The Death of the UMC #explo2011

by dovetailedlife

I’ve had over 63 pages of writing due in the last two weeks.  It’s funny that we often describe Divinity School as “Hell on Earth.”  Currently, I’m tired of writing my theology paper.  Thus, I am taking a break to do this.

I attended Exploration 2011 this weekend in St. Louis.  Exploration is a conference for about 600 young, college-aged, United Methodist adults who are exploring (hence the title) a call into some sort of ministry.  It serves several purposes:

  • Encourage young people to explore their calls into ministry,
  • Explain the ordination process,
  • Educate attendees about different methods and modes of ministry,
  • Provide reflection time in small groups to discuss,
  • Enable UMC young-adults from around to the world to meet each other, converse, worship, and fellowship.
In addition, all of the United Methodist Seminaries (13 in all) were represented by staff and student alike, providing information, sweet giveaways, and advice to potential seminary students.  I’m already a seminary student, but I was not a rep from Duke.  I was an attendee.  But, you know, I wore Duke stuff everyday.
Friday night’s preacher in worship was none other than Adam Hamilton, the pastor of the largest United Methodist church in the world, Church of the Resurrection.  Adam has been promoted through churches like WillowCreek and is easily the best known United Methodist pastor in today’s culture.  He spoke well, clearly, and with passion.  He encouraged young people to truly consider ministry for the good of the Church. If a quick search of the Twitter hashtags “explo2011” says anything, his message reverberated with a large percentage of the attendees that night.
One of Adam’s main focuses: The United Methodist Church’s decline.  It does little good to bore you with insignificant stats that prove this thesis.  Instead, this general point can be made: If the rate of decline in membership in the United Methodist church continues, the UMC will not be in existence in 2050.

Gone. No more.  One of the denominations on which Christian culture was established in the United States will have vanished.

It won’t have been the first time a denomination that has been so influential in our history has declined. Or died.
Adam discussed a crucial point, too.  He admitted that our goal ought not to be to save a denomination, or religious group.  He pointed out, more or less, that our goal should be to make disciples. And, as United Methodists, we believe that the Wesleyan way of discipleship is the best, most effective way to do this.  By reaching into our Wesleyan core (which, from my observations, seems to be – at the most – ambiguously articulated in a majority of UM churches across the globe) we may discover new ways of changing the world through disciples of Jesus. I agree, but I do think that and established church has at least the possibility of bringing this on (This is obviously widely disproved throughout the course of history, but a man has to have a little faith, right?)
I’ll quote Vance Rains here,

Does anyone here, including myself, really know how to save the United Methodist Church?

All I can do, as a new comer to this movement, is observe. I can tell you what I think the church is doing well.  I can definitely tell you what the church is not doing well.

And for me, it seems to be summed up in this: We aren’t skating to where the puck will be.

This phrase is attributed to Wayne Gretsky (though I’m unsure if he actually said it) and was one of the favorites of the late Steve Jobs.  Jobs wanted to move ahead. So, to do that, he moved ahead…taking great ideas from other people and fusing them with his own.  Through this, he innovated and created products people didn’t know they wanted. Like Henry Ford, he created phones without keyboards, tablets without styluses, and computers without disc drives. Ford is claimed to have said, “If I’d have asked the customers, they’d have said they wanted a faster horse.”

But the UMC doesn’t seem to be doing that.  The UMC doesn’t seem to be taking old ideas, mixing them with new ones, and coming out with something effective. The UMC doesn’t seem to be thinking creatively. The UMC doesn’t seem to be not only listening and reading their Wesleyan heritage, but synthesizing it to create something that will serve the needs of the world. No, it doesn’t seem to be doing that.

And that’s ok.  Research In Motion isn’t doing that either. But come five years, they won’t be around.

Wesley was an innovator.  Wesley was clear about what he thought.  Wesley knew of effective ways of maintaining accountability in discipleship.  Wesley knew of positive ways to change the world.  Wesley knew that the power behind religious revival was in a movement. And Wesley should get a lot of credit for thinking differently than many, many others in his time.

