I am a United Methodist, and proudly so, if as a United Methodist and a Christian I am allowed to use the word proud. I have been UM all my life, literally born into a Methodist family. Therefore, I love the United Methodist Church, and I am deeply concerned about its future.
For those who have been living on Mars (or for those who simply live there lives giving themselves to others so as to have no time to worry about such things), the UM Church has fallen on hard times in the past 45 years or so–hard times because the congregations are growing older and smaller, and if the trajectory for both continues, by 2050 (which isn’t that far away) there may actually not be a UM Church. That would be a shame.
Having served as a UM pastor for over 20 years, and having served as a mid-level judicatory official (that’s a District Superintendent!), I’ve been privy to some interesting conversations, and have been charged with reading lots of statistics, numbers and reasons for the continuing decline of the UM Church. I’ve discovered there are a lot of people who have a perspective on what’s wrong, and almost all of them have the recipe for what will fix the problem (or turn around the church, as it were). Some think the problem is theological. Some believe we’re too liberal, and the liberal theology is driving people away. Some think we’re not liberal enough, and if we could just be more open and accepting, more people would respond. Others think we’ve lost the evangelistic zeal that drove John Wesley, Francis Asbury and other early Methodist leaders to share the gospel of Jesus Christ (which is, itself, a theological problem), while still others think we don’t “take” Jesus anywhere (another theological issue).
My point is that the longer I sit in denominational meetings, the more I read commentary on the issue, the more I watch denominational agencies, the more I believe we’re looking for a magic pill. If we could just be more conservative theologically, things would begin to change. If we could just be more liberal theologically, things would begin to change. If we could just reach out to the poor better, things would begin to change. If we were more open to change, things would begin to change. If we could just reach young people, things would begin to change. If we could…you can fill in your own blank. There are a thousand solutions that have been offered to the problem, as if any and all of them are the magic pill that will cure all that ails our beloved denomination.
I bet you’re thinking by now that I am going to offer my own magic pill. That’d be a good guess, but you’d be wrong. I don’t have one. I wish it were that simple, and I really wish I were that smart, but it’s not simple, and I’m not that smart. I think there’s probably some truth in the problems, issues and solutions that have been offered, but no one thing will right a ship that’s been taking on water for 45 + years. To think otherwise is to oversimplify the issue. Now, that’s what I really think. I think the issue of denominational decline (among UM churches and others) is too complex to be boiled down to one issue, or one solution. There is no magic pill.
This point came home to me after spending another day in a denominational meeting, and after listening to, of all things, a TED talk. Are you familiar with TED talks? Here’s what it says on the TED website:
TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference and TEDGlobal — TED includes the award-winning TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.
TED conferences bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less). TED Website
The particular TED talk I watched was Benjamin Bratton, associate professor of visual arts at UC-San Diego, whose entire premise was that TED talks were oversimplistic, taking complex problems and offering simple solutions. Imagine using a TED talk to say TED talks are worthless. I wonder if that was over-simplistic? Dr. Bratton did say one thing that struck me, especially as I reflected on the denominational meeting I had just sat through. He said:
“If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation. Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us.”
Bratton, of course, was speaking of technology and innovation, but I believe it applies to transformation of the church, too. The issues surrounding institutional decline are simply too complex (like my play on words?) to be dumbed down to a magic pill. We can start with the lack of trust in the authority of institutions themselves. This lack of trust is reflected not only in the church, but also in our government institutions. No one trusts the church anymore, and no one really trusts the government, either. We can point to the turbulent (some would say “revolutionary”) times of the 1960’s as the time when this lack of trust made an entrance, but I believe it precedes even those years. The Church has done nothing to foster trust among the general population when you consider the television evangelist scandals of the 1980’s and the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in more recent years. The growing lack of trust in society in general has extended its reach into the Church. How do we address that in a simple way? Well, we could start by changing our behavior, but that might seem too simple.
Adding to the complexity of the problem is the idea that people now consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” A recent Gallup poll identified as many as 33% of the population now calls themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” meaning they are choosing to live out their spirituality in more independent ways, creating their own “buffet” of beliefs and behaviors that are rooted more in ideas of American individualism and libertarianism than in theological distinctives. They no longer need the institution of the church to help shape them theologically or spiritually. They do it themselves because it’s their faith.
Another layer of complexity is added when we consider that people are discovering community is more and more places than ever before. In the “glory days” of church growth, community was defined by life in the schools and life in the church. Children and their families went to school and they went to church. Those were the primary activities of the community. Now, there are sports leagues, extracurricular activities, social gatherings, work-related communities, on-line communities, and on and on the list could go. A growing number of people, including a growing number of those who identify themselves as Christians are finding community (as in human relationship) outside the Church. The world doesn’t need the Church to form community, and that’s a problem.
Adding yet another layer of complexity is the fact that the Church seems to be living without much of a purpose. For hundreds of years the Church was responsible for building schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages and other social institutions that helped transform society. There was a focus to the work of the Church, and there was a way to engage the community in helpful and meaningful ways. The government and private enterprise have taken the place of the church in leading social change and transformation, and with almost every increase in taxes on the government’s part has brought a decline in charitable giving to the Church. Why does the church need to do what the government is already doing? That’s a rhetorical question. I know why, but those who are outside the church (and even some within) ask that question. How many hospitals have we United Methodists sold to private enterprise or closed? How many institutions of higher education have we United Methodists closed in recent years? Those are not rhetorical questions, but having to ask seems to indicate that we’ve lost a sense of meaning and purpose. Sure, we buy lots of mosquito nets, but there are lots of parachurch organizations doing that, too. Who needs the church to buy mosquito nets? Don’t answer that. It’s rhetorical.
And, don’t even get me started on the whole faith-based organization/government partnership thing. While I think it might be great in theory, it may be one of the most telling ways the Church has ceded its vision to something outside itself. The reality is if an entity takes government money, the entity must do it the governments way. Not to mention the fact there’s this little thing called sin, and how many news stories have we heard about “churches” that have been closed, or “pastors” who have been arrested for misusing funds. Those partnerships become nothing more than means of enriching the people who ran the programs, and that’s sad.
I could probably add another layer of complexity to the situation of church anemia if I were to write about the explosion of parachurch organizations and other non-profits. There is a non-profit agency or organization for every need in the community (sometimes three or four or more). These agencies do good work, no doubt about it, but many of them are doing work the Church used to do, and they are drawing volunteers away from the Church in the process. This is not a complaint because they are, in fact, (mostly) doing good work, and many Christians are serving in and supporting these organizations, but it is another example of how the vision, focus and resources of the Church are further divided.
I’ve written way too much this morning. All I’ve written probably wouldn’t fit in a TED talk, not that I’d ever be invited to give a TED talk–I haven’t offered any simple solutions or meaningful innovation to the issue at hand. I haven’t offered any because I’m not sure there are any. Sure, we must be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and we must continue to proclaim that there is no other name given than by which we might be saved, but even that has become incredibly complex in such a pluralistic world. It’s a hard job, but somebody’s gotta’ do it. I pray I’ll be found faithful to the task when Jesus returns.
Sorry I wrote so much. I probably made something simple more complex than it needed to be. I keep looking for that magic pill that will make everything right, but I’ve yet to find it. I’m sure someone reading this blog will discover what it is and share it with me.
Until next time, keep looking up…