Editorial: More Hopeful Than Ever —
By Rob Renfroe —
I have enjoyed the reports coming out of Global Methodist annual conference meetings from all over the United States and Europe. Delegates report that the conferences have been filled with an air of excitement, anticipation, and joy. They state the meetings have the feeling of a revival and there is the sense that something new is being born and a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit is being experienced.
I have also listened carefully to those who have attended the last round of United Methodist Church annual conferences earlier this summer. The word I heard most often coming out of those meetings was “hope.” Some pastors and bishops have even stated they “now feel more hopeful for the United Methodist Church” than they have ever felt in the past.
I wish to state clearly that I pray God will bless the ongoing UM Church with a wonderful future. I pray he will so anoint the UM Church with his Spirit that it will be a church where the Gospel is preached with power, where many lost souls find a new life in Christ, and where acts of mercy and justice are so prolific that the goodness of God’s kingdom becomes apparent to everyone.
So, I pray great things, I wish great things, I hope great things for the ongoing United Methodist Church. But UM leaders who state they are more hopeful than they have ever been for the UM Church mean something more than that. They say they are now more hopeful than ever. Now, for them, is a different time, a better time, a more hopeful time than ever before.
What has changed recently? What’s different now from the last time UM annual conferences met? The change is that over 6000 traditional churches have disaffiliated from the denomination. That’s what’s different now.
The UM Church still has the same bishops; the same seminary professors; the same “open hearts, open minds, open doors” slogan; and the same willingness to allow bishops, pastors and seminary professors to teach a defective Christology, to promote a faith that is far from orthodox, and to bless lifestyles that are contrary to what the Scriptures approve.
The old adage states: Keep doing what you’ve done, and you’ll keep getting what you’ve gotten. And what the UM Church has gotten in the past has not been great. Since the UM Church was founded in 1968, its membership has never grown year over year. Not once. Not once in the past five and a half decades. From 1970 to 2021 UM membership in the United States has declined from 10.7 million to 5.7 million. And it’s getting worse. The loss of membership in 2021 (the last year before disaffiliation began in earnest) was greater than any other single year in the denomination’s history. That is, until 2022 when membership decreased by over 500,000.
I’m not hopeful for the UM Church’s future growth and I won’t be until evangelism becomes one of its chief priorities, until its pastors are given a thoroughly orthodox education at its seminaries, and until the entire denomination admits that the progressive values that have led the church to where it is now will not lead it to a better place in the future.
“But,” I’ve heard centrist and progressive leaders state, “once the traditionalists leave with their narrow-minded, bigoted beliefs, we UMs will be perfectly positioned with our message of grace to reach our culture.” Well, that’s a hope, but not one founded on what other mainline Protestant denominations have experienced. Many of them are far ahead of the UM Church when it comes to ridding themselves of their traditionalists and liberalizing their sexual ethics. What was the result? Their decline in membership, attendance and finances has continued, only at a more rapid rate than ever before.
Since affirming gay marriage and the ordination of practicing gay persons membership, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) has decreased by 20 percent and youth professions of faith by over 50 percent. Since making the same changes, The United Church of Christ has seen its membership decline by 30 percent. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has experienced such a rapid decline that its Office of Research and Evaluation projects that the whole denomination will have fewer than 16,000 persons in worship by 2041. Rather than seeing an influx of secular people since adopting a liberalized sexual ethic, The Episcopal Church (USA) has experienced a decrease in its attendance that is so dramatic that church growth expert the Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile wrote, “The overall picture is dire … At this rate there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.”
What reason, what hope do UM leaders have that it will be different for the UM Church? Do they really believe that the UM pastors remaining in the UM Church are so spectacularly different from the pastors of our sister denominations that our story will be different when it comes to reaching the culture? Are our pastors more committed, more spiritual, more insightful, more compelling than the clergy in the PCUSA, the UCC, the ECUSA, and the ELCA? So different from the pastors of other liberal denominations that our team will crack the cultural code and we will be able to reach the masses where all the others have failed? That doesn’t sound like hope. That sounds like hubris.
Some centrist leaders have said, “Those who are leaving are primarily small churches. We hate to see them go. But losing them will not have a big impact on the denomination as a whole.”
It’s true most of the churches that have left the UM Church are small churches. That’s because most UM churches are small churches. Before the devastating impact of the pandemic on church attendance, fifty percent of all UM Churches had less than fifty persons in worship on a Sunday. Seventy-five percent had less than a hundred. The numbers are even worse now. To be honest the leaders telling people that most of the churches that are leaving are small churches need also to report that most of the churches remaining are small churches.
They also need to tell their followers that many of the denomination’s largest congregations have left. A partial listing includes three of the four largest in the Texas AC, the largest in the Rio Texas AC, and the largest in the Central Texas AC. The four congregations in Louisiana with the highest attendance have left, as well as the two largest in the Alabama-West Florida Conference. The largest church in North Georgia, Illinois Great Rivers and in Mississippi exited years ago. Two of the three largest congregations in North Alabama are out. The two congregations with the highest attendance in Oklahoma have disaffiliated, as well as the churches with the highest attendance in the Michigan, North Carolina, South Georgia, and the Northwest Texas Annual Conferences. The results are similar in other Annual Conferences, but these examples illustrate that those saying the churches that have exited are primarily small congregations are misrepresenting the truth of what has happened in the UM Church.
If the majority of the 6000 churches that have left are so small, why has the General Council on Finance and Administration proposed that the denomination’s budget for the next quadrennium be cut by 40 percent? That is an astounding number. That is an alarm bell loud enough to awaken all those who have ears to hear.
Membership is declining. Attendance is decreasing. Finances are struggling. And the plan is to blame the traditionalists, keep electing progressive leaders, double down on the liberal agenda that has brought the UM Church to where it is – and be hopeful.
Hope is a wonderful thing. But hope is not a strategy or a plan or a way forward. In fact, if it’s a blind “hope against hope” kind of hope, it can be a detriment to making the changes that need to be made.
Do I wish the UM Church well? I do. Am I hopeful for the UM Church? I want to be. But I can’t be until I hear its leaders deal with the real reasons it has declined for the past fifty-five years, acknowledge that something went very wrong when 20 percent of its churches and five of its bishops felt compelled to leave the denomination, and admit that maybe, just maybe, they are part of the problem.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. Photo by James Barr on Unsplash.