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