By Andrew C. Thompson
Does the United Methodist Church have a future?
Pastors and laypeople anxiously ask that question as they look at troubling signs of the church’s decline in the United States. The UM Church is growing in other parts of the world, but statistics on the American church suggest that we have real problems that need addressing. Whether it’s the drop in numbers of young adult clergy or the steady falloff in total church membership over the past few decades, evidence of a shrinking denomination is interpreted by most people as a sign that we need to do some serious self-evaluation to find out what is wrong and how we can address the church’s ills.
Some people point out that no denomination is an end in itself.
The Methodists are only useful as a church body insofar as they are making disciples of Jesus Christ (and not just members of a local United Methodist church!). That’s surely true. So the real question for us is whether the UM Church can still be a part of the larger body of Christ that makes faithful disciples of Jesus—men and women who worship faithfully, experience transformation through grace, and are moved to go into the world as witnesses to the gospel.
If so, the church’s future is clear! And if not, its future is sealed.
As a church rooted in the Wesleyan tradition, the UM Church has a special calling to an evangelistic witness that proclaims God’s transforming grace for all people. Back when Methodism was a movement within the Church of England, John Wesley described this calling as spreading scriptural holiness over the land and reforming the larger church. Today, our church describes that same mission by saying we are called “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Either way, the people called Methodists have always believed that God has a special calling for us to receive and be remolded by his grace so that we can be empowered to go forth and offer it to hurting people in a broken world. It is a calling for each of us as individuals, as well as for all of us collectively.
Our path to the future depends on our willingness to live vigorously into that calling in our own day and age.
A profound moment happens in the book of Jeremiah when Israel’s enemies are at the gate and the future looks bleak. Any number of strategies have been tried by the kings of Judah to avoid destruction by Babylon and maintain Judah’s independence.
Shifting political alliances, military action, diplomatic negotiation, and the worship of foreign gods—they have all failed and the people are desperate. The word of God given to Jeremiah in the middle of this predicament is surprising, because it literally offers nothing new. Instead, Jeremiah says: “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).
No human scheming will work, God says. There is only one way forward and it is the way of covenant faithfulness with God.
The “ancient paths” are the paths Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob walked, together with their families, as they trusted that God would make of them a great people. They are the ways of Moses and the Hebrews as they followed God through 40 years in the wilderness. They are the ways pursued by Ruth as she sought refuge under the mercy of Israel’s law and by Esther as she risked life and limb to save God’s people. And they are the paths trod by David, who, though he often fell short, always turned back to God in repentance and was called a man after God’s own heart.
As Jeremiah puts it, God’s people shouldn’t just look and ask for the ancient paths of faithfulness; they must also walk in those ways. The renewal of the people of God requires both discernment and a collective commitment to action. The word of God promises that those who respond in faith will be empowered to act in faith. And it calls us toward dedication to a whole way of life.
Recent years have seen a number of books by prominent Methodist pastors and theologians trying to seek out those ancient paths for the United Methodist Church. Some of these books have been centered on specific issues such as doctrine or church unity. Others have looked more broadly at the Methodist identity of the church and the church’s calling in ministry. The names of their authors represent some of the best leaders in the church, people like William H. Willimon, William J. Abraham, Scott J. Jones, William B. Lawrence, Reuben Job, and others.
Together, their efforts have gone a long way toward providing a picture of the UM Church’s future that is hopeful. It’s also a picture that reflects Jeremiah’s prophecy about ancient paths in the sense that their vision is largely Wesleyan. More and more, the best pastors and teachers in the church are imagining how the church’s mission and ministry might reclaim—for our time and place—the original passion of John and Charles Wesley and the early Methodists as they carried the good news down the highways and byways of the British Isles.
Doug Meeks, a United Methodist elder and theologian, asked an annual conference session not long ago, “Why in the world would you want to be a Methodist if you’re not Wesleyan?” That’s a great question! It strikes at the heart of our church’s self-understanding. If the calling on the first Methodists came through the work and ministry of John and Charles Wesley and their companions, then we know that the Holy Spirit raised them up for special purposes. Their sermons, hymns, letters, journals, and ministry remain important because they show us a compelling way to understand the call of Jesus on our lives. They offer us a pattern of discipleship. Take away the Wesleyan character of the church and what is left? Just a big, lumbering Protestant denomination without a clear sense of why it exists.
So it seems clear: Any talk of a future for the United Methodist Church has to be talk of a Wesleyan future.
Understanding my generation
There is one thing that is lacking in recent books on Wesleyan renewal in the church, though: the voice of a younger generation, United Methodists who fall into the Generation X category—men and women born between 1961 and 1981. Like our older counterparts, we too want to find the ancient paths of faithfulness. And like them, we understand those paths to be Wesleyan.
But wait. Why is a Generation X perspective important, anyway? And what makes it different?
Well, for one, there’s the age range of Generation X. At the time of this writing, Gen Xers range in age from their late 20s to their late 40s. They are the age group to which the church is increasingly looking for leadership. As pastors, teachers, youth ministers, writers, missionaries, and plain ol’ disciples, their work is vital to a church that needs the energy and vision of younger adults.
But Gen Xers also have a unique perspective to share as well. We came of age in a time when it seemed like the world around us was losing its stability. As the Cold War’s decline sped up the globalization of the market economy and technological change in daily life ramped up to warp speed, Gen X children of the 1970s and 1980s grew up in an environment where fewer and fewer of the old rules applied.
Jeff Gordinier talks about this shared experience in X Saves the World, a humorous and insightful look at the problems and possibilities facing Generation X. “We come from a lost world,” he writes, “and much of what defines us is our ambivalent stuckness between a hunger for the new and an attachment to the old.” Gordinier sees nostalgia for a vanishing world and the increasing pace of change as the reasons behind Generation X’s most universally recognized traits: a strong sense of irony and an unwillingness to be overly idealistic.
