The United Methodist Church is Imploding

implosion(Continuing thoughts on trends.)

I just finished teaching in the certification class at Perkins School of Youth Ministry (http://www.smu.edu/Perkins/PublicPrograms/PSYM%202013).  To the whole group last Monday and to the class members throughout the week, I said several hard things about the future.

One of the hard things I said was, “The United Methodist Church is imploding.”  Two qualifying statements as I start:

1.  We normally think of an implosion happening very quickly, like a building wired with dynamite to drop vertically into a heap in a matter of seconds.  Obviously, United Methodism’s demise is taking place far more slowly.  But if we could watch a building’s implosion at the rate of a frame a second, we might be able to imagine…

2.  I honestly feel bad – even disloyal – making such gloomy claims, because I truly admire denominational leaders who are working as hard and as smart as they can to help us adjust – bishops and agency executives and directors.  They love Jesus, the church and our mission.  They are intelligent, committed disciples.  Not one thing I say in this post suggests anything but utmost respect for their courageous efforts.  I am not aiming a veiled criticism at any one person.  I am trying to focus on the big picture, recognizing that  within that big picture I can find beautiful exceptions to the trend.

In spite of worthy efforts, our church still suffers a discouraging inertia.  There is something eerily mystifying about how hard people work and how little we accomplish.  And when it comes to young people, we continue to make glaring mistakes.  In a subsequent post, I’ll get to some specifics on that point.  For example, I’ll talk about the treatment young candidates get from far too many committees and boards of ordained ministry.

But that’s for later.  Right now, I want to name our lack of imagination.  Remember Ray Stevens’ lyric: “There is none so blind as he [sic] who will not see.”

Even though we talk as if we recognize the prospect of complete collapse, for too many of us seem unable to imagine it actually happening.  A future without a United Methodist Church?  Really?  Back in the day, I’m sure a lot of people thought the Southwest Conference (I am in Texas, after all) would be around as long as there was college football.  Whether we openly state it or not, we seem to think that the UM Church exists by metaphysical necessity.  It does not.  It exists by the will of God and the faithful witness of God’s people.

Bill Cosby, as Dr. Huxtable, was known to say to his TV children, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.”  It was funny.  We could laugh because we knew he wouldn’t do it.  Obviously, I don’t intend to press this analogy very far, but what if we realized that God can, and might, and maybe has – at least for a time – removed the glory from us?  Are we Ichabod?  Maybe God is taking us out a little bit at a time, through our own intellectual and moral turpitude.

The disappearance of a church has happened before, and in large-scale ways.  Philip Jenkins’ book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia–and How It Died, (HarperOne, reprinted in 2009), is a very instructive read.  He chronicles the death of the once and thriving church in places like North Africa (home of St. Augustine) and Iraq.  There, the church has essentially disappeared.

We must grapple with the distinct possibility that the same thing could happen in the United States.  Not tomorrow.  Not next year.  But over time.  Yes, Robert Putnam (American Grace) and others remind us that Americans are still by comparison exceedingly religious, even Christian.  And yes, even with the increasing number of “nones.”  Yes, I know all that.  But what direction are we (still) headed?  And what does it mean for The United Methodist Church?

As a number of our leaders have pointed out, within ten years at least half of our clergy leaders will retire or reach retirement age.  Financially, we have all but exhausted our reserves.  We have reached our limits.  Institutionally, we are dying.

That is our future.  Unless we change.  Modifying structures is necessary.  God bless the leaders who are paying attention to this challenge.  But vastly far more is needed than fixing structures.  We need a new vision.   And it must include young people far more organically and enthusiastically than it does at the moment.  Stay tuned.

 

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally Steve Rankin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally Steve is married to Joni and has four grown children and two grandchildren. I believe a big part of my particular calling has to do with leadership development in the church and with church renewal (they go hand in hand). You can find his personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Todd Scranton says:

    Thank you for your honesty, Steve. What has amazed me in the five years I’ve spent at my most recent appointment is the degree to which the attitude of the national church is my local church, writ large. The church I serve has been in slow, steady, decline for over 50 years (through the terms of the last 7 pastors). When I arrived the administrative board had gone through an “Easum Audit”, in the last year and had been advised to start a new, more contemporary worship service.

