I wonder how many United Methodists are simply tired and bored with the same old, same old? There is a growing dual attitude about our churches that is important to note: some feel that we are irrelevant while others feel that we are little more than boring. Not everyone. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say the majority are disillusioned, but a growing minority certainly are. Those leaving our denomination are extremely critical that we don’t make a difference in the world. Those outside our denomination are even more emphatic. For a large portion of those familiar with The United Methodist Church, there is a powerful sense that we don’t matter very much.
This is sad. Our potential is great. Look at Our Theological Task and our Social Principles. Look at our mission. Look at the priorities our bishops have lifted before us. We should matter. How disappointing that so many think we don’t.
There are pockets of hope throughout our denomination. Lives are being changed, souls are being saved, and thousands of people are finding new hope. Yet, these are exceptions rather than the rule. Long time members are leaving in disgust that they cannot find support to care for the broken and lost in the world. A Nashville woman, attending our largest UMC, shared with me not long ago that she has to leave the church because “it talks a good game, but could care less about following Jesus. She pointed to her Sunday school teacher as one who “talks about what it means to be Christian,” but doesn’t do anything but talk. This church keeps expanding the building and “puts out pretty statues,” but can’t be troubled to serve those in need.
“Safe church,” is the label given by another lifelong Methodist, saying that we are only willing to do that which doesn’t cost us anything. “As long as we can wear our nice clothes to church on Sunday,” he continues, “we’re perfectly happy. Get our hands dirty? No way.”
“If I hear another sermon on the Prodigal Son, I will scream,” says another lifelong United Methodist. “This isn’t all about us. This is about God, God’s Will, and being the love of Christ for others. I love the people in my church, but I cannot believe how superficial we are. The majority of people come here for no other reason than to feel better!”
“Make me care,” says a young man after leaving a large Nashville church. “make me want to be better. I don’t give a crap about ‘Touching hearts and transforming lives for the glory of God and the good of the world.’ (our vision!) That’s bull s***. 99% of the congregation could care less about this. Almost everyone in this congregation is here for what’s in it for them. There are so many people spouting the “vision,” but who really cares? Not many.”
“We’re safe here,” a young UM woman says, “there is nothing that ever threatens our comfort. We can talk about love and compassion, but we pay other people to do it for us. No real sacrifice at all.”
“I would love to believe that this church is helping me become more like Jesus. But I know, if I really want to be Christ-like, it will be because I leave the church, not because I stay.”
What’s unfortunate is that many others are finding fidelity within the church. There are a few United Methodist churches that really do align their practice with their values. The big church in Nashville isn’t the only story. There are dozens of United Methodist churches that are helping people realize the fulfillment of their sense of call and purpose.
“I am a disciple. My church won’t let me be anything less. I never knew how important it was to pray, to understand the Bible, and to get out into the world to care for others, until I came to this church. Many people leave this church because they are unwilling to live their faith. It’s sad, but it is the fact of life.”
“Unless I am giving and doing for others, I’m not really a Christian. I am part of a community, not only of believers, but of active witnesses to the love of God in Jesus Christ. My life and my faith are becoming one thing. I have never known a faith like this before.”
“I grew up thinking being Christian meant going to church,” said a forty-something woman. “Here I realize that being Christian means being ‘like Christ.’ There is no such thing as ‘attending’ church, because it isn’t a place. We ARE the church, and if we’re not, then we might as well just stay home.”
What is the “tipping point” where people move from passive Christian consumers to active Christian disciples? We have lots of people who attend church and are complacent to let others “do” ministry for us. But there are vital churches where everyone is excited to be a part of something bigger, something more important.
A growing number of United Methodists are no longer satisfied being passive. They want something more. They want challenge. They want direction. They want a community of faith that is making a difference in the world. How can we feed those who want to change the world, when so much of our time and efforts go to keeping the more complacent happy. This, I feel, is the real challenge facing The United Methodist Church today.