Wesleyan Wisdom: A fourth step reflection for the people called United Methodist

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

For seven years I have assiduously avoided being a “nattering nabob of negativism” in this column.  Mine has been an upbeat, “We can do it; yes we can” voice for recovery of our Wesleyan message of grace.  I have cited innovative means of outreach and connection with the pre-church and ex-churched, and referred regularly to good resources for the local church to draw on.  I have “fussed” at our connectional leadership for using authority so authoritatively.  We must re-ignite the laity as stakeholders who deserve a genuine voice, not passive acceptance.  We do not want them to follow like sheep and we certainly do not want them, as Lyle Schaller repeatedly warned, “to vote with their feet, leaving quietly never to  return.”  Len Sweet calls our present situation the deceptive prelude to the perfect storm.

As  Meredith Wilson humorously put it in  The Music Man, “…we got trouble right here in River City–trouble with a capital ‘T.'”  When any institution or physician or ecclesiastic sees symptoms of trouble and refuses to track those problems to their source, the result is like ignoring the perfect storm.  When I mention how many of our churches are being attended and financially supported by members over sixty-five, I get emails telling me about exceptions!  Once upon a time, healthy growing churches were the norm; now they indeed are the exception.   The facts are that we have an unsustainable amount of formerly viable local churches that are “hanging on by their fingernails,” hoping against hope to find a miracle, or instead using their energy to identify a scapegoat.

Since our membership, attendance, and societal influence began declining in the 1960’s, we have had a continual stream of marketing efforts to “re-brand” United Methodism.  A few have developed some traction but none hasve changed the stats from “going south.”  We had almost 11,000,000 members upon the formation of United Methodism in 1968.  Now we are considerably shy of 8 million–about a 28% loss without a membership audit!  Attendance is down much more dramatically.  Our loss of young adults with children is frightening.   We are (depending on which statistical survey you read) somewhere in the neighborhood of 19 years older than the general population.

A good number of our marketing efforts (called “quadrennial emphases”) have made an effort to be more racially inclusive by prioritizing “ethnic minority” churches, however in doing so the efforts have often been more stigmatizing than prioritizing.  The facts are that at the end of the Civil War, seven of every ten former slaves were either ME, ME,South, AME, AMEZ, or CME–all churches with the word “Methodist” in their name, all Wesleyan in doctrine, and all episcopal in polity.  Today, of the African American population, only 2% are members of any church with the word “Methodist” in it.  The authoritarian move to appoint African American pastors to Anglo-majority churches  has made a great social justice  statement,  but has, for the most part, not resulted in attracting more African American new members in historically Black or white churches. Are there exceptions?  Of course, but the macro-view is that “cross racial” pastoral appointments have not been a means of growth among s African American, Native American, Hispanic American, or Asian American constituencies.

We have tried facilities enhancements!  In the last quarter of the 20th century, thousands of churches built gymnasiums and called them “Family Life Centers.”  How sad that churches chose a sociological term rather than a theological term for the identity.  The never married or divorced single, couples without kids, or single parent family does not see the word “family” as an inclusive term. They see “family,” not as the census bureau defines it, but rather more like Ozzie and Harriet defined it in the 1950’s.  The consequence has been that in spite of the enormous debt associated with these “Family Life Centers,” and in spite of the increase in utilities and insurance and staff, most of these facilities are vastly underutilized.  If the motive were “to attract more young people,” the goal has seldom been reached.  Older adults were generous in supporting the building fund, but now see it as increased overhead for maintenance without growth in the giving base.

In the 21st century a major “remedy” has been  contemporary worship.  A few people do this really well, but only a few.  Most of us simply “dressed down” in clothing,  and “dumbed down” in theology.  Contemporary worship done effectively requires much more weekly preparation than traditional worship!  It takes bytes from movies or plays, youtube downloads, rather dramatic photography, a pretty good band, and a preacher who can segue from traditional to contemporary worship.  Most clergy have been acclimated and  trained in traditional worship. Most preach with notes or a manuscript.  Most don’t feel comfortable walking around while preaching.  The music is debatable but critics call it “7-11″ music–seven words sung eleven times.”  It often lacks narrative or a theology that is compatible with the denomination’s heritage.  Indeed most of the music comes from non-denominational sources. It has not produced more lusty congregational singing, certainly not to the degree once expressed in the African American folk songs or the gospel tradition, both products of the 19th century.

