By Lyle E. Schaller
From this professional planner’s perspective, the Call to Action represents one planning model—a focus on designing an action plan or strategy designed to reverse the withdrawal of the United Methodist Church from the parish ministry in the United States. My preferred approach would place a high priority on achieving agreement on the planning model to be used.
One planning model that could be used for responding to the Call to Action would focus on early agreement on the appropriate diagnostic questions to be explored. For example, one of these diagnostic questions could begin by measuring the number of United Methodist members who, when they switch their congregational affiliation, choose a non-United Methodist congregation. The number of intradenominational transfers of United Methodist members plunged from 309,760 in 1956 to 114,251 in 2000 to 80,333 in 2008!
Why have so many United Methodists switched church affiliation to a different religious body?
One component of that planning model could be to interview those “switchers.” Between 1960 and 2002, I interviewed slightly over 2,500 ex-Methodist members who had not changed their place of residence, but had switched their congregational affiliation to a non-United Methodist congregation. When I asked, “Why?” about 30 percent explained, “I married out.” Another 10 percent pointed to the arrival of a new pastor as their motivation for switching. Nearly all of the others explained their objections to the degree of “External Authority” in the UM Church and that was why they switched to a completely autonomous self-governing Protestant congregation.
This, of course, is simply a reflection of the growing demand for self-autonomy among the generations of Americans born after 1960. This also stands out in the research by Roman Catholics in America as they report on the exodus of “Cradle Catholics” to autonomous Protestant congregations.
The closest to a universal response in those 2,500-plus interviews came at the end when I attempted to thank them for letting me interrupt their busy day. Most declared, “No! I want to thank you! You’re the first person to ask to hear my story, and I want to thank you for listening to my story. No one else has ever asked to hear it!”
A second useful diagnostic question could contrast the 1951-1960 decade in the history of The Methodist Church with the decades of 1985-1994 and/or 1991-2000.
Every district superintendent would be asked to identify by name and location every new mission planted in that district in 1951-60 and again every new mission planted in 1985-1994 and/or 1991-2000.
Every one of these congregations would be identified by name and location plus two sets of numbers.
For those planted in 1951-1960, the two requested numbers would be average worship attendance and new members received in 1955, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010.
For those planted in 1991-2000, those two requested numbers would be requested for years 2 and 5 of their history, plus every year beginning with 2001.
These data could be useful in choosing the top priorities in each annual conference between planting new missions or devoting scarce resources to rescue “dying congregations.”
For United Methodists, this can be described as a choice between perpetuating the current trend of an aging and numerically shrinking membership and faithful institutional obedience to Article III of the Restrictive Rules of the United Methodist Constitution versus raising the level of self-governance or self-autonomy in UM congregations.
That conflict was not a significant issue in the pre-1960 era when most Americans affirmed the role of institutions and voluntary associations in “writing the rulebooks” on how Americans should live out their lives. The gradual obsolescence of those “rulebooks” is illustated by tax-funded charter schools, Southwest Airlines, the “G. I. Bill of Rights” of 1944, the emergence of thousands of completely autonomous Christian megachurches since 1960, the organization of completely autonomous retirement centers for the elderly as well as by the guidelines used by a variety of foundations in choosing the requests for grants they will fund.
For United Methodist policy makers, one of the most useful diagnostic tools may be to contrast the rise in the annual death rate among UM members and the decline in the annual death rate among Americans age 14 and over. Back in 1950, that indicator was higher for Americans age 14 and over than for Methodist members. In 2008, the annual death rate was 13.4 per 1000 UM Church members and 10.4 per 1000 Americans age 14 and over.
Those rates crossed on the graph back in the 1970s so this is not new news! One explanation is the cutback on planting new missions designed to reach, attract, serve, assimilate, disciple, and challenge younger generations. A second explanation can be seen in the preference of younger generations of Protestant churchgoers for large congregations contrasted with the increase in the proportion of UM congregations reporting an average worship attendance of fewer than 35.
In summary, what this retired church planner missed in the Call to Action was the diagnostic process that could become the foundation for the prescription in that action. At least a few respondents to the Call to Action contend that in every United Methodist episcopal area the resident bishop is the only person with both the authority and the responsibility to create a strategy team for that episcopal area. That team could and should prepare what could be the first draft of a comprehensive and customized conference strategy that could be, along with an equally comprehensive and customized description of “contemporary reality” in that annual conference, the number one reference point used by strategy teams in each congregation in that episcopal area.
