My adviser, Dana Robert, and I recently wrote an article (which is available for free online – check it out) comparing growth rates of United Methodism to related denominations around the world. We conclude that United Methodism is often growing slower than related denominations, and that this indicates a problem. We suggest some possible explanations for the cause of that problem and then call for further research and missiological reflection on the state of the denomination.
For anyone living in the United States who is a United Methodist (or any other form of mainline Protestant for that matter), the idea that we have a numbers problem is not a new one. The United Methodist Church in the US has not just been lagging in growth behind other denominations – we’ve been steadily declining in numbers for decades now. Dr. Robert’s and my article goes beyond this observation in suggesting that The UMC has problems elsewhere, too, but it certainly does tie in to the narrative of United Methodist decline in the US.
There is, in my mind (and I’m speaking only for myself here and not trying to put words in Dr. Robert’s mouth) a right and a wrong way to respond to the realization of numerical problems with the denomination. I think the wrong way to respond is to say, “We’ve got a problem with numbers. Therefore, we need to find a way to improve our numbers so that we can continue what we’ve got.” The right way to respond, in my mind, is to say, “We’ve got a problem with numbers. Therefore, we need to think deeply about what God’s mission for us is and make sure we’re pursuing that mission as passionately and as whole-heartedly as we can.” I think it is fair to say that both Dr. Robert and I were hoping our article would be a stimulus to get people in The UMC to think more deeply about mission, which I see as central to this second option.
The reason I think the first response is wrong is because it is ultimately focused on us, not God and not others. At its worst, this type of reasoning says, “We’ve got institutions to preserve (whether those be particular ministries, General Boards, clergy guaranteed appointments and pensions, cultural clout, theological positions, places of privilege, or something else), and we can only preserve those institutions if we have enough people in the pews to support them. Therefore, we need to get people in the pews so that they can support us and our institutions.” In this way of thinking, people are invited in not for their sake or the gospel’s sake or Jesus’ sake, but for our sake. Ultimately, this approach will not be successful. People don’t want to be used, and it’s hard to sell people on a defensive attitude centered on preserving institutions of which they haven’t previously been a part. If that’s how we respond to our falling or lagging numbers, our numbers will continue to fall and lag.
I have concern for The UMC because I do see this sort of response popping up to various degrees. I’ve seen it in both the Call to Action and in some of the clergy response to the Call to Action. While I think there are a number of positive things in the Call to Action, at times I detect an underlying assumption that what The UMC needs most is a way to start growing again. Yes, I think The UMC should be growing, but what I think we need most is to be participating in God’s mission to the world in the ways God wants us to, whatever those ways may be. At the same time, a lot of the clergy responses I’ve seen, while rightly holding up the importance of various ministries that can’t be best judged by numerical growth, also has an undercurrent to it, one which wants to make sure the clergy’s current financial and vocational turf is protected before they’re willing to talk about new ministry initiatives. The Call to Action is more radical in suggesting changes, but I worry that both some of its supporters and detractors are motivated more by protecting the current life of the church than they are by the gospel, however defined.
In contrast, in what I think is the right response to recognizing our numbers problem, we would use the gut-check moment that comes along with that recognition to hold ourselves accountable to God and God’s will for us, even if that means losing some of what we’ve currently got. One of the questions Dr. Robert and I ask in our article is, “[I]s it the case that holistic ministry (including numerical growth) gushes from a deep well of confident faith that United Methodists lack, relative to the stronger theological or liturgical identities of sister denominations?” I think a proper response to the problem of numbers involves (re-)articulating for ourselves that deep well of confident faith. I’m not here saying that The UMC has lost the faith we once had (as conservatives might) or that we need to completely adjust our faith to fit with our contemporary situation (as liberals might). I am saying that we need to know what our faith is, both in its traditional and contemporary elements. We need to know the gospel, and recognizing problems with numbers can be an occasion for us to make sure we know the gospel so that we can put that gospel into action for the sake of the world.
In this approach, then, the focus is not on us and defending what is ours, but on God and pursing what God has in store for us and the world – following a sense of mission. It’s about putting God’s call on us ahead of our attachment to our communal life as we now know it. There are costs involved in such an approach. Deciding we care more about the gospel than our institutions will mean that some of those institutions, even some of those institutions which are in many ways good, will fall by the wayside. It means some who had been part of our communal life before will leave, and it may even threaten schism among those who can’t agree on what the gospel is. We’ll lose some of our life together. And I can’t promise that such an approach will lead immediately to dramatic increases in numbers, though I think it is our best long-term hope. Yet if we pursue this path, no matter what happens with numbers, we will have the joy of participating in God’s mission to the world, and we’ll be less worried about what happens to us because we won’t be focused on ourselves; we’ll be focused on God and on others.
Ultimately, I think this is the right way because it is the Biblical way. In Mark 8:35, Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (NRSV) If we only care about saving the current form of our common life as United Methodists, we will lose that life. If, however, we are willing to lose the current dimensions of our common life together for the sake of Jesus and the sake of the gospel, then we will find new life – new life in Christ, new life in the gospel, new life in mission together, new life overflowing with joy. May it be so. Amen and amen.