Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Interlude, Part 2: Whither the Local Church?

In our series so far, we've been examining some of the perceptions throughout the Methodist Connexion (John Wesley's spelling) that the UMC is dying, and some of the things some people think will "save" it. Some people follow church fads and think that the newest thing to come down the pike, whatever it is, will save the Church. Others think that if we can just change our worship style or get everyone in the Church to change a certain attitude or ideology, that will save the Church. In the past three posts, I have argued that these things will not save the Church. They are actually false proxies: something we choose to measure or focus on instead of the things that are actually ailing the Church. I have argued that we have a credibility problem in the Church, and it's something we in the UMC have had some control over, but a lot of it is out of our control.

The other thing that is ailing the UMC today is something also out of our control: a demographics shift. Even in 2013, unfortunately, 11:00 on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. Folks tend to go to church with people who are most like them. The United Methodist Church has been a middle-class church, which was great for us in eras in which the middle class grew and flourished. But in the last 40 years, the middle class has shrunk dramatically and its earning power has diminished. For a summary of this trend, watch this YouTube video of a TED talk on the issue (it's 6:30 min. but worth it):

Lots of folks have blamed the UMC's own members for its decline in membership, citing a "failure of discipleship", and its next-of-kin, failure of evangelism. Those on the conservative end of the ideology/ theology spectrum blame it on failure to be faithful to our Wesleyan roots and orthodox Christian beliefs. Those on liberal end of the spectrum blame it on failure to be welcoming to others. Whatever the reason, the rhetoric has been one of failure: "We haven't done X, therefore this bad thing has happened to us." One day in seminary, my Hebrew Bible professor pointed out that this is the same thing that the Israelites did when they were taken prisoner by the Babylonians: "We haven't worshiped Yahweh exclusively, we have sinned, and that is why we have to live in exile." I was so used to this rhetoric that I was very surprised when my professor named this line of thought as blaming the victim! There's another term for it, which is my parents' phrase of choice when ecclesiastical higher-ups blame church folk for problems they did not create: "beating the sheep".

But this is not necessarily a problem with us (though we not-yet-perfected Christians, we can always use a little perfecting). These problems have happened in our society. There are no longer very many middle class people left to come to our churches. Our young people are giving up religion altogether because of our credibility problem. What can we do about our demographic problem and about our credibility problem? I think we can do two things:

1. Let compassionate actions speak louder than our words. This should be our response to the credibility problem. In order to convince people that we are good folk who love Jesus and love others, and not merely wolves in sheep's clothing, we must show them rather than tell them. This means, as I mentioned last time, we need to shut our mouths on certain topics. At the same time, we must open our arms and roll up our sleeves. 

2. Build ministries that cross social borders. What do we do when we are a church of mainly older, white, middle class people who suddenly find that folks like us are becoming fewer and fewer? We must reach out to those who are not middle class, white, and our own age! To build our church again, we must do inter-generational ministry, cross-cultural/ interracial ministry, and ministry with those who are poor and homeless.

Friends, it's time to stop blaming ourselves and start doing ministry. Our Church is not dying. I think the rhetoric of death is an alarmist tone used by some to force through a particular change or result. What is happening to our Church is that it is changing rapidly, which is bound to happen, because our society is changing rapidly. The Church has always been a conservative organization in that it seeks to continue what has been done in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it does mean that our organizational culture is one that does not adapt to change well. This puts us in a precarious position, because our environment demands change, but we do not change quickly or easily. The two things that I have named as a way forward will not be easy to do. They will be scary. But they are necessary to do in order to adapt to our surroundings.

The Church only needs to be saved in the sense that we all need salvation through Jesus Christ. Whatever happens in the future, the Church will survive. God will see to that. It is not our responsibility to "save" the Church; leave that to God. But how will we survive? Who will we be when the dust settles? Will we serve anyone in the process, and will their lives be transformed because of meeting us?

Hard conversations will be the bread and butter of our denomination in the coming years. If we can have the courage to face the hard questions and difficult decisions together, I believe that we can come through this crisis and we can be better for it. What the local church can do during this time is act compassionately and build ministries across social borders: in other words, simply BE the Church. How can we go about this? Tune in next week for the rest of our series!

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