I think United Methodists recognize this. And I do think, as a General Church, the UMC is trying to be relevant.

It’s just that our methodology seems a little screwy.

Our version of “relevancy” seems to be based on what the Reformed or evangelical churches are doing. And we, as we always have been, are behind.  Seriously behind. And sometimes we throw resources into the wrong areas.  We staff the wrong places. We don’t always hire the best in the field.

So no wonder our attempts at things are less successful.  We’re creating the hi-PHONE instead of the iPhone.  We’re trying to play contemporary music, but it’s just not…quite…right…yet.

I think it is happening this way: through desperation, we are copying others.  20 years ago, we saw the evangelical denominations growing faster than us. So we decided something had to change.  We waited around for 5 years to make a decision to do so and then we got to work. We started marketing campaigns (I would say, some of the more successful things we’ve done). We started rethinking who we were. Why? Because we saw others do it.  I ask of you: how different are those rethink church commercials, really, than those billboards from non-denominational groups that advertise a “new way to do church”? They’re only different in that they are more socially minded (a good a righteous thing), but our attitude is much the same. “Oh, God, they’re undercutting us by stripping down some of the perceived ridiculousness of our liturgy and system,” we might as well have said.

The funny part is, the ReThink Church commercials are easily one of the best things the Church has done, in my opinion.  I think we’ve called on people to question some things that ought to be questioned.  It just appears to have had little follow through.

Which gets me to my point.  We copy others. AND THAT’S FINE.  But, in our copying, we aren’t thorough.  We write things like “Open Hearts, Open Doors, Open Minds” when large percentages of our church simply don’t believe it. We try to be relevant, but many of our churches are much, much older than other churches.  So, we try to do things in our old buildings that just aren’t practically possible.  And the product of our efforts doesn’t look “cool” like we think it does.  It looks like a cheap knock off. And people, congregants, don’t see authentic worship, they see posers (something our culture is less and less tolerant of everyday).  They see people faking what’s popular.  They see BOBS instead of TOMS.  They see Samsung instead of Apple. We’re ripping off others, and to make it worse…we’re not even doing it well. (At least Samsung stuff still looks good)

Instead, perhaps, maybe we ought to truly rethink church.  Not basing it off of our own social values.  Not basing it off of our own bias.  Not basing it off of our own thoughts.  Not basing it off of our own Scriptural interpretation. Not basing it off of our own political beliefs.  Not basing it off of our own definitions.

Because the Wesley that I read doesn’t seem to have been ripping anybody off. Wesley seems to have been starting something new, incorporating the traditional values, thoughts, concepts, and theological insights of the old tradition to bring about a revival that focused on holiness in discipleship. That movement is what helped influence the Christian culture in America.  And his thoughts were so good, I’m convinced there’s another opportunity, if only we’d wake up.

Picasso said, “Good artists copy.  Great artists steal.”  There’s a huge difference between the two, and I’m unconvinced that the UMC understands that.

So please, let’s not put up a GPS (or phone…we had disagreements about what it was) around the lyrics being projected on the screen unless we’re going to take the time to actually explain it, incorporate it, and usefully employ it. Otherwise, it looks like we saw the evangelical churches using the iPhone theme for their events and thought, “Oh, God, we’re behind.” Which, I’d imagine, is exactly what happened.

If we’re going to do it, we need to do it well.  Otherwise, we’re going to die.

Like Vance, I don’t know what is going to save the church.  But, I do feel as if I’ll know when I see it. And I know this from observation: we can’t keep following everyone else.  We have never been like that as a church and this is an awful time to start. We ought to seriously rethink who we are, where we’re going, and where we’ve been. We make corrections, we synthesize, and we move on…making the best, most faithful decisions we can as fast as we can. And we have to do it throughly, with class, artistry, energy, and resources.  Every detail has to be ironed out so that what we say is cohesive and intentional. And we don’t need to try to be “cool.”  That’ll come to us, if we are who we are and the story is as good as we say it is.  And, friends, it is.

Please, it’s too good of a story not to tell in new and fresh ways. And besides, Jesus is calling us to tell it.

-B

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