Between 1960 and 2002, I enjoyed the opportunity to serve as the “outside third party” consultant to dozens of regional denominational strategy efforts in a score of Protestant denominations as they designed a three- or five- or seven-year ministry plan for that regional judicatory. One of the lessons I learned was, “Yes, it can be done, but a comprehensive action plan must be based on learnings derived from a comprehensive diagnostic process.”
Lyle E. Schaller is the most widely read and respected writer on congregational life today. He is an ordained elder within the United Methodist Church and the author of dozens of books on congregational vitality. When a national poll was conducted by Hartford Seminary Center for Social and Religious Research of executives of Protestant denominations and religion writers, Schaller’s name topped the list more often than anyone else in response to “who had been especially influential in their thinking about religion in America?” Among self-identified conservatives, moderates, and liberals, Schaller was followed by Henri Nouwen, Martin E. Marty, Robert MacAfee Brown, and Billy Graham.
I want to comment on two articles in the January/February 2011 issue.
“Experiencing the Supernatural” brought great joy to my heart! I have been claiming John 14:12 within the various churches I’ve pastored since 1977—often to be faced with blank stares or even open rejection. However, I have also seen great movings of the Holy Spirit in churches hungry to overcome past non-Biblical teaching concerning miracles and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The positive results have sometimes happened when doing a series of teachings on the Holy Spirit to people willing to receive and flow in the Spirit. The greatest hindrances have been spiritual unconcern or previous false teachings concerning gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially the misuse of the gift of tongues.
Praise the Lord for the new Methodist School for Supernatural Ministry. I’m praying this will continue to gain traction as people get tired of simply playing church and instead become empowered with the power of the Holy Spirit. Why? Because this is a direct fulfillment of a ministry Jesus gave to the church. When we properly uplift Him, as opposed to those simply worshipping their limited or faulty understanding of the Holy Spirit, a new wave of revival will spread across Methodism. As someone once said, “If you want more of the Holy Spirit, draw closer to Christ!”
Concerning “UM mission agency discusses budget and theology,” what I find is the typical ongoing reorganization that keeps turning the same crank.
Many years ago (1990s), I was the chairman of the board of one of the mission agencies within Red Bird Missionary Conference. At that time we had a representative from New York come to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky with the specific purpose of teaching us how to better accomplish missions in the mountains. After much talk there was a question and answer time. So I asked, “Can you tell me how many more souls will be led to Christ if we implement the things you are teaching?” The answer was, “That is an irrelevant question.”
Such an attitude that ignores John Wesley’s mandate to “Offer them Christ” may explain part of the decline the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) is dealing with. Good works are wonderful, but if they ignore the basic need for people to come into a living relationship with Christ, we are little more than one more welfare agency.
I applaud the Challenging the Mission work on the Theology of Mission draft. I’m waiting to read it and see if it truly leads people to Christ through a renewed emphasis on evangelism. Bishop Peter Weaver from Boston is right on. However, as he said, “I find the theological statement an improvement, but not quite there.” I join him in yearning for a “clarion trumpet call.” His thoughts about the Theology of Mission draft—“I believe, reflects some of the lukewarmness of the church”— speaks volumes. I’m praying that this doesn’t grow cold like the commission tasked with defining the mission of the church many General Conferences ago. After four years of work, they needed four more. Perhaps we simply need to read the Word!
Richard E. Held
Burnside UM Church
I have resigned my position as a pastor of a United Methodist Church. This decision became much easier as I continued to read your magazine and experience what was going on in the Wisconsin Conference. I can no longer with good conscience continue to operate within a denomination that, on paper, voices traditional Wesleyan beliefs but in practice endorses everything that goes against these stated beliefs.
Your magazine has helped my decision. I have read the articles in which you recognized that the differences between the two sides are much deeper than the surface symptoms, that they are theological and scriptural. And while I understand that you have labeled yourself a “renewal” movement and therefore, by definition, have to work for the renewal of the denomination, I am convinced that as an organization you fail to recognize that you are trying to cure a terminally ill patient.
The United Methodist Church is hemorrhaging members, and in my experience as a pastor of a UM church, unable to attract and keep new members because of our liberal reputation. New members are shocked to learn, through various sources, that their giving goes to support abortion lobbying in Washington, that their youth camps could encourage students to “come out of the closet,” that they are investing in a church, that with one pastoral change could become a bastion of liberalism, and that there is no system in place to bring accountability to all of this.
But when it comes to organizations like yours the problem worsens: 1) this disease is treated like a cold when it is a cancer and 2) groups like yours, while laudable in their efforts, are also either naïve in thinking that renewal is going to come to the large number of leaders and institutions who are convinced they are correct in their interpretation and theology or worse, you have embraced the “open” motto more so than the purity of the faith you have been entrusted with. After serving as a pastor in the denomination, I fear it is a malignant combination of the two.
