We just finished hearing the report of the Call to Action committee, which was presented by Adam Hamilton and others on the floor at General Conference. For those who may be unfamiliar with CTA (as I'll refer to it henceforth), it's a proposal by a task force convened by the Council of Bishops to propose measures to increase the vitality of United Methodist congregations and, as a result, to stop the denomination's precipitous decline. The presentation began with some staggering numbers:
- Over the last five years, membership in the UMC in the United States has declined 5.3% (424,000 members)
- Worship attendance has declined by 8.7% over the last five years (291,600 less on an average Sunday than five years ago)
- Baptisms and confirmations of children and youth have declined by 21% over the same period.
- Only 15% of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. are considered to be "highly vital," a designation which is marked by:
- Effective pastoral leadership
- Multiple small groups and programs for adults, children, and youth
- Worship that connects across generations
- A high percentage of spiritually engaged laity in leadership
The vast majority of our congregations do not meet these criteria for vitality.
The upshot of all this, according to the report, is that in 25 years our denomination will no longer have children and youth in our churches, and in 50 years we will no longer exist if the current trends are not reversed.
The Call to Action task force thus offers the General Conference four proposals for vote in the next few days as a means of re-vitalizing the United Methodist Church (or at least slowing the decline):
- A ten year focus to create and sustain vital congregations.
- Allow annual conference to restructure themselves to fit their local contexts.
- Restructure the denominational agencies to foster flexibility and collaboration.
- Invest in leadership, including raising up the next generation of clergy (52% of UM clergy are ages 55-72)
The General Conference will be voting on these initiatives, which are more complex than I have outlined here. But here's my two cents…
A lot of the energy in the proposal is around clergy–making clergy more effective, getting more clergy, raising up younger clergy, holding clergy and bishops accountable. As a clergy person, part of me celebrated this. I like being held accountable and I think it's a good idea to raise the bar on standards for the conduct of ministry. But here's the problem–this won't reform the Church anymore than better clergy would have reformed the Anglican Church in Wesley's own day. Methodists never were a clergy movement in the beginning. They were first a discipleship movement. As my friend Steve Manksar of the General Board of Discipleship tweeted during the presentation, "We don't need more clergy, we need faithful disciples of Jesus Christ."
CTA talks a lot about raising up clergy, but their primary answer for doing so is designating money to send young people to seminary. Again, I liked seminary enough to go twice. But clergy depth is not generated in seminary. If you go to seminary to learn the faith and learn to live it out, that's way too late in most cases! I was blessed to be raised in a church whose primary focus was about shaping me as a disciple of Jesus Christ. While I may now disagree with some of the doctrinal principles I was taught there, I will always be grateful for the expectation that was given to me to grow in faith. It was the church that gave me the tools to do that long before I ever darkened the doors of Asbury Seminary.
Come to think of it, the clergy of the church I grew up in weren't even the primary ones who shaped my faith. It was the non-ordained disciples who did so–Mrs. M who taught us in Sunday School; Brian, my youth leader who showed up at every one of my concerts and took me to his house for dinner when Ididn't know where my next meal was coming from. There were the elders of the church who taught me the historic doctrines of the church, and the myriad people who prayed me and my sisters through the death of my mother and slipped groceries into the car when no one was looking.
I didn't know it then, but they were the church. The pastors were awesome but it was the church full of disciples who shaped me and made me who I am today. I have not forgotten.
When I became a United Methodist, I was intrigued that Wesley had a method for doing what the folks at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Butler, PA did, and then some. The class meeting was the place where the church happened and grew in early Methodism–the place where lay persons, led by lay leaders, stirred one another to Christian perfection by looking each other in the eye and asking, "How is it with your soul?" It was in the class meeting where empty seats welcomed visitors seeking faith. It was in the class meeting that people banded together to be in mission to their neighbors. It was in the class meeting that vitality was measured one disciple at a time.
I wonder what would have happened if Call to Action had recommended that the way to vitality in our future is to return to the best methodology of our past? What if the report had said, "We are calling on every United Methodist Church to engage in an intentional process of making disciples of Jesus Christ in every age group using the best practices of a movement? What if we developed a system for making disciples–a clergy supported but lay-led system–that was less concerned with counting butts in the pews and more concerned and fully focused on growing a kid, a teenager, an adult into a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ? My guess is that you wouldn't have to go fishing for effective leaders, lay or clergy, at that point. You would only have to launch them into the world!
The closing image of the report was a video about a church that was closing. It was a kind of "don't let this happen to you" image. There were lots of empty pews throughout. Maybe that's not a bad image if it means that they're empty because everyone is out announcing the kingdom. That's an image of the future I can get behind!