Souled Out

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.

26 replies

  1. Maybe I’m young and naieve, or maybe I haven’t been United Methodist long enough to be jaded, but I have to confess: posts like this disappoint me.

    “We perpetually use an anti-gospel of death, decay and decline to manipulate people instead of casting a positive vision to motivate.” I appreciate much of your passion to create more faithful disciples, but I can’t help but feeling like the negativity you’re criticizing is only being reproduced in response. I wonder if a more hope-filled approach would be to feature stories of churches getting it right…in spite of the denominational problems that hamstring some congregations/conferences. I wonder if someone with your experience in the UMC might be well-positioned for discovering and highlighting such stories.

    On getting the house in order: When I was a Baptist teenager, I resisted the idea of inviting my non-Christian friends to anything related to church. I thought that many things in my church needed to be improved before inviting them and introducing them to Jesus.

    I wonder if I missed some opportunities.

    I realize that the UMC has a lot to do in terms of getting its house in order. I realize no church is perfect…but if United Methodists choose not to invite people into their congregations until the congregation or the denomination is “fixed,” we’ll miss golden opportunities to welcome people into the kingdom. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it sounds like you may be saying, “Let’s not worry about connecting new people to our churches until we get more sanctified.”

    I appreciate anyone who genuinely wants to see the Church reformed (“semper reformanda!”), but simply wonder if there’s not a better way to critique and vision cast.

    • Casey,

      Dan’s writings usually instill both a bit of hopelessness but also a glimmer of hope – all at the same time! True Paradox.

    • I wish we could invite people into relationship with God and Jesus Christ instead of simply inviting them to church. But if the church is actually doing a good job, bringing them to church brings them into an environment and atmosphere where God can be experienced and Jesus can be known. Sadly, this is not what people are experiencing in the vast majority of United Methodist churches. I will continue to promote congregations that know who they are, why they exist, are practicing the means of grace, and are dedicated to positive tranformation in the world. Sorry my criticism of settling for mediocrity and passive Christianity disappoint you.

  2. Sure seems like the UMC is spending a ton of time, energy and money treating the symptoms rather than the underlying disease. You are spot on, but I am not sure that our investment in the status quo will allow us to hear you.

  3. quite a rant, with lots of empty criticism (empty because of its vagueness), and is want for constructiveness, what little is offered is even more vague that the criticism. all in all i found nothing of worth in this rant. one question – which are “our healthiest churches” and what is the definition used to determine health???

    as for those who point out that we are broken and dysfunction, i say YES WE ARE that’s why we need Christ

    • Yeah, “hal”, like the people Dan is talking about, I’m sure identity, purpose, prayer, discernment, and vision are pretty vague to you. That’s the problem.

      • Thanks for those words. The other comment strikes me as missing the point — intentionally or otherwise. But I offer my opinion and he offered his. He is entitled to his interpretation, and I do realize that prayer and discernment are perceived as vague and therefore unimportant by a whole lot of people in our church — which is indeed a huge problem. Without prayer and discernment, we cannot understand who we are and why we are here, and any vision we cast will be our own, not God’s. Thus, we use the language of faith as rhetoric to defend how important our own survival is — and we all know how well that’s working out.

  4. The Great Commission calls us to make disciples. Making isn’t a one-time thing. The UMC Discipline uses the word “edify” – to build. If someone comes to us that doesn’t fit our theology or culture, that doesn’t mean we should change or they should change. It means they need to find someplace else to fit. The Great Commission calls us to help them find it, even if it’s not with us. Approaching membership that way might relieve the pressure to be all to all.

    • Yes, i think there is some truth to this. Sometimes the “failure” of losing a person or a family is better described as a “success” at helping those folks find their community.

  5. Yes! Thought you’d like to know that you stirred up a hornet’s nest down here in your old stomping ground. I think you hit a little close to home. Some of the mucky-mucks are fuming, but just know that the majority of us here agree with you and are so grateful that you’re saying what most of us lack the courage to say. The people are upset here not because you’re wrong, but because they know you’re right!

    • Thanks for checking in. I am constantly amazed at the number of bishops, district superintendents, staff of our general boards and agencies, conference staff leaders who write to me personally to thank me for what I write, but feel that — politically — they can’t leave comments on the blog itself. I think I know who you are (I’m not sure), so I realize why you can’t leave your name — some find it dangerous to agree with me publicly. Still, it is deeply gratifying to know how many leaders in our church at least wrestle with the same issues I raise. Once enough come forward to push for radical change, I think good things can happen. I hope it happens sooner than later.

    • Sadly, the evidence is fairly strong that when we work on getting new people into a broken, dysfunctional church, they not only walk away from our churches, but many walk away from all churches. Inviting people into a mess doesn’t clean up the mess, it just spreads it around. I believe we need to get healthier before we get bigger.

      • I have to agreee. I just can’t think of inviting new people into the mess my congregation is in right now. And I know of too many who have walked away who want nothing to do with any organized religion because they have been hurt so badly.

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