I received three emails today that I call “Chicken Little” messages. You know, the panicky ‘sky-is-falling’ folks who take every apocalyptic message as gospel fact. Somewhere, someone is marching out the old, tired chestnut that the United Methodist Church is dying and won’t be around in thirty or forty years.
This “fact” gets shared every couple of years, though it is based on poor reasoning and flawed thinking. The argument goes something like this: we have declined by this much in the past year, so using a linear, non-critical formula, we will disappear in this many years. Sounds reasonable, but it isn’t.
Yes, The United Methodist Church is suffering numeric decline in the U.S. This is of extreme importance to people fundamentally concerned with institutional preservation. It isn’t of much importance to those more concerned with living as the body of Christ. People are choosing non-UM alternatives, more positive and effective discipleship alternatives, or are simply choosing to stay home. The vast majority of these people are recent converts to United Methodism, have been nominal attendees for some time, or don’t define their Christian walk as anything more than “going to church.” Attendance isa measure, but not an overly important measure. I personally know of thirteen people who — in the past year — decided to stop attending Sunday morning worship to work at an area homeless shelter/soup kitchen. Their congregation suffered an 11% decrease in attendance, while the kingdom of God increased in servanthood — a really acceptable trade-off. I know of a church that decided to stop “double-dipping” last year — counting the same person repeatedly if they attended multiple services — and their attendance dropped by over 7%. Not that fewer people were attending, but the church leaders started counting differently. I’ve worked with dozens of annual conferences to assess the decline in membership and attendance, and have found that the greatest losses occur among those least connected to, and engaged with, the congregations anyway. This means that in the future the declines will slow and bottom out as we lose those least attached, leaving us with those whose connections and roots run deepest.
Sure, we are losing members, fewer people are attending, and we should pay attention to these phenomena, but a more important measure to our survival is whether it even matters if we disappear. I know of churches that have declined in membership while their impact on their community increased. A small church in Missouri has lost almost 25% of its members while it has gone from feeding 50 hungry people each week to feeding over 300. Another church is serving poor families in an urban setting, but this commitment caused seventeen long-time members to leave the congregations. As long as this kind of trade-off occurs, the United Methodist Church will be around for quite awhile — because it matters.
One of the things I least appreciated about the Bush years in the White House was the constant misuse of information by the government and the media to elicit fear and unwarranted concern. Fear-mongers made ordinary people anxious about the future — the exact opposite of our gospel — preaching a message of imminent disaster instead of giving us hope and assurance. ‘What isn’t working,’ ‘what we’re not,’ and ‘what terrible thing might happen next,’ are faithless messages. ‘Where we can succeed,’ ‘what is possible,’ and ‘what we can create,’ are messages of faith. God does not call us to obsess about our sins and failings. We are a redeemed people, called to become more than we already are. We walk by faith, not sight. We build a future, not lament a past. The “trends” the nay-sayers want to parade before us are only one possible future — and not anywhere near the most likely. If someone says we’re heading for extinction, don’t listen to them. They don’t know what they’re talking about. The United Methodist Church — while needing great improvement, forgiveness, and transformation — is nowhere near the irrelevancy some might decry.
At the very worst, The United Methodist Church might disappear. In the grand scheme of things, this is no tragedy. Because the essential Christian faith, and the deeply ingrained Wesleyan values that help to form us UMs, will never disappear. We have a glorious opportunity to be whatever God wants us to be. Our numeric decline is troubling, but it distracts us from much more important issues. Primary among them: the number of people who come to us to worship in our sanctuaries is not nearly as important as the number of God’s children we serve in the world each and every week. If we’re irrelevant, it has nothing to do with who isn’t showing up in our church buildings, but everything to do with the fact that we aren’t showing up where God needs us to be in the world.