Almost a year ago the various Jurisdictional Conferences from around the United Methodist Church gathered together to elect several new Bishops, to review the performance of current Bishops and to assign or reassign Bishops to serve as Episcopal leaders in the Churches Annual Conferences. Many Annual Conferences, such as my own Detroit Annual Conference, received the assignment of a new Bishop. September 1st of 2012 Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey officially began her ministry as Bishop of the Michigan Area, which includes both the Detroit Annual Conference and the West Michigan Annual Conference. Bishop Deb (as she likes to be called) is a breath of fresh air for many of us who serve the Michigan Area and we are very thankful to have her as our Bishop. I for one look forward to many years of serving the people of the Detroit Annual Conference with her.
I do not envy her or any of our Bishops. I have no desire to be a Bishop, the level of responsibility and pressure they face is enormous and I pray for our Bishops, especially Bishop Deb every single day and three times on Sunday ;). Personally I believe that I have the best job in the world as a local church pastor. I get to serve the people of God by baptizing, marrying, communing and even burying them and their familes. I wouldn't trade my job for any and I am thankful for God's call in my life to serve the people called Methodist. I didn't grow up in the UMC. I grew up pentecostal and while I am forever thankful for the solid biblical foundation I received from people like Otis Buchan and Mike Byrum (both A/G pastors from my childhood), I'm happier as a United Methodist than I have ever been in church.
As a United Methodist I've grown in my faith and understanding of the things of God. I've also become aware of just how political church can be. Our denomination is riddle with various action groups such as the Confessing movement (creating a Methodist confession), the Reconciling movement (Homosexual full inclusion), the Aldersgate Movement (charismatic renewal) and the Good News movement (a more evangelically minded church), and though I value all the theological principals of reconciliation, confession, charismatic renewal, and the furthering the the good news through evangelical means, I've never officially aligned myself with any of these groups. I'm a middle of the road kinda guy. A friend of mine from seminary once said that "the only thing in the middle of the road is yellow lines and dead skunks." Despite the practical truth of this statement, I'm still in the middle and United Methodism with all it's factions, fractions, and fractures has also come to a place in the middle...right in the intersection of two roads, one that leads to the future and a road that leads to death. Despite all the chaos and confusion we ask the question, is there a future for the United Methodist Church? I hope so and I believe so, but only if we confront or denial, reclaim our mission and reconnect our connection. Then and only then will there be a United Methodist Church for our children and our children's children.
United Methodist reacher Lyle Schaller reports that the UMC has declined 30% in the last 40 years. In 1965 1 in every 10 Americans were United Methodist, in 2012 only one in every 32 were. In 1956 the then "Methodist Church" received 850,000 new members. In 2012 we received only 289,000 new members. 43% of the denominations 35,000 congregations did not receive even one new member in 2012. The median age of the UMC is 62 and for those of you who think thats middle age, how many 124 year olds do you know still attending church? It's predicted that in the next 20years 48% of our congregations will close because all of the current membership will be dead. This is the reality we so often deny and recovering and growing again will require us to stop the denial!
Despite the sobering statistics our denominational leaders have faith and believe that we will be ok. As long as we go into survival mode, protect our apportionment paying congregations, our clergy pensions and our beloved general agencies...we will be fine! If this were a business we'd be in crisis mode right now trying to sell off all the assets we can to obtain as much cash on hand as possible. We'd be closing factories, regional headquarters and laying off everyone from line workers to middle managers, but never the CEO's...never the real people responsible! Some people believe that if we just batten down the hatches and protect and insulate the institution we can weather the storm. Some people write books like, "Rekindling the Mainline" which tells us how to fix ourselves or " Are we yet still alive?" A book that attempts to take the pulse of our Denominational Hospice situation. Still none of it seems to be able to stem the tide that is rolling over our movement.
One of the more productive things we've done is create the Path One agency. Which is the church planting wing of our church. General Conference has required that each conference form a New Church Development team that works in conjunction with the Bishop and cabinet to strategically plant new churches through out the conference. Church planting has help and it's worked to get us growing again. For example the General Conference set the goal of planting 650 new churches between 2008-2012. We planted 684 during that time. The average age of members at new church starts is 36. The average attendance at new church starts is 200 and the average membership is less than 100. New Church starts grow at an average of 8.6% annual while the rest of the church declines at about 12-15%. New Church starts have been a fresh and dynamic way for growing our movement again, but it's expensive and time consuming as well, and not as lucrative as existing congregations are.
