We’re old. We’re dying. We’re decaying. We’re declining. We’re ineffective. We’re irrelevant. Doesn’t that motivate you to do better? Come on, be honest. Don’t such messages just fill you with energy, vigor, passion and hope? Sure they do, otherwise why would we dwell so constantly upon them? Why waste time envisioning ourselves as God is calling us to be when we can wallow in all the things we aren’t? Doom-and-gloomers eat this stuff up. The United Methodist Church will be gone in 40 years. The average age of United Methodists is 104. We’re closing 24,000 churches every year. It’s like crack. Once we taste the bad news, we simply can’t get enough of it.
I hate the misuse of statistics, but I have to admit it’s very easy to do. All you have to do is count something, frame it in a specific way, twist it 45 degrees, take it completely out of context and pretend it is the only thing that matters, and then present it as “fact.” It’s fun, and anyone can do it. Plus, once the results are published there is the added joy of all the many ways the findings can be misinterpreted, misunderstood, and miscommunicated. Nothing irks me more than someone who knows better delivering sincere misinformation as insightful and true. I attended a domestic violence workshop once where the “expert” claimed that in the 90 minutes we had been together, “31,000 children were victims of abuse in the United States.” Now, do the math — this is over 340 children a minute, 489,000 a day, 14,688,000 a month — every child in the U.S. is abused no less than twice a year. Yikes, what a terrible childhood we suffer in these United States.
We do the same thing in the church. Leaders, not called to ministry for their math skills, extrapolate a linear decline and tell us that there will be no UMC by 2050. Looks good on paper, but if we were to apply the same simplistic formula to the pre=”the “>UMC from 1972-1978, we should cease to exist in 2013 — so kiss your congregation goodbye. We’re almost done. Oh, wait, no we’re not. Regressions don’t work that way. Certainly we will be much smaller, but our decline is not uniform and consistent. It follows a curved path, not a straight line. And not every participant is “of equal value” (statistically). And a hundred other factors that no one bothers to mention because it isn’t as sensational. Incomplete information is often worse than no information at all.
It is critically important that we recognize the unintended consequences of what we are saying by painting such a pitiful picture. Such fatalism may not motivate change, but may merely hasten our decline and possible demise. People in modern American culture like to back winners, not strugglers. If a church is doing good work and isn’t constantly in survival mode, it offers much greater appeal than its counterparts. By constantly framing what we are — a middle-age and older denomination — as a negative, we incite all kinds of unpleasant responses. Think of your sixty-eight year old, pot-bellied uncle Joe dressing up in tight disco clothes (thinking these are “cool” and “hip”) with his shirt unbuttoned to his naval, crashing a college party — this is what much that we Baby Boomers call “contemporary” or “praise” worship looks like to young adults. Constantly telling older congregations that they have to attract young people is like saying, “be what you’re not, to attract those least like you, so that no one can be happy.” There is great potential for cross-generational ministry — but it may not be in worship or spiritual formation. Being the best older adult church you can be may actually give you more of a future than doing poor ministry designed to lure young people. (No, I am not advocating “giving up” on young adults. If anything, I am advocating that we quit trying to force them into our outdated molds and let them take more control in launching and sustaining churches actually geared toward youth culture.)
A steady diet of what we don’t have, what we can’t do, what we’ve lost, how far behind we are takes its toll on the heart, soul and spirit of leadership. Combine that with the unrealistic burden of the few high-profile “success” stories (i.e., those growing in numbers, not necessarily in impact) and the frustration and exhaustion quotients sky-rocket. There is an insidious psychological damage being done by all our half-truths and spurious use of statistics. I don’t mean to say we aren’t in decline or aren’t facing serious problems. But there are a wide variety of reasons why we are in the shape we’re in, and our future doesn’t lie in the past, nor is it limited by our present.
In 1956, the U.S. population was just under 170 million. Today it is approximately 308 million, not quite doubled. In 1956, estimates of the number of individual churches in the U.S. range between 170,000 – 220,000; today we are looking at 1.1 million organized, chartered congregations (including independent, LDS, New Age, etc.). While the population has doubled, the number of faith options has increased fivefold. Television, para-church organizations, digital technology, and general business all compete today for people’s time and attention in a way they did not in 1956. Also, the modern memory of 1956 tends to glorify the past. A majority of Protestant congregations in 1956 didn’t track attendance on a regular basis. Some researchers and sociologists now believe that our memory of regular attendance might be highly inflated and inaccurate. Did we attend more faithfully 50 years ago? Without a doubt! But our decline might not be nearly as steep as many make it out to be. Anecdotally, my grandfather never missed Sunday worship — he slept through at least fifty services a year. Today he would have the decency to stay home to sleep. The change for him would not be in the level of his discipleship, but in the location of his rest…
When I conducted the Seeker Study research for the General Board of Discipleship, I was amazed to find hundreds of young adults (19-31) who pray daily, study scripture regularly, volunteer time as an expression of their Christian faith, and who discuss their faith in some form of ongoing small group or partnered relationship, BUT do not attend any church. I won’t go into all the reasons here, but basically the institutional church offers them little of value in their faith formation, and they choose to journey independently or with fellow disaffected pilgrims on similar journeys. In subsequent research, this segment of our population is growing — yet they report no religious affiliation on surveys. They dislike labels and they vehemently do not want to be lumped in with “church people.” As one young person told me, “I would rather people thought I was an atheist than a “Christian.” Christians here are scary people. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, but I am NOT a Christian.” Hmmm….
All this is to say we need to choose our future wisely and not be motivated by half-truths and incomplete stories. We all know we have less people today than we used to. We all know that the life expectancy is lengthening and therefore we will have more old people longer in our churches. We also know that whoever holds the power will create the church they like best — so old people will continue to make nice, comfy old people churches. If we want young people, we need to let them create young people churches, and not try to make everyone compromise and be things they’re not. I have said it before and I will say it until I die: we have got to stop worrying about the 6 million we have lost and start strategizing with and empowering the almost 8 million we have. Until we do a better job with people who already like us, we won’t do very well with those who don’t yet know us. It’s up to us. Continue to wallow in our anxiety, fear, and frustration or work with God to build something beautiful?