Church developers explore United Methodist ‘myths’


By Linda Green
United Methodist News Service

ORLANDO, Fla. — The notion that The United Methodist Church is dying has been repeated so often that it has become a belief, when in fact it is a myth, according to a church executive and author.

The reality is that the 11.5-million member denomination is poised for hope, said the Rev. Craig Miller to church leaders attending a workshop about myths of The United Methodist Church. The class was held during the 2008 United Methodist School of Congregational Development.

Miller, a staff member of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, is author of 7 Myths of The United Methodist Church. He said belief in the myths prevents many United Methodist churches from growing.

The denomination has embarked on an initiative to strengthen and revitalize existing churches and to start new ones. The school of congregational development is part of that effort.

The July 31-Aug. 5 school used educational tracks, plenary gatherings and “teaching churches” to give the 300 people in Orlando and 150 at another site in Grand Rapids, Mich., strategies and ideas for creating and developing disciple-making congregations.

“It is a great joy to see how many of our bishops, district superintendents (and) annual conference leaders have become part of the school of congregational development to learn together, and it gives me great hope because as we learn together it will help us move deeper into this idea of change,” Miller said. Turning a church from slow death to vitality requires discipline, motivation and faith that transformation can happen, he said.

The myth that the church is dying is also contradicted by the denomination’s official statistics, which show membership increasing worldwide.

Being connectional
Both a myth and a reality about United Methodist churches is that “we are connectional,” said Miller. The church is connected institutionally, but its people are not connected as much in their relationships with others, he said.

The clergy at the school of congregational development were asked if they prayed for the United Methodist church down the street and if they knew the leader or leaders in that congregation. “It is about relationships with others,” he said.

A third myth is that big churches are bad. The reality is that big churches -— those 31 United Methodist churches that have 2,000 or more in worship — offer multiple experiences of grace, Miller said.

Of the 35,000 United Methodist churches in the United States, 47 percent have 50 or fewer people in worship. Thirty percent of the total have between 50 to 119 people in worship, and the rest have more than 120 people in worship. “There is a suspicion about big churches,” Miller said. “People question what it is about those churches that allow them to grow, or they question their theology.” 

But the large or megachurches are the ones used to learn the principles of creating new congregations and other discipleship-making strategies, Miller said. In the last 10 years, megachurches have been growing because they offer opportunities that encourage people to develop their faith.

“The challenge for us is do we look to them with suspicion or is there something we need to learn from those churches that would allow us to flourish,” he said. Churches that make disciples are those that know their context or area, have a discipleship process for newcomers and offer multiple experiences of grace.

Re-envisioning the church
Local churches that desire new members but cannot get them often verbalize a fourth myth that “there are no people out there.” The reality is that there are plenty of people in the neighborhood, but “they are just different from us,” Miller said. A church must intentionally rebirth itself and re-envision itself to connect with people and help them connect with God, he added.

Historically, a Methodist church was planted every one to three miles and went to where the people were. That strategy still exists today, and while churches do close or merge with others, there is a fifth myth that “we have too many churches,” Miller said.

It is not that there are too many United Methodist churches, he said. The reality is that there are too many churches in the “wrong places” and “in the wrong era.”

In the Western Jurisdiction, there is one United Methodist church for every 37,000 people, while there is one for every 6,337 people in the South Central Jurisdiction, one per 5,400 in the Southeast, one per 8,400 in the Northeast, and one for every 7,600 in the North Central Jurisdiction.

Miller said there is tremendous potential for the church to connect with the population growth expected across the United States by 2030. The growth is projected to be greatest in the South Central and Western jurisdictions, at 27 percent, followed by the Southeastern Jurisdiction at 26 percent. The North Central and Northeastern jurisdictions are projected to grow at 8 percent.

The school of development is also an avenue to dispel the sixth myth, that “we don’t know how to start new churches.” At one time in its history, The United Methodist Church or its predecessor denominations started a new church every day. Currently in the United States, the denomination averages one church start every 7.6 days.

The reality is that the denomination knows multiple ways of starting new faith communities, Miller said.

While some new churches do fail, others have been sustained or have grown because they connected their discipleship systems, like Sunday school and Bible study, with worship. “It is a mistake to start a new church and not think of the systems to bring people in,” Miller said.

The final myth is that people in local churches do not want to change. Often, the church does want to change, but “it is the pastor that does not want to change or pay the price,” he said. Effective congregations are led by leaders who welcome innovation and change, Miller said.

“As long as we live with this myth, nothing will change,” he said. Churches that want change learn from others, learn with others and learn from mistakes, he said. They are passionate for God, for others and for God’s vision."