Time Warped

46I read an article this last week that says our Council of Bishops approved a plan to make The United Methodist Church ten-year’s younger in a decade.  I thought, “That can’t be right.”  Just doing the math, we would need 70% of our existing over-50 membership to die or go to another denomination.  Then I realized we were talking about the even less-likely scenario of attracting approximately 3 million 20/30-somethings to become United Methodist.  There is always a lot of merit in wanting to introduce new people to a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ.  I hope we do this well.  But as I look at what it will take to reach our goal, I have a few suggestions:

  • Make sure the bishops working on this are all 40 and under (I’m being ironic or sarcastic here, I can’t remember which…) — we know for a fact that Boomers and older Busters can’t do ministry for younger people.  This is a no-brainer.  The church for the young needs to be the church of the young.  Oh, no — not either/or, but both/and.  We need the church we have to welcome in baby brothers and sisters.  Older children need to learn to share their toys with younger children — and even let younger children have toys of their own — or nothing much good happens.

  • Make sure the consultant to the process is 20/30-something — I just love all the old guard (my age) telling all the other people my age how important it is to reach young people.  Give me a break.  I was at the District Superintendent/Director of Connectional Ministries training.  I know what it looks like when Baby Boomers try to dance and sing and clap to alternative rock music.  It isn’t pretty.  In fact, it’s skeevy.  And every under-40 person knows and acknowledges this.  It is the older generations who are in denial.  For us Boomers, the ship has passed.  Time to let a new generation take the tiller.
  • Make sure the 12-person steering committee has all its own teeth and hair (and some piercings and tattoos as well) — on the metaphorical ship I was talking about above, another name for a 50-something team member is “anchor.”  Let younger people seek counsel when they need it.  Let’s not just assume they cannot possibly function without the wisdom of our years.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  If we want to kill a youth movement fast, let’s let old people play.
  • Let’s NOT do another online survey — let’s allow younger church leaders to create an online community for discussion and networking.  Let’s not turn it over to an institutional agency.  Let’s not let Baby Boomers anywhere near the design of it.  Let’s trust young leaders to lead.  The let’s listen to what they say.  Then let’s not bring up words like “budget implications” and “disciplinary restrictions” to kill the passion and enthusiasm.
  • Let’s not worry about the median age of United Methodists — age is a terrible measure of our impact in the world.  We should be seeking meaningful ways to be in ministry to all people.  Americans are living longer, and by God’s grace they will go to church longer.  If we are a healthy nation, the median age will go up.  Our great commission is to make disciples not make the church younger.  By all means, let’s do a better job reaching young families and singles, children and youth, and let us be faithful evangelists that promote a healthy relationship with God in Jesus Christ — whether they join our church or not.

You may have noticed that I put on my “rant robe” for this one.  We talk so much about this, but we seem to refuse to make the changes that will actually change anything.  We love change that we can step back from and say, “Oops, well that didn’t work.”  But the kind of true transformation we keep saying we want requires fundamental bridge-burning.  Current leaders MUST share power.  Young leaders MUST be allowed into the decision-making, direction-setting ranks of leadership in our denomination.  Existing structures MUST make room for radically different systems and processes.  And the older MUST get out of the way of the younger — if we truly value and honor those we say we want to reach.  No more time to waffle, no more time to study, no more time for task forces, and no more time for saying we want something, then maintaining the status quo.

I hope The United Methodist Church does become the church of choice for young people in these United States — but because we deserve it, not because we merely want to preserve the institution.

31 replies

  1. Stop the presses!!!! Stop the presses!!!

    Maxie Dunham and Bishop Cannon have a PLAN to save the UMC! Oh boy! (Be sure to notice the date of the article.) As it has been stated: It’s like deja vu all over again.


    Grassroots, folks, grassroots. The early church started and survived at the grassroots level. UMC decline is a comprehensive problem, and it’s going to take a comprehensive effort by ALL members and clergy in Methodism to solve.

