This year’s Gathering (Texas Conference Pastors Retreat) began with a message from Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village UMC. Kirbyjon is always worth listening to. He began with a statistic about our current situation: The United Methodist Church is losing 73,000 worshipers each year. Considering a single institution in our church, one heavily weighted toward the older end of the age spectrum, he suggested in that in fourteen and a half years there would be no one left in UMW (United Methodist Women).
I don’t see how anyone could dispute this. Though my own congregation is doing better than some, when I see the high percentage of our highly committed and active folks are over 70, I’m forced to recognize that chances are against them being as active and committed in ten years.We have simply don an inadequate job reaching younger generations.
It’s time for United Methodists to wake up and change, he says. We’ve all heard it, “When you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got,” but we keep on doing what we’ve always done.
Our problem is that some of the things we’ve always done used to work. We keep doing them because they worked in our younger days. We grew attached to them. In many cases our actions declare that we’re more in love with our ways of following Jesus than we are with Jesus himself. In other cases we have identified key parts of our Christian identity as “things we’ve always done that no longer work” – preaching the bible, the doctrine of the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, evangelism, etc. While I understand the slogan, slogans do not make for well-finessed arguments.
Kirbyjon sees Bishop Huie’s leadership in the Texas Conference as one beacon of light in the denomination.
I agree with Kirbyjon, but I sometimes fear it might be too late. We have not yet broken the back of despair and resistance to change endemic to the system. The distrust that built up between pastors, churches and conference leadership over the years is still under the surface (ok, sometimes it’s under the surface, sometimes it’s way above the surface).
Kirbyjon turns to Jesus and John Wesley for some ideas for our future, seeing them as “masters at planting incremental changes in people which in turn lead to collective transformation.”
But they both used plenty of non-incremental change. When he cleansed the temple Jesus didn’t take out the pigeons one week, then after that change had been received come back for the lambs, and only later come back for the money changers. When Wesley began field preaching he didn’t make it there by inching away from the pulpit week by week.
From this beginning, Kirbyjon made two broad suggestions.
First, we need to change our Procedures and Practices to fit the needs of the community. John Wesley did this in the areas of education, health care and economic development. He noted that within our laity we have people who are experienced – more experienced than the clergy – in leading successful organizational transformation. We need to find ways to draw on their leadership, even, he suggested, find a way to bring them into episcopal leadership.
Our current system of guaranteed appointments – with their guaranteed pay checks encourage mediocrity.
The big question we need to ask: What changes must I make in my current ministry to turn things around?
We also need to work, secondly, on Preaching and Proclamation. Within this area of change we need to do a number of things.
First, someone needs to be accountable for the quality of our worship. When we’re accountable we will need to identify resistant leaders and “preach the hell out of them;” quit pitying their situations (Sure, church leadership in this age is tough. But it’s tough for everyone); and we need to “Set the table so that people want to come to church.”
Second, we need to be authentic. He told the story of Keith Kellow, one of the conference oldtimers who had hoped that the merger of the central conference in 1960 would have brought the energy and life of the black churches into the white churches. Instead he saw the black churches become too much like the often-dead white churches. He observed that while American culture will tolerate pornography, greed, lust, and the like, it won’t tolerate boring.
Third, we need to preach with authority. He quipped, “If you don’t preach well, then don’t preach long.” He also said we need to never preach a sermon with no Bible. John Wesley and Jesus were both scripture saturated – we must be also.
Fourth, we must cast a vision of the Christian life and the Gospel of Universal Redemption. We have tp preach hope to those with no hope.