With the exception of a couple brief positive blips, membership and worship attendance have been in steady decline in The United Methodist Church since the Methodist/Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) merger in 1968. This isn’t news. It has been virtually impossible to read anything written about our denomination over the past 40 years that hasn’t noted this fact. However, for the first thirty years the majority of people who left the church were inactive, nominally active, or the predominantly disinterested. The trend of the late twentieth century was to lose members from the realms of the least invested. In the twenty-first century, a more troubling and potentially fatal trend is emerging.
A steadily growing segment of the dear-departed is not the less active fringe, but the faithful core. Long time, deeply committed congregational leaders are packing it in and staying home. This trend first appeared in the late twentieth century when retirees relocated to new communities, and instead of reestablishing relationship with a UMC, attached themselves to another mainline or independent congregation. Interviews with these folks showed that, in their minds, “a church is a church – if it does God’s work, it doesn’t matter what flavor it is,” in the words of one lifelong Methodist-turned-Presbyterian. Denominational loyalties weakened, and some key leaders were lost. The newest trend, however, is for disillusioned, disenfranchised, and disheartened lifelong members to not shift allegiances, but to leave the institutional church altogether.
A denomination or local church can survive the loss of fringe members – almost indefinitely – but when the membership core begins to degrade, the integrity of the whole is compromised (especially when new leaders/members fail to pick up the slack). This is where The United Methodist Church currently finds itself.
Speaking with a variety of deeply committed Christians who have left “organized religion,” here are some reasons, impressions, and reflections from the exodus:
From a forty-year Methodist (joined the EUB church in 1965, left three years ago) who in his church life served as a Lay Leader, Administrative Board chair, Trustee chair, Finance chair, and Stewardship chair (for twenty-nine years!) –
“I have talked about ministry for years, but that’s not the same as doing ministry. Oh, I’m not saying what we talk about in committee meetings isn’t important, but very little of that conversation did anything to build the Kingdom of God. The older I got, the louder I got, calling for deep change in my church. I loved my church. I really did. But I got so frustrated, then depressed, then mad, until I finally decided I couldn’t stay there anymore. It got to the point where I felt guilty staying with my church – my church was not only not helping me grow as a Christian, it was preventing me from growing as a Christian!”
From a former member of one of United Methodism’s premiere large churches – a Sunday school teacher for twenty years, and a lay member to annual conference for six years:
“We have held three expansion campaigns in the past twenty years. We have raised millions of dollars to renovate old buildings, build new buildings, expand and pave a parking lot, hire new staff, and guarantee that our members have the best of everything. It has been so exciting to grow. But the whole time we’ve been spending most of our resources on ourselves, poverty in our community has exploded. Three blocks away we have homeless men panhandling on the sidewalks. We have homeless families looking for shelter. Hundreds of hungry people are looking for their next meal. People need clothes and housing and jobs. People need help. Don’t get me wrong – our church does some good, we have always been willing to help anyone who comes to us. But suggest we could go to them? Suggest that we could spend less money on buildings and sound systems so that we could do more for the needy in the community? Suggest that people volunteer their time instead of just giving money? Suggest that people get up out of the pew instead of letting hired staff do the ministry for them? Forget it. My church is full of people who love in theory, as long as they don’t have to be uncomfortable or get their hands dirty. A few years ago I felt the scales fall from my eyes, just like Paul. What looked so good on the surface turned out to be really disappointing underneath. My husband got a really expensive sport’s car that he never got to drive because it was always in the shop. That’s what I realized my church was like – looked really nice, but was defective inside.”
A thirty-something, ten-year member of a moderately “successful” church with a passion for evangelism and missions:
“Our church’s mission – to make Christ real to broken people in a broken world – convinced me to join. We totally support the Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors marketing campaign. We talk about diversity and inclusiveness and unconditional acceptance constantly. We are challenged to put our faith into action all the time. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem is, just try to put anything into practice! Propose any new ministry. Try to get the leaders of the church to do anything outside the four walls of the building. Try to wrestle any power away from the old guard. Just try to get anybody to “walk the talk,” instead of just putting it on a banner or tacking it to the wall. We talk a good game, but we don’t do anything about it! I got so fed up I started shopping around, visiting other churches around town. You know what? They’re worse than we are. I am staying in this church until my kids are confirmed, but I’ve given up. I am not going to waste my time – waste my breath – trying to get my church to act like it means what it says. I have never been so disappointed in my life.”
It is tempting to dismiss these voices as the lunatic fringe – a few disgruntled whiners who are the exception, and not the rule. We ignore these few at our own peril. If they were the only voices, we might be justified in ignoring them, but they are representative of a much larger (and growing) segment of the church. The first thirty years of our numeric decline may be likened to “trimming the fat,” but losses of the past decade have begun “cutting into the meat and muscle.”
So, what are long-time members looking for that they aren’t getting? Answers tend to fall into five categories:
- Getting new people is more important than helping the people the church already has grow as Christian disciples – worship is being used as an evangelism tool instead of honoring and focusing on God, small groups are designed around the basics to help newcomers learn about the faith, and most resources are dedicated to getting new people to come to the church.
- Numeric growth is more important than spiritual growth – getting bigger is more of a goal than getting better. Putting more people in the pews on Sunday morning is more important than equipping people to live their faith in the world through the week. We value success over effectiveness (as if the two are mutually exclusive).
- Getting people in the building is more important than mobilizing the membership to take the ministries into the community and world.
- Worldly values trump spiritual values – we spend most of our money on ourselves, creating comfortable, beautiful, secure, and safe environments for ourselves instead of utilizing our resources to do more of God’s work out in the world.
- Judging people seems more important than loving people – most churches live out of an “us/them” mentality, where we take care of us, and we are suspicious of (or downright hostile to) “them” (outsiders, strangers, visitors who are too different from “us,” people we disagree with).
These are the primary reasons long time members and participants are giving for leaving The United Methodist Church. We have three basic responses to make:
First, we can argue with these people and tell ourselves that they simply do not know what they are talking about. This appears to be the option of choice for church leaders. Defensiveness and dismissal are the order of the day, claiming that these voices are an aberration, and that the church is better off without them.
Second, we can ignore them. It is very interesting to share this information and have denominational leaders come up to me and tell me that this is the first they have heard of these things, and that it can’t be a very important issue if they hadn’t heard of it before. This is not a surprising response. Many long time members who have left the church report a deep hurt that no one seems to notice that they’re gone, and virtually no one ever comes to them to find out why they left.
The third option is, I think, the best. This option is to listen to what the long time members who have left the church are saying, look for the places where their views are valid and accurate, and weigh them against the articulated goals and values we claim are so important to us. Do we have open hearts and minds? Do we truly want to live as Christian disciples? Do we want to change this world? Can we afford to continue to lose our most deeply committed and active members?
The bottom line is that many disillusioned United Methodists believe we are pandering to the lowest common denominator – consumeristic Christian believers who want nothing more from the church than good music, an affirming sermon, a Sunday school for their kids, and a service center that christens and confirms, marries and buries. Many who want to be trained, equipped, and empowered to be the church for the world are frustrated and feel betrayed. They believe their only recourse is to leave the church they have loved so long, and the reality is, the denomination cannot long survive if the heart-and-soul members at the core decide there is nothing of value left for them in their church.