United Methodists Wanting to… What?

The United Methodist Church… wants to… what?  This is a question I asked for years when I worked for the General Board of Discipleship and travelled across the country.  I let people fill in the blank, then pressed to be sure I understood what they meant.  I came upon a notebook in which I recorded answers from 1994 through 2006. 

 The answers changed very little, and four answers topped all others.

  1. to make disciples of Jesus Christ (for the transformation of the world) — for many, this is the standard company line — a restatement of our “official” mission.  But this is a hope and dream of a very small segment of the church.  The dedication and discipline necessary for true discipleship doesn’t fit with most modern American lifestyles.  People not big on sacrifice or self-control don’t find much attractive about Christian discipleship.  A large number of pastors feel that expecting people to be disciples is unfair and unreasonable.  More often the answer given to what we want from the church is…
  2. help people live a good, decent life.  For the majority of people I talk to, the Christian faith is all about them.  This is not meant as a value judgement, but as a statement of fact.  People come to church for themselves — to learn, to grow, to feel better, to be encouraged, to be cared for, to find guidance, and to seek inspiration.  Most pastors are perfectly fine with this.  This is what they were trained to do in seminary, and this is what they believe most people want from them.  Expectations are kept in check, and people can get from the church what they want and need.  The sense of obligation is fairly low here, but most of these people are happy if their church is trying to…
  3. make the world a better place.  The vast majority of United Methodists are proud of their church and they want it to do good work in the world.  They like the fact that we fight malaria and respond to natural disasters.  They love it when we create big, successful churches, and launch new ministries.  The denominational identity still holds some power for an ever-diminishing number of members.  We believe in our church, but many look to the church to do it for them — they aren’t much interested in doing the work themselves through the church (apart from the money they put in the collection plate).  These three answers all hold a little more hope than the fourth — one where about a quarter of all pastors and lay people say,
  4. I don’t understand the question…  A significant number of UMs aren’t really sure what the church is or what the church is for.  They don’t think in terms of what the church should DO.  As long as the church is there for them when they want it, they don’t give it much thought.  They would miss the church if it disappeared, but they would find another one, but ultimately they don’t think the church matters that much one way or another.  They like what they get from the church, but there isn’t a strong sense that the world is a better place because there are so many churches.  Some pastors report that it is “just a job,” of that they are putting in time “until retirement.”  Some like preaching or teaching, but they don’t like other aspects of “the job.”  Laity chime in with various opinions on why the church shouldn’t get involved in social or community issues.

To look at the four sets of answers, I guess my most objective summary would be that the majority of United Methodists today want a church to fulfill their personal hopes and dreams.  About 10% are seeking some kind of instruction and structure for discipleship.  About a third like the weekly infusion of church — music, preaching, fellowship, Sunday school or Bible study — that makes their lives feel more rounded and balanced.  About 40% want the church to give them what they want when they want it, but don’t give it much thought the rest of the time.  And about fifteen percent don’t really know what they want or even if they want or need the church at all.

In my own singular, personal opinion, I think this is why we, as a denomination, need to reevaluate our mission statement.  I don’t think the majority of UMs have any real interest in discipleship, and I don’t think the vast majority of our church leaders are trying to “make disciples” or “transform the world.”  Oh, there are literally hundreds of thousands of United Methodists who do want this — but sadly these are not the people we are trying to serve or keep happy.  Too many of the UMs not interested in discipleship control too many of the churches resources, so we can’t afford to take all this too seriously.  I hope that we can find ways to resource those for whom the practices of personal devotion and the Wesleyan means of grace are important, and that we don’t continue to lose the most committed and concerned as they grow disillusioned with the low expectations we continue to embrace.

One glimmer of hope, though not for the denomination, is that these disillusioned disciples are beginning to find each other.  More and more exciting and inspirational small communities are forming to do incredible ministry all across the country.  New faith for new people in new places is changing the landscape of the United States, and hopefully we will learn from it before it is too late.

8 replies

  1. My observation – perhaps wrong – is the only way this will change is if we set a denominational goal to shrink significantly over the next several years. Without serious pruning, the denomination cannot be a place where disciples are made.

    How many churches would see significant membership declines if they started taking membership and baptismal vows at face value?

    Growth might come after the pruning, but I’m not persuaded that we can grow out way out of the problem without some serious retrenchment first.

    I may be wrong. I’m a fairly cowardly preacher who is more worried about closing down his small church than following through on these blustery words.

