A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn
The United Methodist Church can experience revival by returning to the spiritual practices of Methodism’s early years, say two scholars leading an effort to develop passionate lay leaders.
In joining the mainline establishment, the church jettisoned many of the activities that made John Wesley’s movement so vibrant, said Scott Kisker, associate professor of church history at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
“Methodism was a method of helping people, a discipline that enabled people to have their lives transformed by the gospel and become holy,” Kisker said. “Mainline means we are an establishment religion that basically doesn’t see much difference between creating good citizens and creating Christians.”
In the 18th century, Methodist preachers took to the road to share the gospel and Methodist laypeople gathered each week for class meetings to discuss the state of their souls. Often the class leaders — rather than ordained clergy — performed pastoral duties for their communities.
It was all a bit countercultural. The early Methodists were the Jesus freaks of their day.
Kisker and the Rev. Steve Manskar, director of Wesleyan leadership for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, would like to see the church recapture some of that 18th century spirit.
To help with this revival, Manskar and Kisker will lead the Wesleyan Leadership Conference on Oct. 14-16 at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. The theme of the conference derives from Kisker’s book “Mainline or Methodist? Rediscovering our Evangelistic Mission.” Manskar is working to get United Methodist congregations across the country to establish Covenant Discipleship Groups, based on the model of lay-led class meetings.
“Lay leadership is essential,” Manskar said. “That’s where the revival is going to come from. We need to have laity taking the lead in the visiting, the caring and the mission of the church.”
Small group vitality
The conference comes on the heels of a recently released Congregational Vitality study that identified small groups as one of the main “drivers” of church growth, attendance and giving.
Such a finding would not have surprised John Wesley. Kisker said small groups were a key part of Methodism from the beginning.
Wesley started out with band meetings, intimate groups divided by sex and marital status where people met weekly to confess their sins.
At band meetings, participants each had to answer five questions:
- What sins have you committed?
- What temptations have you met with?
- How have you been delivered?
- Do you have any questions?
- Do you have any secrets?
“It was a way to experience God’s grace,” Kisker said, “and have more compassion on your neighbor.”
Wesley next added class meetings where people could discuss how well they were following Jesus’ teachings. At a time when professional clergy were scarce, class meetings led by lay men and women became one of the core units of Methodism.
Membership in the Methodist church required membership in a class meeting, Kisker said. A person who missed three class meetings risked being dropped from the church rolls.
However, as the church grew in size and its members grew in prosperity, Methodists started to want to be more like their Presbyterian and Episcopal neighbors, Manskar said. They stopped wanting to attend class meetings each week, and they wanted pastors who no longer traveled but served one congregation.
By the middle of the 19th century, many of the circuit riders had dismounted, and such practices as field preaching and class meetings had fallen by the wayside.
In the process, many laity lost their passion for discipleship. The church still attracted new members. But as a percentage of the U.S. population, it stopped growing sometime after the Civil War, Kisker said.
“I think we became more about building an empire and less about creating disciples for Jesus Christ and redeeming people,” Kisker said. “We became more about building a church instead of building the church.”
The practice of class meetings still works amid people’s busy 21st century schedules, Kisker and Manskar said.
Kisker is part of a class meeting with fellow members of Hyattsville (Md.) United Methodist Church. The group usually gathers in a member’s house on Friday evenings.
“We’ve seen some amazing things happen — people making dramatic life changes,” Kisker said. “One woman who was a lawyer decided she was going to become a nurse. … I just think making yourself aware of what God is doing in your life and having someone who asks you about it every week is pretty profound.”’
Manskar hopes Covenant Discipleship Groups will lead others around the country to have similar profound experiences.
In these groups, members hold each other accountable for following Wesley’s three simple rules: Do good, do no harm and stay in love with God. The goal, Manskar said, is “to witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Fairmount Avenue United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minn., which has a weekly attendance of about 200, has seven such groups of four to seven members.
They meet for about an hour each week. Members go around in a circle sharing what they have done in the past week as acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion. Then they discuss their spiritual promptings and share prayer requests.