After reading your magazine for years, I am convinced that you think you are dealing with a cold. Though I have read your recognition of the deeper issues, your treatment is not at the level of the disease. You support and engage in “holy conferencing” but what is holy about the conversations? Please show me in scripture where civil conversation was encouraged in lieu of the maintenance of the purity of the faith.
I fear you embrace “open” and “conferencing” more than you do “holy.” In my conference, rainbow scarves predominate at our Annual Conference among elders and those being ordained, pastors share parsonages with same sex partners, put rainbow markers on their signs, and invite other churches to “Prayerfully Pro-choice rallies” with no repercussions and all under the guise that part of being “United Methodist” is the wonderful ability to embrace a wide spectrum of ideas and live and serve in unity. Thus, I am invited to earnestly listen to and discuss the issue of “homosexuality” year after year, pay the salaries of those I would consider opposed to the faith and ruining the denomination, all under the conditions that I recognize that all of us are children of God, have the abiding witness of the Spirit, and are working from the same playbook.
Having read your magazine for years, I have come to the conclusion that renewal movements are futile because you embrace “Open minds, hearts, and doors” and “cordial conferencing” more than the purity of Gospel or the Wesleyan heritage. I am convinced that the only answer is a split in this denomination. I am convinced that for the sake of integrity and the purity of the Gospel, I can no longer serve in the United Methodist system.
I give Jeers to Good News for printing letters signed “Name Withheld” (January/February 2011). Anonymous letters are never “good news” regardless of their take on any issue.
Also, I thought that rock-ribbed, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” evangelicals would be expected to stand up and be counted. What good does it do to anonymously bemoan the state of the United Methodist Church and tell us of your leaving? Where’s the renewal? Where’s the faith and hope? It appears to be nothing more than bitter catharsis.
As a young seminarian in the 1980s, I got on board the “us against them” train. In my opinion, this posture fuels some, though not all of the Good News movement. It felt good at the time. I assumed that I was on God’s team fighting the forces of Satan, evil, and of course liberal theology. In my day, as a seminarian, it was actually trendy to be ashamed to be a United Methodist. We went ahead and became United Methodist pastors anyway, feigning our anxiety all the way to the ordination altar, into the pastorate and pension program. Ah, what a cross it was to bear!
After 25 years as a pastor, I have come to believe that much of the “liberal verses conservative” debate is a tool of the evil one. It distracts us from proclaiming the good news of Jesus and doing the things he commanded. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things I have asked?” (Luke 6:46).
The UM Church will never be a perfect church. We will never be a confessional church. We are a diverse church—the spiritual womb of both Rush Limbaugh and Hillary Clinton. If you can’t find a home within the drip line of our vast umbrella, perhaps you need to move on.
Personally, I think that Jesus is alive and well in the hearts and minds of the people of the United Methodist Church. With all its imperfections, I’m proud to call the United Methodist Church my home.
Oak Hill UM Church
God’s heavy work
Far too often we hear about people thinking of leaving, or have already left the United Methodist Church because of the moral decline we are experiencing. There were two letters in the January/February edition of Good News expressing discouragement in our church. I’ve even heard of a pastor who suggested to a couple that they might be happier in another church, so they left.
I too quit the UM Church for four hours. It was the night the Episcopalians consecrated a practicing homosexual as bishop. I was so agitated I couldn’t sleep. So I explained it all to God. Everything that could be said had been said. Folks wouldn’t listen to me anyway. Then God made it clear to me that he needs witnesses; quitting won’t help. My life has changed a lot since then, and is now focused on God’s work.
Sure, it is discouraging when people don’t listen, but God is doing the heavy work here. All we have to do is continue to tell the truth of the Bible. See Ezekiel 3:4-11.
By Joy J. Moore
I share George Hunter’s gratitude for the conversations resultant from the “Call to Action!” It is important as we move into the second decade of the third millennium, to remember ourselves as United Methodists by considering what ways this 18th century movement can be reality-transforming in this downloadable-media-saturated 21st century world. The vision, passion, and courage historically represented as the movement called Methodism certainly resonates with the fervor stirring publically through social media and politically through worldwide protests.
United Methodism should be more of a culture than an institution to be preserved within culture. The culture of early Methodism is described again, here by Hunter as a movement across the country. A movement that resulted in persons claiming the God of Jesus Christ dramatically intruded in their lives and a change is evident. They gathered in local communities to be accountable to holding to it. In this gathering, they learned the content of their religion and the competencies to deploy persons in service to the gospel. The report of our failing institution is in effect a clarion call announcing the church has ceased operation, charitably described here as a lack of vitality.