    • Years and years ago, I divided the “average” UM congregation into five levels of participation (The Cosmology of Church Participation, from Revolutionizing Christian Stewardship). I called them The Solar Center, the Inner Planets, the Asteroid Belt, the Outer Planets, and The Lost in Space. Solar Center = 10-15% of the most dedicated and serious, Inner Planets = 10-15% of those in “sponge mode,” there to soak up all they can to learn and deepen the faith, the Asteroid Belt = those who attend church on a regular basis and maybe a Sunday school class, Outer Planets = Easter & Christmas Christians, and the Lost in Space = inactives, moved away, deceased, etc. The point I made then, and the point I keep making, is that the transformative church of Jesus Christ exists at the center, but that is not the church we work hard to support. We use the Solar Center to prop up a more comfortable setting for Asteroids, all the time keeping our eye out for Inner Planets that we can draw into our Solar Center gravitational field — so they can serve the Asteroid Belt.

      The real point is that these are five different churches with five different sets of expectations. There is no single sermon, no one book, no pertinent message that speaks to all five levels equally. So, who we tailor our messages and ministries to determines what kind of church we are. Once numbers became so important to The United Methodist Church, there was no way we could focus on the Solar Center… or even the Inner Planets. The sheer mass of the outer levels — 70-80% of UM membership and participation — means they call the shots. Good/bad, right/wrong, doesn’t much matter. It is what it is, and structurally we have no real interest in changing it. None of the healthiest churches in our denomination got healthy without substantial pruning (except for those who had lost so many members first that there was nowhere to go but up). Interestingly, all of them began to grow again — there are few things more inviting than a community that is truly counter-cultural.

  2. You might be right, John. Since so many of our churches are tied to their own cash black holes (buildings), a loss of (non-disciple) members would likely result of buildings. Though they are nice to have, they do seem to more often impede the discipleship process by sapping energy and focus.

  3. It seems to me that the “official mission statement” – taken, of course, from the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his disciples should serve as our goal, our call, not necessarily as a description of what we currently are.

    If we are not currently making disciples of Jesus – which in many cases we are not – the mission statement should call us to re-evaluate our church life, rather than our church life forcing us to re-evaluate the mission statement.

  4. I think that many become entrenched in answer 2, help people live a good and decent life. In fact they rewrite it so it reads that the church is to provide for THEIR comfort and care. they shut out the making disciples part of the mission statement, worrying only about themselves. A protectionist mode is assumed and we only worry about our own survival.
    I love roses, and raise them. One thing I have learned is that at times brutal pruning cuts must be made io the plant to encourage greater more vibrant growth. I know where to make these cuts on the plant; trimming dead wood and spent flowers, but the church cannot be trimmed in the same fashion on a large scale, because what one would deem as dead wood to another is a vital part of life.

  5. The problem comes in that conflict is inevitable. When we look at whether people come to church for themselves (2’s) vs becoming disciples of Jesus Christ (1’s), what we are really talking about is whether this is the people’s church or God’s church. Who is being served? God or the people?

    If the focus of the church is to serve the people, make them feel good, inspire them, teach them, then one must ask who does this? Who serves the people, the 2’s? They expect the 1’s to do that. and this is where the conflict arises, when those who are at church to be served expect those that are there to serve God, to do everything for them also. And eventually the 1’s, those that are trying to be disciples of Jesus Christ, figure out they are no longer serving God, but the church. They get burned out, frustrated and leave. Their numbers dwindle, as they move on to try and find a better way to serve.

    Then who does the work? The 2’s? Don’t count on it. They are at church to be served! And if they aren’t being served, they will move on also, to the latest fad, entertainment, feel good experience, where their needs are taken care of. And eventually the church dies. It takes a long time in the Methodist system as we shuffle pastors delaying the reactions “maybe the new pastor will straighten out this mess”.

    So what if the focus of the chruch is reversed? Creating disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World? The 1’s stay. They don’t get burned out, and frustrated, because they are doing what they feel they must do, serve God. Yes many of the 2’s will leave, because they are no longer the focus. But that is going to happen anyway. And what about the 3’s? Well I think you would find that many of them are leaning more towards being disciples then sitting in the pews being entertained. Eventually the church will prune itself and then bloom and blossum anew. Oh, occasionally a major branch will have to be hacked off with all the clammer of Hasqavarna Chain Saw cutting through an ATM Machine. But I think you will find this is rare.

    And when you think about, what happened around 2000 years ago? Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, and railed against those in the “church” that were putting themselves before God. And they nailed him to a cross for that. And who is it we worship today?

    Just some thoughts of a lay person, still trying to figure this all out, Just sayin…… Have a Blessed Holy Week all!

  6. Matthew 7:13-14 “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention.”

    Our culture is looking for those shortcuts, and often expects our government to provide them. “Make mine and easy life…” What happened to “take up your cross daily to follow me?” How about, “They’ll know you are my disciples if you have love one for another?” Discipleship isn’t easy, nor should it be cheap. But that is often what we see – even in the large, “mega-church” that seem to catch the headlines.

    Want to be a follower of Jesus? Count the cost, and determine you’re willing to pay the price. Then we’ll make a difference.

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