SMU chaplain: The United Methodist Church is imploding

By Stephen W. Rankin, Special Contributor…

I just finished teaching in the certification class at Perkins School of Youth Ministry. To the whole group last Monday and to the class members throughout the week, I said several hard things about the future.

One of the hard things I said was, “The United Methodist Church is imploding.”  Two qualifying statements as I start:

1.  We normally think of an implosion happening very quickly, like a building wired with dynamite to drop vertically into a heap in a matter of seconds.  Obviously, United Methodism’s demise is taking place far more slowly.  But if we could watch a building’s implosion at the rate of a frame a second, we might be able to imagine…

2.  I honestly feel bad – even disloyal – making such gloomy claims, because I truly admire denominational leaders who are working as hard and as smart as they can to help us adjust – bishops and agency executives and directors.  They love Jesus, the church and our mission.  They are intelligent, committed disciples. Not one thing I say in this column suggests anything but utmost respect for their courageous efforts.  I am not aiming a veiled criticism at any one person.  I am trying to focus on the big picture, recognizing that  within that big picture I can find beautiful exceptions to the trend.

In spite of worthy efforts, our church still suffers a discouraging inertia.  There is something eerily mystifying about how hard people work and how little we accomplish.  And when it comes to young people, we continue to make glaring mistakes.  In a subsequent column, I’ll get to some specifics on that point.  For example, I’ll talk about the treatment young candidates get from far too many committees and boards of ordained ministry.

But that’s for later.  Right now, I want to name our lack of imagination. Remember Ray Stevens’ lyric: “There is none so blind as he [sic] who will not see.”

Even though we talk as if we recognize the prospect of complete collapse, for too many of us seem unable to imagine it actually happening.  A future without a United Methodist Church?  Really?  Back in the day, I’m sure a lot of people thought the Southwest Conference (I am in Texas, after all) would be around as long as there was college football.  Whether we openly state it or not, we seem to think that the UM Church exists by metaphysical necessity.  It does not.  It exists by the will of God and the faithful witness of God’s people.

Bill Cosby, as Dr. Huxtable, was known to say to his TV children, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.”  It was funny.  We could laugh because we knew he wouldn’t do it.  Obviously, I don’t intend to press this analogy very far, but what if we realized that God can, and might, and maybe has – at least for a time – removed the glory from us?  Are we Ichabod?  Maybe God is taking us out a little bit at a time, through our own intellectual and moral turpitude.

The disappearance of a church has happened before, and in large-scale ways.  Philip Jenkins’ book The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia–and How It Died, (HarperOne, reprinted in 2009), is a very instructive read.  He chronicles the death of the once and thriving church in places like North Africa (home of St. Augustine) and Iraq.  There, the church has essentially disappeared.

We must grapple with the distinct possibility that the same thing could happen in the United States.  Not tomorrow.  Not next year.  But over time.  Yes, Robert Putnam (American Grace) and others remind us that Americans are still by comparison exceedingly religious, even Christian.  And yes, even with the increasing number of “nones.”  Yes, I know all that.  But what direction are we (still) headed?  And what does it mean for the United Methodist Church?

As a number of our leaders have pointed out, within ten years at least half of our clergy leaders will retire or reach retirement age.  Financially, we have all but exhausted our reserves.  We have reached our limits.  Institutionally, we are dying.

That is our future.  Unless we change.  Modifying structures is necessary.  God bless the leaders who are paying attention to this challenge.  But vastly far more is needed than fixing structures.  We need a new vision.   And it must include young people far more organically and enthusiastically than it does at the moment.  Stay tuned.

Dr. Rankin is chaplain of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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19 Comments on "SMU chaplain: The United Methodist Church is imploding"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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2 months 2 days ago

From an outside position I see the demise of the Methodist church and other similar ones — Episcopal, Presbyterian, and possibly Lutheran — as inevitable. Young people today want either a highly emotional church or none at all. Evangelicals and atheists are growing. Rational youth are rejecting the absurdities of the Old Testament, and the church with it. Emotional, non-thinking youth are going where the excitement is. A sedate, well-behaved congregation puts them to sleep by calling to neither need.

