMC.
Stetzer attributes much of the problem to a lack of a “Great Commission Resurgence.” I’m not an SBC, so I’m not fit to comment on the state of the Great Commission in their midst. I can say that we UM’s are still working on it. We know enough to know that the Great Commission is a good thing. We’ve started talking more about doing outreach ministry. But we haven’t – for the most part – developed any momentum in disciple making, in actually helping people cross the line of commitment to Jesus. Why is this?
I’ll offer a few reasons. Let me know what you think.
- It’s easier to focus on our own needs, wants and comfort than to go out and reach the lost. Reaching will make us change our schedules. It might even cost us something. We just don’t have any money left after taking care of our buildings. Why don’t we let the Annual Conference take care of it? Hey – maybe we could do something – if they’d send us some money to do it. Oh yeah, they need to cut our apportionments, too.
- Lost? What do you mean, lost? Thinking that someone is lost is way too judgmental. They just have alternate truths/lifestyles/etc. It’s unAmerican to think we have the truth and they don’t. So we’ll just mind our own business. Sure, we’ll make disciples. Our church will teach the children and make them into disciples. We’ll do it for both of the children who are on our roll. If the parents would only bring them, that it.
- Those people out there aren’t like us. They aren’t from our socio-economic-racial group. They don’t like our music. Let’s just let the Baptist have them. What? The Baptists are growing either? Surely someone will come along and reach them. We’re working on fellowship in our friendly church.
I saw that report as well. I am not into bashing other denominations. All of us are in the universal church together. But seriously, I guess that Baptists are running out of disillusioned Methodists to baptize. I have a sense that if the Baptists were truly counting new professions of faith and first time baptisms the situation would be even worse than stated.
I don’t offer any solutions. I do know, however, that our current system (the UMC) is set up for discipleship and pastoral care, not evangelism. Evangelism is too hard and numerically it is not worth the money invested.
If I were really being evangelistic I would have 1/3 of the members I now have and my funding would be in jeopardy. How’s that for the reality of a new church start?
I think the issues that you discuss are spot-on. However, I think that these are also applicable to the whole Christian community, not just to the Methodists.
It seems to me that the church in America (speaking in terms of all Christians) has concentrated on developing disciples within its exiting walls. We forget that only half of Americans profess Christianity, and of that, probably only half actually attend church.
Yet we cannot forget that Christ gave us the Great Commission. If we only concentrate on those that “stumble” into our midst on their own, then we are missing out on a whole multitude of people. And these are the people who may need to hear from us the most.
As to the comment that evangelism is “not worth the money invested,” I think that is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. Obviouslyly we have to worry about having the funds to keep our churches alive. But, if we decide to focus on doing God’s will by acting out the Great Commission as best we can, can’t we also trust God to give us the funds to keep the lights turned on? And who knows, if the congregation can see that there are people being brought to Christ every day (or even every week), might that not be enough to keep people involved in the church, and cause the congregation to actually grow? It might even deepen people’s commitment and cause them to want to increase their level of giving.
Call me simpleminded, perhaps, but Christ also calls us to have the faith of a child.
I was trying to be sarcastic, offering an excuse I hear too often.
I’m pretty simple-minded also. I think Jesus gave us the Great Commission not because it was economically feasible (some say it is, some say it isn’t) but because it’s the right thing to do. You can have a church without buildings, paid staff, even a budget. You can’t be a church without evangelism. At least that’s my take on what we mean when we say the church is apostolic (John 20:21).
Honestly, these observations are why I know I’m doing the work of God by entering a “secular” helping profession. I don’t proselytize or evangelize in psychotherapy sessions … but often I find that breaking through emotional barriers and sitting with people through their pain readies them for spiritual pilgrimage. I also have had my faith strengthened by very diverse patients identifying their relationship with Christ as the main factor that enabled them to make better choices than their own parents. Even though chaos at home has left such patients with emotional baggage, invariably they are living a fuller, richer life than siblings without a strong faith.
One long-ago (believing) psychiatric patient that I still carry in my heart wrote me a sweet note upon his hospital discharge, saying “thank you for not abandoning your wounded brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Perhaps I should just shut up and listen … my perspective is so different from those of you having to deal with the Body Politic. Maybe it’s that I long ago gave up on the Body Politic and chose to search for the Church Invisible. I find it in the most amazing and unexpected places.
We “accidentally” ran into a former patient of Doug’s in Disneyworld this week … how could it be accidental when we barely saw any of our own group that we actually came with? A young woman and four young boys in matching t-shirts, and an elderly man were all together. Come to find out, their father and dad (and son-in-law) was a UM pastor, once assigned to a church in Abilene. Asbury-educated, he had returned to Kentucky to get his PhD, and was then assigned to a (the?) UMC in Big Spring. This young father died of colon cancer only two or three months ago. The church gave his widow the parsonage, and apparently are continuing to pay her his salary. The church had sent them to Disney for a week, complete with a stay in one of the more expensive resorts and travel on a parishioner’s private jet. Wow. Doug observed that night, that God was obviously at work in their assignment to the Big Spring church, more for what the church was called to do for them than what they did for the church. The Church Invisible sometimes coincides with the Body Politic.
I have thought about this for a long long time. Decades actually. I think the reasons are many and not isolated to evangelism.
1. There is a perception out there that The United Methodist Church no longer stands for anything, or in other words, has lost their moral authority, because no one hears from our pulpits US condemning much of anything. This is fine with me because the central message of the Christ was not condemnation.
2. The UMC is following the same pattern of other main-stream denominations in decreasing numbers, while emergent or post modern non-denoms are increasing. Its a trend away from structured, organized religion.
3. We often do not attract or retain youthful pastors into the ministry, as many are 2nd career folks. The costs of seminary to become a full elder is so astronomical that it is a barrier to many who would like to enter the ministry. For those of you committed enough to do so, you understand the stress it creats with families.
4. We are not an evangelical denomination any longer. Or at least we do not do evangelism like the SBC, which is great. Tricking people into salvation with little prayers and processes, or even scare tactics (turn or burn) turns a whole lot of society off? Many don’t even understand what someone is talking about with words like “salvation, saved, blood of the lamb” and the approach frankly drives people away more than invites them in. I commend the UMC for a more grace filled approach that consists of relationship and outward walks than all the words you can say to “save” someone. St. Francis of Assisi is correct in preaching the gospel at all times, using only words if you have too.
5. and this is my last thought. The UMC has tilted a little heavy on bureacracy from top down. It appears to me, a lay person, that the laity’s strengths and control has been diluted severely.
just some thoughts from a life long methodist.