I believe there is a future for our movement, but it begins by getting past the denial that we'll be ok and that the old system is working. We need fresh expressions of faith and new ways of living out our faith.
There is a future also, if we reclaim our mission. In our passage this week Jesus cleanses the temple. Jesus was never very fond of the temple system and found it to be anti-God, coercive and oppressive instead of liberating and redeeming. We never see Jesus do anything in the temple but trash it and get angry. In fact in this passage he says he's going to destroy it, tearing it down stone by stone. The people of his day did not understand this, especially since it took almost 50 years to build and Jesus says he'll rebuild it in three days. Jesus meant that the Spirit of God was not in a building, but in a community of Faith, a community that he was establishing. Of course the leaders were threatened by all this, but most leaders are threatened by such prophetic visions. John was beheaded, the prophets of old were imprisoned and executed and Jesus himself was murdered. So be carful when you say, "I want to be like Jesus." Our leadership in the UMC is also threatened be the truths of prophetic living and hopes to simply maintain the status quo and survive. The truth is the church will survive, maybe the UMC won't, but the church will. The church has endured the rise and fall of nations, kings, dictators, presidents and era's. For 2000 years it has made it's way through all that history can throw at it and it will be here for the next 2000 years, but the question is, will there be a UMC witness in the church?
Again I say yes, but only with a truly missional vision. John Wesley had a clear vision for the people called Methodist; it was to spread scriptural holiness across the land. Our mission today ought to be the same. The official mission statement of the church is, "To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." If we reclaim these two idea's, scriptural holiness and disciple making we will survive, but if we revert to our goal of institutional survival there will be no UMC 30 years from now.
Finally there will be a future for the UMC if we reconnect our connection. We are connexional church. John Wesley and the founders of American Methodism both agreed that the best way to operate a church was to be connexional. Meaning not independent congregations scattered with little or no collected vision, but a group of congregations committed to the overall vision of the church. Many mainline churches intentionally leave off their denominational name and logo so as to be seen as independent. It's become fairly vogue to be an independent church. Americans are becoming more and more independent and less communal and so our churches are becoming reflections of that change. The independent church pastor is seen as charming and entrepreneurial and appeals to that nature in all Americans. Most of those independent churches close within 10 years of there opening. Truth is there are only a handful of these independent churches that can pull it off like Willow Creek in Chicago and Gateway in South Lake, TX...the rest just fizzle away. Theres a town outside Pittsburg, PA like many other sub-urban towns. In this town there is a street that is like church row, it's called Grace St. On Grace St. there is a PCUSA church, and ELCA church, an Assemblies of God Church, a Baptist Church and of course a UMC church. All the churches have changed their name to include the word "community" in it. There is Life Community Church, Hope Community Church, Abiding Life Community Church, Friendship Community Church and Family Community Church. A resident of this town, seeing all the community churches remarked, "I wish they would say what community they belong to."
Theres nothing wrong with belonging to a denomination. There's nothing wrong with being connexional. The connexional system has worked well for us. There are many churches in rural parts of our nation that would not have a pastor if it weren't for our system of appointing pastors. It's time to re-think the connection though. We need to be finding ways that we can use the connection to help facilitate ministry at the local church level. The connexion needs to be missional, not institutional. The connexion is focused on apportionments and pension payments, on minimum comp and insurance benifits. Apportionment dollars go mostly to the institution instead of to the mission field. We need to use the connexion to reinvest in our local churches so they can help the poor, feed the hungry and evangelize the lost. Then we will see a bright and vibrant future for United Methodism.
John Wesley's great fear was the Methodism would become a lifeless sect. This is unfortunately turning into a self fulfilling prophesy that only we have the power to change. There is a future for United Methodism, but it looks very different from it's past. United Methodism must over come it's divisions, it's entitlements and it's institutionalism in order to reach the future, and we can...with God's help.