    In all likelihood, big conference projects and million dollar concepts will not turn this around. History says it won’t work. (Remember Bishop Wilke, “Are We Yet Alive” published in the early 1980’s? Nada, zip, nothing.) Instead, Methodism and its Christian perspective will be a church-by-church effort of survival and reformation. Big-to-do’s at conference HQ’s cannot solve the problem of decline.

    This is kind of like evolution and natural selection processes. Those congregations with the best traits (clear and achievable mission statements, active prayer opportunities and embodiment, small groups in home settings, sacramental holiness and financially sustainable lifestyles of members, effective visitor follow-up, pastors that “get it”, multiethnic, broad age range leadership, solid biblical connection/foundation in the overall ministry/Christian education concept, good balance of social gospel and evangelical outreach, keeping the duct tape handy and the rope tight between liberals and conservatives and seeking middle ground, etc.), as well as the blessing of being in a demographically safe and economically stable community, will survive. Those with missing traits will become recessive genes, or die out altogether. Extirpation of certain deadbeat UMC’s may end up being a good thing for other local UMC’s, so long as the deadbeat staffers and pastors over there aren’t hired in over here as part of a bishop-initiated act of mercy.

  2. Dan, in reading what is available about the Council’s plan, one comment could be there is a lot to be learned about the Council’s thinking. I can see the hint of a link to what the Council published after its meeting last spring, but not much more. Were you asked to establish a 10 year goal or plan in place of the current one from the Council, what would it look like? For my part, I was expecting something much different after learning of the announced effort around the 4 areas of focus. Peace,larry

  3. Dan,

    Thank you for having the blog open to the general public for comment.

    You are making a big mistake by saying young people can simply go into the future without the “wisdom of our years”, assuming you are talking about older people in the UMC. I know where you are in your emotions with the UMC (I left the UMC and went Lutheran, and have tried to reenter the UMC recently, but the lack of holiness and reverence among pastors and worshippers keeps turning me off), but simply ignoring the experience of those older than us and substituting it with a few tatoos, squared-off glasses, and a few text messages will not get reformation in the UMC accomplished. Young people are not going to solve UMC/mainline decline with a cell phone and a Tweet. It’s going to require real, whole-hearted planning, savvy, and establishing solid bridges across generational, racial, and income-level lines.

    Here is why, in my humble opinion, the UMC is in decline, save Ginghamsburg and COR:

    A. The vertical structure of the individual UM churches, districts and conferences is inclusive to pastors with MDivs, and exclusive of the common worshipping people (I cannot stand the word “laity” and “lay leader” used in place of “people” or “worshippers”… This “laity” stuff — lay speaker, lay leader, lay concerns, etc. needs to be “laid” to rest). More and more, I see the big givers being given big positions, bigger hand shakes, and bigger attention. They are protected by the vertical structure of the church, thus the lack of will to change it. Money gets you in, and death gets you out. Commoners are looked upon as those who should pledge and consecrate to support the “big giver’s” and M.Div’ers delights, especially building campaigns.

    B. The Admin Councils and district and conference committees annihilate, crush, and destroy enthusiasm and vitality in ministries by virtue of their required in-person meeting/conference systems and archaic wording. Most of the meetings are held during weekdays, when common worshippers cannot attend (that’s protectionist and archaic). Travel is almost always required to participate in district and conference leadership activities. Travel is time consuming and expensive. Many young people (and, might I add, those who are in their working years and not retired) cannot participate in these leadership functions due to odd or long work hours, lack of/tight financial resources, kid care responsibilities, etc. This leaves us with with a UMC full of decision-makers who see their participation in these committees as “something to do” after retiring, rather than working for reform and revitalization. These leaders are tired, and the ideas are dated and slow to materialize. The meeting/committee structure of the UMC is killing the UMC and mainline as a whole. Phone conferences, e-mailed agenda packs, Skype, etc. have a high potential for changing this rather quickly. Just because the head of a conference committee or some bishop or DS doesn’t have an interest in phone/video conferences because they never did it (or don’t understand it) does not mean that some dedicated, Christ-centered mom or dad with a child that needs to be picked up at 2:00 PM from school should be excluded from decision-making, leadership committees in the UMC! With the American population projected to both live and work in careers longer, this system of sit-down meetings needs to change immediately in order to engage more people.

