DURING a recent interview, I was asked, “What is the future of The United Methodist Church?”
The question reflects a widespread anxiety that is not groundless. There has been a steady decline in the membership and average worship attendance in our church in the United States for decades. The reality of this decline has to be faced.
Yet, we must not overlook another reality, and that is the amazing vitality of many congregations in our church. In Florida and elsewhere, we have some of the most faithful and fruitful congregations in the world.
Still, thousands of congregations in our church are declining or not growing.
One of the reasons is demographics.
The United Methodist Church in the United States was built as a connection of congregations in rural areas and small towns. When the nation’s population shifted to the suburbs of metropolitan areas, our church failed to start new congregations. This is beginning to change as conferences learn again how to plant new congregations, but we have to catch up after decades of negligence.
Another reason is theological. We forgot that our identity consists of being the bearer of the Wesleyan tradition – with its focus on the experience of salvation by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and administered by the power of the Holy Spirit – and its mission of spreading both personal and social holiness. We lost the class meeting as the way to watch over one another in love so that we grow in our communion with God and one another.
In place of our identity as the bearer of the Wesleyan tradition of the Christian faith, we defined our church as one of the mainstream Protestant churches, thus tying our identity to our place in the culture, rather than our theological heritage. Methodism offers a way of discipleship, and the future of our church requires a reappropriation of the Methodist Way in the life of our congregations.
Leadership and vision
I believe part of our problem has been the decline in constructive temporal and spiritual oversight of the church by the Council of Bishops. For decades, the church has moved authority from the bishops to boards and agencies. At the same time, the council went along with this development.
Since 2004, there have been significant signs of change with the 2004 election of new bishops who now comprise one-third of the active bishops.
The council has initiated a positive and vigorous agenda for the church called “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for a Transformed World”, and it has received the eager cooperation of the boards and agencies.
I still think institutional reforms are needed, such as giving the council authority to select the general secretaries of the boards and agencies. Nevertheless, there are positive signs of new leadership by both the bishops and the boards in beginning to work together on a common and exciting agenda.
Another problem is ineffective pastoral leadership of congregations. The guaranteed appointment system limits the capacity of bishops and cabinets to remove ineffective pastors. The council will present new legislation to modify the system without destroying its good features, which include a covenant by pastors to be granted an appointment if they will itinerate, and protection of effective women and ethnic pastors.
Renewal of purpose
Those congregations that are stagnant or declining need, in general, a spiritual rebirth that comes from a recovery of a missional purpose, an intentional process of transformation and a reconnection to their communities. Transformation of existing congregations is very hard, but far from impossible.
We should not be Pollyannaish about our problems as a church or resigned to continual decline. The church of Jesus Christ has remarkable resiliency because, while it is human, it is the body of Christ animated by the Holy Spirit.
I have studied enough church history to know the church is always dying and always being resurrected. As G.K. Chesterton observed: “Five times in the history of the church, it seemed the church had died and gone to the dogs, but it was the dog that died.”
As a part of the apostolic and catholic church, The United Methodist Church participates in this same resiliency of the body of Christ. We would not want it any other way because every generation must live by faith and engage in risktaking mission, rather than distort the identity of the church as a self-satisfied, comfortable, ingrown society. – United Methodist News Service.