Lowest Common Denomination

CB101180With 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:

  1. 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. 
  2. 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).
  3. Getting people in the building is more important than mobilizing the membership to take the ministries into the community and world.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

28 replies

    • I would be fascinated to know what parts of this you doubt are “true.” The fact that people are leaving, or the fact that more lifelong members are leaving, or the fact that many of them are reporting for themselves that they are disillusioned with the church, or the fact that denominational leaders tend not to take it seriously? Most of these things are easily verifiable, but if you can be more specific, it would help me investigate and clarify.

  1. doroteos2, Your Grace! Beautiful metaphor–the dock and ship. Since I serve Christ in the fastest declining conference in the UMC, you may forgive me for over generalizing. My experience is that the closer to survival mode a church or conference goes, the more wagon circling is the norm. This is to say, that the church ceases to BE the church, and to preserve the detritus of religiosity and cultural christianity. Leaders who lack courage are promoted and this freeze dries the mess. What we need are Wesleyan and courageous for Christ. How can the dockers have a Scriptural foundation for their approach?

    • Ralph, the “dockers” (great term) are protecting the devil they know from the devil they don’t. Our system rewards those who toe the line, climb the ladder, and (to totally mix my metaphors) make the fewest waves. They have everything to gain (personally) by preserving the status quo, and virtually nothing to lose — if they feel okay taking a short-sighted and selfish view of the church’s future. Next Monday (April 20) I am posting a blog — No Future For Leadership? — that I think addresses this issue further. I’ll be interested in your thoughts when you see it, but let it suffice for now that I believe the key to turning things around is to stop spending so much of our leadership energy in managing (and micro-managing) the status quo, and to give priority to discerning a vision for the future and creating appropriate pathways to move us there. It means we need our leaders to lead.

  2. Thanks for this post. I feel called to some greater occupational ministry, but the more I talk to my pastors and friends in the ministry, the more I get the feel that I will be railroaded into institutional method. I mean that the only roads anyone can see are the track to go to seminary, get assigned to a rural church, and work your way up to a larger church. That isn’t really ministry to me…it doesn’t seem to allow for the Holy Spirit moving dynamically… But then the denomination as a whole (most denominations) seems built for staying the course and maintaining the status quo. That seems good in relation to doctrine and theology, but it seems bad in regard to application of that doctrine and reaching the poor, the margninalized and the lost.

    Is God calling me out of the church? Is God calling us to call the church to a new place? I don’t know where to go, frankly…except to remain in prayer and discernment. But so far, this discernment process is leaving me doubting my denomination as the place that will foster my ministry.

    Ugh…?

    • Bart, this is a rich time to be entering into church leadership — ordained or otherwise. I am a firm believer that ordination is one path among many for meaningful leadership, but the institutional church still offers an amazing opportunity to touch people’s lives and make a difference in the world. What we need are more leaders who come into the system with their eyes open — knowing what they’re up against.

      The only way the system is going to change for the better is by more people getting in who are adamant about not settling for the status quo. The church must change or the church will continue to decay. I stay in the church because I believe in what it can be more than I believe in what it is. I believe this old church is worth saving — worth improving and redeeming. I know the great good it can do, and I don’t think it is too late to make it great. The system is broken, but the system isn’t BAD. What we need most are people who love the system enough to change it, reengineer it, revitalize it, and make it work the way it needs to. It breaks my heart to see so many giving up (most for very good reasons) when these are exactly the people we need to get back on track. Systems are slow to change — especially systems as big as a denomination — but they do evolve with good leadership. We NEED good leadership. Keep praying about God’s will for your ministry and involvement in the church, but know that the church would be poorer were you to leave it.

  3. Any advice for people like me, fresh out of seminary (almost), about to be commissioned, newly-appointed? One hates to enter into ministry feeling as though one is swimming TOWARD the sinking ship….

