Church builds vision for addressing critical issues facing United Methodists, world


A UMNS Commentary
From the General Secretaries of The United Methodist Church

Editor's note: The top staff executives - or general secretaries - of The United Methodist Church's boards and agencies have worked with other church leaders to develop four "areas of focus" for the denomination's ministries.

Methodism began as a movement. John Wesley sought to make disciples of Jesus Christ who were both transformed individually and committed to changing the unjust practices of the society in which they lived. With their actions, Wesley's early followers demonstrated a commitment to live faithfully and, importantly, to apply their energies to offer healing and reconciliation to the world. 

This history is part of the DNA of the people of The United Methodist Church. At no time more than the present should that DNA be instructive to us. An exciting conversation has begun, and United Methodists are asking how we might recapture that early spirit of a transformational movement, thereby deepening our faith and strengthening the spiritual life of our community.  

We see many signs that our church is strong. In the past decade, church membership in Africa has increased by 244 percent, to 3.1 million members. We are growing in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc nations, and among Korean Americans and other ethnic groups in the United States.

In 2005, at least 138 United Methodists responded to a call for mission volunteers in the United States and around the globe. That does not take into account the countless thousands of Wesleyans who selflessly volunteer their time to heal and reconcile, and never report it. Financial giving among members of our church has increased for 15 consecutive years, hitting a record in 2006. And our church is known for the way it responds in times of crisis.

But as many of us realize, The United Methodist Church is aging, and our numbers are declining:

  • The average United Methodist is 57 years old.
  • In some countries, notably the United States, we are not effectively reaching youth and young adults; United Methodists under age 18 account for 4.6 percent of church membership.
  • The number of ordained and commissioned elders under age 35 is a mere 850 in the United States
  • Membership globally is increasing, but U.S. membership has slipped below 8 million for the first time since the 1930s, even as non-white and immigrant populations in the United States rapidly grow.
  • While total giving in the United States has increased, the number of givers has decreased.  

More broadly, we know that our world today is crying out for physical and spiritual healing. Poverty and strife are among the hallmarks of our time - challenges so immense and complex that they numb the weary and lead our societies to complacency and resignation.

A growing conversation
United Methodists are at a critical juncture. Research reveals a deep yearning across the church for a common focus on mission and ministry — a powerful, noble vision to which we as a people can commit our energy and in which we can live out our faith. We hear the widespread belief that we are missing the essential energy of "movement," the collective claiming of what it means to live as Christians rooted in the Wesleyan tradition. 

The unfolding conversation is leading us to reclaim the energy of our tradition to "spread scriptural holiness across the land." It's in our DNA. By joining heart and hand, we assert personal religion, evangelical witness and Christian social action are reciprocal and mutually reinforcing.

The conversation is taking place simultaneously at the Council of Bishops, the Table of General Secretaries, the Connectional Table, and most importantly, in local churches across the continents. We seek a way to take the best of what United Methodists do today and focus and grow that work so it becomes a source of inspiration and opportunity for discipleship for all United Methodists. That effort has led to the creation of four "areas of focus" for the denomination - not for the next quadrennium, but for as far as the eye can see. It's a powerful idea that has captured the attention of United Methodists far and wide.

Today, the annual conferences and many local churches are reflecting upon these four areas of focus. Many conferences and churches, in the Wesleyan way, have been putting that discipleship into action for years, and we look to them as leaders. 

The Council of Bishops and Connectional Table are studying how these areas of focus might take shape in daily spiritual life. Likewise, the denomination's boards and agencies are determining how to apply churchwide resources to bring these areas of focus to life in a wide range of ministries. Their purpose is not to limit the great work of anyone, but to focus the great work of everyone, bringing context and deeper spiritual meaning to our immense capacity to spread scriptural holiness across the land.

The four focus areas
Everyone choosing to participate in this conversation has come to believe we are doing nothing short of answering the questions for our time: What is the United Methodist vision for living Wesley's principles - doing no harm, doing good and loving God? And how does that vision enable us to fulfill the church's mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? 

The growing belief is that these areas of focus provide that answer. They are:

  • Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world. The church must recruit young people for ministry and provide them with the skills necessary to be effective in this new time of opportunity. That includes women and people of color the world over. Similarly, we must offer leadership training for lay people who are in ministry in countless ways.  
  • Creating new places for new people by starting new congregations and renewing existing ones. If we are to remain faithful to our commitment to transform the world, we will reach out with genuine hospitality to people wherever they are. We will make them feel welcome as we start new faith communities, seek to renew existing ones and inspire faithful discipleship. 
  • Engaging in ministry with the poor. As an expression of our discipleship, United Methodists seek to alleviate conditions that undermine quality of life and limit the opportunity to flourish as we believe God intends for all. As with John Wesley, we seek to change conditions that are unjust, alienating and disempowering. We engage in ministry with the poor, and in this, we especially want to reach out to and protect children. 
  • Stamping out killer diseases by improving health globally. Conditions of poverty cause illness and death. The lack of access to doctors, nurses, medications and appropriate facilities is deadly, especially among those who live in conditions of poverty. But the diseases of poverty are not inevitable. We believe the people of The United Methodist Church can play a significant role in educating others about diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, and treating and preventing their devastating effects.  

United Methodists also understand how important it is to stand with those who do not have access to affordable health care - the uninsured in the United States as well as millions of people in the developing world - and to work toward the day when everyone has an opportunity to live a healthy, productive life.

There certainly are obstacles. We will only succeed if we operate in an uncommon spirit of collaboration, break our inertia and transcend our disagreements. We as a people must open ourselves to a new way of thinking about how we embody our faith. It's no small task, but if we are successful, we will have on our hands a great unifying movement of United Methodist people, a movement the world needs at the dawn of the 21st century.

This is an exciting time, and the invitation is extended to all to join the conversation and make this grand vision a reality.

The general secretaries of The United Methodist Church are the Rev. David Adams, Commission on United Methodist Men; Neil Alexander, president, United Methodist Publishing House; Barbara Boigegrain, Board of Pension and Health Benefits; M. Garlinda Burton, Commission on the Status and Role of Women; the Rev. R. Randy Day, Board of Global Ministries; the Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, Board of Higher Education and Ministry; the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, Board of Discipleship; Erin M. Hawkins, Commission on Religion and Race; the Rev. Larry Hollon, United Methodist Communications; Sandra Lackore, Council on Finance and Administration; the Rev. Larry Pickens, Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns; the Rev. Robert Williams, Commission on Archives and History; and Jim Winkler, Board of Church and Society.