Dan Thielen, a member of one of the groups, said the gatherings help him think about what is important in his life.
“We support each other through the bad times and pat each other on the back in the good times,” he said.
The Rev. Michelle Hargrave, the church’s senior pastor, said she and others have seen their faith deepen because of their Covenant Discipleship Groups. She is a member of a group with six other women.
“It’s such a foundational piece of Wesley’s own thinking, and it lives out in our lives so concretely,” Hargrave said. “That’s a pretty exciting tool for the church.”
The Wesleyan Leadership Conference costs $95. Further information is available at www.gbod.org/wesleyanleadership.
Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
United Methodist Communications
Office of Public Information
Lively, vital churches come in all sizes, locations, and settings says a new study commissioned by The United Methodist Church, but they consistently share some common factors that work together to influence congregational vitality. That means what works to make those churches energetic and growing can likely work for other churches too.
Dynamic churches with high attendance, growth and engagement tend to have inspirational topical preaching, lots of small groups including programs for children and youth, and a mix of both traditional and contemporary worship services including contemporary music and multi-media in contemporary services. Other factors include effective lay leaders, rotating lay leadership, pastors who work at developing and mentoring lay leaders, and length of pastoral appointment.
An essential finding of the research was that it’s the combination of factors that contribute to vitality, rather than any one or two.
“We’ve taken a data-driven approach to identify what works for thriving congregations large and small, both rural and urban, all over the U.S.,” said Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, chair of the denominational Call to Action committee that engaged the global consulting firm Towers Watson to conduct the study. “While there’s no silver bullet, we believe these findings can lead to vitality for many more congregations.”
“Lively churches offer more than one style of worship. They work hard to make preaching interesting and relevant. They encourage more lay members to take on leadership roles. They start small groups and keep them going,” Palmer said. “If more churches do these things, we believe we will see measurable positive results over time.”
Robust and comprehensive research on data from various sources using proven data collection and analysis techniques was conducted in order to gain highly statistically reliable information about the cluster of factors that lead to congregations being more vital as evidenced by selected vitality indicators.
The process included interviews with stakeholders across The United Methodist Church, group meetings, and surveys targeted at different stakeholder groups. In addition, data on attendance, growth, and engagement from over 32,000 United Methodist churches in North America was analyzed.
Because of the survey methodology utilized and the high response rate, the report concludes that the findings apply across the whole North American United Methodist population and would be replicated if the study were done again.
While the key drivers of vitality were consistent regardless of church size, predominant ethnicity, and geographic location; there were additional nuances by church size and regional area. For large churches, being representative of the community and having pastors who spend more time on preaching, planning and leading worship had a strong relationship with vitality.
In the South Central and Southeast regions, the length of tenure of the clergy as pastors had an impact, while in the Northeast, vitality was related to pastors spending more time on personal devotion and worship. In the Western region, churches that are representative of the community and have a pastor that leads in the context of the community have a higher association with vitality.
The study identified other factors that did not appear to have a significant impact on vitality, including whether outreach programs are local or global, the number of programs for adults and young adults, the use of experiential activities during worship services, length of sermon, type of music used in traditional services, and whether the pastor graduated from seminary or not.
The Call to Action steering team was created to develop a plan that will lead to reordering the life of The United Methodist Church for greater effectiveness and vitality. Palmer said that the information will be used to develop recommendations about how the denomination should organize, the role of its leaders, and how the church’s culture, structure and processes can be aligned in ways that support vitality in congregations.
The full report is available for review at umc.org/vitalcongregations.
Can Methodists learn anything about effective Christian evangelism from their denomination’s founding period 250 years ago?
“Yes,” says a Duke University professor, who told 600 church developers how the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, gave rise to a movement that swept the young United States of America.
“Early Methodism was evangelistic,” the Rev. Laceye Warner (pictured right) explained to the 2009 United Methodist School of Congregational Development in July. “When the Wesleys talked about spreading ‘Scriptural holiness,’ they meant evangelism.” She defined evangelism as preaching the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ and “living it out.”
