There is generally a distinct difference between our articulated values — what we say is important — and our lived values — the things we actually do. For example, I say that good diet and exercise is important, but I sit on my butt eating bacon-ranch-cheddar fries and drinking Diet Cokes. We suffer a similar problem as a denomination, saying that we are about disciple-making and world transforming, but spending exorbitant amounts of money, resources and leadership on getting more people to become regularly attending, money-giving United Methodists. Oh, no, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but considering how few existing UMs fit the Christian-disciple-transforming-the-world definition, it’s more than a little suspicious that we’ll do any better with new comers. A quick scan and survey of popular UM literature of the past few decades indicates pretty strongly that our greatest concerns are not global social ills or spiritual decay, but our own numeric decline and loss of “market” share. In just the past couple years we have diverted millions of dollars from missional and salary support for our national agencies to advertising campaigns and new church starts. Doom and gloomers predict our imminent demise, and many of our prominent leaders speak more of gaining new members than of saving more souls. Evangelism often has less to do about the gospel of Jesus Christ than it does about attending church. In a conversation I had the other day with one of our UM leaders, I lamented the focus on numbers and growth and he said to me, “Our top priority must be to give ourselves a tomorrow. There is nothing more pressing than our own survival.”
I’ve been thinking about this. Certainly, The United Methodist Church offers great value in our world. Lives are saved, souls are reached, and enormous good work happens each day. Yet, I am troubled by the almost unrelenting low self-esteem of United Methodism today. I attended a meeting with leaders of Path 1 this past week where the message was one of turning around our precipitous numeric decline. Disingenuously comparing our modern-day to a time one century ago when the Methodist church averaged at least “one new church a day” for over fifty years, a new vision was cast that depicts a United Methodist Great Awakening, where 1000 church planters will launch 650 new churches. We were told, “we’ve got to, or we won’t survive.” The question I have is, “if we cannot survive with the 7,800,000 United Methodists we’ve got, how is having another million or two going to make any difference? I have long used the analogy that if the bottom is rusted out of your bucket, the solution is not to pur more in the bucket — you have to repair the breach. What clear and careful analysis has been done to better understand the nature of the forty-year decline of The United Methodist Church? How well do we understand what isn’t working in what we are already doing, so that we might do better in the future? How well do we understand the key contributing factors to both success and failure upon which to build a strategy? This is the what I offered to do in my research work for the church, but I was told that it wasn’t important or necessary. Instead, we draw from spurious and incomplete research to paint a picture of impending doom as a misguided motivation to make more churches.
Much of what we do is motivated by institutional preservation. Our vision is not one of a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. No, instead our vision is a short-sighted and reactive strategy to survive awhile longer in the wilderness. I spoke to a national gathering a few years ago and raised the question: “What could we do as United Methodists with a denomination of 4,000,000 active, highly motivated, spiritually grounded, and missionally focused members?” The energy in the room was electric. Powerful visions of spiritual community, servant ministry, cultural and communal transformation, and spreading justice and peace emerged. I reminded the group that (at the time) The United Methodist Church in the United States was twice that size (over 8 million), so we should stop griping about how small we were and how many people we’ve lost and we should focus on using what we have to build God’s realm wherever we can. We need to stop focusing on what we lack, and start focusing on what we have and who we are.
Do we need new churches? Of course we do, but we need new healthy churches, not just more of what we already have. Should we be expanding the circles of religious and spiritual influence of The United Methodist Church throughout the world? By all means, but not only to those who will join our church and put money in our plates. Should we work to increase our membership? Without doubt, as long as we are inviting them into the life of faithful discipleship and not just allowing them to warm a pew once a month or so. Our future does not depend on big numbers, but on serious commitment. Tomorrow is not built on new churches, but on faithful disciples. Serving Christ is not about preserving The United Methodist Church, but about living the vision of transforming the world. We need to step back, I think, and remember what this journey called church is really all about. I was talking to a couple this week who wear pedometers and walk together every day. The wife proudly told me, “We walk 3,500 steps in the morning and another 3,500 steps every afternoon!” When I spoke to her husband a little while later, he said, “We walk by the lake in the morning and through the park to look at the trees and birds in the afternoon.” I asked, “How many steps do you take?” He said, “Oh, I really don’t know. The point of walking isn’t about how many steps you take. It’s about where you go and what you see.” I would apply this to the church as well. The point of church isn’t how many people show up; it’s about where they go and what they do.
We are currently using three very different terms interchangeably in a confusing way. People talk about “new church starts,” “new faith communities,” and “new faith settings,” as if they were one thing. But tak to people for a while and their real agenda comes out. At the School of Congregational Development this summer, leaders talked about “new faith communities,” but almost every illustration was of a traditional new church launch. They said it wasn’t about buildings and budgets, but got all fluttery and moist every time the conversation turned to “planting” a “new church.” Conversation turned to equipping laity to lead “new faith communities,” but needing new “pastors” to serve the new “churches.” Pinning down our denominational representatives, it became clear that the vision for these “new faith communities” is to become self-supporting, apportionment paying congregations. We need new blood to prop up and revitalize the existing church on life support. Always nice to have kids to take care of us in our dotage…
I guess what irritates me the most is when I try to share my experiences of “new settings for new faith development for new people,” no one much seems interested. One of the absolute best Bible studies I’ve attended was in a tenement laundry room in the south Bronx. The best worship service I’ve attended in years was in a storefront church/free clinic in Baltimore. One of the most relevant ministries I have witnesses was an ecumenical prayer tent set up near an unemployment office during the current economic crush. I was thrilled to meet two retired pastors who travel the country in an RV, stopping in truck stops and rest areas to pray with travelers and to offer impromptu Bible studies. I will scream the next time I tell one of these stories to one of our agency representatives and get some form of this deadpan response, “Yeah, but those people aren’t likely to join the church, are they?” No, they won’t come to the church, they won’t serve on our committees, they won’t plop money in our plates, and they won’t sign up for our adult education opportunities. In short, they are not our target demographic so we shouldn’t waste our time. I have yet to meet anyone promoting church growth in The United Methodist Church that has any interest in these kinds of “new settings for new faith development with new people.” Only people who are likely to become members are of any real interest, though we might try to pay lip service to a deeper level of caring in public forums. No, it tends to all come back to institutional preservation — doing whatever we can to ensure our own survival. Offering Christ must, of necessity, take a back seat to inviting people to church.
And yet, this is a both/and, not an either/or issue. There is nothing wrong or evil about being concerned about our own survival. We should be planning a long and meaningful ministry. We should be marshalling our forces and resources to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people for as long as we possibly can. But I fear our vision doesn’t extend that far. We’re not offering our world a vision of a Promised Land, just a bigger denomination. We’re not promising milk and honey, just “entertaining worship with ample parking, and small groups to meet every taste!” (from a UM billboard on I-40). Survival is a fine objective, but only so long as it is a means to a greater end. It is that greater purpose and vision that sometimes gets lost — the making of Christian disciples for the transformation of the world — in the irrational idea that somehow new United Methodists will automatically be qualitatively better than the ones we’ve already got.