    C. Young people themselves share in the blame of UMC/mainline decline, too. Let’s not just blame retirees for all woes. Young adults do not like to believe this, but it is true. They worry far too much about entertaining themselves, instead of the overall mission of Christ’s church as a whole and rebuilding a once powerful denomination that served God’s kingdom effectively. Essentially, they have given up on working to reform the UMC/mainline because of its vertical, rigid structures and lack of technological flexibility. Unfortunately, young adults are attempting to contribute to rebuilding the church in a way that essentially “reinvents the church” (rather than rethinking it) in order to simply satisfies themselves (and ignoring 2000 years of church growth/demise experiences in the process). If churches are simply made for and designed by young adults, what this will lead to is exclusion… of both older and younger generations. It will become an “all about me” church. Many people are going to be left on the outside of the church looking in if the text-message/Facebook generation proceeds with the Tweet-me concept. The boundaries of those left out will be primarily delineated by financial class. Young people today are absolute experts at exclusion by default! The ability to text message and post all kinds of stuff in cyberville leaves some people in the dust, especially the poor. It will be the haves (those with technology and the ability to use it fluently) and the have nots (those who cannot afford it, those physically unable to participate, or the elderly, and the elderly population is about to explode in the U.S. demographically). If you look at this from a Christian perspective, many are left on the outside attempting to look in at the faith because they will be excluded. Not good. Meanwhile, Jasmine just texted Cresandre sitting two chairs over and never felt the pain in the heart of the person attempting to become a believer sitting right next to them during worship because that person was not in “their” exclusive circle of friends.

    I think the ultimate turn off I witness (when I do attend church any more) is when I see young adults texting one another DURING a Christian ed session, or worse yet, while waiting for Holy Communion to end during worship. How rude and irreverant. And that leads to Reason 4 of why the UMC is in decline.

    D. Lack of reverence in worship… I SQUARELY BLAME THE PASTORS WHO ARE TRYING TO IMITATE BAPTIST AND NON-DENOMINATIONAL CONGREGATIONS in attempt to emulate their worship styles to attract numbers to satisfy DS’s and bishops for the lack of reverence in the UMC! The UMC pastors are SO afraid of looking Catholic, or Anglican, or Lutheran, or Orthodox that they will water down the sacraments to virtually non-recognizable event of minor importance (and place SERMON over sacraments). I started falling away from the UMC as Holy Communion transformed in the 1980’s and 1990’s into being the “Sunday morning Sam’s Club grape juice and bread sampling kiosk table”. Bring back the real wine, end the “1830 Ladies Temperance Movement” influence, get back to the 2000 year old tradition UMC! No communion service with wine has created an alcoholic! Offer grape juice as an alternative, but do not diminish the tradition celebrated at Christ’s seder meal any longer. Baptism has become much the same, resembling more of a cute baby moment for Facebook photos and texting. Baptism is simply not taken seriously anymore. Covenenting with the congregation might be as loud as a mumble during baptism. How pathetic. And pastors allow it to go on and on.

    These are HOLY events in the holy catholic church, and the UMC pastors should make sure their congregants know this! The UMC, in its quest to salvage itself from total demise, has tried to become far too low-church with the sacraments, especially in contemporary worship, where the majority of young people attend. If the sacraments being given to the people are not viewed as “Holy” by the ministers themselves (demonstrated by unbelievably brief sacrament rituals that remove all meaningful congregational involvement and covenanting between one another as one in Christ), then what’s the point of attending church, receiving the elements, or being baptized? (Oh, I forgot… it’s the sermon.) It’s not about the sermon, folks! Sermons are free on iTunes. Attending church is about worshiping a Holy God, recognizing the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, and understanding the nudge of the Holy Spirit during the other 6 days of the week! Young people do not even know what holiness and sacremental living is about because the UMC pastors, scared about high church history and their own selfishness to rush the service get over to Applebees for lunch, have cheated a generation of believers from the two millenias of church traditions of the sacraments. SHAME on these pastors and bishops and DS’s for removing the holiest of holy moments in our UMC’s and not passing the torch of reverence and holiness to the hearts of the next generations! The decline in UMC attendance rests, to a great extent, on this issue in my view.