    We implemented the plan (with mixed results), but were amazed at the amount of resistance from some long-term members – not just because they didn’t like the new service, but because they saw no need for change. The church had decreased from an average attendance of over 250 to an average of under 100, and they bemoaned the lower numbers and the lack of young families, but they said “why change when what we have works for us?” When I pointed out that based on the trajectory of their finances (they have been slowly spending reserves for years) they only had 5-7 years before they would have to close, I was told more than once that they had been there for over 125 years and “there will always be a Methodist church in “.

    For all of the good intentions of so many of our church leaders at every level I think there is also a deep denial of our institutional mortality. Just as most of us live have difficulty facing our own inevitable deaths and can’t imagine a future beyond it, we can’t conceive of a time when the UMC as we know it will not exist. Death is hard to face, and most would rather live in denial than face it’s coming.

    • Wow, Todd. Thank you for sharing this experience. A Facebook friend mentioned the implication of this blog post for the local church. For the churches like the one you have described, as you have pointed out, they face the same future as how I see the denomination as a whole.

      • Thank you for your insight and what I believe is the challenge for Christians in many faiths. To be Gods vessel means listening to what God calls forth as we strive to live in kingdom commitments. Sharing Gods love takes many forms, may we see and act as God calls for renewal.

  2. Steve,
    I was at that event and heard what you said. I am not going to argue what is an obvious point. What I do wonder is whether this “demise” is beneficial. It seems our church locations, our church “homes” are the bunkers in which we hide. Once they are no longer able to be maintained it may push us back out into the world. It may not be the UMC, but it will still be the church. I also wonder if this demise has been at play longer than most realize. The merger was an artificial boost in numbers and thereby an artificial life-support system.

    The question in my mind is not what’s happening, but what now based on the fact that it is happening. The energy we are putting into staying alive would seem to be wasted energy based on your conclusions. So, what do those of us who are elders in this church do right now? Heroic measures seem hopeless. It seems more merciful and life-giving to invoke a DNR and allow our organs (pun not intended but humorously accepted) to be donated to a body more able to use them to their benefit and future.

    Beyond description, what would be your more detailed proscription?

    Enjoyed your keynote at PSYM. Peace.

    • Thanks, Mike.

      Yes, we must do more than describe the obvious. One of the problems is that sometimes the obvious isn’t as clear to some as to others. I’m inclined to agree with you that, rather than spending a lot of energy trying to resuscitate, we should find gracious ways to let those parts of the church die that appear to be terminally ill, anyway. Part of the difficulty there is deciding which parts of the church fit this description. People whose livelihoods depend on those parts understandably will take umbrage.

      But to your question about constructive proposals: I’m going to try to say more in subsequent blogs, but the direction I’m heading, for example, is for denominational leaders to re-think assumptions and strategies about how to reach youth and young adults. I occasionally, but still consistently hear people refer to reaching young people by starting new congregations. So, we look for a young, up-and-comer to start that new congregation. But what about all the students on college campuses? Is a campus ministry as important as a new church start? Or what about youth who are active in a local congregation who go off to college and drop out of church altogether? What do we do to help the high school graduate stay active in a congregation/campus ministry? How do we carry that practice post-college graduation into a local congregation? Rather than just thinking about new church starts, we need to pay more attention to what happens from age 18 to 35 and think more aggressively about what we can do.

      What if senior pastors in healthy (according to conventional measures, anyway) congregations took a youth pastor with a great deal of potential and mentored that youth pastor into birthing a congregation? There’s a new church start without all the overhead. This idea has problems, I know, but my main point is for senior pastors to give more of their time to mentoring younger pastors and letting new church starts happen more organically out of existing congregations.

      I’m going to try to tease out more ideas in the future. Thank you for the challenge!

      • Joanne Jacobs says:

        I hope a lot of people, far beyond the UMC listen to what you have to say. I and my husband are both ordained in the ABC with many wounds from trying to live out much of what you have said. It has occured to us that churches have forgotten how to be the Church. Complacency kills congregations. Just last spring I helped bring a church through a healthy closing- organ donating in a sense as Mike Lindstrom alluded to, but almost all of the former congregants chose churches that made them just as comfortable as their old one, meaning that none of the churches they joined are growing and reaching out to a modern generation any more than their old one did. Visiting the church that closed was described to me once as walking into someone else’s family reunion. How many other churches can that be said of?
        I also very much liked your statements of growing new churches organicaly and mentoring new pastors, both much needed. Sadly though I think that needs to be linked with some sort of bivocational ministry as most churches within the aging denominations are small and financially struggling.

