When will we get tired of playing the numbers game? We have been misled to believe that the answer to all the problems of The United Methodist Church is more people. We don’t care about who these people are or whether they will benefit from being United Methodists — we just want them to swell our rolls and pay our bills. We assumed that new people won’t have the same theological immaturity as current members, that they won’t fuel the senseless squabbles we waste so much of our time and energy on, and that they will be significantly more committed and generous than those we already have. We are doing a less-than-mediocre job with what we’ve got, then we whine that we can’t have more. There is a real sensible value in getting our house in order before we invite new people to come live with us.
We could be pursuing a vision of grace and light and life — to make our world a little bit more like the household of God, but instead we want to make sure we survive at any and all costs. We squander our money on ourselves — millions of dollars spent on poor return-on-investment vanity — with almost no accountability. Certainly we spend a lot of money on good and worthwhile projects, but not as much as we could or should. An analysis of The United Methodist balance sheet reveals where our treasure and our heart truly is — it’s all about us. But “us” is at the heart of our current crisis.
Who is “us?” Us is men and women, clergy and laity, conservatives and liberals and evangelicals and progressives, biblical literalists, Spirit-led prophets and social justice servants, straight, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, old, young, black, white, brown, Asian, Hispanic, African, Caribbean, Latino, urban, suburban, rural, missionaries, Sunday-satisfied pew-sitters, crusaders, mystics, shepherds, bean-counters, risk-takers, visionaries, and malcontents — and instead of celebrating the breadth and depth of our fellowship, we draw dividing lines and encourage segregation, conflict and hate. Each and every “us” dissipates potential positive impact by castigating various and sundry “thems.” Those who claim loudest and longest that they are defending a “biblical integrity” are the most egregious violators of same.
We perpetually use an anti-gospel of death, decay and decline to manipulate people instead of casting a positive vision to motivate. We proclaim to the world that we are shrinking, diminishing, poorly funded, rife with conflict — all excellent messages to attract new members. We do try to counter such witness with some TV spots and webcast videos and some marketing spin, but that’s just slapping a coat of make-up. Many young people see The United Methodist Church as an old maiden aunt who dresses and paints herself up like a teenager — embarrassing at best, pathetic at worst.
To those who have, more will be given. Perhaps the reason we aren’t growing is that we don’t deserve to. Perhaps we need to redeem those ways we have sold out, both big and small. Following the example of our very healthiest churches, we need to focus on identity and purpose, clarifying who we are and why we are here. We need to spend more time in prayerful discernment for vision. We need to revisit and reflect on our mission — it is clear that making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world hasn’t quite caught on. We need to stop trying to be all things to all people, we need to name, confront and heal bad and destructive behaviors. We need to clarify what our real work is, then develop processes for accountability and evaluation to make sure that we are making a positive impact on God’s world. We need to quit talking about “amicable separation” — giving in to immaturity and selfishness — and to model unity and reconciliation in a broken world. We have got to partner with the Spirit of God who breaks down the dividing walls of hostility and is working desperately to help us “grow up” into a healthy body of Christ. Our crisis isn’t financial and it has little to do with numbers. What has been identified as a crisis of relevancy has its roots in integrity and credibility, not attendance and new members. The time has come to reframe and expand our conversation — to rethink our rethinking and critically analyze the actions we are calling the church to address. We seem to have lost our way, and all the defensiveness at the top won’t promote the kind of change necessary for transformation.