    E. Christian Ed. I will NEVER sit in another windowless Sunday School classroom reviewing yet another book by Baptists such as Beth Moore, Rick Warren, Max Lucado, or Philip Yancy. Have you noticed that Sunday School attendance never, ever changes in a church? It’s the same number, week after week, in attendance, no matter what worship attendance does. Christian Ed concepts are in need of DESPERATE OVERHAUL. If ANYONE in a church — pastor, deacon, or worshipper… runs a Christian ed program without any use of a computer, web link, Moodle, blog, or interaction via the net with other UMC’s nearby or far away, FIRE THEM! Get them out of there! Especially true if the education target group is under 50 years old, and moreso with youth. Young people (and might I add young Boomers like myself) are BORED STIFF with the book review crapola. I REFUSE to sit in a class full of like-minded individuals all nodding or shaking their heads about some statement, and all driven by their social class or political bend. Where’s the learning challenge in that? Look at me right now, I’m interacting online with others from around America trying to figure out what is wrong with the UMC! Why would I not want to share Christian ed experiences with the same faces and same opinions week after week after week? I’d also much rather sit and watch an Adam Hamilton sermon DVD and use the GPS as a study resource with a group of 12 in my house, developing a close bond and friendship around that, than to be a “chapter conqueror” of yet another Max Lucado book.

    Closing: When I hear someone casting blame for UMC/mainline decline solely on one generation or another, my red warning flag goes up. The problem is comprehensive, and does not just rest on the shoulders of Boomers, Busters, X’ers, or Millenials, OR the pastors (although the pastors, DS’s and Bishops have a LOT to do with the problem… they’re too wealthy and too removed from reality). UMC decline is EVERYONE’s responsibility. I love the UMC’s stated beliefs and, for the most part, believe they are biblically sound and solid. The UMC is the best hope for Christian outreach to many, many people in this world. But the archaic committee structures, lack of use of technology to involve new leadership blood, stiffness of DS’s and bishops, lack of sacramental holiness and reverence, and inability to recognize a need to continually reach across generational boundaries is shutting the UMC down fast.

    One last comment: I’m about sick and tired of the liberal vs. conservative garbage that goes on and on in the UMC. Flush the Confessing Movement down the drain. It’s doing nothing but dividing the church. Flush the General Board of Church and Society in Washington DC down the drain. It, too, is doing nothing but dividing the church. Both parties are full of selfish, arrogant people who only see their way. Get them out of the conferences and general conferences as voting members. Pastors, stop being afraid of holiness, solid theology, and the church historic. Practice the sacraments with vigor and reverence! Older members, stop hoarding power and taking advantage of your income and retirement status by using the church. Younger members, stop thinking that its all about you and about reinventing everything around Tweets and social networks. Worshippers, get more deeply involved than simple passive Sunday morning attendance. DS’s and Bishops, take a salary cut by 50%, move to a middle class neighborhood, put on blue jeans, and stop being statistical bean counters. Facilitate technology and stop kissing up to the wealthy in your districts and conferences.

    Patrick, a member in the primitive Alabama/West Florida Conference

  4. Shorter Pastor Don: Get off my lawn!

    If the wise and experienced have to teach the young how to be the church, but the young think most of the wise and experienced are bitter, rude and out of touch, how long will the old stay in their old ways? Until there’s no one left at all?

    1. The study committee should be staffed only by successful church planters.
    2. Nearly all boards and agencies should be eliminated so annual conferences can afford to start new churches.
    3. Any building that requires more than 30% of your annual giving to keep up should be sold. Move out! Use the money to rent a better space.
    4. Annual conferences should cut staff by 50% and put the money into new church starts.

    The First UMC local church business model is failing, folks.

    • Jimmy – new churches aren’t the only answer – revitializing existing congregations is important too. I happen to be the pastor of a First UMC. granted, I have no idea what you are talking about with the “business model” – our church is not a business and never has been. Our building is a great asset and a gift from God- we have space to host dinners and events, a place for our kids to run and learn about God, a beautiful sanctuary that we adapt and modify as we need to … and upkeep is a chunk of our budget – but it’s worth it!