        • Joanne, you’re quite right about the need to mentor bi-vocational pastors. I wonder how leaders in theological education would consider shifting our delivery systems to allow for such folk to get access to the kind of training and mentoring they need, but, again, organically, rather than asking them dramatically to modify their circumstances to fit a model of education that may itself be dying (except for the elite, well-heeld schools).

          Your comment and others are challenging me to focus on what is going on in theological education that either does not prepare us well to be ready to engage congregations in which the consumerist mindset predominates or, worse, even sets up people to feel nearly powerless to maek any changes. It seems as though we do a lot of ministering to felt needs. Is this what pastors should be doing? We call it “pastoral care,” but is it?

  3. John Burkitt says:

    We must keep in mind that Methodism is a movement, not an organization. The United Methodist Church is one of many organizations that support this movement. The only way the organization will survive is if it comes to grips with that. God does not have to–and may not–save the UMC in order to preserve the ideals of John Wesley.

    As a movement, Methodism has many expressions, including influences it had on other denominations. Those expressions will never die out. What may very well die if we don’t do something NOW is the power of a connectional church to exercise influence on decision makers and to respond charitably. We have to start thinking of the UMC as a business, the way we acknowledge that the Boy Scouts of America is a business that supports the Scouting Movement.

  4. Over my years as a missionary and seminary student/pastor, I (increasingly) witness the lack of desire for “things spiritual” not to mention biblical. The social club atmosphere appears alive-and-well in the UMC.

    I just want people to want, plain and simple.

  5. Bill Johnson says:

    I am one person that thinks something worldwide is occurring in the whole church at large. Some may see it as a “great falling away” others may see it as a “pruning”. I think might be a good bit of both! Regardless the church is faced with the threat that conducting church business/worship/ministry as usual is not maintaining the base support for our denominations. There seems to be few exceptions to this trend except for a few mega-churches which in and of themselves offer little of a workable model for struggling congregations. I suggest that simply trying to find the cure to maintain or strengthen the base support is in itself the wrong approach. Our churches have to a great degree been built originally on shifting sand and now as builders we are panicked that our structures are unsustainable as they exist. Some do want to change the church and make it a great social service organism, or a unified community or a country club and sometimes those models do achieve great worldly success and receive great accolades on how they did it. However just like the mega-church I don’t accept these models either. The notion that if we can find out what the world wants in a church and then “build it and they will come” doesn’t impress me as a cure. The question I suggest is: “what does God seek to do with us and through us” and then restructure. I will of course be accused of being simplistic and naive when I suggest such a back to basics approach. I however am not suggesting a return to any prior methodologies or theologies that distinguished our denominations at their start-up or even at their peak. I am suggesting that our direction be turned around like a repentant turning from what doesn’t work to seeking God’s direction instead regardless of the changes that might entail. Many of our best minds and strongest workers can’t repair a base (foundation) built on sinking sand yet as our cherished congregations ebb away we watch those same congregations continue to place their bets on training their leadership for churchy success and/or attracting enough of the right types of folks to make our churches comfortably successful again. Never did Jesus tell His disciples to get the right formula to build and sustain comfortably successful churches. Never did Jesus tell His disciples that if they find a way to keep the chairs filled and the budget solvent then He will say “well done good and faithful servant”.

  6. I sadly agree with much of what has been written in this post. There are two things that I see that also cause problems for the UMC.

    1. A lack of burden. It kills me how often I hear leaders in other denominations made fun of for their tactics in ministry when their tactics are reaching people with the gospel. Many of these people understand and believe that Jesus Christ is our only means of salvation. He’s not just a great moral teacher, He is the way of salvation. If we want to see revival we have to understand the implications of not sharing the gospel go farther than our church shutting its doors. If we don’t share the gospel, then “good” people will suffer eternally.

    On the flip side if we do share the gospel then we will see people’s hearts changed and people set free from sin, shame, and oppression.

    2. It is a very long process to become ordained in the UMC. On top of that we are limited in our options of where we go to seminary. This has caused a mass exodus of talented young people to other denominations where they can be credentialed more quickly and are given more choices on where or if they go to seminary. Many of these denominations make bible college a strong option and they produce preachers who are just as well read and effective as most seminary grads in 2/3 of the time.

