The New-nited Methodist Church

A few people responded to my “Oh We, Of Little Faith” post — addressing the the doom-and-gloom predictions of the end of the UMC in the next forty years or so — by asking what kind of future I do envision for the good old UMC?  Looking at trends and forecasting the future is tricky, and generally a waste of time, but it’s still fun.  Here goes.  Keep in mind, this is my opinion based on what I see.  I hope you will add comments, sharing your own vision/prediction.

UMC 2050— The United Methodist Church in the U.S.  is about 4.5 million strong, but the faithful remnant is more engaged, more active, and more involved than the 2010 church of 8 million plus.  Extremists from both the conservative and liberal wings of the theological spectrum have departed, leaving a middle group committed to living the mission — creating fertile environments for faith formation and Christian service.  Congregations of all sizes are characterized by strong relationships within affinity groups — for study, for service, for fellowship, for formation.  We are still a denomination of smaller membership churches — though larger congregations and a few mega-churches will still exist.  There will be fewer United Methodist congregations — approximately 20,000 — but new faith communities will still be launched, generally as satellites to existing, strong congregations.  Between 2010 and 2050, many congregations will merge, however fewer and fewer will merge from a position of weakness, while more and more will join together to achieve visions for ministry that are impossible without pooling human and material resources.  Though smaller, the UMC will be stronger.

The leadership role of the laity will be instrumental to the strength and success of the church.  Lay pastors, lay speakers, lay trainers, and lay leaders will shepherd one quarter of our congregations.  A neo-itineracy will emerge for ordained clergy, who will preach, teach, and preside at the sacraments for multiple churches, but the day-to-day leadership and administration will be lay-based.  More and more tent-maker ministries will emerge over the next forty years, empowering and enabling an ever-growing number of laity to commit a larger amount of time to ministry.

The denomination in the United States will be comprised of about a dozen episcopal areas — two each in the Northeastern, North Central, and Western Jurisdictions; three each in the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions — due primarily to diminishing resources, rather than a compelling vision.  The rather short-sighted, reactionary and survivalistic “regional conferences” concept (recently proposed) will have backfired — the gravitational and spiritual center of United Methodism will have shifted to the Southern Hemisphere, primarily in Africa.  More missionaries will be coming into the United States than will be going out.  The United Methodist Church in the U.S. will no longer be a primary source of resources and leadership internationally, as the church around the globe will be providing context-appropriate resources itself.  The focus of Methodism in the U.S. will be on relational evangelism — the church engaging with the larger culture to partner in the work of transformation.  The colonialism of modern day evangelism — constant efforts to expand the congregational base by attracting new member-participants — will shift to a postcolonial emphasis on partnership — denominational, ecumenical and interfaith.  The more connected we are to groups beyond the denomination, the healthier we will be.  The United Methodist “brand” of church preferred in the U.S. will be the minority option worldwide.  United Methodism will be fast approaching 40,000,000 members globally, and the U.S. will account for just over 10%.  For the first time in two hundred years, our vision and direction will no longer set the standard for the denomination.  The apostolic fervor will have relocated half a planet away.

new-facesGlobal Methodism will be a dynamic, transforming force, reminiscient of the Great Awakenings in America.  It will be very conservative, hierarchical, and grounded as much in the Old Testament as the New.  (For an incisive analysis of the global shift, see Philip Jenkin’s amazing, The New Faces of Christianity.)  General Conference will be held more often in Africa, South America, or Asia than in the United States.  The U.S. will have little influence — both in voice and vote — so Western United Methodism will be governed primarily through the Regional Conference and our Supreme Court (Council) of Bishops.

I shared this vision with a group and the response was split cleanly in two.  One group asked why I took such a dismal view of the future, while the second group thought what I was saying was very exciting.  I side with the second group.  I see nothing wrong with Methodism becoming truly global and evolving to be context appropriate wherever it grows.  I have no problem with giving power to our brothers and sisters in the Southern Hemisphere.  This isn’t an “us/them” issue — we’re all “us.”  The image I have of the church in the U.S. is  as a person in the twilight years who is taking very good care of him- or herself — lean (due to diet and exercise), slower and more intentional (distracted by fewer things, attending to priorities), and paying more attention to healthy relationships than to impressing people.  I have no problem believing that the body of Christ (United Methodist variety) will be healthier by losing some weight, slowing down, and paying attention to what’s really important.

