I may get blasted on this. That’s okay. I am sharing almost twenty years of similar responses here, and I think we — especially clergy — need to listen. Laity across the United Methodist Church are sending four messages loud and clear: prayer, stewardship, evangelism and Bible are NOT being taught in our churches. We are assuming that people know these things. Yet, it is clear that our church is in danger of extinction because these four things (at the very least) are not being taught. In our fever to grow, get new people, build more buildings, pay our bills, and keep up with the newest 7 Steps, 12 Keys, 40 Days programs we have drifted from the basics. We have cultivated a Christian culture of biblically illiterate, nominally connected, scarcity-minded, non-evangelicals.
In Wisconsin I have continued to ask the same questions I did across the denomination for the 14+ years I worked for the General Board of Discipleship. Essentially, I ask lay people how well equipped they are to grow in their spirituality and their discipleship. The vast majority do not remember the last time anyone taught about prayer in the church. Most cannot remember the last time anyone encouraged them to pray. Many are aware that there is a “prayer circle” or “prayer chain” in their church, but they don’t know how it works. Four-out-of-five United Methodists can’t tell you the difference between intercessory prayer, confession, petition, and they don’t know what a doxology or benediction are. Small matter? Maybe, but they are indicators of the more fundamental issue. United Methodists don’t pray much at all. Over 50% don’t think prayer is very important to their faith, and as indicated in an earlier post, many simply are “too busy” to pray on a regular basis. Almost 40% admit that they really “don’t know how to pray” or don’t know “if I do it right.”
As to the Bible, I’m not just talking about Bible study, but the basics. Over one-third of United Methodist adults cannot name the four gospels, and a slightly larger percentage don’t know what a “gospel” is. If you ask a congregation of United Methodists to turn to a passage in I Corinthians, the most asked question in response is “Is that in the Old or New Testament?” Almost 40% of United Methodists believe that Jesus wrote some of the New Testament. Very few know how many books there are in the Bible or how our canon came to be. Two-in-five believe that the Hebrew scriptures are “about Jesus.” When asked to identify whether characters are from the Old or New Testaments, the majority of UMs are flummoxed. We’re not talking seminary level education here — we’re talking second grade.
Evangelism — faith sharing — witnessing. These things (especially the word/concept “evangelism”) leave a bad taste in many UMs mouths. The majority of UMs believe either that “a person’s faith is a personal and private matter,” or that they “have no right to impose their beliefs on other people.” However, these attitudes extend to merely sharing beliefs and faith experiences. United Methodists basically compartmentalize their faith — they have a “church life” and a “real life,” and never the twain shall meet. Where UMs do share their faith is with other UMs. Forty-five percent of church-goers claim that they don’t know anyone who doesn’t already go to church or believe in God. This is an outrageous idea. We meet hundreds of people in a week, and statistically a large portion of them do not have any faith affiliation, and at least a small segment are open to an invitation. We don’t share faith for two basic reasons: 1) we don’t want to, and 2) no one is teaching us how to do it.
Stewardship — and I am not just talking about putting money in a collection plate at church — is a poor cousin to evangelism. We don’t talk stewardship outside the church, but we don’t talk it much inside either. And if we do talk it inside, we reduce it to some insipid campaign to fund a budget instead of teaching a rich, edifying, transformative way of living in the world. Stewardship is putting our discipleship in action. It is everything we do as followers of Jesus Christ. it is the decisions we make about what we will do and not do, what we will support and not support, purchase and not purchase, consume and not consume, say and not say. Stewardship is the way we live our lives. Stewardship is the outward and visible expression of our most deeply held values. Find twenty United Methodists who understand this definition of Christian stewardship and I’ll give you a dollar (because I am cheap… but even then I don’t think I will have to pay up!). No, the few references we make to stewardship are on behalf of the church’s need to pay its bills, not as a means of spiritual growth and development for the members of the body of Christ.
And here’s the kicker: 6-out-of-10 United Methodists say they would be “very interested” and another 2-out-of-10 say they would be “interested” in being taught how to do these four things better. Yep, 80% of the people in our pews — from the most deeply engaged to those who show up when convenient — say they want to learn to pray, to learn more about the Bible, to learn how to talk about their faith, and how to be better stewards. Yet, the same percentage say they aren’t being taught. Hmmm. Dots, waiting to be connected? A path into the future? A way of building God’s church? Too easy? Maybe it’s worth a try.