Guess What? The United Methodist Church Isn’t Down for the Count.

My hat is off to the General Council on Finance
and Administration of The United Methodist Church for giving the church a useful
statistical report on the current state of the church.

My hat’s off to the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA ) of The United Methodist Church for providing the church and the world with a statistical report that offers richly textured material for analysis, conversation and reflection in a new format. This report includes statistical information and a study guide that local congregations can use to discuss their own context in light of the comprehensive statistics collected. This not a minor change.

The Council has stepped out and offered a whole new frame for discussing a mainline denomination. I commend Council leaders and staff. You’ve done a service for The United Methodist Church, and more. I believe this work will be instructive to others considering how to to collect, assess and, perhaps, act on such datum in a more constructive way. This is important because this kind of information is used to tell the stories of the Mainline denominations. If these historic communities are to reclaim their place in the social and cultural currents flowing in this post-modern age they must tell their stories more effectively and with greater care for information such as this. This applies particularly to United Methodists in North America. The Methodist Movement was born in an era of great indifference toward religion, skepticism and social upheaval.

I’ve been critical in this blog about the way the Mainline denominations frame their tallies of giving, membership and attendance. They’ve presented figures without context. Numbers alone are almost meaningless. Contextual information is vital. Journalists receive the numbers, frame their stories almost by rote, and you know the rest–these denominations are in decline, they’re not holding their own, they’re threatened dinosaurs, yada, yada, yada. In fact, a casual observer could conclude they’re on life-support.

But this grim diagnosis isn’t accurate. Many factors contribute to the health of denominations. Of course we need to ask why they’re not growing, especially United Methodists who believe that we are challenged to reach out and invite others into the faith community. But unlike the obnoxious, primitive highway signs one sees here in the South: “Turn to God or Go to Hell,” these denominations are about being concerned for all persons, reaching out to everyone, especially those who are marginalized and forgotten, and welcoming them into the community of faith. The Mainline denominations don’t peddle fear and individual self-preservation. We offer community.

The United Methodist Church is about hospitality as a means to support those who are seeking a deeper relationship with God and with others. It’s about inviting those who wonder how Christian faith can inform and order life for fulness and wholeness. It’s about teaching an understanding of Christian faith as our response to a loving God whose intent is that all people flourish and live meaningful, purposeful lives. It’s about a personal commitment that results in liberation, assurance and the embrace of a loving God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

But we don’t stop with personal holiness. Our Book of Discipline which contains the legal code, organizational rules and theological teachings that bind us together (we call this our Connection) says, “Scriptural holiness entails more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbor, a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world…there is no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness” (Discipline, par. 101, 2004). But I digress.

The Mainline denominations, including United Methodism, have been tagged as limping along, tottering toward their demise. Nothing could be further from the truth! The GCFA report reveals that:

  • The United Methodist Church is growing globally–13.7 million members in over 50 countries;
  • contributions have been steadily increasing–5.86 billion dollars were contributed in 2005 alone; (That’s not “chump change.”)
  • 34,106 weekday ministries serve 1.2 million people every day;
  • United Methodists gave over $200 million to disaster response and $475 million for other benevolent giving;
  • the smallest congregations (73 active members) shrank in membership by 8.73% per congregation;
  • the largest churches grew by 40% on average;
  • but professions of faith are almost the same between small and large membership churches;
  • in 1974, 36% of members attended worship;
  • in 2005, 45% of members attended worship;
  • United Methodists in the U.S. volunteered their time to over 600,000 leadership positions in church schools, and over 138,000 United Methodists lent a hand working in over 11,000 United Methodist Volunteer in Mission groups.

These are hardly signs of a dying community. Never the less, the report isn’t about cheerleading. It doesn’t ignore hard facts. It points out that 41% of local congregations in the United States did not receive a single member by profession of faith. In The United Methodist Church a profession of faith is the first public expression of commitment to the faith by an individual. This statistic reflects the church’s commitment to reaching out to our own children and youth, and unaffiliated persons who have never before expressed their commitment to Christian living. It’s not about transferring your membership from another denomination or UMC congregation, nor about renewing a commitment you made and forgot. It’s about the first time a person acknowledges commitment to Christ and pledges to live the Christian Way.

This is an alarming statistic–in my opinion–because it reveals a lack of urgency for reaching out to people and inviting them in. It may reveal lack of training in how to talk to people about faith, or lack of openness to accommodate new people, or even whether we want people different from us in our local congregation–or none of these. But the report gives us the basis for starting that conversation. And that’s what’s refreshing and challenging.

This new framing opens the window for us to take a fresh look at ourselves. It gives us data to make a course correction. It might even lead us to ask if we’re asking the right questions, or measuring the right indicators. It could help us to ask ourselves what we’re doing well, what we need to change and how relevant we are to the culture–or not. That could be an exciting conversation.

So, my hat’s off to my colleagues. You’ve served us well. Thank you.

Join the conversation!

Post a reply in the form below.

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image