  7. Fred Smith says:

    Thanks Stephen. I agree with everything you say…except point no. 2. The Bishops are a VERY key part of the problem. Sorry, but the huge majority of them are not folks who “love Jesus, the church and our mission.” I know it is hard to be completely honest both with ourselves and especially publicly but only honesty can help pull us out of this rapid demise, if it is not already too late. I am starting to think it is indeed, already too late. The Bishops (the agency executives are even worse) have been captured by “Another Gospel.” Their foci, their agenda, their actions, their statements, even their language would be unrecognizable by John Wesley and most of the “long line of splendor” of those who followed and came after him. In so many ways they are actually the antithesis of the followers of John Wesley. Many times they actually fight against the Church’s true agenda. The seminaries, including yours are total disasters for creating clergy who could help lead the UMC out of this ever increasing rush to destruction. I have not read all the comments but the one about pruning and another about being driven out of our buildings because we can no longer afford their upkeep may be pretty accurate. It may be just before the end God will reach in and say, “now let us begin the journey again.”
    Thank you for speaking out in an environment where I am sure it is not easy to be open and truthful. Thank you for your courage to speak difficult truths.
    God bless your ministry and words.

  8. David Cottle says:

    Mr. Rankin

    Thank you for writing so succinctly regarding an observation that many in today’s Christian world prefer to shield from their eyes. I am a recent new member to a UMC church. I have a long and active history with various fundamental and evangelical churches, based on my need to move periodically to find work.

    One of the things that did bother me regarding joining the local church was that there were far more empty seats than full ones, regardless of the service or time of year, yes even including the big three. That observation was dismissed when I heard the Pastor preach. He was well spoken and spoke with the “fire in the belly” of someone who was filled with the Holy Spirit. We talked recently and he expressed concerns and burdens regarding the ministry of the church, but I figured that the seeming blasé` attitude of the congregation was only due to the region where we live and the demise of the local economy, and disappearance of anything resembling industry that caused the loss of active membership.

    I was offered to participate in an in-depth small group Bible study. Based on the experience from that small group, in my opinion the church should have been full to overflowing. I seriously wondered what the disconnect was? My wife had been a member of the church for several years longer than I and was a member of the Missions and the UMW committees. When she would come home from the meetings and describe the discussions and the general lack of any spiritual drive for the activities in connection with the Great Commission, I knew what bread crumbs to follow.

    What I observed in my “investigation” and subsequent discussions, was a tremendous desire on the part of the laity to be filled and to be used by the Holy Spirit. What I found was a displayed lack of holiness by older established members, who were content to wait for death to transport them to their eternal reward. And our church had ended a corporate prayer ministry, as too many people were too busy with all the other ministries of the church. There was so much business going on we no longer had time to coordinate and meet for presenting ourselves penitent on our knees before the Creator of all we know and the King of Kings!

    Whatever happened to our salvation being a personal relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ? Whatever happened to being responsible to our God to work out our faith in fear and trembling? Whatever happened to we Christians being Holy as God is Holy?

    I am now reading numerous writers from many denominations to see what we can do to not only stave off extinction as a corporate spiritual entity, but to rise from the morass of personal laziness and apathy, a lighthouse to a world desperate for light, love, caring and a relationship with God.

    We will start it all with consistent effectual and fervent prayer, as we strive to allow the Holy Spirit to purge us of all leaven in our lives, that He may imbue us with the righteousness given by the atoning blood of our Savior, so that we may ask our Father for wisdom and all other good gifts, to use in spreading the Word to the world of His Son, Jesus Christ, the solution of all of mankind’s plight.

    Enough politics, it’s time for prayer and holiness before God.

    Dave Cottle

    • Thank you, David, for your comments. In one sense, I think you’re describing the jadedness and loss of idealism and vision that can happen to longer-term members who have seen good pastors come and go, who have endured mediocre pastors (or other poor leaders not limited to pastors) and have given up, to some degree, on what John Wesley called scriptural Christianity.

      On another note, since you are relatively new to United Methodism, let me be so bold as to suggest your taking a look at a book I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s titled Aiming at Maturity: the Goal of the Christian Life (Wipf and Stock, 2011). In it I try to explain the doctrine of holiness/sanctification/Christian perfection that Mr. Wesley argued was God’s particular calling for Methodists. I’d be glad to have you take a look and then, if you’d like, we could have a conversation. I have also worked up a kind of “class” for interested members to take in relation to the book, as a way of stimulating more intentional discipleship among congregation members. I’ve been in the ministry a long time and have watched churches put a lot of effort into mission statements and developing great mission activities, then resort to marketing to try to entice members to participate. The same old faithful few do most of the work, as you know. But if we can help people understand more adequately what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the motive to get involved in the church’s ministries begins to shift in the right direction.

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