What will future hold for the United Methodist Church?


By Mike Childs

Guest Columnist

The problem is worse than you thought. If we continue doing what we are doing for another 80 years, the United Methodist Church will be extinct in the United States.


Just look at the facts. In 1968, when the United Methodist Church was formed, we had 11 million members. Our membership just fell below 8 million members in this country.

We have lost members every year since the United Methodist Church was formed. That is 38 consecutive years of membership loss! Worship attendance decreased 1.05 percent in 2005 to the lowest level in our history!


How bad is it? Consider this: In 1950, the Methodist Church had 1.8 million more members than the Southern Baptists. In 1968, when the United Methodist Church was formed, the two denominations were about the same size — 11 million United Methodists and 11.3 million Southern Baptists. Today there are over 16 million Southern Baptists and fewer than 8 million United Methodists.


The system is broken. If the United Methodist Church is to have a future, then the hierarchy (bishops and bureaucracy), the pastors and the local congregations all need to take a good look at themselves.


If the bishops want to know what’s wrong with our church, they should first look in the mirror. The fact is that our church hierarchy is out of touch with the grassroots of the church.


Much evidence shows the disconnect between our church hierarchy and local congregations. For example, 30 years ago our church spoke clearly on the issue of homosexuality at the 1972 General Conference, declaring that the practice is incompatible with a Christian lifestyle. Thirty years later, some of our leaders still are pushing a pro-gay agenda.


Last September, a number of bishops thumbed their noses at the wishes of the grassroots of the church to endorse and approve the “Hearts on Fire” pro-gay rally at Lake Junaluska, N.C.


In Virginia, a bishop sought to destroy the career of the Rev. Ed Johnson, a faithful servant of the church, because he refused give the vows of church membership to an unrepentant practicing homosexual. Not a single bishop spoke out against this ugly and gross abuse of ecclesiastical authority. Fortunately, the bishop was overruled by the Judicial Council. The bishops did speak out against the Judicial Council.


It is dereliction of duty for our bishops to continue to allow the issue of homosexuality to divide us. Every General Conference for the last 30 years has spoken on this issue, and it is time to move on. Any bishop or church bureaucrat who continues to push the pro-gay agenda needs to be removed.


Our bishops have not defended Biblical doctrine. Bishop Joe Sprague, now retired, even denied the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, and only a handful of his colleagues objected. Not one bishop dared call him a heretic.


The accountability of bishops is an issue whose time has come. There is a growing consensus that there needs to be term limits for bishops. Lifetime tenure has led to an arrogant, unresponsive and unaccountable Council of Bishops. Lifetime tenure has produced an isolated ecclesiastical hierarchy that refuses to hold one another accountable. Collegiality has become the idol of the episcopacy. Term limits are needed to draw the bishops back into the reality of the grassroots church.


Pastors also need to take a good look in the mirror. One of the major problems that we face is a lack of sound Biblical preaching. Our people are leaving because they are not being fed. Is it possible that the preaching of the gospel would result in a decrease of more than 3 million members? Absolutely not!


Too many of our pastors are actually hostile to spiritual renewal movements such as the Emmaus Walk and Disciple Bible Study. They are threatened by vital spirituality.

Some of our pastors do not shepherd their flocks. They are not a part of their peoples’ lives. They do not visit, and some do not even make hospital calls. They are not there to weep with the hurting.


Our churches also need to look in the mirror. The average age of a United Methodist is now about 60. That’s the average. We are losing our young people. Churches that will not change will die. The truth is that many churches would rather die than change.

Churches must become intentional about growing. We must teach our people to share their faith. We must welcome and include visitors. We must be willing to share leadership.


Our worship style must change. One of the largest United Methodist congregations in Mississippi is less than 10 years old. It’s worship service is contemporary and informal. Of course, a totally contemporary service is not appropriate for most of our traditional churches. But if we do not blend a significant amount of praise and contemporary music with our traditional hymns, we are going to lose most of the under under-40 generation.

I realize that there are still good bishops, effective pastors and vital congregations in our United Methodist Church. I am not pointing fingers at them. I thank God for them.


I do not believe the United Methodist Church is doomed. I believe God can revive us, if we are willing. God specializes in reviving dry bones, and our bones are about as dry as they get. We are ripe for revival.


But we must face the truth. We must be willing to change.


Childs is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Louisville.