The Good, The Bad, and The Unfortunate

By Rob Renfroe

Two years of study and $500,000 later, the verdict is in. The United Methodist Church is in trouble. That’s the conclusion of the Call to Action report that has begun to dominate discussions about the future of the people called Methodist in the United States.

Of course, the committee’s findings are no surprise. Since 1968, we have lost three million members and during that same period the number of churches in the United States has fallen from 41,901 to 33,583.

The Good. Believe it or not, the Call to Action report is good news. The numbers it reports are not; but the fact that our leaders are taking the bad news seriously—that is a welcomed change.

Previously, many of our institutional leaders were either in denial about how sick the UM Church had become or actually championed the loss of members as indicative that United Methodists were being particularly faithful to the Gospel. The idea that healthy organizations grow in strength and in numbers did not seem to register—nor did the idea that just maybe the Gospel of Jesus Christ winsomely presented still has the power to attract and convert those who are lost, hurting, and in need of God.

But after 40 years of continual decline since the merger that formed the United Methodist Church (there has never been a single year during that period when the UM Church has reported an increase in membership) the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table called for a study to address our problems. And the promise was that there will be action to follow.

All of that is good news.

Also good is the report’s emphasis that vitality will not be created by UM boards and agencies, but by local churches doing effective work. In other words, our boards exist to serve the needs of our local congregations, not vice versa. (Sadly, the report does not contain a serious discussion of reducing apportionments so that our churches are able to hire staff and fund ministries that would allow them to do more of the work required to be truly effective in making disciples and reaching the lost.)

Another positive point was the report’s honest admission that the people in the pew find it difficult to trust the denomination’s hierarchy. No institution can be effective if persons on the ground and in the trenches do not have full faith in their leaders.

Again, this finding is not surprising. When, for example, 36 bishops call for the church to change its biblical and gracious statement on homosexual practice as they did recently; when the Board of Church and Society lobbies for a healthcare bill that at the time included federal funding for abortion and along with the United Methodist Women has partnered with the RCRC, which works to make all abortions legal, including partial birth abortions and abortions for the purpose of gender selection; when an official UM seminary (Claremont) proudly announces that its students, preparing to pastor UM congregations, will have the opportunity to train under Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis, and Buddhist priests—and when we know that our apportionments will be used to fund all of these endeavors and the salaries of those who promote them—it’s no wonder that there is a very real disconnect between the people in the local church who pay the bills and those who misuse their trust.

One last positive to mention is the report’s call for our bishops to take more authority in holding accountable our churches, pastors, and boards and agencies for effective ministry. Every organization needs structures in place that will not allow poor performance to go unchecked.
But here’s the question: Are the people who have been our leaders during the past four decades of decline the right people to turn this ship around?

I am privileged to know several of our bishops and I can honestly say that some of them are superb leaders. I would gladly trust them with the future of the UM Church. However, their number is small. We did not arrive at this point of crisis because we had many great leaders who were hamstrung by our structures. We are where we are because we have had poor leadership in the past by the majority of our leaders.

Leadership makes the difference in every organization. Long-term success can be traced back to effective leadership every time. And long-term failure is the result of poor leadership. We can only hope and pray that our most effective bishops will step forward and influence the other members of the Council and that our Jurisdictional Conferences will no longer elect bishops who represent anything other than a passion for the Gospel and an ability to lead the church.

The Bad. Hired to survey our leaders and our churches to determine what makes vital congregations and to recommend a way forward were two well-respected secular firms (Towers Watson and Apex) who work with major corporations. We can be thankful that companies with great credibility and objectivity were chosen as consultants.

Unfortunately, after reading their reports it is obvious that they were either not aware of or not tasked with delving into the deeper issues that in no small way are responsible for United Methodism’s sad decline. The official steering team report does not contain the word “theology;” neither does the Towers Watson report. Apex mentions “theology” but never as a significant concern that divides the denomination. The proverbial elephant in the living room is treated as no more important than a tiny mouse who lives out back in the corner of the barn.

Had leaders of the Renewal and Reform Coalition been interviewed during the study, I believe there may have been a different report. Every month I receive heartbreaking letters from faithful United Methodists asking me why their bishop would send them another preacher who doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world, or who has stated that he or she doesn’t believe in the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, or who has declared that homosexuality is one of God’s good gifts just as is heterosexuality. These letters almost invariably announce that others have left that congregation. And often the writer states that he or she feels it is now time to do the same.

Yes, there is a problem, as the reports make clear, that our pastors are not as effective in preaching and leading as we wish they were. But most United Methodists would support and work with any pastor who would “preach Jesus” and love people.

The CTA report along with the Towers Watson and Apex studies make no mention that denominations that become so theologically liberal that they constantly debate the clear teachings of Scripture, or even deny what the Bible teaches altogether in a misguided attempt to remain relevant to the culture, always hemorrhage members—and the members they lose are those who have long done the work of and given sacrificially to our local churches. (Prime examples of this phenomenon are the Episcopal Church USA, the Presbyterian Church USA, and most recently the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.)

It is hard to understand that a diagnosis of what ails the UM Church was not set in the context of the epidemic that is devastating most mainline churches. This oversight can only be explained by a decision not to report what might be controversial and upsetting to those who believe theology doesn’t matter or as the lack of awareness by two well-meaning firms who simply did not have the necessary background to do a thorough job.

The Unfortunate. Finally, the report focuses on structural change. That is understandable and somewhat commendable. Methodists have always valued helpful structures and accountability. In our heyday, we had a knack for “organizing to beat the devil” as one church historian put it.

Today, something like 60 million persons worldwide are part of the Wesleyan family and trace their spiritual roots to John Wesley. Only 60,000 persons are the organized heirs of George Whitefield, even though he was a more powerful and fruitful evangelist living at the same time as Wesley. A primary reason for the difference was John Wesley’s organizational genius and his insistence that believers, new and old, be in what today we would call accountability groups.

Structures matter. If anyone believes that, we Wesleyans do. But when the Lord took Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones and asked him “can these bones live,” the answer was not “yes, if we restructure them correctly.” The Lord said they would live again only when he put breath into them.

Amazingly, actually it’s shocking, missing in the CTA report and supporting documents is any mention of the work of the Spirit in the renewal of the church. One can’t expect Tower Watson or Apex to think in these terms, but the final report most certainly should have acknowledged that the renewal of the church and reaching the lost is spiritual work—even, according to Scripture, a spiritual battle. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5, NKJV).

The Call to Action Report will become the focal point of a long and important conversation concerning the future of the UM Church. And those of us who are orthodox Christians can be most grateful for the acknowledgement that there is a problem and for the willingness of our bishops and other leaders to address it.

What we must do is point the church back to the centrality of Jesus as the only-begotten Son of God and the Savior of the World, and boldly declare the truth that God will not bless the UM Church because we have the right structures or better accountability, but only because we preach and practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ as contained in the Scriptures—for it is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), and pray that God’s Spirit will make the most of this moment.

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.