One of the recurring themes at successive annual Schools of Congregational Development, which are sponsored by the United Methodist Boards of Discipleship and Global Ministries, is the decline in Methodist membership in the United States (and also in Britain, where it originated). Mission-founded expressions of the denomination found elsewhere are growing.
Reclaiming strengths. Numbers alone are not all that matters, said Warner, who holds a chair of evangelism at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.
Among the qualities of early Methodism that could help the contemporary church reclaim its earlier strengths is the idea that growth in grace is as important as growth in numbers. Other relevant qualities are the beliefs that theological reflection is essential, sustained Christian practices maintain the community of faith, and wealth and material goods are meant to be shared.
The building blocks for the early Methodist movement included “classes” and “bands” that developed after people responded to Methodist preaching, often set in open fields and other public spaces, rather than in church buildings.
Classes were groups of 10 to 12 people organized by geographic location—neighborhoods—while bands were 6 to 8 people who voluntarily came together for spiritual nurture. There were two kinds of bands: “select” and “penitential” or “over-achievers” and “backsliders.” But, when the lists of band members are examined, those who show up on the “select” list were once themselves among the “penitential,” Warner said.
“The experience of sanctification was expected to take place in small groups,” she continued, “but it didn’t happen for all at the same pace. We have one record of it taking someone 48 years to experience sanctification.” Growth in grace, Warner said, was as important to the Wesleys as expanding membership rolls. The growth was steady but gradual.
People fed one another spiritually in the early Methodist movement; they kept personal journals that were shared. Not everyone stayed with the spiritual and social “discipline” that the Wesleys taught and practiced. Scriptural and “social holiness” were partners in the Wesleyan movement. Warner indicated that membership loss started at the very beginning among those who did not share the vision.
By Elliot Wright, information officer of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. This article was distributed by United Methodist News Service.
By Eric LeMaster
Pastors and academics converged in early October at United Methodism’s Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, to discuss the changing landscape of Christianity in North America and abroad. The convocation raised a call to action to reengage culture domestically, while highlighting the increasing prominence of the Global South in the world communion.
Notable among those speaking were Dr. Philip Jenkins, professor of humanities at Pennsylvania State University and author of numerous books on the growing Global South church, and Os Guinness, Christian scholar and founder of the Trinity Forum. Attending the event were pastors and church leaders from various mainline denominations from the southeast, primarily United Methodists.
Most speakers addressed the need to reevaluate the domestic strategy of mainline churches to engage culture and reverse the contraction of congregations in the West.
Kendra Creasy Dean, founding director for the Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry, dealt with the loss of young people as a major failing of the church in our times. This failure, she says, is exhibited in the startling minority (only eight percent, according to the National Study of Youth and Religion) of American Christian teenagers who are “highly devoted”—those who are active in their churches, pray independently, etc.
“People who are in economic development know that the most important stimulus you can invest into a developing economy is to invest in young people,” said Dean, relating this to the need to make greater spiritual investments in the coming generation. She also asserted that the best way to develop young people is “to invest in the spiritual formation of the adults that love them best”—whether in the context of youth ministry, the family, or the general congregation. Strong leaders are necessary, she argued, to counteract what she called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”—the relativistic, feel-good theology of choice for many church-goers, and a philosophy devoid of a dynamic relationship with Christ.
In a series of sermons concluding each day of the conference, Dallas United Methodist pastor Tyrone Gordon, senior pastor of St. Luke’s “Community” Church reiterated the need to be forward thinking in preaching the gospel. Gordon emphasized the inadequacies of current strategies to engage culture, especially the church’s role in combating social injustice.
“Micah spoke to a culture where the powerful were oppressing the powerless,” Gordon said, drawing from the prophet’s words that true religion is both social and spiritual. “Workers were being exploited. Immigrants were being ignored. The courts were corrupt.…The faces, the corporations, the political players may have changed, but the game sure looks the same.”
“Justice is lacking in our nation, and sometimes the worst perpetrator of injustice by silence is the church,” Gordon admonished. “We have bought into a gospel of prosperity that diminishes suffering, sacrifice, commitment, and surrender. We’ve been just naming it and claiming it, and just milking the people for whatever we can get, in the name of the gospel.”
