Future of Mainline Protestantism
Reclaiming a "Movement": The Future of The United Methodist Church
Given the membership decline in the mainline church, what specific efforts are underway in the UMC to revive the church and make it relevant for the future?
Many United Methodists, both lay and clergy, have read and been influenced by Jim Collins' book Good to Great. In that book, Collins makes reference to the Stockdale paradox, which states, in essence, that we must always confront reality, but never give up hope. That, it seems to me, is where we find ourselves today. Reality: declining membership in the United States coupled with redirected resources. Hope: the vision of the Reign of God pulling us into a different future. By the power of the Spirit and the grace of Jesus, we move forward to create a future with hope. We know we are losing any sense of relevance in this rapidly changing culture.
At the 2008 General Conference (the decision-making body for the worldwide United Methodist Church, which meets every four years with equal representation between clergy and lay delegates), the delegates affirmed our "Four Areas of Focus" and scattered into the world to pay attention to these as signs of fulfilling the mission and living faithfully and fruitfully in the world. The four areas invite us to live and serve the present age: develop principled Christian leaders (lay and clergy); create new places of worship for new faces and revitalize existing churches; engage in a global health initiative, particularly malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS; and, be in ministry with and among the poor. We are slowly moving toward embedding these in the culture of Methodism, and we believe that they call us toward being a church that cannot and must not live in complacency or mediocrity. We will know we are headed in God's direction when we are creating, supporting, and deploying excellent leaders; when new churches reach new generations and new populations of people; when there are no more deaths due to malaria and the other diseases of poverty; and when all of God's people regardless of economic situations experience new life and new hope.
How is the UMC planning to reach out to the "20- to 30-somethings" who are largely absent in most mainline churches?
I believe this question is directly connected to the previous question about relevancy. The issue is that the institutional church has expanded in such a way as to appear to be interested only in its own survival. Even the Four Areas of Focus have an institutional ring on first hearing. However, the challenge to make a difference, to transform the world, to be guided by a vision of the Reign of God, and to turn our primary attention away from preserving buildings to building partnerships that change the world invites every generation to be connected to a large undertaking.
To specifically target an age group, particularly those under 35, is a daunting task for a denomination whose average age is in the late 50s. Those of us in leadership positions, and who are of the baby boomer generation, must find ways to build relationships, listen without being judgmental, and intentionally seek the insights, passions, and energies of yet another generation. We will have to step outside our comfort zones, without stepping outside the Gospel message. We have discovered that is not an easy step to take. We have some learning to do!
Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team after more than ten years managing programs for the Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of Christian Education and music/theatre programs for young people and has served as a music director for worship and special retreats.