Religious life seems to have shifted from rituals of prayer, fasting, and studying Scripture to programs aimed at increasing attendance. This generation is not sympathetic to religiosity. However, outside the church we find so-called humanitarian activities rescuing those perishing from hurricanes, heartache, and hopelessness. The greatest evidence of the lack of vitality in the United Methodist Church might not be survey results but our commercials. Consider the tag line of the insurance company that speaks of vitality as intentional responsibility to care for others while our tagline is “open.” Absent is a simple use of expressions of a called out community demonstrating the biblical values of justice, community, and peace. Our acts of charity, justice, and even community have not been submitted to the reign of God evident in Jesus Christ.
Hunter seems willing to suggest, that in order to change the world, the United Methodist Church might begin with herself, maybe as a means of example. He dares to acknowledge that it may be our version of faith that needs examining, and not merely our vital statistics. What Hunter calls for requires the church to take seriously telling her particular story in a way that testifies to the presence of the Creator God calming chaos and covenanting to be with us always.
Now that, as Hunter notes, we are moving beyond denial (I think the term might be “confession”) might not it be possible to testify again not to attendance but rather reporting those events in the life of our congregations (large or small) that cause somebody to ask about the Spirit of the God made known in Jesus. Only then can worship be more than a local entertainment event.
I am encouraged by Hunter’s suggestion that this document might represent an opening to a long needed conversation. While in no way a final statement, it serves us well to enter this dialogue. As I read both the document and Hunter’s response, it might be worth considering that documents in and of themselves record what is past. Even a tweet recounts what is—or shortly will be—over and done.
I therefore suggest we shouldn’t expect too much from the document. The document will not be change. It will not even represent change. It may, perhaps, serve to do what it claims—call to action a people of faith whose distinctive Wesleyan version of Christianity is so evidently Scriptural, the world is changed as individuals become followers of Jesus.
Church attendance is not a goal, but a by-product of the gathering of persons seeking and finding a community that names habits and practices that demonstrate the reality of God—both God’s existence and of a justice practicing community that exposes God’s intention of good. Only then will United Methodism recover the vitality Hunter describes as the power to reach communities, and rescue the perishing, and advance justice, and produce people who devote their lives to the will of God.
Joy J. Moore is Associate Dean for Black Church Studies and Church Relations at The Divinity School at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she teaches homiletics. She is an ordained elder in the West Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church. Dr. Moore has contributed a chapter in the forthcoming book Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for the United Methodist Church, edited by Andrew C. Thompson (Abingdon).
By Steve Wende
As always when I read Dr. George Hunter, I want to say “amen and well done!” when he is finished. However, I would raise a concern—and perhaps a word of hope.
I believe that the damage done by the 1972 General Conference was far deeper and more wide reaching than is commonly recognized. Whatever we may want to accomplish, the decisions of that General Conference have made true accountability at the upper levels of our church, as presently organized, impossible to enforce, and as a result have made a true missional focus for our denomination impossible to achieve.
Let me explain. The 1972 General Conference did much more than change the membership and size of the General Boards. It structured the nominating process and leadership of the key boards in such a way as to make them functionally independent. The consequence has been lack of true oversight. If a board, such as Church and Society, interprets its objectives in a way that is out of step with the mainline thinking of the church, there is no way to bring it back into line with the majority.
Before 1972, such oversight was understood to be part of the role of the bishops. In fact, during the great growth periods of our church, it was the bishops who led. The Council of Bishops understood it as part of their responsibility to help the church grow evangelistically and missionally and to use all the resources of the church, including the Boards and Agencies, in the service of that task.
Now, was life perfect back then? Of course not. As humans, we will always have problems. But when there were problems, the lay leaders and pastors knew what to do: share their concerns with the bishops, who had the authority to influence the situation.
Presently, if there is a problem in the boards or agencies, like damaging publicity or apparent misuse of resources, who do you call? Do you know the names of those in the boards and agencies? Do you have a clue how to get a name or phone number or email address? And if you did find out such information, except perhaps in extreme situations, how much good do you think it would do?
In addition, when you think of the vast resources of the United Methodist Church, wouldn’t it be a good idea for someone to have the authority to coordinate all those resources for maximum effectiveness between General Conferences? Until you read this article, I’ll bet you assumed someone did! In fact, the ability to focus resources in a coordinated way is fundamental to the recommendations made by the Call to Action report. Yet, at present, that is exactly what we cannot do as a church.