    • Susie, the ship isn’t sinking exactly, but it will unless we get some new blood, some new vision, and an infusion of people who can move us into the new millennium. What our church needs most right now are leaders who will listen — listen to God, listen to God’s people (outside the church), and listen to those inside the church who REALLY want to grow as Christian disciples. The day of pandering to the lowest common denominator — those who merely want to be served instead of those committed to serving, those who come in as spiritual consumers instead of those seeking to become spiritual leaders, and those committed to their own desires and needs over the desires and needs of the community of faith — must come to an end, so that a new day may emerge. Find other Christian leaders who have a vision for transformation and a passion for creating community and support each other — don’t try to do it alone. There are so many pockets of real vitality and promise — we need to focus where the Spirit is really moving and stop wasting time trying to make things happen where there is little Spirit or desire.

      Those who are disillusioned with our church are seeking depth, purpose, and relevancy. They aren’t interested in a superficial church that pays lip service to God, but doesn’t really make any substantive difference in the community and world. In a sense, what the church needs most are spiritual visionaries, not congregational managers. Remember your prophetic call — what is God’s will for your ministry and gifts — and don’t let the system chew you up. (Check out How Deep the Well?)

  4. Thanks for this post. It really articulates the challenge very well. As the pastor of a church plant I’ll add two observations of my own:

    1.) Even as an innovative missional church, there is always a tension between going beyond the walls of the church and bringing new people in. New forms of church are inherently risky and if they don’t grow, will not survive. This would leave behind only large inwardly-focused well-endowed churches, so the status quo continues. A bit of a Catch-22. I think we must be both missional and attractional.

    2.) In my own and experience, and that of other new faith communities, the more Wesleyan you are, the more difficult it is to fit in with UMC polity. The appointment system has got to go, or at least be revised in a major way. Most of us entrepreneurial types are not seeking to be part of a tenure-like appointment system. Just as we have different categories of clergy in the UMC, I believe we need different categories of churches. There must be different ways to view churches than just chartered boxes where we appoint elders.

    Our Wesleyan theology (particularly the Quadrilateral) has much to offer this world but our polity is often an albatross around our necks. We need to decide if much of our polity is really based on our theology or grew out of the horse-based historical context of another era.

    Thanks again for a great article.

    • Your observation that the more Wesleyan we try to be, the less we fit with modern Methodism is very interesting. Our structures are not well designed to help us achieve our stated goals and mission. Something’s gotta give, and I hope our leaders help us envision a better way in the future. It is a shame that so much of the good of Methodism gets buried under the minutiae and superficial demands of “the church.”

  5. Just to follow up, I think we need to ask ourselves why would people who have new vision or the ability to move us into the new millennium choose to be in the UMC, either as clergy or laity? I’m not saying they wouldn’t, but why choose it?

    • This is a good question — why would anyone want to be a leader in the UMC? It has great potential, but it does chew up and spit out an awful lot of good leaders.

  6. I agree that the UMC is not truly Wesleyan at least in terms of ordering the structure and polity to achieve Wesleyan spiritual growth and organization. We resemble the Church of England not the Societies. Can we turn this baby around? God can if enough of us stand up and volunteer to do it, even if the structures and powers that be are resistant. That is what the Wesley brothers did, isn’t it? Reinventing the Methodist movement has an organic root in their work. We must be connected to the real world in which we live—especially the marginal folks right in our towns and cities—these were the ones the Wesleys reached. We must practice the disciplines as they did. We must emphasize small group accountability and zealous faith with those who will respond. Let the rest continue to organize the deck chairs on the salon deck, while we work in the bowels of the vessel—and Christ will take charge at the helm. Perhaps this is too simplistic—but Christ is ready to move, already moving—we just need to bring people into the current of his movement one by one, and watch him magnify this through grace.

    • I am right there with you, Ralph. People sometimes ask me why I am staying in The United Methodist Church, but it’s not even a question for me. This is a great church, doing great things, with so much potential to do even greater good. Many of the things we do are not well thought through, hence I am a voice crying in the wilderness to see critical thinking skills taught and applied to our life together as a church. Many things we do reflect a U.S. consumeristic worldview, and I think we need a better set of standards to operate by. We don’t really know the impact and value of much of what we do, so I believe we need a qualitative set of metrics to add to our obsessive quantitative metrics. I believe the mission frontier is out in the world, not inside our church facilities. I am so deeply heartened by the number of people who share a healthy discontent with the status quo. Give up on this wonderful vessel for God’s abiding love and the transformative power of God’s Holy Spirit? NO WAY! This is only the beginning — we have a world to transform… and the best is yet to come.

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