We’ll still have disagreements, but they will be over how to be most effective, not who to condemn, alienate, ostrasize, judge, offend, or attack.  We will become a kinder, gentler church as those with axes to grind tire of power struggles to control the connection and seek greener pastures.  We will be burdened by fewer possessions, less property, and a diminished predilection for constant activity — and we will be richer for it.  “Inactive members” will cease to be an acceptable category of membership, and the church will be a place where people come to be transformed, equipped, inspired, and set loose to be Christ for the world.

That’s my prediction.  What’s yours?

9 replies

  1. I hope you’re a prophet. Methodism could truly change the world if we could get rid of all the lead weights we’ve hung around our necks over the years.

  2. In 2050, I will be at retirement age. Its interesting to me that you are talking about the 40 years of the church life that will be my span of leadership in the church.

    I loved your statement: “We’ll still have disagreements, but they will be over how to be most effective, not who to condemn, alienate, ostrasize, judge, offend, or attack.” I look forward to this day.

    A couple of my predictions:
    1. itinieracy will not look anything like it does today. Either we will have abandoned it altogether, or we will return to a more genuine form of it where the ordained serve a circuit similar to the British Methodists. I imagine we will return to a more genuine form that will serve the many local churches that cannot afford clergy.
    2. The shift to an African led church will mean that many conservatives will find more of a theological home in the new UMC. The issue that may drive a lot of conservatives away is the new focus away from the US. Too many conservatives (just like their liberal counterparts) are focused on US issues that they are blind to the global issues. When our general boards have to abandon lobbying the US congress, many will feel abandoned. Perhaps, there will be just one major protestant denomination like in Canada.

    Finally, I side with you that this is a hopeful vision. Just because it does not place N. America in the spotlight, doesn’t mean it is gloomy!

    • Excellent response. Thanks for your comments. I agree that there will be a different form of itineracy — closer to 18th century than 20th. I’m glad that you see it as hopeful — I’m surprised how many do not.

  3. I see religion, as a whole, diminishing over the next few decades. Take a look at the recent ARIS 2008 survey. The “Nones” are gaining ground fast.

    Those religions that do survive will become much more Humanistic and social in nature. You’re already seeing this in the Methodist church as well as others. The mega-church phenomenon is gaining some ground, but I don’t think it will remain popular for long especially in this waning economy. More people are blaming such large churches for their intrusion into politics and are starting to disassociate from any large religio-politico movement.

  4. I will be curious to see how the question of submission to African leadership will play out in the Anglican communion as more and more Episcopal Churches place themselves under the auspicies of African bishops. I think your statement that “even conservative Christians in the U.S. will balk at having African Christians dictate the form and direction of the denomination” may be premature. I tend to think you may be correct, but alot can change in two generations. If it works out for those theologically conservative Episcopalians to accept outside authority, then I would be surprised if UM’s didn’t follow a similar path. Regardless, very interesting things to think about!

  5. I’m with you on the renewed focus on lay leadership in the UMC. The diminishing numbers of young clergy means that out of necessity we’ll have to raise up more lay leadership (like me!). Less clergy also means more pooling/combining of resources. You’re right on.

    If the new UMC will be more conservative internationally, how do you see that relating to theology in America? I perceive that a lot of UM leadership is becoming more liberal (especially amongst young clergy and leadership). But, for sure, international churches are more conservative. Is it possible this could become a big point of division in the UMC?

    • Ryan, one of the reasons I see the “regional conference” concept actually happening is that the desire for autonomy in our connectional church (a contradiction??) will be mutual. The dominant Afro-centric church will not long tolerate a theology that does not take such things seriously as incarnate evil, spiritual forces interacting with the material world, miraculous healings, community more important than individualism, the daily battle for life over death, justice for the poor, and faithful (regular) spiritual discipline. Currently, conservative Christians in the United States see our southern brothers and sisters as leverage to push a theology — they focus on what they have in common. But even conservative Christians in the U.S. will balk at having African Christians dictate the form and direction of the denomination. I do not for a moment believe that North American Christians — no matter how liberal or conservative — will let anyone else tell them what is “orthodox” and what is “heresy.” The next generation of United Methodism will be even less connectional than this one — connectional ideally, but not in any practical, identifiable way. We will happily greet each other as brothers and sisters in faith, only to the extent that we can then part and essentially ignore one another’s existence.

  6. Interesting prediction. The only thing I question is whether or not the African Methodists will really remain within the UMC if both theological extremes in the USA have left – I suspect the conservative UMs in the United States who leave would attempt to start something new with theologically like-minded Africans, which I believe is a high percentage of the African membership. What will almost surely happen is the overwhelming majority of Methodists will live outside the United States.

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