      Also, I happen to lament the loss of our folks on the general boards and in the annual conferences who have the experience and resources to help those of us who are working in local churches. We cut back and we cut back when perhaps we should be listening to what they have to say and using the good resources they bring to us. Now, there are places where we are wasting time and talent and money – but this past year we have lost a lot of important voices. (some of them young ones!)

  5. Phyllis from UMW in the church the next town over forwarded me an e-mail from her sister-in-law’s friend Jeannette, who heard from her district lay leader that the bishops were going to implement United Methodist Death Panels.

    Another option would be to encourage the young to have more babies. With our average age the way that it is, there are tons of potential baby-sitters. All serious studies point to declining birth-rates as the source of our decline; lets address it head on. Worked for the Catholics, works for the Evangelicals, works for the Mormons. If we believe that children are a blessing, lets communicate that and have more of them. We absolutely have the resources to make sure that young people with children have adequate childcare and the resources to pursue higher education; lets marshal those resources. There is actually a fair amount of integrity in that approach to growth, assuming we are doing it for the right reasons.

    Seriously though, what about a goal like: “Every United Methodist serving the poor every month.”

    Speaking of Mormons, my friend who is a campus minister in Alabama is convinced that we would have remarkable transformation if every United Methodist young person was strongly encouraged to spend a year in Christian service in their early young adult years. Like the Mormons and their mission activity, our children would be told from a very young age how they will spend a year serving the poor or working in a church after they graduate from high school or after a year or two from college and our churches and families will sacrifice to make that happen.

    • I don’t know your age Luke, but please run for Bishop. Take along your humor and don’t forget your vision.

      I like the Mennonite model of a year of voluntary service for young adults even more than the Mormon model. It is, as you suggest, focused on service rather than recruiting. The Mennonites are also focused on being faithful to the Gospel rather than on growing their numbers. They are a tiny sliver of the Christian demographic pie. None of their decisions are made based on an attempt to maintain themselves, but they do a lot of good in the world.

  6. Pass me the “rant robe,” Brother Dan, I’m about to get to my feet.

    I read your post with a mixture of delight and dismay. I’m delighted because I fully support your assertion that young people should choose and enact their own ministries. We tried to establish a Division of Young People’s Ministries at the General Board of Discipleship, and not much has been heard from it lately (due to budget cuts, no doubt).

    And you’re right, as a Baby Boomer, I find the style and content are bewildering when I go to religion websites meant for younger believers. But I’m not the person for whom such is meant.

    The part that dismays me is your assertion that we Boomers have nothing to offer. I may have missed it, but I believe that we do have something to offer, and that something is to work within the existing structure and polity to dismantle it, as Pastor Don has accused us of doing.

    That’s right, I mean working to give away whatever institutional power we possess. For instance, who did you see at the last annual conference session? In North Texas, I saw a lot of old folks, and I mean, the youngest people of the Boomers’ parents’ generation.

    The saddest thing I saw at annual conference was when one of the younger members of annual conference had the courage to stand up and tell the old folks it was time to give up their power in response to a conference survey on “the future.” She was practically hooted from the microphone, but I was proud of her and wished I could help.

    It’s going to be a long exodus from our bondage in the current church culture to the undiscovered country of the future. But can’t we older folks at least walk part of the way with our younger companions, and do what we can to cut the trail?

    • Cynthia,

      I’m not sure where you got the “Boomers have nothing to offer.” You will note that I say we need to “share” power, “let others into” the decision-making processes, and “make room” for different approaches. All a far cry from turning everything over to the next/new generations. The point I am making is that we do not share, and we are not taking the steps necessary to make real what we say is important. We have much to offer — but on mutual terms, not ours alone. Let younger leaders seek our counsel and support. What we do is dictate and micro-manage, and that’s not the same thing. I think you read into my post more than was there — and that’s part of the problem. Feeling threatened and defensive about the changes that need to come is a huge hurdle the whole church needs to clear, and there has to be a place for everyone at the same table. Younger leaders are not destroying the church any more than we Boomers before them. But change is both scary and necessary. Our future rests not in doing ministry for younger leaders, but with them.

