Archives for February 2018

Big Picture Status of United Methodism (Part 2 )

In last week’s edition of Perspective, I began to survey the growth and decline of United Methodism around the globe. The big picture is that most of Methodism around the globe is in decline, with the exception of certain regions in Africa. Last week, I went into more detail about Africa [link].

When turning to the United States, the picture is more grim. Overall, the U.S. church lost 319,000 members. This represents 4.3 percent of its membership. There was only one annual conference that grew over the four years, and every jurisdiction lost members. Here are the statistics by jurisdiction:

The northern jurisdictions are not far behind when it comes to membership loss. They have a much higher membership level to start with, so the impact will not be felt as quickly. However, these figures have implications for the number of bishops in each of the northern jurisdictions. According to the formula in ¶ 404 of the Discipline, both jurisdictions are now entitled to eight bishops. However, both have nine active bishops currently. The 2016 General Conference froze the number of bishops because of the Commission on a Way Forward and its possible implications for restructuring the church. If the church is not restructured, however, it is likely that each jurisdiction will lose a bishop in 2020. (Of course, if there is a substantial exodus of members from the church after the 2019 General Conference, all jurisdictions may face the loss of one or more bishops.)While it had the smallest membership loss in numbers, the Western Jurisdiction lost the highest percentage of its membership. As has been noted for a number of years, this pace of membership loss is unsustainable in the West. Annual conferences are looking at consolidation/merger. There may come a time when the number of bishops in the West will need to be reduced below the constitutionally mandated number of five. Or the Western Jurisdiction may need to be folded into other jurisdictions. A study committee is looking at jurisdictional realignment, but all such plans are on hold until the 2019 General Conference decides what will be our denomination’s “way forward.”

Also in imminent danger of losing a bishop is the South Central Jurisdiction. Based on the formula, the SCJ has only 2,100 members more than the threshold for losing one of its ten bishops. If 2017 numbers are used to determine the number of bishops, it is possible for the SCJ to lose a bishop in 2020. But it will undoubtedly lose one bishop by 2024. The Southeastern Jurisdiction is not in danger of losing a bishop, as they voluntarily declined to add a bishop to which they were entitled several quadrenniums ago.

Annual Conference Trajectories

The only annual conference showing growth for the four years 2012-2016 was the North Carolina Annual Conference, which gained 76 members (statistically, less than 0.1 percent growth). Five other annual conferences declined by less than one percent:

North Georgia                  -0.4 percent

Kentucky                              -0.6 percent

Texas                                     -0.7 percent

Tennessee                             -0.9 percent

Memphis                               -0.9 percent

Texas is in the South Central Jurisdiction, and the other four (plus North Carolina) are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

By comparison, there were six annual conferences that lost more than 10 percent of their members from 2012-2016.

Upper New York              -17.0 percent

Desert Southwest                -13.8 percent

Yellowstone                          -12.2 percent

Pacific Northwest                -12.2 percent

Wisconsin                           -11.9 percent

West Ohio                           -10.2 percent

Upper New York had the largest number of members lost at 28,500, making up nearly one-third of the membership losses suffered by the entire Northeastern Jurisdiction. West Ohio was next at 19,250, making up one-fourth of the membership losses suffered by the entire North Central Jurisdiction. Among other annual conferences, Florida, out of a much larger membership total, lost nearly 18,000 members, nearly one-third of the membership losses suffered by the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Central Texas lost 13,600, nearly one-fourth of the membership losses suffered by the South Central Jurisdiction, and Iowa lost nearly 11,000.

Three of these six fastest-declining conferences are in the Western Jurisdiction, two in the North Central, and one in the Northeastern. These declines could have devastating impact on some of the annual conferences involved. Yellowstone is the smallest non-missionary annual conference, with only 11,000 members. It is planning a merger with the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference over the next few years. Desert Southwest has only 31,000 members, while Pacific Northwest has just over 40,000 members and may explore a merger with the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference (which itself only has just over 25,000 members). Wisconsin has 65,000 members, but may need to share a bishop (relinquishing its own residential bishop) with another annual conference beginning in 2020. Both Upper New York and West Ohio are much larger annual conferences, with almost 140,000 and almost 169,000 members respectively. They will not be as heavily impacted by loss of members in the near term.

The declines in all these conferences, however, are representative of why their respective jurisdictions are experiencing serious membership declines. It is worth noting that all six annual conferences are located in primarily rural areas. However, Washington State, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona rank in the top ten states for population growth since 2010. Montana ranks in the top 20. (Pacific Northwest contains Washington State and part of Idaho, Yellowstone contains Montana and part of Wyoming, and Desert Southwest contains Arizona and part of Nevada.) Wisconsin and Ohio are 39th and 41st in population growth, while New York is 33rd, so that could have played a part in the membership declines in those areas.