The growth of the Global South.
While congregations in Europe and North America are shriveling, those of the Global South are seeing unprecedented growth and vitality. According to Dr. Philip Jenkins, there are practical reasons for the contraction of North American and European mainline church congregations. The great shift in demographics, a trend which he considers “the most important change in progress in the world today,” can be partly attributed to declining birth rates in Western countries that have predominately Christian traditions—a pattern Jenkins characterized as an “attempt to almost breed [ourselves] out of existence.” This is contrasted with African populations in countries such as Uganda, which is projected to double within the next several decades, and other nations which may see growth on the order of 15 percent or more.
The rapid encroachment of Islam in Europe through immigration and the relative stagnation of church participation also contrast dramatically with the Global South’s Christian expansion through conversions.
Global South Christianity tends to be very conservative by some perspectives, based on their stances on controversial social issues such as human sexuality. Jenkins warned against pinning “the North’s ecclesiastical labels on the South”—our packaged understandings of “conservatism” versus “liberalism”—but this has not prevented some very heated exchanges between the two groups. He quoted one liberal Episcopal activist as saying Africans should “go back to the jungle [they] came from and stop monkeying around with the church.” Equally inflammatory to some are the African leadership’s conservative views on the American Episcopal Church, especially concerning homosexuality, which some Africans equate with a “cancerous mass that must be excised from the body.”
The Christianity of the Global South also seems strikingly different from Western churches in its apocalyptic and supernatural emphases. “If you’re not prepared to take healing [and the supernatural] seriously, be prepared to take a different line of work,” said Jenkins. The secularization of Christianity in the West is far from the reality abroad and we should come to terms with a faith that is overwhelmingly “traditionalist, orthodox, and supernatural” in churches in Africa and South America. However, Jenkins suggested that if we look at Christian history, such a movement is truly a return to form.
Jenkins distanced himself from saying that one paradigm is better than the other—asserting rather that this is what works in the Global South, and that we should come to terms with it without trying to project onto it our domestic church politics. This includes scriptural interpretations that are unique to African, Asian, or South American sensibilities. “There’s so much of Christian history that we should look at in order to realize how many different ways Christianity has manifested itself, while being in the apostolic norm,” he argued. “The more we know about the history—the accurate history—the less we’ll be concerned about the wonderful world that’s opening up before us.”
Cultural challenges in the West.
In his presentation, Dr. Os Guinness maintained that our engagement with culture has been a losing battle, much due to the philosophical paradigm of modernism that Western Christianity helped to create.
Guinness warned of the distortions modernity has imposed on religion, but especially on Christianity. “Modernity has done more damage to the Christian faith than all the Christian persecutors in Christian history,” he said, noting this worldview’s fragmenting effect on individuals in society. “Many people have not only different hats in different places, but different souls. And faith is not compartmentalized.” He further argued that this has caused belief “to become not an authority, but a preference,” in which “the Lordship of Christ is denied.”
Relating this fragmentation of values to the church’s role in the public arena, he warned: “We must choose our stance in public life with care.” The U.S. as a nation has swung from a “privately engaging, [but] publicly irrelevant” faith mid-century to a faith that’s highly public, but privately inadequate. As an example, he cited the 2004 elections in which Catholic hierarchy considered withholding sacraments from members of Congress who were privately pro-life, but publicly pro-choice.
“I personally thank God for the decline of the Religious Right. I’ve attacked it for 30 years,” quipped Guinness, referencing his distaste for the way politicians have often used their religious affiliations to either garner support or direct public policy initiatives. “Politics is downstream from many of the sources of the ideas in our culture. They [public policy leaders] asked politics to do what politics simply can’t do.”
Like Jenkins, Guinness responded to the shift in spiritual gravity from the West to the South with optimism and promise. “The Global South is almost completely pre-modern. So they have yet to face the challenges that have undermined us in the West,” he said, “but their challenge will come to them. And our privilege is to teach them how we have failed.”
Eric LeMaster is a research intern at UMAction in Washington D.C.
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.