      • Dan, I’m sorry if it seemed I was being defensive, far from it. From my perspective the younger folks can have the whole shebang, right now. They certainly can’t do any worse than the oldsters have done.

        I don’t want to dictate to anyone. I don’t want to “minister to” or “minister for” anyone. I’d rather blow open the whole smash and see what develops.

        Best regards,

      • Grace and peace. I don’t want to fight with anyone, especially friends and allies! The frustration I feel is too specific to generalize. I am tired of all the conversation about young people that doesn’t include young people. All “Oldsters” (and I use that term tongue in cheek, since I still consider myself such a sweet, young thing…) aren’t the problem. People of any age who think they know best what another age needs, wants, should have, or should be allowed to have is on my list of “problems.” Plus, I have a basic, simple, fundamental philosophical disagreement with the notion that Christians are created in order to support and sustain the institution of The United Methodist Church. I believe that our only reason for existence (as the UMC) is to help people come to know and be in relationship with the risen Christ. Sure, we need members to survive… but if we’re doing our job well, people will gladly join the team.

        I have had the privilege of meeting with hundreds (well over three thousand) teens, twenties, and thirties both inside and outside the church. I have listened to their desires, dreams, wishes, hopes, and beliefs as well as their frustrations, fears, heartbreaks, doubts, and despairs. I am constantly amazed at how deep and thoughtful their ideas are. In our dominant youth culture many of them find professional and personal fulfillment in a wide variety of settings and situations. They are respected and valued in almost every sphere of our society, except one — the church In the church, young people are objects, not subjects. They are a “target audience.” They are “unchurched.” They are “proto-Christians.” They are also leaving. Or they are never arriving. I realize that I can listen, I can advocate for, I can promote, and I can champion, but I cannot BE a leader of young adults. I can be a mentor, a counselor, a director, or a shepherd, but I cannot be a young adult any more than I can be a scrambled egg. Do they have all the answers? Will they do better than we did? Are they experienced enough to keep things going? Don’t know. Don’t care. I doubt that Jesus or any of the twelve would be leaders in The United Methodist Church today — they were too young.

        We need to be the church — together. Old, young, very young, and other. But we need to be one body with many EQUAL parts. You know I value your thinking and opinion. We’re probably not too far apart, even if I misspoke. Thanks always for your insights and your comments!

      • With your experience and time with so many younger people, what did they say they are seeking in a church? Why do they not attend or, why do they attend? Did you observe a common theme among the comments, feelings, and emotions?


      • At the risk of oversimplification, there were a few very strong, very clear commonalities. Young people want a safe space to ask questions. They want to journey together, and to be able to apply what they learn in real life settings. They want to make a difference, and not just talk about making a difference. They want to be able to apply intellectual rigor and critical thinking to the issues of faith. They don’t want to judge people, exclude people, indict people, or insult people. They are more interested in conversation and exploration than worship; more interested in service to the community and world than to the institution. They are tired of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and they are almost completely disinterested in churches that spend a lot of money on themselves, that focus on buildings, and that value membership over discipleship.
        I would invite younger people to offer their own insights and answers.

  7. wow Pastor Don. I must apologize before I post this, but I feel like I just got slapped in the face and pushed into my place and so I’m sorry if this is a bit reactionary.

    I am a pastor and one of the younger generations and I happen to love the Book of Discipline and the creedal statements. Many of the younger generations are actually going back to our historical statements and creeds and prayers AND using them alongside good new thoughtful and theologically appropriate music. I don’t need older pastors to teach me how to be the church… Jesus has led me here and we are doing just fine navigating the waters and working on being the church in my community. Now, I absolutely appreciate the wisdom that others bring and their experiences – and I love to listen and learn – but not unless you also are willing to listen and learn about how the world has changed in the last fifty years and how our ministry must also.

    Your rules and boundaries are sometimes just boxes of your own making that have closed you in so much that you can’t see the world around you.

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