By Richard Hearne, Special Contributor…
As a member of the North Texas Conference delegation to the last three General Conference sessions and an annual conference lay leader from 2008-2012, I have had the opportunity to attend multiple meetings discussing the decline of the United Methodist Church. The most dramatic talks centered on the prediction of a “death tsunami” in the coming years, as so many United Methodists will pass on to become Saints of the Church.
This constant reminder of our dire circumstances has really become oppressive, and forces one to consider the wisdom of continuing to devote so much time to the UMC. The futility of the 2012 General Conference (where we accomplished little if anything)—coupled with recent rulings of the Judicial Council that would seem to indicate no significant changes are going to be allowed to how our denomination functions—makes it appear that we’re in a lose-lose situation. It is very difficult to be committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world when we are not sure our denomination will be relevant or even in existence in just a few short decades.
However, this past week I had two conversations that gave me some hope for our future: one at a local church meeting and the other on a golf course.
At the church meeting, staff and laity were discussing the opportunity to provide more discipleship programs for our congregation. Somehow the focus of the meeting turned a little negative.
One of the young clergy in the room made an almost defiant statement that he was tired of all the doom and gloom talk in our denomination. He is in the very early years of his ministry and doesn’t want to believe that he is committed to a dying denomination. He believes in our Wesleyan theology and our polity. He believes, and stated very strongly, that God is not yet finished with the United Methodist Church and that our best years are still ahead of us. He acknowledged that we do have issues that must be addressed, but added that as a denomination, we’re not ready to be put on a life-support system.
His witness was very powerful, leaving me a little embarrassed that I had not spoken up as he did. I left the meeting with a different, improved attitude and decided that I must, at the very least, continue to give my best efforts for the United Methodist Church.
My other encounter was with a very good friend—a man who is one of my accountability partners. The weather was warm for a January afternoon, and the golf was not focused, so the conversation between shots turned to concerns about the UMC. We were discussing how many persons are leaving the UMC to go to nondenominational churches. I expressed my disapproval, a feeling that many of those folks are merely following preachers and aren’t committed to a body that has a connection like the UMC.
Then my friend asked me, “Are you more interested in having the gospel of Jesus Christ preached, or in saving an institution?”
What a great question! Am I invested in saving United Methodism because I truly believe that God is alive and leading our denomination? Or is it only because I’ve committed so much of my life to the UMC as an institution? If so, and if that is also true for others, could that be the reason so many people tell us they don’t feel God’s spirit in our worship or in how we treat others?
Have we become—as John Wesley feared—a “dead sect” that values our own comfort more than the needs of the poor? Would we rather battle over social issues (which are important) than deal with the critical issue of preaching the living, saving grace message of Jesus Christ?
Do we heed the admonition in Ephesians 4 to conduct ourselves with humility and gentleness, bearing with each other in love as one body and one spirit? I am not sure that those outside our churches would describe our actions in this way. Do we need to refocus on our mission statement?
One conversation restored my confidence in the institution, and another convinced me that we still have the message to preach—we just need to do it.
So how about you? What do you think our future is, and what is your goal for the United Methodist Church?
Mr. Hearne is director of development for the UMC-affiliated Lydia Patterson Institute and former lay leader of the North Texas Conference. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.