A Few “What ifs” for the United Methodist Church

Conversations these days about the future of the United Methodist Church tend to go something like this:

“What do you think is going to happen at General Conference?”

“I have no idea.”

“But what do you think is going to happen?”

“There is no way of knowing. A lot of proposals are being floated … countless blog posts … white papers often entitled some hopeful version of “A Way Forward” … an undisclosed number of secret and not-so-secret conference calls. At the end of the day, no one can really predict the future.”

“Of course not. But … what do you think … ?”

I will tell you what I think. I suspect that unless a Holy Spirit-infused “way forward” surfaces between now and May 20th (when General Conference ends) the UMC will slowly bleed to death, though at a faster rate than it is currently. According to an article on the UMC website, The General Council on Finance and Administration reported last year that worship attendance in the UMC has decreased by more than 52,000 annually in the last ten years. Economist Don House notes that “between 1974 and 2012, the U.S. church lost 18 percent in worship attendance. During the same period … the number of U.S. churches shrank by 16 percent, the number of conferences by 19 percent and the number of districts by 21 percent.”*

The UMC is already bleeding to death. What happens next will be more like the dam breaking, and dams generally break after they are already cracked and leaking.

Even with such bleak statistics, at the end of the day no one can be sure of what happens next.  The best we can do is wait and listen. Perhaps in the waiting we will find if not a better set of answers then at least a better set of questions that will allow us to think more creatively and less desperately about our future. Here are a few that come to mind:

What if the trend in this post-denominational world actually frees us up to think theologically again? Chances are, when all the shakin’ going on in the denominational world settles down, Christians will gather more intentionally around theology. Rather than trusting the brand to be exactly what we expect (like at McDonalds), we will engage each individual church culture discerningly, evaluating not just style but what is taught and lived. This could well lead to a revival among those who think, believe and live with a Wesleyan mindset.

What if a return to theological integrity is a good move for all of us? By all of us, I mean all of us — those who love and trust orthodox Wesleyan theology as well as those who have moved in a more progressive direction. What if those inside as well as those outside our denomination are better served by a clearer witness and more reflective approach? Rather than selling a brand, what if we talk honestly about the beliefs that particular groups, churches and individuals espouse, then each live by those beliefs unapologetically and with integrity?

What if a split means we’ve outgrown a historic structure? A designer of skyscrapers will tell you that the foundation and structure of a five-story building is very different than that of a fifty-story building. In similar fashion, the foundation of a newly designed 18th-century movement is surely different than that of a complex 21st-century organization. In designing our structure, Wesley couldn’t possibly have predicted the needs of a 12-million member, global denomination. What if our current strain is the effect of an over-burdened structure?

What if this is an opportunity to show the world what grace looks like? We may well end up splitting or splintering over deep and difficult theological issues and it may be that nothing we do prevents that. If it happens, are we willing to at least demonstrate the kind of grace toward one another that we preach to the world? Can we at least learn from those denominations that have already dismantled and do our best to shed grace broadly?

What if this isn’t such a bad thing? What if this crisis we’re in isn’t failure but growth — if not numerically then spiritually? Yes, the theological differences are significant. Wherever one falls on the spectrum of belief, I assume we are all grieving the very real possibility that what has been familiar, even comfortable, is coming to an end. But what if God is actually true to his word and what if he really will work all things together for good? What if somehow, on the other side of this valley, there is a feast?

Christians have developed a high tolerance for the tension between the “already” and “not yet,” so this season of waiting for what is next may end up being a season for which we are uniquely prepared. I hope we use it to our advantage — to pray, listen, pray some more, and acknowledge that this may not end as we hope … and that may not be all bad.

 

*Heather Hahn, “Economist: Church in Crisis but Hope Remains.” UMC website, May 20, 2015. http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/economist-united-methodist-church-in-crisis

Carolyn Moore

I follow Jesus within the communities of Mosaic Church, Asbury Seminary and the Moore household.

13 thoughts on “A Few “What ifs” for the United Methodist Church

  1. Hilda, you are so right. #ItsTime!!
    The UMC can either take a back seat and watch the Spirit change the society around it, or it can be up there at the right hand, guiding and promoting what is good. Back seat driving is not going to work (shouting about the wrong turns people make is not helping, and it is not leading!)

  2. With much interest I have read many comments that appear to dance around what was once considered a taboo subject. And for those whom have never had any personal contact with homosexuality I feel that is understandable. Prior to the birth of our second son, I, too, was very uninformed and knew only prejudicial views. In 1960, my late husband and I joined UMC, which was co-founded by his GGrandfather many years prior, and at that time we found a loving and moving Christian church with mostly student pastors. Those were such happy and innocent years as we watched our two sons, the older blessed with personality plus and loved sports, hunting, fishing, and girls, and the younger was a book worm blessed with an extremely IQ, but had no interest in girls. Now, I am assuming you have assessed his sexual orientation and your are correct. Although it was extremely difficult for us to understand, (formerly thought to be chosen) we accepted and loved both our sons unconditionally. As the years passed, both our sons prevailed Spiritually and scholastically, but when our older son when a college senior, he sustained a long term head injury which led to his death in 1994. Our younger earned his Medical Doctorate in Psychiatry in 1984 and practiced in New York until his death in 1993. During all these years my husband and I continue to serve and support our UMC by attendance, monetary, and other support. After the death of my husband in 2006, our UMC approved my building a new parsonage in his memory. After many years of supporting alone, I wrote a memoir, entitled Two Sons Twice Born, which has blessed many families whom encountered homosexual members.
    A few months ago I attempted to approach our Bishop for a sitting but I was by phone informed by our DS that he was too busy to see me. When I revealed that I would like the Bishop to have one of my books, he requested I mail to him and he would pass it on. I signed two books, one for him and one for the Bishop and overnighted. There was never any response from either. After much thought and prayer, and considering my next move, I elected to stop my attendance to and financial support for our longtime and beloved church.
    My prayers continue for UMC to realize, recognize, and accept the fact that they are penalizing people for a difference of which they have no control. My last comment is: The time for displaying a loving acceptance for ALL people is NOW.

