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. I wonder if you’re trying to suggest that the DeLong case is a “senseless squabble.”

    In case that isn’t part of the point, I will say that I agree that we can over-emphasize numbers and growth. But, people like you still expect to get paid in United States currency. Getting that requires a lot of attention to numbers and growth.

    It is true that constantly bemoaning our current state isn’t very attractive. Certainly many of us have learned that desperation isn’t an aphrodisaic!

    Also that our general agencies’ agendas often operate as cross-purposes to making disciples. Our friends at Religion and Race decided to join BMCR to issue a statement that The UMC’s hiring and firing are racially motivated and acting to disadvantage racial/ethnic persons because the decrease in racial/ethnic persons was about the same as the decrease in whites. It was even said that may be a reason why The UMC hasn’t grown more diverse. This was put out before last Easter!!

    One might think that if someone from a racial minority within the USA is told that a particular group isn’t friendly that they aren’t going to take it upon themselves to join that group. Especially for a church, why join just to be aggravated???

    • We both know that justice issues about real, live human beings are never “senseless squabbles.” Those who live in the love of Christ never reduce such important relationships and values in such narrow-minded ways. The continued injustices against minorities — whether racial or sexual — will be the litmus test as to whether we truly love God or not.

  2. I am trying to figure out where I would fit in this discussion. I was at a finance committee meeting where the mentality of the discussion was about what expenses to cut so that the church could meet its budget.

    Not once has there ever been a discussion of bringing new people in. I am starting a new ministry in the church for the summer. It was a private goal but now, because I stated it in the meeting, it is a public goal to bring 25 people into the church by summer’s end.

    Yes, if I am successful, it will resolve some of the financial issues the church is facing. But I am also looking at the fact that we need new individuals in the church. Will these new individuals know what Methodism is about; will they truly know what Christianity is about? I don’t know if they will or not but if they don’t, then we will find ways to teach them (and that’s another ministry that’s beginning).

    For whatever reason, if we don’t seek new members, then any other discussion will be mute.

  3. A positive outlook always helps when a person is ill, but it’s not always the complete solution. Sometimes medicine is needed. Sometimes surgery. When a person gets very depressed, the illness can deepen and even lead to death – even though the person may well find healing if they held on a bit longer…

    Treating only the symptoms may provide a small amount of relief, but will never be the cure. Rather, one must determine the actual illness, the depth of that illness, and treat it appropriately – medicine, surgery, time…

    Could we not apply the same ideas to the church? It seems like we’re always treating the symptoms. We can do a lot of great things, we can help a number of others, but we can miss the illness and never find true health. “Souled Out” is a great title – we often act like we’ve lost our soul.

    In one church, we had a breakfast club for elementary children, but we refused to tell them the reason we were doing it was because Jesus loves them and so do we. Instead, we were merely a social program. The program ended with much anger, pain, and grief. We were doing the program only to pat each other on the back and feel like we did something worthwhile and good – and it was – but it was without soul.

    A recent weekend prayer study was poorly attended. the folks who were there grew in their understanding of the power of prayer and practiced a number of ways to increase and strengthen their prayer lives.

    One young friend describes one local congregation as “organized chaos.” He refuses to attend because he feels very much like Creed’s last sentence – “why join just to be aggravated?”

    There are folks within the UMC who are striving to make a difference – but they often get pushed aside, ignored, discredited, even slandered. Some of our “illness” is cleary seen when folks have to hide their identity because of the possible backlash. And when we spend a lot of money to “market” the insitution… we’re missing the boat.

    “And I, when I am lifted up[a] from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:32 NIV

  4. Struggling to hang on, husband voiced the same concerns, but not as fluently as he has PTSD. He was told to leave until he was better. He did, withdrawing his membership. Looking for another church/denom currently.”For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”LK 23:31

  5. I wonder if people who expend such great energy defending the status quo would channel a small portion to building something positive, if we wouldn’t see a massive shift in the value and impact of our UMC. I am so privileged to serve with people who are trying to make the church better rather than merely bigger. I am perplexed by those who staunchly defend what the church is doing so ineffectively and do not want to do the hard work that is required to redeem and reform a church undermined by cultural values of power, property, and prestige.

  6. In college sociology many years ago, i think i learned about how conflict can be a unifying factor IF a group divides differently on the range of issues. If a group always divides into the same two or three factions, then division is clearly ahead. [See http://www.beyondintractability.org/booksummary/10142/ ] for a more scholarly discussion.

    ISTM that we (in The UMC) are getting so rigid that we are not finding those opportunities to “agree to disagree” or to break down those walls of hostility or to grow in Christ. We just keep defending our own turf.

    On a lighter note, i’m so glad that in America’s Dairyland with its remaining family farms, you chose to speak of “slapping makeup on” rather than putting lipstick on a pig.

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