Rev Char
2 months 4 days ago

This professor could not possibly know or speak for the 1000s of churches out in the great blue yonder who have laypeople and pastors making a difference in their communities. I agree with the person who questions why the writer has a place of authority to be teaching the future leadership of the church. Paul in his letters spoke to young churches about their foibles and wrong-turns, yet he believed Christ’s message would continue through these churches. For those who said they left the church because one preacher was in left field with his preaching, and another because the blood… Read more »

Bro. Bob Cooper
2 months 5 days ago

So it is imploding – what can we do about it? I do not want to speak of “red flags” that garner much of our attention away from the fact that we need to be soul winners for the Kingdom! Too many want to sit on past accomplishments when the church was at its optimum place late 60’s early 70’s. Now we measure growth by having other denominations join us and thus weaken our stance, weaken our structure. The emphasis needs to be on how to disciple young born again Christians and send them out to win souls for the… Read more »

2 months 5 days ago

Truly food for thought! Often we are blinded by what is transpiring, largely due to the fact we are engaged in other activities — fruitful and otherwise. Sometimes we misinterpret what we actually see happening, attributing it to the slow demise of the older generation. Many of our “new recruits” (when we have them) tend to be less than 100% committed to the cause of Christ: less conscientious in serving, giving, participating in worship on a weekly basis. Even the esteemed Barna Institute has revised its markers on church attendance, showing stats which indicate “regular” attendance as once a month… Read more »

2 months 6 days ago

If the leaders and people of the United Methodist Church were as concerned about reaching out to unbelievers, introducing them to Jesus, and discipling them as followers of Jesus as they are about preserving the institution of the UMC, there would be rejoicing, not concern. The above conversation seems focused on methodology, growing a larger church in our own strength. We need to lift up Jesus, not the UMC. Otherwise we are of no particular value to anyone.

2 months 6 days ago

How very true; but the leadership is in fact, at fault: shortsighted, stubborn, unwilling to seek or take counsel from any other point of view other than their own, rampant arrogance and narcissism that goes unchallenged and uncorrected, the ‘good ole pastors’ club, emotionally, mentally, and behaviorally ill pastors whose issues and victims get swept under the carpet, lip service about ministry to youth, exclusion of persons for differences, a mentality of Roman Law and not the law of love…on and on, I fear.

2 months 6 days ago

Hello, and thank you for writing this article. I am 32 years old, was raised in the UMC, and served in my church for 15 years. Because of other life changes I moved to Nashville, but I have not rejoined the UMC. I have read many articles from men and women like yourself who have spoken about the need to reach young people, and I have personally had this conversation with members and leaders of my church when I was there, especially as a young leader in the youth ministry and later as the youth director. If I may, I… Read more »

2 months 5 days ago


Robert C. Peurifoy
2 months 6 days ago

This is the first time I have seen this blog and find it quite accurate. There will always be a United Methodist Church, but it will be very different. in 1990 the top ten churches in my conference were all “Old First Church.” Mainly downtown, urban, wealthy churches. By 2000 over half the top ten Churches in the conference were start up congregations less than 10 years old using contemporary worship and teaching Pastors. There will always be a place for traditional worship as it is all some, even young families have ever known. But the post Beatles generation, the… Read more »

2 months 6 days ago

Oh my, how out of touch you seem to me. ‘Perspective bias’ is a profound error among clergy.

2 months 6 days ago

Thank you for your bravery in sharing this observation. In my experience, a lot of the good, effective leaders realize this while many others try to push back against the idea. I experienced what you describe in a very tangible way recently. I was leading worship (I am a guitar player, play contemporary music, and appreciate the “band leader as liturgies” role) at a gathering of around 100 clergy in the last month or six weeks. I used the used liturgy as another gathering of clergy had used some weeks earlier, which had been adapted by one of our district… Read more »

2 months 7 days ago

When I attended Drew for my MDiv, I was considered a “radical” – so much so that I was told by the Board of Ordination I would never be ordained. The easy thing to do was leave the UMC, so I did – I went on to plant several churches, all growing and each in the emerging conversation. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a DS in the area we are currently living about planting a church for the UMC – he told me of some of the things that have changed since I left. I am open… Read more »

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