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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Join the conversation....

  1. We should be careful not to conflate the implosion of the United Methodist Church and the other mainline churches with an implosion of Christianity in America or the world. Christianity is still the fastest growing religion in the world and Christianity is holding its own or growing within the U.S. We are seeing the decline of "churchianity" (social church attendance by those not committed to Christ) but no real decline among the faithful. They are leaving the Mainline churches because, by and large, the Mainline churches became social churches in the 1950s, teaching people how to be good citizens and members of the prevailing culture. We have forgotten that, as Wesley taught, Jesus has a profound counter cultural message. We are so acclimated to the big government liberal American culture that, for example, the Board of Church and Society has not a position that would keep them from getting invited to the A list cocktail parties in D.C. in decades. If we want to survive in the U.S., it is time to move out of Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) and back to Wesleyanism. See the excellent operational definition of modern Methodism at http://johnmeunier.wordpress.com/.

  2. Education–Christian or secular–starts at an early age (50 or 60 years ago–maybe more) forming the minds of our youth much more than "Mom and Dad" would like to think. Just as the progressives in the public school realm have shaped generations of young people's minds via instruments such as the weekly reader, and subtle changes in textbooks used to teach the students, Cokesbury/Methodist publishing house have shaped the umc through its social gospel curriculum taught in Sunday schools–yes for decades. House churches and nondenoms are what will keep the Good News spreading. Mainline churches will fall right in line with the liberal progressive movement that seems to be sweeping this country right now.

  3. OK, this was just words strung together for a mandatory blog post. It says nothing. UMC is declining (this might have been news 30 years ago) but the leadership is great. The fault is we (but not the leaders) lack imagination and have to get young people in, yada, yada, blah, blah. If the promised follow ups are as insipid and as filled with old news and recycled ideas I'm sure it will fade into the obscurity of the blogsphere.

  4. temcarpenter says:

    There are so many parts to this article that I wish to respond to that I don't know where to start.
    1. If a chaplain in our midst is addressing a Youth Ministry Certification class, he should be positive or he should not be shaping the leaders who will lead our young with negative ideas like implosion as they will not be leaders for change.
    2. It would seem to me as a Certified Lay Minister, that the Chaplain should bring messages of hope and change. Some of the facts cited in this article are inappropriate at best and their connotations do not meet with the message.
    3. There is currently within our church a renaissance taking place whether or not the old guard wants to admit it. Those of us who subscribe to the Healthy Church Initiative or the Vibrant Church Initiative are simply not going to stand by and let our church fail. We believe that people still deserve the Methodist experience in their relationship with Jesus Christ.
    4. The history of the church shows are best success in the 1870's. Simple-Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World. No parsonages, only ponies. Lay taking more responsibilities.
    5. I can only hope that we can somehow get on the same message-we are not going away but we will be changing.
    Thanks

  5. Great article. My grandfather was a Methodist Minister and church educator for over 70 years and one of the first theology graduates from SMU in the 1920's. So I have some perspective on this decline of the UMC's. The main reason has nothing to do with church or the people. Its a demographic issue. The Baby Boomer population, which consists largely of post-war whites over 50, are moving quickly towards retirement now. If you go to prehispanic.org, that generation is being replaced by a very large majority of young, but low income Hispanic and Mexican-American population that are not culturally integrated with the Methodist church and never have been. The next 30 years this group will dominate culturally Texas and be a dominant majority as the last of the baby boomers pass away. Thats just a fact related to the changing demographics in texas. The data at pewhispanic.org shows that quite clearly.

    This is not a racial issue either, but strictly a large shift in what Texas will and should look like as these young Hispanic and minorities take over most of this part of the country and many parts of the United States. Texas will likely retain relics of the old "white culture" and religious institutions but they wont likely last as most of the young people are raised Catholic. It brings some sadness to many of us who built up these institutions and especially the higher learning institutions. Much of this will continue as this new culture integrates over the coming years, but much will be lost for all time and never come again.

    This has happened many times over all over the world….and its always difficult for the culture that loses out to a new culture. Look at the invasion of the Saxons into Briton and the Celts that tried to fight and defend what was left of the post-Roman era. It could not last.

    What Texas and Protestant Churches can best hope for is some form of very assertive integration and invitation of Hispanic youth into the white churches now before they are reduced to a shell of their former selves. By 2043 Whites will be a minority nationwide and so now is the time for the Church to welcome and reach out to this population. Thats just my thoughts…

    • As a former Methodist who grew up in the UMC and was saved in the Bunker Hill UMC, I know that demographics has nothing to do with why the entire young adult class of the church left and formed a Free Methodist Church and eventually gravitated to independent Baptist churches. We all left because the UMC sent us a pastor who admitted from the pulpit that he didn’t believe in any of the basic biblical doctrines of the church and had renounced his decision to follow Christ in an evangelistic meeting as a teenager. Unfortunately, my home church has never recovered and is on the verge of closing in the near future. “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” I Corinthians 14:8 The Methodist Church has been preaching the wrong message for so long that it’s only right that people are moving to churches where the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and sinners are placed under conviction and are saved by the blood of Christ. How often do you hear this message in most Methodist churches today?

Your thoughts?

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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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