You see, what at first seems to be a small organizational difficulty actually gives birth to very significant problems—and these have definite theological and spiritual implications. In fact, it was one of our leading theologians, Dr. Albert Outler, who led the opposition to the reorganization when it was considered in 1972. In the statement he made before the General Conference, he listed the problems that would come out of the reorganization, and they read like a synopsis of the problems named in the Call To Action report: theological disarray, missional confusion, separation of the hierarchy from the people, and on and on.
Does all this mean that the only challenge before us is organizational? Heavens no! Our church needs our best efforts on a variety of fronts. But here is a word of hope: if an organizational decision made 39 years ago has over time given birth to so many problems, isn’t there a good chance that undoing that decision will reduce some of the problems?
Think about it. Pray about it. Who should lead us between General Conferences? How will that authority be expressed and accountability enforced? There are many ideas on the table. What is crucial at this stage is that we begin to understand the breadth of the problem, and to ask the right questions.
Steve Wende is the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Houston. He serves as contributing editor for Preaching Magazine and has been elected to the last four United Methodist General and Jurisdictional Conferences. Dr. Wende serves as a Director of the Methodist Hospital of Houston, a Director of the Texas Methodist Foundation, and a Trustee of Huston-Tillotson University.
By B.J. Funk
Something in our human nature makes us doubt stories in which the bad guy wins, especially when he has done nothing to earn his victory. In this story of the prodigal (Luke 15), the impertinence of a renegade son is wiped away overnight by an unbelievably loving father. The greedy youngster turns from his sinful behavior as he runs into the welcoming arms of his father. The point is easy to understand: God’s love toward sinners is incomprehensible. His mercy far exceeds anything we can imagine. When we stray, God waits with open arms to receive us back. That is powerful!
Of course, there is no recorded conversation after the son asks for his share of the inheritance. He asks for it, and in the very next verse, he gets it! After the son wastes his father’s money, he finally “comes to his senses” and returns home. He is welcomed as royalty. The father lavishes his love on this squandering son. Instead of disowning him, the father owns him. He orders a banquet with a fat calf as the main menu, an abundant homecoming meal. The story is entirely beautiful in its content.
The events leading up to that reunion puzzle me. My father would never have agreed to give me my share of the inheritance before his death. A firm “No” would have left me wondering why I even asked. And, if I did ask, his “because I said so” would be ample response. I would not ask again!
I wonder how long the son sits at the table. I wonder if he becomes fat and satisfied in the feast of his father’s goodness. Does he receive the meal with gratitude, and then later go back to his old ways? If we knew the rest of this story, would continuing dialogue show a self-serving son? Or, would we instead see a son who, after realizing the healing comforts of forgiveness, gets up from the table and shares that love with someone else? It would be nice to think that he looks at his older brother, incensed by all the excitement poured on his little brother, and invites him to feast with him at the Table of Reconciliation.
We’ve seen this story repeated in our churches. A repentant son comes home to God, and the church rejoices. We welcome him as he sits down in our services to drink in the sweet juice of forgiveness. But, he never gets up. He picks and chooses the food he will eat, and not all of it makes him comfortable. Maybe he squirms at the pastor’s challenges each Sunday. As he stuffs more meat into his mouth, he begins to think the Table of Reconciliation gives him special privileges. It is, after all, all about him, right? Imagining himself exempt from expectations of the Christian faith, he disregards the high calling of a son, while at the same time indulging in the privileges of a son.
Suppose the prodigal begins to think he deserves the fattened calf. Self-importance rises to interrupt any thoughts of gratitude. He then becomes a welfare recipient of God’s goodness, always expecting more and never taking responsibility for his own growth in God.
Are you still sitting? Have you gotten up yet and shared the love you found from the fattened calf?
The meal was meant for celebration, not stagnation. The scrumptious food taught a valuable lesson: God loves us in spite of where we have been or what we have done. When we repent, we can eat at his kingdom forever. But, there is a more: We are to go and do likewise.
Wouldn’t it be nice if this son sliced the prime beef and gave the best parts to the servants who had always had the scraps? It would make great sense if he opened his own soup kitchen out in the front yard. He could reciprocate his father’s generosity by doing unto others as his father did unto him.
Each Sunday, our pews are lined with those who are staying too long at the table of the fattened calf. They are content to receive but not to give. They have never learned to cut a piece of the meat of God’s Word and share it with someone.
I’m guilty. I like roast beef more than I like giving out Bibles. I am much more comfortable with prime rib than I am with bringing someone to Christ. It’s time I move away from the table. Will you come with me?
B.J. Funk (email@example.com) is associate pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia. She is the author of The Dance of Life: Invitation to a Father Daughter Dance, a regular contributor to the South Georgia Advocate, and a frequent speaker at women’s retreats.