This past Saturday I was invited to three UM churches for congregational meetings. I made presentations on the current conflict in our denomination and options they might consider for their future. I met wonderful people who love one another, love their churches, and are committed to their communities. They asked perceptive questions.
They also shared poignant observations about how discouraging it is for United Methodists right now.
One church leader, a layperson, a farmer with obvious energy and enthusiasm about his faith as well as a love for his local church, expressed what I took to be an unusual disappointment for him:
“I try to invite my friends and neighbors to come on Sunday, but honestly, who wants to come to a church fight?”
If you are a part of a United Methodist congregation, whether a member or a friend or a pastor, you probably understand the anxiety, apprehension, and confusion about the future. And you wonder if there is anything you can do about it.
Three Likely Reasons for the Anxiety, Apprehension, and Confusion in Your Local United Methodist Church
Many of us, if we attend worship in person, look around on Sunday morning and wonder, “where did everybody go?”
The data on “in person worship attendance” is mixed, depending upon the information sources, but many congregations have seen a decline of “in person attendance” while at the same time developing a new contingent of people worshiping “online”. The “new Sunday Morning” that developed during the pandemic includes people who have dropped out of church, hopped to another church, remained with their previous church, or transitioned into a newly developing practice often called “non-religious Sunday Morning Gatherings.” This after pandemic chapter is still unclear, untried, and therefore, carries uncertainties about how best to go forward.
By the way, you might be surprised to learn that the Boomer Generation is the most likely to drop out and the Millennial Generation represents the largest increase in worship attendance as the pandemic wanes.
Changes in Church and Spirituality
Though the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated some changes in the established life of local churches, there are underlying dynamics which pre-date the pandemic and continue today. Among these are the increasing average age of United Methodists, the location of our local churches in communities where the population overall is declining, the rising cost of maintaining aging real estate, the increased cost of pastoral leadership and church staff, the unfunded pension liabilities on behalf of retirees, and the cost of the large administrative structure of the United Methodist Church. Further, the future of denominations overall is uncertain. Less formal networks have gained traction for similarly sized congregations, whether something like The Foundry Network for large formerly UM churches or the micro-church movement for networks of “dinner churches” or “marketplace ministries.”
Beyond the congregational challenges, there is the contemporary cultural trend toward self-care spirituality in which we turn away from religious community to one form or another of do-it-yourself soul care. Examples could include yoga, mindfulness, and the sputtering Sunday Assembly Movement. Regarding Jesus as an inspirational example or more like a life coach is substantially different from worshiping and following Jesus as Savior and Lord. Beyond the theological matters, these are essentially different in religious practice, too: DIY spirituality is done largely on your own while “church” is always done together with and accountable to others.
Denominational Conflict Comes Home to Roost in the Local Church
It can be challenging to invite a friend, neighbor, or member of your family to worship because of our ongoing denominational conflict. Most residents of small towns in rural areas, where congregations of various denominational families may have been established for a century or more, have an impression of each church in town even if they are not members or do not attend there. And the word about United Methodists seems to be that we’re in the midst of a major squabble that is splitting the denomination…and it is uncertain where that particular local United Methodist Church on the corner will end up.
People in various settings, whether rural, suburban, or urban, might also be familiar with the substantial differences between orthodox/traditional Christian beliefs and the wandering, I might say rootless, world of progressive spirituality. Though there can be a fair amount of church shopping that goes on in areas where there are a variety of choices, it is well understood that religion actually is not at all like casual browsing because becoming part of a church expects a substantial commitment of “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.” It is a major choice. And people generally aren’t interested in committing themselves to a congregation that hasn’t yet decided what it believes, to whom it is devoted, and for what it exists here and now. Come to worship at a UM church? Maybe after the fight is settled, but not now.
What to do if I am a member, pastor, or leader in a local United Methodist Church right now?
Here are two things you can do immediately to reduce the anxiety and increase the positive anticipation for the future within your church family:
First, decide to decide
Your church board or administrative council or leadership team can move beyond fretting and handwringing by choosing a path for discernment and decision-making. Your church needn’t wait for somebody else to decide. Our denominational leaders have largely abdicated their responsibility to lead and have, unfortunately, thrown the decision to each local church. This is a major failing on the part of United Methodism, but it opens the possibility for your congregation to do its own fact-finding, information-gathering, and prayerful discernment as it chooses a course for your future. Initiating a discernment process that is open, transparent, and accessible to all church members can lead, over several months, to a congregational choice about the local church’s future ministry, viability, and denominational home. Contact us at the Northern Illinois Wesleyan Covenant Association or your District Superintendent for a suggested discernment process as well as informational resources.
Second, take two Bible verses and you’ll feel better by morning (or sooner!)
Okay, I have in mind actually just one Bible verse that can provide relief and direction. Beyond spending time with members of three congregations separately on Saturday, I also experienced God’s blessing in worshiping with a fourth UM congregation on Sunday morning. The initiating reason for worshiping there was to baptize our grandson! That was, and is, like the baptism of the four other grandchildren, a singularly special honor. But we also received a wonderful sermon from the pastor of the church based on a single verse which seems amazingly pertinent for United Methodist members, leaders, pastors, and friend in these days:
“Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.”Acts 9:31
Here are few highlights of this verse:
“Meanwhile…” during a time of oppression, opposition, uncertain, and unexpected developments in the Jesus Mission (see, for example, Acts 8:1-4; 9:1-2; 9:22-25; 28-30)
“Judea, Galilee, and Samaria…” the region of cities like Jerusalem, as well as villages in the rural countryside like Galilee, and areas of religiously mixed, sometimes adversarial, populations like Samaria.
“The church was built up…” You wouldn’t expect that, given the situation in which the church found itself, would you?
“Increased in numbers…” You wouldn’t expect that either…the church was strengthened and increased in numbers of people!
How did this happen?
Two spiritual dynamics of the church people are highlighted:
They lived “in the fear of the Lord.” You might think of this as simply wanting to keep God at arm’s length because God is frightful, scary, or mean. But this phrase throughout the Bible generally means “living in reverence and respect of the Lord.” Aligning my attitudes, thinking, actions, and desires according to God’s Word is living “in the fear of the Lord.” This is living by the first of the Ten Commandments: No other God before the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.
And they experienced the “comfort of the Holy Spirit.” This living by God’s Word isn’t a set of legalistic rules or moral maxims that I adopt and achieve on my own. It is living in relationship with the Holy Spirit that brings assurance of our adoption into God’s family and our security in God’s love (see Romans 8:15,16). That is a wonderful foundation for confident living in uncertain times.
How About You and Your Local Church?
Despite the swirling changes around and within the church, perhaps it is time for your church to decide. Take your bearing from Acts 9:31 and head for a future of fruitful ministry.
If you like reading about attendance data and assessing some new opportunities for your congregation going forward, here you go:
For a high-level overview of large-scale challenges impacting the viability of the United Methodist denomination, see:
For some background on the Sunday Assembly Movement
The Foundry Network is a group of large churches that have disaffiliated from the UMC and are developing an association for mutual accountability and support. The network is launching in September and currently includes:
- Asbury Church in Huntsville, AL
- The Story Church in Houston, TX
- Christ Church in Fairview Heights, IL
- Mt. Bethel Church in Marietta, GA
- The Orchard Church in Tupelo, MS
- Granger Community Church in Granger, IN
For a brief introduction to the burgeoning wave of micro churches, see this overview from our sisters and brothers in New Zealand.