By Rob Renfroe
The bad news, as you know, is that the United Methodist Church is declining. Membership, attendance, and giving have all decreased. In fact, membership in the United States is at its lowest point since The Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church merged in 1968.
The good news is that many of our denominational leaders are now talking about the decline openly and honestly—and it seems they are committed to doing something about it. They are to be commended. Of course the question is: What is to be done?
Several groups have been commissioned to address the issue, most notably the World Wide Nature of the Church task force and The Call to Action Committee. The WWN team has focused primarily on renewing the church through structural change. The CTA, which has only met twice and is still determining its direction, seems inclined to work on structural issues and to determine a list of metrics by which churches and pastors will be held accountable for being vital and vibrant congregations.
We are grateful for all who love our church enough to care about its vitality and its future. No doubt the structure of the church needs to be re-thought and reformed to be effective in reaching a changing world for Christ. John Wesley took the structure of the early Methodist movement seriously, as did Francis Asbury when he came to the American colonies. Because of their organizational genius, Methodism became more than a powerful but brief revival. It became an enduring force for spiritual renewal and social holiness on both sides of the Atlantic.
Believing that churches should grow and developing criteria by which congregations and pastors can be held accountable is not only justifiable—it’s important. Too much emphasis can be placed on numbers. But in the 8,200-member congregation I serve, we look at numbers all the time. Our senior pastor Ed Robb often says, “We count people because people count.” And we count how many people join every year; how many attend church, Sunday school, and small groups; how many are going on mission trips and serving the poor in our own community; and how many give regularly to God’s work, because all of those markers provide some indication of whether people are growing in their faith.
Structural change—certainly necessary. Markers to determine growth—important. But the United Methodist Church and its future will not be transformed by either.
What is required for United Methodism to become a powerful movement of God again cannot be engineered by task forces, boards and agencies, or denominational leaders. They can remove some barriers to growth and they can hold local churches accountable for growth. But they cannot produce the movement of God that will produce real growth and they cannot create the dynamic spiritual leaders who will lead local congregations in effective ministry.
The United Methodist Church will never see dynamic growth again until our pastors and our congregations:
Believe that people are lost without a saving faith in Jesus Christ. John Wesley instructed his preachers that they had nothing to do but to save souls. Of course, he was committed to helping the poor and transforming his culture. But his primary task for his preachers was to bring people to faith in Christ so that their souls could be saved from judgment and hell. I once sat in a meeting of 30 UM preachers who were asked why we need to take the gospel to people outside the church. Many answers were given but they all had a common theme—so people can have a better, more meaningful life. Not one said because their sins have separated them from a holy God and unless they come to faith in Christ they will spend eternity apart from his love. When the pastors believe that the main reason people need Christ is a quality of life issue—it does not create the passion or the urgency found in Wesley’s early preachers who believed that eternal souls were at stake.
Experience the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The work of the church is spiritual work. In fact, it is spiritual warfare. It will not be won in the flesh, no matter how well-meaning or how well-structured or how well-measured we are. When Jesus began his public ministry, in Luke chapter 4, he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me….” He did not begin his ministry until he was empowered by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, after his resurrection he told his disciples not to begin their ministry until the Holy Spirit had come upon them and they had received his power (Acts 1:8). God is free to anoint his preachers and his churches with the Spirit whenever he chooses. But the pattern we see in Scripture is that the power of the Holy Spirit most often comes when persons have committed themselves to times of prayer, worship, and fasting. Personal revival among our pastors, I believe, will be required before we see a revival in the true effectiveness of the church.
Increase their vision for ministry. Some of us by our inherent nature are more visionary than others. But all of us can become more visionary than we are at present. How do we do this? First and foremost, we get our eyes off ourselves and spend time contemplating a God who is sovereign, omnipotent, and passionate about lost people. He is a God who can overcome every obstacle we face and inadequacy we possess. Second, we must spend time looking at a world that is lost. When local congregations focus on themselves and their needs and their problems, they die. When they look at the world God loves and Christ died for, when they care about the lost and the hurting, and when they believe that others are more important than themselves (Philippians 2:3), their hearts and their vision are enlarged. And as a result, their mission increases in impact and effectiveness.
What can our leaders do to help the United Methodist Church grow? Yes, address structural concerns and the issue of accountability. But every bit as important, if not more so, they need to speak to us as if people without Christ are lost and souls matter; call us to prayer and worship and fasting—that we might experience the anointing of the Holy Spirit; use the resources of the church to bring us in contact with the most effective pastors in the country, men and women who are passionate visionaries whose love for God and the lost is inspiring and infectious.
Our leaders also need to pray for us. I’m sure they do already. But they need to pray for our pastors and our churches. This battle for an effective United Methodist Church that reaches the lost and impacts our culture will not be won by power or might, but by his Spirit.
Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.