United Methodism’s un-occupy movement

By Andy Nixon

United Methodism is experiencing an epic un-occupation.

Where once upon a time our churches were standing room only with more worshippers than church members and an advancing evangelical message, today Methodism is becoming unoccupied — a vacant shell of what once was. Forty-four years of decline in a world that has grown exponentially in population, United Methodism is a breathtaking Christian collapse.

In the wake (meant both in the aftermath and funeral sense) of General Conference, the un-occupation seems likely to continue. The average age of our membership is approach- ing 60, a stone’s throw from a declining average worship attendance of 100 or less per congregation. A Do-Nothing General Conference offered little strategy for growth. Methodism in America today is like the thin line of water left on a freshly mopped floor — spread out and oh-so-thin every- where, but evaporating quickly.

The unoccupy movement is simply one of people leaving our churches. They have left in waves, and in my experience as a pastor the unoccupiers are not leaving because they have lost their faith in Jesus. The un- occupiers have lost their faith in us. They are leaving our congregations for churches that practice our faith better than we do. We tend to point out the theologies we do not care for — the prosperity gospel, the religitainment churches — but a larger truth is that people are leaving us for churches that practice a methodical discipleship better than we do. Many churches embrace John Wesley, he is not ours alone, and whatever name the church may hold, the truth is there are many churches that practice “methodism” better than the church that bears the name.

Years ago I attended a conference at Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, and in the midst of the non-denominational tide I was amazed to find John Wesley far and away the most quoted theologian. He was quoted almost at every turn, and the understanding of Wesleyan hallmarks such as prevenient grace and Christian perfection were admirable. Willow’s small group structure, accountability, and intensity were a page out of Wesley’s playbook hundreds of years prior.

Sensing a more effective Christian discipleship un-occupiers moved out. Better days can return to Mr. Wesley’s original movement, but it will take a new commitment to practice our basics better. An orthodox doctrine, small group discipline, preaching and worship that ignites the heart — taking care of the basics can lead our churches back to being occupied again.

Methodism needs to return to the basics. While agreement in essentials is necessary, success should be an equal goal. Doctrine matters, but perfect doctrine without effective preaching, small group discipline, and charismatic worship will not reverse our decline.

Let’s commit as Methodists to get better at what we do.

Methodism is a movement that reveres effectiveness, and a refocus on the basics of methodical discipleship — preaching, worship, small groups — can lead to the reoccupation of our churches.

Andy Nixon is the lead pastor of The Loft, a campus of the Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas. Over the last five years, The Loft has grown numerically in worship from 250 to 1,300.