Two true prophets of United Methodism are Len Sweet and Lovett Weems. Both cut their teeth in what many people would consider cultural back eddies: West Virginia and Mississippi. Both are being ridiculed in some quarters as prophets of doom because, standing on the bridge of the Titanic, they see what the captain in the control room denies: the iceberg. Both use “tsunami” as a possible demographic fate looming for United Methodism. Both are prescient and need to be heard in every local United Methodist church.
I am not qualified to question recent decisions of the Judicial Council that have negated the action of General Conference regarding its overwhelming judgment that we can no longer afford guaranteed appointment. I do not have the legal mind to question their decision to overrule the overwhelming majority of the South Central Jurisdiction delegates who believed they had both the reason and right to not re-appoint an elected bishop. However, one must take pause when a denomination develops a culture in which grassroots leadership feels overruled by hierarchical authority.
Twenty years ago, a California-based company surveyed United Methodism regarding connectional apportionments. Of the options for defining the word “apportionment,” the majority chose “franchise tax.” Since that survey, thousands of churches of all denominations have found that the least important factor in attracting new members is the denominational identity sign on the lawn. So if apportionments are the cost of hanging out the denominational sign and that sign is no longer an asset, more and more people might ask, “Why pay the “franchise tax?” Are we paying for a regulation that has become an albatross? In a recent interview, Len Sweet said, “There can be no role for a denomination that tries to regulate its pastors and churches. No one wants to pay to be regulated; they will pay for resources.”
We all know that most print media are fighting an uphill battle for readership in the Internet and e-reader era. However, there is a disturbing underlying message in the decision of the United Methodist Publishing House to close all Cokesbury stores. Does this not have some linkage to the shrinking loyalty of United Methodist people to buy from our denominational resource center? Does it not also indicate that there are fewer students in Sunday School?
For cost and enrollment issues, Saint Paul School of Theology, one of our 13 seminaries, is leaving its campus and moving into a local church. What a tsunami sign there is in this action! The seminary’s trustees blame loss of members in Midwestern states for a resulting reduction of persons hearing God’s call to ministry and enrolling at Saint Paul.
Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, based at Wesley Theological Seminary, speaks often of the impending “death tsunami” that will severely cripple the attendance and giving base of United Methodism. Many tend to dismiss Dr. Weems’ research as negativism. They point to the handful of growing churches among our 37,000. Reality is that Dr. Weems does not want to be right, but his research data force him to tell the truth.
We have lost a net of 650,000 members in the United States in the first 11 years of this century, continuing a long trend of decline. Yet when this writer designed a program of comprehensive church growth in 1989 and 30 annual conferences had launch events for “Vision 2000,” critics called the strategy a numbers game that they refused to play. In most conferences, the leading clergy in the largest churches said, “Include me out.” The word “comprehensive” meant we must grow “deeper in spirituality, outward in missional service, together in koinonia fellowship, and more in numbers.” Yet the strategy was called “gimmickry” and “simplistic” and swept aside by the General Board of Discipleship staff.
I remember so well when Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, retired president of Bethune-Cookman University, tried to convince the General Council on Ministries in Dayton that Vision 2000 might be a key to church growth. She took me to dinner with the man in charge of looking for a program to present to the 1996 General Conference. His response was, “I refuse to support any program that quantifies my ministry.” His state once had the highest percentage of Methodist/EUB membership ratio to the general population of any state. Since the early 1990s it has sadly been “de-quantified” year after year since his “prophetic leadership” refused to support a priority on numerical growth.
The rising tide of the economy until 2008 enabled many marginal churches to eke out a loyal payment of apportionments and an entry-level “minimum” salary package for clergy. Now giving is down and church budgets are being reduced. For larger churches, this means reduction of staff. For marginal churches, it may mean the tsunami has arrived.
Relatively unnoticed has been another bit of Titanic-like evidence. The loyal United Methodists supporting their church budget have been growing older and older. Deaths exceed professions of faith in the overwhelming majority of our churches. Indeed almost no church goes without funerals each year, but thousands have no professions of faith or baptism of youth and adults. The baptism of infants often involves young parents getting back to their church roots: but only long enough to have the baby sprinkled. The family does not become part of the local church.
In her very important recent book, Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass notes of the declining mainline churches, “The anxiety is such that some may well think it the end times.” But she argues that what’s really happening may just be “the end of a particular set of patterns organizing church, theology and religious life.” She writes that what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “garment” of faith could be falling apart, leading to something more authentic.
Who was it who said you could not put new wine into old wineskins? Was that not Jesus? Is the Judicial Council and the vast underlayment of connectional controls an old wineskin?
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.