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.

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