Social justice is messy!  Adam Hamilton is so on target when he asks us to learn to live with “gray” and stop arguing about “black and white.”   Ethics is tough!  For scores of years, the typical pulpit was mute in any challenge of systemic evil.  The culture lead the church rather than the church leading the culture.  Very few clergy in the ante-bellum south raised their voice against slavery. The same was true for a century of segregation–north as well as south.  While the formation of the Freedmans’ Aid Society in a Methodist Episcopal Church and the establishment of colleges and trade schools by “northerners” who came south after the Civil War, as well as prophets like Atticus Haygood in Georgia, were examples of Methodist attempts to address social change, we were slow in other areas. Though Francis Williard was a Methodist, the various Methodist churches did not throw much weight behind the Women’s Suffrage movement.  The reforms in the industrial work place did not come so much from the church as from people who were considered radical or iconoclastic.  Today we seem unable to create a true “connnectional table” that can really hear each other about such divisive cultural/moral/ethical issues as abortion, immigration, marijuana legalization, or gay lifestyle.  Indeed these are generating serious projections about  the division of a church whose first name is “united.”

We are losing the “milennials”(born since 1984).  As one millenial blogger has written, “The church raised us on easy answers, catch phrases, and clichés, and most issues in life are not that simplistic.” Is that a fair observation? Let’s be honest, fellow preachers, we have at least implied that if you give your heart to Jesus, everything else will fall into place.  We have sold out the gospel to conventional morality and pop psychology.  For years we paid for billboards that proclaimed, “The family that prays together stays together.”  Today that is somewhere between ludicrous and embarrassing as divorce has riddled the ranks of practicing Christians. We cannot work through tragedy by saying, “The Lord knows best.” That is Calvinism and we are not Calvinists!   Rick and Kay Warren, steeped in Calvinistic predestination, are now saying that God did not cause their son to commit suicide.  We have implied that becoming a born again Christian would make life a bed of roses. We long ago rejected the passion of Jesus on Good Friday as we raced toward Easter!

Almost paradoxically, we have said too little about what it means to be saved. We had a saying long ago when a child was shy: “Has the cat got your tongue?”  Well….!!!! What happened to our saying with Paul: “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed to Him until that day.” We hold to a three dimensional grace theology–God’s preparing grace, our response in faith resulting in God’s saving grace, and a life long journey of growing in grace toward “the high calling which is ours in Christ Jesus.”  This is what Len Sweet calls, “the greatest story never told.”

Kristen Lentz, writing earlier this winter about millennial absence from most churches, testifies that she left the church and came back.  She insisted that she did not come back because of great programs, alluring events, a cool “cafe” atmosphere, or anything else the church was doing to get her back.  She came back because of her deep emotional and spiritual need for community. She also became willing and emotionally able to work through and ignore the clichés and simplistic sayings to which  preachers and teachers and laity in conversation often  resort.  She listened to the soul whisper, responding to Jesus who told her “Learn of me for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Can we revive some semblance of community as experienced in the old Wesleyan class meeting?  Can the local church develop at least a nucleus who are “redemptive community” in helping persons in recovery, or in need of sustained support, or newcomers to our community?  Do not most churches still see ourselves as a “member-guest” club? Can we “bust out” of that box!

Are people beginning a closer walk with God, a re-imaging of our taking on  the mind of Christ?  Are habits being changed? Are attitudes being softened?  Are voices being lowered? Are sins being resolved with repentance and saving grace?

The 4th step of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says that in order to find healing and recovery, one must first “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Perhaps we all need to spend some time thinking about just what we’ve become before we can move forward into a new future in Rescue the Perishing. 

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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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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