    1. Hilda – bless you for your witness. I ache for your losses, yet am heartened and humbled by your active, compassionate response. May your sentiments, and your example, shine in our church and illuminate our decisions.

  3. I might be going out on a limb here, but maybe… just maybe…we serve a God who is bigger than one single denomination or any collection of issues or problems. My family was a part of an incredible UMC congregation for a few years… God moved in our hearts and in our Children’s lives and all was well! Unexpectedly, my job took me to a new location where we aren’t in a UMC church anymore… But guess what? We are active in a incredible non-Umc congregation again and God is continuing to teach us, stretch us and mold us.

    What will be an absolute tragedy is if in the midst of any turmoil, Sinners and Saints see a side of a church that drives them farther from the throne. I fully appreciate and understand standing for what anyone believes in, but by God’s grace and mercy let us remember that our God is bigger than any situation we believe can’t be overcome!

  4. Seems like it is more of a moral issue than a theological one. But perhaps the moral issues arise from faulty theology? Just praying.

  5. Great post. These are pretty much my thoughts. So much focus has been on the sexuality debates that little talk is being directed towards the cracks and stresses on the dam. I’ve seen it for a while that the UMC is going to change . . . whether we like it or not. There is no way that we can continue to do things the way we are right now. There is no way that we can keep sending our called people to seminaries that teach a person how to minister in a Christendom society . . . even though we live in a post-Christian culture. My heart goes out to those who are being set up to fail in ministry. America is a mission field and has been for a long while now. Currently, churches from across the spectrum are failing because they simply do not know what to do in post-Christian culture. Only those who have a strong faith in the Lord, hold to an orthodox faith, and seek to be filled with the Spirit and led by the Spirit are going to make a mark.

    I’m an Asbury student pastor and it hard for me to stick it out because our leaders are clueless at times and often times refuse to be truthful and honest. I’ve just focused on ministry and people and have seen signs, wonders, and miracles. And like you, I honestly don’t know how all this is going to pan out. I’m not that worried about it either. I love Wesleyan theology . . . heck, I love the BOD, the BOW, and connectional living (the good parts anyway!). There are things that I do not want to see pass away and there are things I do want to see pass away. Like you, I’ve decided to just wait and see . . . and pray and listen. Like you said, God will bring good out of the bad.

    Blessings on you and your ministry!

    1. At least the seminary I attended, they weren’t teaching students to “minister in a Christendom society”. (Obviously I didn’t go to Asbury…) What they were teaching their students to do was “transformational ministry” (in other words, be social justice warriors). I ended up dropping out, concerned that the UMC that gave me a Christian home to live out my faith was being undermined in the seminaries by subversives who gave lip service to the BOD, etc. I left because I felt like in the end, I would be set up to fail in a church whose doctrines and practices were morphing into something I could not support. So I’m a Methodist in a non-denominational exile.

      A new structure, or perhaps two new structures, might not be that bad a thing, as long as it will allow Wesleyan Methodists who believe in holiness to live out their faith unencumbered.

      1. That’s a form of Christendom type ministry – assuming that the majority of our culture and society are going to be onboard with efforts to bring about social justice. In post-Christian type ministry, we do and should seek justice in social issues (“justice” in God’s eyes; not man’s eyes) but we do it as we proclaim the Gospel, knowing that hearts transformed by the power of the Spirit will bring about the deepest change in culture, society, communities, and families.

        Something is going to have give or radically change. Our denominational structure is in a freefall collapse. And, as Carolyn noted, that might not be a bad thing. In fact, I think it is a good thing. I am reminded of Oswald Chamber’s quote about those who place their whole trust in God: “Out of the wreck I rise every time.”

        1. The problem there was, Josh, the school was so influenced by liberation theology to the point that the Gospel WAS social justice, and nothing more.

  6. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. John 12:24

  7. Continuing to pray and support my UM sisters and brothers. Thank you for this insightful and vision-fueled reflection. May we all be people of The Way with a drive to see lives truly transformed!

  8. Thank you for a great insight, Perhaps we Wesleyan Methodists need to remind ourselves that John Wesley and the Methodist Movement changed the structure to reach their generation with the Good News. Perhaps we need to seriously consider doing the same for our generation. But we need to be sure that the new structure is built on the solid foundation of The Bible.

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