Regardless of how fast or slow the population is declining in a given area, recent surveys have shown a surge in the number of unchurched people. The mission field in the United States has plenty of opportunity for harvest! Our church needs to find creative and faithful ways of making more disciples of Jesus Christ. Their eternity, not to mention the future of our church, depends upon it.

Big Picture Status of United Methodism (Part 1 – Africa)

Parishioners sing during worship at the United Methodist church in Kortihun near Bo, Sierra Leone. Several villages in the Bo district will receive new, insecticide-treated mosquito nets from the United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign in the first planned redistribution to replace nets given in 2010. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

We are called Methodists for a reason. John Wesley was very methodical in his approach to discipleship (the means of grace, the General Rules) and revival. He always insisted that small groups be formed of those who responded to his preaching. He insisted that they follow a set process. And he kept detailed numbers on each group — who was participating and how often they attended. We sometimes get hung up on “numbers” vs. more spiritual topics, but each number represents a person. When we talk about gaining 5,000 members, we are talking about 5,000 more men, women, and children who are following Christ in a United Methodist congregation. And that is a great victory. And losing numbers of members is tragic. These numbers and these people matter for eternity.

Detailed statistics have been released by the General Council on Finance and Administration regarding membership numbers used to calculate the number of delegates for each annual conference to the 2020 General Conference. These numbers give us a better sense of the growth trajectory of our denomination. Year-to-year statistics are helpful, but there can be fluctuations. A four-year trend, as portrayed in the comparison between 2020 and 2016 numbers, can be more accurate in telling the overall story. (The numbers in determining the 2020 delegates come from 2016, as compared with 2012 numbers used to determine the 2016 delegates.)

The big picture is that The United Methodist Church gained more than 143,000 members over the past four years. All of the growth, however, took place in two of the African regions: Congo and West Africa. Every other region of the world declined in membership. Congo led the way by gaining more than 429,000 members, topping out at about 3 million United Methodists in the Congo alone. This makes Congo the largest region in the church, exceeding even the Southeastern Jurisdiction. West Africa followed by gaining nearly 200,000 members, coming to over 1.7 million United Methodists. This makes West Africa the third largest region in the world, behind the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

Observers were curious to see the impact of new rules for reporting members for 2016. For the first time, the membership numbers needed to be reported down to the individual church level. Previously, annual conferences outside the U.S. could report aggregate numbers for the whole annual conference, which were often thought to be just estimates that may not have been totally accurate. But the new 2016 numbers are far more reliable, and in many annual conferences in Africa the change did not have the effect of shrinking the membership.

There were still some anomalies in the African reporting. Two annual conferences in the Africa Central region (eastern and southern Africa) did not report their membership numbers. This contributed to the membership decline in the Africa Central Conference region, which lost 86,000 members. (There are issues of conflict in some of those annual conferences that also contributed to the decline.) Half of the annual conferences in this region grew, but the other half suffered some significant losses of 20 to 45 percent.

Another anomaly was that one West Africa annual conference (Cote D’Ivoire or Ivory Coast) reported the exact same number of members it had reported in 2012. Liberia led the way in West Africa with a growth of almost 133,000 members (89 percent). That country just elected its second United Methodist as president of the nation in a row! Sierra Leone gained 60,000 members (27 percent). The three annual conferences of Nigeria also grew slightly while adding a fourth annual conference and continuing to battle the adversity of the Boko Haram insurgency and internal church conflict.

All but two annual conferences in the Congo grew over the four years. The Oriental and Equator Annual Conference in the Congo went from 5,000 members in 2012 to over 90,000 members in 2016. Presumably, these recent numbers are more accurate. Two other annual conferences more than doubled in size. The largest annual conference (North Katanga) gained 90,000 members (11 percent). At 910,000 members, they are the largest annual conference in the global United Methodist Church, 2-1/2 times the size of North Georgia, the next largest! This rapid growth is why the Congo will probably receive the lion’s share of the four new bishops to be added in Africa in 2020.

Even with the anomalies, we have a much more accurate picture of the status of United Methodist membership in Africa and other parts of the world.

The big picture is that most of Methodism around the globe is in decline, with the exception of certain regions in Africa. In my next blog, I will look at the situation in the United States.

A Secular Religion: The Challenge We Face

A recent article in the journal First Things by Mary Eberstadt entitled The Zealous Faith of Secularism makes the case that the challenge we face in the United States and the Western World is one of competing faiths or competing ideologies. Christianity faces off against a secularism that has its own dogmas. Some of those dogmas are so entrenched in our culture that we don’t even recognize them as beliefs in competition with a Christian worldview.

One of these secular dogmas is that the purpose of life is personal happiness. This stems, of course, from the uniquely American DNA reflected in our Declaration of Independence, that holds that we are endowed by our Creator with certain “unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our American “religion” believes that we have the right to pursue happiness in whatever way we believe best, whether we eventually find it or not. This has evolved into the idea that the pursuit of happiness is the purpose of life. It has led to a focus on materialism/greed, sex, and power in a misguided quest for happiness.

Instead, we believe as Christians that the purpose of life is to know God and to glorify him with our lives. That may or may not make us happy in the moment, but it will lead to our ultimate happiness and the deepest joy. C.S. Lewis talks about that in his book, Mere Christianity. “What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ — could set up on their own as if they had created themselves — be their own masters — invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. … God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

Another secular dogma is that sex is for pleasure, and I am entitled to have as much of it as I want, with whomever I want, whenever I want. The idea that we ought to reserve sex for the committed relationship of marriage is often thought to be quaint and old-fashioned, if not downright detrimental to happiness (see dogma #1). Paul faced this attitude in Corinth, which prompted him to write: “The body isn’t for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. … Don’t you know that your bodies are parts of Christ? So then, should I take parts of Christ and make them a part of someone who is sleeping around?” (I Corinthians 6:13-15, CEB). Sex is sacred, and we find our greatest joy in reserving the sexual relationship to be shared only with our spouse — but that is not the message that we hear from the world each and every day.

A third dogma is that a woman can do what she wants with her own body, and a fetus is only a part of a woman’s body, not an independent life form. Of course, this leads to the demand for abortion to be available at any time, for any reason, up until the last day of pregnancy. This fits very well with dogma #2, since abortion makes it possible for a person to enjoy unlimited sex without the inconvenience of a child (one of the actual purposes of sex). What a different attitude is portrayed in Psalm 127:3: “children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a divine reward.”

A fourth dogma is that marriage is a relationship between any two people (and sometimes not even limited to two) who want to commit themselves to each other. A corollary dogma is that sexual orientation is inborn and unchangeable, and that it is unjust to expect persons with same-sex attraction not to find the fulfillment of marriage that heterosexual people do. Based on these beliefs, people are prepared to change the definition of marriage that has held true for all civilizations for at least 5,000 years. It doesn’t matter that the scientific evidence is decidedly against sexual orientation being an inborn characteristic. It doesn’t matter that some people have indeed changed their sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter that Jesus defines marriage as between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6, cf. Genesis 2:24, I Timothy 3:2).

That last point is what reveals these dogmas as ideologies or quasi-religious matters of faith. They are not based on any kind of empirical evidence. They are just “truths” that people are expected to agree with. And if one disputes these dogmas, there is a visceral, angry reaction to silence dissent and compel (if possible) belief.

I could go on listing secular dogmas, but what the church faces today is a fully developed ideology or religion that cuts out God and substitutes articles of faith that it believes will lead to human happiness. Of course, we know (as Lewis stated in the quote above) that there is no lasting happiness apart from God. But we sometimes allow these secular dogmas to creep into our thinking and guide the church’s beliefs and actions. That is the source of our theological conflict in The United Methodist Church today. It is a conflict between traditional, orthodox, biblical Christianity and a Christianity that is influenced by secular ideology.

There is a paramount need to self-critically discern where our theology, ethics, or actions are being influenced by secular ideology. The best antidote to this poison is to be thoroughly steeped in a biblical worldview. We need to know biblical theology to protect ourselves from the secular counterfeit, and we need to live out that biblical theology in order to have any hope of convincing the world it is wrong. It comes back to the formation of Christian disciples as the supreme task of the church. The challenges we face today show that we have not been entirely successful in that task.

Tempering Expectations — Dealing with Impatience

It is no surprise that many members of The United Methodist Church are growing impatient. It feels like we have been discussing (if not fighting over) our views regarding the church’s ministry with LGBTQ people for a lifetime. Many hoped that the 2016 General Conference would give clarity to our situation. Instead, in true Methodist fashion, we appointed a committee. (I say that with a smile, since I serve on the Commission on a Way Forward.)

I understand that impatience and share it. I have been in the struggle for denominational renewal and reform since the 1980’s.

As we contemplate the future of Methodism, however, we would be well served to adjust our expectations for resolution of this matter to the reality of the extent of our brokenness. If there were a quick and easy fix, we would have enacted it by now. For good reason, few want to be reminded to be a bit more patient. But an impasse that took 45 years to make (and according to Dr. James Heidinger’s recent book, took over a century) will not be solved in six months or a year. By definition, we are dealing with a very difficult, complex, and intractable institutional situation.

Many hope that when the Council of Bishops (COB) releases its proposal in May, we will have a clearer vision of the future of United Methodism. However, we must reckon with the fact that the bishops are unlikely to coalesce behind only one plan. Just as the Commission on a Way Forward submitted three sketches to the COB, it is conceivable that the COB will submit two or three proposals to General Conference.

In addition, there are bound to be some who disagree with any or all of the plans submitted by the bishops. They will introduce plans of their own. It is entirely possible that General Conference will have to consider a minimum of four different proposals for a way forward. So we will not know until the end of the 2019 General Conference which direction has been chosen for the church’s future.

Furthermore, most of the various proposals already put forward would take several years to implement. Sketch One, which maintains the current position of the church with increased accountability, would set the table for several years of accountability actions to bring bishops and annual conferences in line with the church’s policy or graciously help them to exit from the denomination. There would be a time of at least a year for annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to decide if they can in good conscience uphold the Discipline in those matters under contention. If not, they will have a time to decide if they will exit from The United Methodist Church to form something new or unite with another existing body. Only after that time will they become subject to disciplinary action. And if conferences, bishops, or clergy resist the policy of the church but refuse to leave, there will be trials and other actions that will take months or even a few years to carry out in order to restore compliance with the Discipline. Rev. Chris Ritter has proposed some ideas about how a Sketch One might work.

Sketch Three, which envisions multiple branches of the church under a type of global umbrella, is a much more radical restructuring of the church. It aims not only to resolve the impasse over homosexuality, but to also position the church for renewed vitality and growth. Such a radical restructure will require amendments to our church constitution. So even if passed by the 2019 General Conference, it will take an additional year to ratify the amendments by the various annual conferences. Then there will need to be time for annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to decide which branch to affiliate with. Once the branches are populated, they will need to be organized and set up with whatever structure each determines. Then the general church agencies will need to be reorganized or restructured. It will take several years to live into this new structure.

Sketch Two looks like the easiest to implement because it does not require constitutional amendments and does not require any accountability actions. (This option allows pastors to determine for themselves whether they will perform same-sex marriages and annual conferences to determine whether to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.) However, it will be an uphill battle to pass this option, since it requires changing the church’s position on homosexuality, which has never gained traction at past General Conferences and would not be supported by most evangelicals and most central conference delegates. Aside from that, adoption of Sketch Two would undoubtedly cause many evangelical clergy and congregations to depart from the denomination. This departure would itself take time to implement (see the next paragraphs).

Whatever plan is proposed at General Conference, the Commission has always stated that there will be an option for gracious exit for congregations and clergy who could not live with the plan that is adopted. And there will be many evangelicals who are ready to leave the denomination rather than compromise their belief in the teachings and authority of Scripture. At this point, there is no indication what that process of leaving would look like. Will it require a period of study and discernment by local churches? Will churches have to make payments to their annual conferences before they are allowed to depart? If no exit path is adopted by General Conference, will there be lawsuits over property that consume years in court?

If congregations have to depart from the UM Church as an act of conscience, what would come next? Most hope that there would be a new Wesleyan Methodist body formed to which such congregations could belong. Even if groundwork is done ahead of time, the formation of such a body would take time. Structures would need to be formed, decisions made on policies and finances, and leadership chosen. It would take several years to live into the structure of a newly-formed church.

It is tempting to throw up one’s hands and just walk down the street to the nearest non-denominational church. Such a decision, however, could be shortsighted and out of sync with the leading of God. It is worth thinking over very carefully. We have a unique theological treasure in authentic Wesleyan Methodism that we do not want to lose. The marriage of head, heart, and hands in relationship to Christ. The balance of personal and social holiness, as well as concern for the poor and social justice. The juxtaposition of divine sovereignty and personal responsibility. Potlucks and congregational dinners! These and many other treasures are uniquely part of the Wesleyan wing of Christianity. To give them up would be a loss to the entire body of Christ that is the global, trans-denominational church.

As most of us know from our experience with New Year’s resolutions, tempering our expectations and not expecting a quick and easy answer is very challenging. It takes the willingness to work through a longer-than-hoped-for, difficult, and complicated process because we believe that something better will come out on the other side. No matter which way God works in providing a future for Methodism, it is going to take time — more time than we would like. But like anything good, the end product will be worth the wait.