ARLINGTON, Va.—Diana Butler Bass and Mike McCurry gave separate talks to the United Methodist Association of Communicators, but they seemed to be singing off the same hymn page, at least as far as the challenges facing mainline denominations.
Both Dr. Bass, a religion scholar and author of popular books about Christianity, and Mr. McCurry, former presidential press secretary and a highly involved United Methodist, referenced a new Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study showing Protestants have fallen below 50 percent of the U.S. population for the first time.
“We’re living in a time of spiritual climate change,” said Dr. Bass.
Mr. McCurry agreed.
“This is a historic breakpoint,” he said, noting a sharp increase in the number of Americans who say they have no religious identification.
The United Methodist Association of Communicators (UMAC) consists of conference, agency and church communicators, as well reporters and editors who cover the UMC.
The group has an annual meeting that includes speeches, workshops and an awards banquet. This year’s event was held Oct. 17-20 at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City hotel in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington, D.C.
Dr. Bass acknowledged to her UMAC audience that she grew up a United Methodist, but ultimately found another denomination.
“I did a reverse John Wesley,” she said. “I became an Episcopalian.”
Dr. Bass holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University and is the author of the recent book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awareness.
She said one of her earlier books, Christianity for the Rest of Us, amounted to something of a “weather report,” and was criticized by some for being too optimistic, given that it focused on specific mainline churches that had bucked the trend of decline.
While maintaining that weather reports are necessary, she said her new book looks at the climate change she feels is underway in religion.
Dr. Bass said that in 1959, about two-thirds of Americans identified as Protestants. By 2007, Pew found that percentage had dropped to 53, and this year’s Pew survey had Protestants slipping into a minority.
“We’ve been blabbing about pluralism for quite some time, but we never had it,” Dr. Bass said.
Dr. Bass also noted that one “false story” believed by many is that the mainline denominations are alone in losing members in the U.S. She said white evangelical groups, including the Southern Baptists, face their own struggles, and added that Catholics have had to rely on immigration to keep their numbers up.
But surveys also show a persistently high interest in spirituality. Dr. Bass said that while she can be “equally as captured by fear and anxiety as the next person” by declining church statistics, the larger picture tells her to take heart.
“I think that we’re living in a time of great awakening,” she said. “I can see this renewal of faith and spirituality.”
Telling the story
Mr. McCurry came to fame as press secretary for President Bill Clinton, but has long been active in United Methodist life. He twice was a delegate to General Conference (though not in 2012), and serves on the board of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
He’s a student there as well, pursuing a master of theological studies degree. And he’s active at St. Paul’s UMC in Kensington, Md.
Mr. McCurry said he sees the nation’s political system and the organized church as being similarly dysfunctional, with both struggling to reach young people.
Indeed, his short list of recommendations for the UMC includes a major new focus on youth ministry, as well as directing 90 percent of church expenditures toward evangelistic efforts, reaching people who aren’t currently attending church.
Mr. McMurry, a strategist for a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm and co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, noted that the UMC has a good story to tell, including its successful effort to lower the death rate from malaria.
But he said the denomination must have a stronger commitment to communicating its work in the world.
“Unless you communicate like you mean it, people are not going to get the message,” he said. “You know you’ve got a message that works when you get sick and tired of it.”
Mr. McMurry said the bishops in particular need to master 21st-century communications.
“These bishops think communication is giving sermons,” he said. “I don’t think they have a clue, most of them.”
Heart and skills
The Butler and McMurry talks occurred at the convention hotel. UMAC members went by bus to Washington, D.C., where they toured the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. There they worshipped in the chapel, and had a lunch address by Erin Hawkins, top executive of the UMC’s General Commission on Religion and Race.
She spoke of the need for “intercultural competency” within the UMC as it operates within an increasingly diverse world.
“A right heart is an important start,” she said. “But that has to be met with some skills.”
UMAC members also toured Washington’s Mount Vernon Place UMC, a historic church that has lately made a comeback, in part through creative outreach, such as a shower ministry for the homeless.
Wesley Theological Seminary is in partnership with Mount Vernon Place UMC and nearby Asbury UMC, to give students experience in urban ministries.