Analysis: Church must change or continue to shrink


(Note: Bishop Hope Morgan Ward has invited all clergy and lay members of the Mississippi Annual Conference to read Rev. Lovett Weems' "Ten Provocative Questions" analysis this winter in preparation for regional gatherings she is conducting. Rev. Weems will be at the 2008 Mississippi Annual Conference in June.)

By Linda Green
United Methodist News Service

LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. — The United Methodist presence in the United States today is the same as it was in 1820. And, if trends in aging and membership losses continue at their current rates, the church will shrink to its size at the time of the first Christmas Conference in 1784.

The analysis came from the Rev. Lovett Weems, a United Methodist researcher, speaking Nov. 6 to the denomination’s Council of Bishops after examining the State of the Church report released churchwide in June.

The report provides a baseline of the thoughts, feelings, values and judgments of a cross-section of United Methodist leaders and members, said Ohio East Bishop John Hopkins, president of the Connectional Table, the leadership entity that coordinates the mission, ministries and resources for the denomination.

The Connectional Table commissioned the report in 2005 and asked Weems to review the resulting data and feedback and identify emerging questions, contradictions and implications. Weems is professor of church leadership and director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.

Weems provided his analysis in the form of questions related to 10 areas:

1. Theological grounding and spiritual vitality
2. A global church
3. Church structure
4. The aging church
5. Finances
6. Young clergy recruitment
7. Diversity
8. The church’s future
9. Large churches
10. Pastoral effectiveness

The questions “lead us to wonder if we can have a future worthy of our past,” said Weems, adding that “without a new vision, the future does not look bright.” However, he also told the bishops that new visions often emerge in times of hardship.

United Methodist leaders have been struggling for decades to understand the gradual decline of the denomination’s reach in the United States, where membership is almost 8 million, a decline of 19 percent since 1974. Forty-one percent of United Methodist churches in the United States did not report a single profession of faith in 2005.

Age and ethnicity
Weems said The United Methodist Church has a future in the United States only if it can reach younger and more diverse people.

The church grew up in America in the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, but “as the last century unfolded, the nation changed and the church did not.”

Today, the U.S. church is smaller and older and less diverse than the country’s population, he said, noting that the denomination has steadily grayed since 1975.

Weems said the issue of race and ethnicity is not as prominent in the State of the Church report as would be expected given that the United States is undergoing one of the most dramatic racial and ethnic shifts in its history.

He said all mainline churches have statements about inclusiveness, but “there is not single mainline denomination in the United States that has shown that it can reach any group of people other than white people as well as it can reach white people.”

The United Methodist Church is most effective at reaching whites and African Americans but is even struggling today to reach those groups, according to Weems. “The need for a renewed spirit of inclusion of people is crucial today,” he said. The church’s future will be shaped by “its willingness and ability to respond to the changing face of America.”

Graying clergy, large churches
Weems called the lack of young United Methodist clergy both a crisis and a “complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon” and asked if they should be declared an endangered species. Over the last 20 years, the denomination’s U.S. clergy under the age of 35 has dropped below 5 percent.

“There is no single cause and no single solution,” he said.

The church must recruit young clergy to bring new ideas, creativity, energy and cultural awareness, said Weems. He added that, without them, these characteristic are lost, jeopardizing the wisdom and experience that can come with long ministry tenures.

Weems told the bishops that large churches have attracted young people and diverse congregations for at least 30 years.

Only 1 percent of the 34,892 United Methodist churches have a worship attendance of more than 500 people, and those larger congregations represent 20 percent of membership, 20 percent of attendance, 24 percent of profession of faith, 25 percent of youth, 26 percent of children and 29 percent of people of color.

The numbers, he said, “cry out for attention to what we all can learn from these congregations.”

Silver lining
The good news is that the report indicates that United Methodists are immersed in experiences leading to theological grounding and spiritual vitality.

“United Methodist core beliefs are clear,” and there is “remarkable” consensus on key tenets of the Christian faith, he said, with variations of emphasis in the United States and across the globe.

Weems described the church as evangelical in a liberal tradition. The church, he said, is the first to challenge assumptions and to open windows and doors to new ideas and possibilities when faith demands it.

“Could such a vision that is both deep (in faith and piety) and open (to new needs and possibilities) sustain us over the years ahead?” he asked.

The report is based on surveys conducted between June and September of 2006, and involved interviewing a cross-section of about 3,000 United Methodist clergy, lay leaders and members from across the globe. Connectional Table leaders said the project was the first time the church has attempted to produce a comprehensive overview of the life of the church and was designed to stimulate churchwide conversation.

Read Weems' Full "Ten Provocative Questions" Analysis