“Every generation gets a taste of that conflict, of course,” Gordinier says about adults’ tendency to look back wistfully on the world of their youth, “but the speed of change these days is forcing Gen X into a state of constant diligence.” Having a grounded existence and a strong sense of place used to be taken for granted across the culture. For Gen Xers, though, it was an ever-diminishing reality throughout their childhood and adolescence.
Popular culture became ubiquitous during the childhood of Generation X as the great societal influence. Where once a politician or a pastor or even an author or scholar might have been the revered authority, now it was MTV. Even more, the very media used to disseminate pop culture and facilitate communication quickly came to dominate huge aspects of our lives. (After all, who now thinks anything strange of a family where each member has his or her own bedroom TV, cell phone, laptop computer, and iPod?) We all became individuals—every one of us—but Gen Xers experienced this societal shift during our most formative years. We saw enough of the old world to long for it, but we also came to be tantalized by the promise of the ever-changing new. We were taught at an early age to accept that life always means life out of balance.
In a perceptive look at Generation X spirituality entitled Virtual Faith, Tom Beaudoin points out that Gen Xers “were the first American generation in at least a century to lack a common cause. Previous generations had the Vietnam War, World War II, the Great Depression, and World War I as rallying points.” We might add other great historical moments of the last century to his list: the cultural “revolutions” of the 1960s (rock ‘n’ roll, feminist, sexual), the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the beginning of the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s, and even the great social movements of the early twentieth century (temperance, women’s suffrage, labor). But if anything, that just makes Generation X’s lack of a unifying cause all the more glaring. As Beaudoin puts it, “Generation X reached adulthood in the absence of a theme, and even with a theme of absence.”
In society at large, we had no common cause. What we had, instead, was the common experience of life as increasingly less concrete, increasingly more detached.
You might think that many of the changes witnessed by Gen X children would lead to a happier life. Technology making life easier and more fun? Greater access to affordable and abundant consumer goods? An adolescence without the looming prospect of a military draft? If earlier generations had seen all that in their crystal balls they might have said it looked like a dream come true. But in fact all the ways that the world was changing created a profound sense of alienation and anxiety. Everyone in the culture was going through the same shifts, of course, but not everyone was going through them when they were eight, twelve, or fifteen years old. Technology makes some aspects of life easier. But it also makes life dramatically more individualized. It shifts us from the concrete to the virtual. Even more, it undermines the stability of real, authentic community. If—as Christians believe—we are literally created to love God and love one another in the community called church, then all those seismic shifts of contemporary life make it more difficult to fulfill the very purpose given to us in Jesus Christ. He calls us to reconciliation, but life today moves toward ever more alienation.
That is Generation X’s experience.
None of it automatically makes Gen Xers more qualified to speak to the church’s future than any other age group. But it does mean that Gen Xers have had a unique firsthand experience with the emergence of the very forces that have unsettled contemporary life. Gen X Christians have a deep hunger for authentic community and the possibility of lifelong growth in grace exactly because our own childhood witnessed the emergence of a world where those things have become more and more difficult to achieve.
Sometimes it seems as if our culture is trying to create a product to meet every possible human hunger. It tries desperately to hold our attention with a constant bombardment of images and products and new ways to feel happy.
But we’ve got a deeper hunger the culture can never satiate.
It’s a hunger given to us by God: to be healed of our broken spirits and alienated lives, and to grow in love with Jesus and the friends he gives us in his church. It is a hunger to find our identities in the community of the baptized, worshiping and living in faithfulness to God.
The vision for tomorrow’s church must feature a church where our very identity as Christian disciples will never be separated from the community God calls us to join—for we know that we can only travel the way of salvation together, brothers and sisters called by Jesus to be his friends and to grow in his grace, even as we share his good news with the world.
Such a church will learn to be in practice what Jesus calls it to be in his teaching: the light of the world, the city on a hill (Matthew 5:14). It will be a church where each of us—“like living stones”—will be shaped together into the spiritual house that serves as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. It’s a house known as God’s own people, and when it is built as God intends, all those who have been fitted into it will be brought out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2).
Tomorrow’s church can be a disciplined community where the followers of Jesus are maturing in faith as they watch over one another in love. Tomorrow’s church can be a community of worship where God’s people gather to hear the word preached and receive the holy gifts of bread and wine. Tomorrow’s church can be a community of missional urgency where believers respond enthusiastically to the call of the Holy Spirit to go and bear the gospel to the world in joy. Tomorrow’s church can be a holistic community where the fragile creation that God calls good is seen and treasured for the gift that it is. Tomorrow’s church can be a community of redemption where the least and the last and the lost of this world find hospitality and belonging—whether they are the poor of a distant land or the forgotten teenagers and young adults among us.
The time is ripe for the church to hear a vision from our generation. At the same time, that vision is not possible apart from our own formation as Methodist women and men who have been led toward maturity by our elders in the UM Church. So as we all stand at the crossroads together and seek where the good way lies, we too want to find those ancient paths—Wesleyan paths!—that others have sought as they’ve written about the renewal of our church.
The church is at a crossroads. But we firmly believe that God is speaking to us through the words of Jeremiah when he says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29: 11).
If that’s true, then we have every reason to rejoice!
Andrew C. Thompson is the editor of Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for The United Methodist Church (Abingdon 2011). This essay was excerpted from Generation Rising and is used by permission.
Thompson is writer of the popular “Gen-X Rising” column in the United Methodist Reporter and online at genxring.com. An elder in the Arkansas Annual Conference, he pastored churches in Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina. Beginning in the fall of 2011, he will teach Wesleyan theology at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee.