Methodism of the Future?

We are frequently told that, on issues related to marriage and sexuality, United Methodism is currently “on the wrong side of history.”  We are told that young people overwhelmingly favor same-sex marriage and affirmation of same-sex behavior.  We are told that, if the UM Church wants to be relevant in the future, we need to go along with the shift in U.S. moral values.  We are told that, if we do not change our position on marriage and sexuality, young people will stop attending (or never start attending) our churches.

The interesting thing about this hypothesis is that it is currently being tested across the church.  Some parts of The United Methodist Church have gone on record (some for many years) as opposing the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality.  Some annual conferences have ordained practicing homosexuals to ministry even more than a decade ago.  Some annual conferences are in the forefront of pushing for what they term “gay equality.”

Based on the hypothesis that the future of the church belongs to those affirming same-sex behavior, what are the results in those parts of the church that are most vocally pro-gay?  The Western, North Central, and Northeastern Jurisdictions, which have been the most outspokenly against the church’s position, are also the areas experiencing the fastest decline in membership.  In the three years from 2009-2012, the Western Jurisdiction declined 7.0%, North Central declined 5.6%, and Northeastern declined 5.4%.  In the same period, the Southeastern and South Central declined 2.7% and 1.9% respectively.

One annual conference might be considered the poster child of same-sex affirmation.  The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference features a bishop, Grant Hagiya, who filmed a TV commercial urging Washington State voters to approve same-sex marriage.  Bishop Hagiya, when dealing with complaints against two clergypersons who had performed same-sex marriages, appointed as counsel for the church a person who was on record as opposing the church’s position, to enforce the church’s position.  Not surprisingly, those complaints were “resolved” with merely a 24-hour suspension.  It should be noted that Bishop Hagiya and some of his superintendents even attended one of the same-sex weddings.  According to the conference report, the 2014 annual conference session approved petitions calling for “the cessation of all church trials based on clergy sexual identity and participation in same-sex weddings and unions,” “naming PNW churches and their facilities safe for people regardless of their gender identity,” and asking the state legislature to pass a bill providing “penalties for any mental health practitioner who engages in Sexual Orientation Change Efforts.”

Since the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Annual Conference appears to be at the forefront of advocating new moral teachings by the church, according to the hypothesis that this represents the Methodism of the future, the conference should be showing remarkable growth and vitality.  Instead, we see a stunning drop in membership and worship attendance.

In 2003, the PNW reported 60,495 members.  Ten years later in 2013, they report 46,209, a decrease of over 23%.  The membership loss in 2013 was 2,465 alone, nearly double the yearly average over the last ten years.  So the membership loss is getting worse, not better, even in light of the church’s permissive stance regarding sexuality.

Worship attendance was even worse.  In 2003, the PNW reported 26,421 in average worship attendance.  Now that number is 18,505, a decline of 30%.  In 2013 alone, worship attendance declined 1,663, an 8.2% drop!  The decrease in worship attendance in 2013 alone was more than double the average annual decrease over the last ten years, so again, the loss is getting worse.

Some would have us believe that the future of our church lies with the path of accommodation to our culture’s values and priorities.  If we want a future of dramatic decline into irrelevance and eventual extinction, that is definitely the way to go.  It is the pathway taken by the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  All are experiencing accelerated decline due to their approval of same-sex marriage and same-sex behavior.

No, I believe the numbers show that an agenda of radical sexual permissiveness does not help the church grow, but instead contributes to its decline.  The hypothesis advocated by many is false.

The tragedy is that the PNW Annual Conference may indeed foretell the future of United Methodism.  If we make unity and inclusiveness our primary aim, rather than faithfulness to God’s word and 2,000 years of Christian teaching, we will see the whole church experience this type of decline over time.  Instead, I believe God calls us to seek truth and righteousness (the Kingdom of God), and God will bless and direct our ministries into fruitfulness.

28 thoughts on “Methodism of the Future?

  1. Well said. Most people in the pews do not know this is even going on. The only ones that know are those that subscribe to a online newsletter. How do we get the local congregations informed?

    1. Thank you, Mary. Word of mouth is the best way to spread the word. We continue to reach out as much as possible to new people with the message. Your telling your friends is one thing we are counting on!

  2. I serve one of the largest churches in the Western Jurisdiction. Our welcome reads as follows :We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, or no habla inglés. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds. (see the rest on the web site)

    In 2003 we had an average attendance of 933
    In 2013 we averaged 1212
    For the first half of 2014 we have averaged 1300.

    I serve under Bishop Hagiya. Jesus Christ is preached and all are welcome and we are growing. Your conclusion is not true in Boise.

    1. Duane, I’m grateful for the growth and new life in Christ this church has experienced, but it’s clearly an “outlier” in your Conference and Jurisdiction. Michelangelo suggested we, “Criticize by creating,” which seems to be what this congregation is doing. Great! How many other UM churches are there in your Conference and Jurisdiction with this many people in worship or that are even growing? What are you doing differently that isn’t happening in the congregations where you aren’t serving? I think you help make Tom’s point by being the exception to the rule. The best way to prove Lambrecht wrong, it seems to me, would be to have many growing, thriving congregations just like yours.

      1. I’m 29 years old. I serve as the senior pastor at St Paul’s United Methodist Church in Idaho Falls, ID. We open every email and with “Passionate. Inclusive. Changing the World.” We welcome all people our church.

        in 2012 avg attendance was 160
        in 2013 avg attendance was 172
        in 2014 we averaged 207 in worship

        I also serve under Bishop Grant Hagiya. It is almost as if openness to the LGBT community is not the only contributing factor to a church’s growth or decline.

      2. Jamie, This is a logical fallacy: correlation is not causation. If it does. Perhaps it’s the republican run congress that is causing the decline? Or surely it’s president Obama’s fraught, or global warming?

        In this district there are many churches growing that are fully welcoming, Hillview, St. Paul, kuna, meridian, to name a few. Cannot speak to the jurisdiction other than to say Glide is hitting it out of the park over 3000 in worship.

        If this correlation is causation check statistics on West Ohio and others that are more to the right.

        I work for Methodism of the future by working with other leaders throughout the year, hosting leadership training, working with the cabinet, mentoring student at United Seminary, leading multi campus ministry, teaching in Vietnam, leading the walk toEmmaus in Idaho, investing in camping, encouraging clergy helping the local church to change the world in the areas of hunge,housing and health and opening the church to all people.

        I believe best days ahead of us as we together make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

        1. Duane, why do you think, as Lambrecht pointed out, “In the three years from 2009-2012, the Western Jurisdiction declined 7.0%?”

          1. Great questions Jamie. Truth is I have no answer yet. My time here is short. I have been here two years. I see great things happening, but lots of room for growth. The PNW is known as the None Zone. more people in this part of the country say that they have no religious affiliation than any part of the country. So we are working to introduce Jesus in new ways. Pray for leadership to come…the fields are ripe for harvest. What a great place to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

    2. There is some causation since the 1970s to the relationship between church conservatism and both membership and attendance. These statistics are readily available and apparent. You may think traditional orthodox theology is wrong, but you cannot escape the fact that those are the growing churches.

  3. As a life-long North Carolinian (NCCUMC), I was reared in a Missionary Baptist Church and became a loyal Methodist after a 20-25 year hiatus from attending ANY church. I was so very proud of the North Carolina Conference this year when we finally tabled the discussion on equality to rest “INDEFINITELY”!

    The day that the NCCUMC votes to overthrow the long-held tenets of the faith and go over to the side of supporting same-sex marriages will be the saddest day in my life! The Bible is very clear on this subject and I simply do not understand how anyone who professes Christ as Lord and Savior, believing that He suffered and died for our sins, can possibly support same-sex marriages with a clear conscience!

    May God have mercy on their immortal souls!

  4. I have friends who attended a church in the Northeastern Jurisdiction. The church has been a conservative church for years. They were appointed a pastor who was very liberal. You can guess what happened! The mission minded, tithers, Bible scholars, marriage mentors, Sunday. School .teachers, youth leaders, and young families are not there now. Forty-two percent of the church attenders, before that appointment, have either left for other churches or in the midst of shopping for another church. They just couldn’t believe that the UMC would even have pastors like that. They are spreading the word that they will never again attend a denomination that has pastors who would tell them that the church must move with the culture.

  5. Do we let the world dictate our beliefs, or do we go to God’s Holy inspired word and let it dictate. I choose the holy word of God.

  6. Too much good is going on in the lives and ministries of very committed United Methodists for God not have a plan to deal with this rebellion. I like the Confessing Movement’s call for weekly fasting as a way of humbling ourselves before God and placing ourselves in His hands. Hezekiah was faced with an impossible situation facing the Assyrian army. He placed himself and his people into God’s hands and as he and the prophet Isaiah prayed, God sent an impossible victory…

    “Now because of this King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, the son of Amoz, prayed and cried out to heaven. Then the LORD sent an angel who cut down every mighty man of valor, leader, and captain in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned shamefaced to his own land. And when he had gone into the temple of his god, some of his own offspring struck him down with the sword there. Thus the LORD saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib the king of Assyria, and from the hand of all others, and guided them on every side. “(2Ch 32:20-22 NKJV)

  7. My own church welcomes gay people, and there are several gay couples, some with children. Some gay people serve important functions in leadership. Honestly, they are lovely people, in long term relationships, with responsible jobs in our community. I can’t imagine the pain that results when a church makes such a harsh judgement and tries to tell people they are morally inferior and unfit to attend, to worship, or to work for the kingdom of God on earth. They are faithful people, and I’ll not stand in their way. I support Pastor Duane Anders and Bishop Grant Hagiya as they navigate these tough issues and continue to provide a way to God for everybody.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Barbara. I just want to clarify that I am not saying that anyone (gay or straight) is “unfit to attend, to worship, or to work for the kingdom of God on earth.” I believe, as the Discipline says, that all persons are welcome in our churches. All of us are sinners who fall short of God’s glorious standard. We all need the grace of God to overcome our sinful inclinations and actions. What I think most evangelical United Methodists would oppose is redefining what the Bible categorizes as sin into something that is acceptable and affirmed by the church.

    2. One way to discredit an opponent to label his/her beliefs as “homophobic”, “hateful”, or exclusionary from worship (i.e. intolerant of some people as “unfit to attend, to worship, or to work for the kingdom of God on earth”) As Tom has pointed out, I have not seen these attitudes or words exhibited here by those in the UMC who take a traditional stance on the subjects of marriage and ordination. I take such a traditional stance even though we were married knowingly by a practicing gay UMC minister 30+ years ago. Fine preacher, good man, we still visit as friends. But I have shared my view that Biblically he should not be in the role of minister–perhaps even to marry us, his friends. All people are welcome to worship. Not all are qualified theologically, by education or by other criteria to be ordained, nor are all relationships qualified to be “marriage.”

  8. I have never thought that stats made a good theological argument. I am forever shocked at the shallowness of this debate. I understand those that feel the Bible condemns homosexuality. I am at a lost to understand serious Christians who do not at least understand the other side. It is almost a willful blindness. I also do not understand the desire to use this issue to divide the church. CS Lewis in Mere Christianity said it well.

    ” Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Jay.

      Is it that we don’t understand the perspective of those wanting to affirm same-sex behavior, or that we simply don’t agree with it? What would indicate to you that a person DOES understand the other’s perspective?

      I don’t know many of us who believe that homosexual behavior is worse than any other sin. But it is the only such sin right now that people are asking the church to make “not a sin.”

      I have great respect and appreciation for C.S. Lewis and agree with his main point in the quote. However, I would also mention Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” (I Cor 6:18-20) Sexual sin is a serious matter, not just a minor peccadillo.

  9. Neither, it is treating your fellow Christians as somehow “others” who are outside the bounds of the church. Tom, I bet we agree on most theological issues. I bet what unites us far out weights what divides us. I bet we will both change out thinking on this and other issues as we grow, make mistakes and mature. I feel that the real sin here is not who is right and who is wrong, it is exaggerating our differences. It is thinking of ourselves as traditionalist or progressives. It is seriously thinking about formally breaking the church in two over this issue. I am your Christina brother.

    I believe the whole Book of Discipline argument is overblown. Prior to 1972 the church book was silent on homosexuality and was clear that the church did not support divorce. That year the church began a process of almost embracing divorce and on a floor amendment added the language that singles out only one group for condemnation.

    1. Thanks for your perspective, Jay. I hope that we agree on a lot more than we disagree on. That is not often the case with regard to theological progressives who disagree with the church’s teaching on homosexuality. (Not saying you are a theological progressive.)

      Prior to 1972, there was not the push to endorse homosexuality, so it was not necessary to mention it in the Discipline. (Same situation as why Jesus didn’t address it specifically.) The sexual revolution of the 60’s came into the church through the Board of Discipleship (led by Melvin Talbert at that time) and through studies that promoted sexual libertarianism. That led to the change on divorce and downplaying the need for chastity before marriage. I would like to see the language in the Discipline strengthened in those areas. I agree that homosexuality should not be the only sexual issue addressed. For the full story on how this all developed, read Karen Booth’s recent book, “Forgetting How to Blush.”

  10. Would you like divorced clergy banned? Would you be in favor of language like” divorce is incompatible with Christian teaching”? Would you favor splitting the church if people disagreed or felt there was a better way to address the issue or are those steps only appropriate for gays? I read your blog faithfully and can not recall you having much to say on this issue.

    1. Thanks for the question, Jay.

      I don’t believe divorce is as black and white an issue in Scripture as sex outside of marriage and homosexuality. Some divorces are scripturally valid (e.g., for adultery or desertion or I would add for abuse). Those should not affect one’s ability to serve as clergy. On the other hand, some divorces are contrary to God’s will in Scripture, and clergy ought to be disqualified for that. In my experience, I have seen clergy forced to surrender their credentials because of having a divorce that was unscriptural. I also believe that divorce is not an unforgivable sin. If persons who divorce confess their sin and seek forgiveness, even of the spouse whom they wronged, I would think they could continue to serve as clergy. I also think it is often a good idea for clergy who are going through a divorce to take some time off from ministry in order to be healed. Of course, that would require church support financially.

      What do you think, Jay?

      1. My experience of the UMC is that for the most part we embrace divorce. I have attended churches where both the Sr. Pastor and Associate Pastor have been divorced. I think the NT and Jesus are clearer on divorce than homosexuality yet the church is comfortable with accommodating these views. No one will be tried for marrying two divorced people unless they are of the same gender. What logic led the church to focus on gays? Certainly divorce causes much more harm. Gays simply are trying to embrace the most traditional of all customs ( marriage) and serve the church in the face some unkind ( dare I say un Christian ) head winds.

        I think part of the explanation is a failure to see these Christian brothers and sisters clearly and letting the whole topic get treated like a political issue.

        1. Jay, I agree that divorce is a greater problem in society than same-sex marriage. In many cases, the church and Christians have bought into the “sexual liberation agenda” or the “personal fulfillment agenda” that was spawned in the 60’s. The idea is that I am entitled to do whatever I want or feel I need to do to gain personal fulfillment, even sexual immorality. There is a blatant disregard for God’s will for how our human sexuality can be a positive part of both our personal fulfillment and the furtherance of God’s plan for redeeming the world. Instead, I want to do what I want to do, regardless of what God says.

          I would say that what leads the church to focus on gays is the attempt to make same-sex behavior affirmed as an “alternative Christian lifestyle.” No one is pushing us to change our Social Principles to say that divorce is a good and positive Christian option. No one is setting quotas to make sure divorced people are included in the right proportion in positions of responsibility. No one is asking to add “divorce” as a protected class of people who may not be discriminated against. So the focus on gays is coming from the “pro-gay” side.

          1. The chief weakness in your position is it is built on the assumption that people like me have a “sexual liberation agenda” and a “personal fulfillment agenda”. Or that we believe in an “alternative Christian lifestyle”. I have been married 40 years.

            The secondary weakness is that we seek “protected class status for gays”. I would hope that we are all a protected class in the church. At the Texas Annual Conference the resolution to address these issues was to simply strike language that singled out gays ( for example the incompatibility language). I am fine with a Methodist pastor preaching in ways that I disagree with on this issue.

          2. I wasn’t making an assumption about you, Jay. I was speaking more generally about the culture we live in and the mindset of many people, straight as well as gay. You were talking about divorce, and that was what I was mainly referring to. A reason for a lot of divorces is people who aren’t happy together and believe someone else can make them happier. In addition, there are those who want to act on their same-sex attractions so that they can be “happy,” regardless of what the Bible teaches about God’s will on the subject.

            With regard to the “protected class status,” if you take out of the Discipline the incompatibility language, all you have left is protected class language. There are specific references to civil rights for LGBTQ persons, there are pleas for inclusion and not to reject them, etc. If you don’t want to single out LGBTQ persons, you would have to remove all language about them from the Social Principles.

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