I think it is time you know the truth. I have noticed something after having served the connection as a student pastor, a local pastor, a jurisdictional executive, and now as part of the office of New Faith Communities for the NC Conference; we United Methodists aren’t always big fans of the truth. I believe that we need to hear the truth, and as somebody we claim to follow proclaimed, “the Truth will set you free.”
I have a theory about revitalization in our church. My theory is that before we can chart the path forward we have to know where we are. You never leave to go on vacation without getting out a map, identifying where you are, and knowing where you want to go (actually your GPS probably does all that for you, but you get the picture). I want you to understand why I believe it is absolutely essential that your and my church, whether it has ten, one hundred and ten, of five hundred and ten on Sunday morning, needs a clearly defined and simple disciple making process. We must return to making job one the making of disciples for Jesus Christ (check out Matthew 28 for Jesus’ mandate).
A little truth telling:
In 1968 with the union of the United Brethren and the Methodist Church there were 11 million people in the US who called themselves United Methodist. In 1998 there were about 8,360,000 UMC in the US. By 2008 there were only 7,700,000, or a lost of about 4 million people. If we are truthful we all know that even the 7.7 million is inflated due to unreported deaths, vocational mobility, and false reporting. During the same period the US population grew by 100 million people. We have a problem, and that is the truth.
United Methodism has a D3 problem: We are dying; defecting; and drifting.
At an average age of 64, nearly double the US national average of 37, we are dying. The good news is that the average lifespan is 78. The bad news is that means we are fourteen years away from fading into the history books. By the time your grandchildren become adults it is estimated that only about 4% of them will be active in any form of local church and by then, unless we take action, the UMC could be a footnote on the religious landscape of American Christianity. United Methodists are dying, that is the truth.
United Methodists are defecting. In greater and greater numbers as theology becomes less important, quite possibly due to our lack of engagement in the disciple making of our members, UM’s are headed in three directions. They are moving toward either non-denominational, highly experiential expressions of faith, or toward more liturgically informed and catechistically demanding expressions like Roman Catholic and Anglican. They are seeking both powerful spiritual experience and depth of scriptural liturgy as well as a strong sense of accountability that seems to be missing from our spectator based understanding of church. We lowered the bar of spiritual expectations and they stepped over it on the way out the door. United Methodists are defecting, that is the truth.
United Methodists are drifting. Even more than either dying or defecting, United Methodists are drifting into a complete disengagement with their spiritual life. It is not that they are abandoning their faith, as a matter of fact just try to remove them from your rolls. They will staunchly object (of course for some of you that’s because they want to keep their funeral plot, but that’s back to dying). They have succumbed to being nominally religious and practically agnostic. Our churches are often packed on Easter and Christmas Eve as people seek to fulfill some kind of cultural religious obligation. However on almost any other Sunday their disengagement is evident by the continuing decline in worship attendance across the connection. United Methodists are drifting, that is the truth.
One last piece of truth, there is no magic bullet. There is no miracle set of materials that will allow us to buy and bargain our way out of dying, defecting, and drifting into non-existence. I am not trying to promote a book, sell a curriculum, or to tell you it is going to be easy for you to help bring renewal to your local church. I do want you to understand that I believe that God is not done with the United Methodist Church and you can be part of restoring the movement that changed both England and shaped the United States if you are willing to do the hard work of ministry our foremothers and fathers were committed to doing.
You see the Methodist movement was not a movement of bishops and clergy; it was a movement of common people with an uncommon passion for Jesus. Unlike us they did not need a “Call to Action,” you couldn’t hold them back from sharing their faith and transforming their world. They believed that resurrection was a life-transforming fact, that the Bible was God’s word, and that the world needed Jesus. They met in brush arbors outside of town, held camp meetings with fiery preaching, and, perhaps most importantly, set up systems of disciple making that called people into relationships that helped them live at a higher level, held them together when their life fell apart, and held them accountable to be the people of God that God had called them to be. Somewhere along the line we have domesticated our faith and forgot that we are called to help people become disciples and not just make decisions. We have reduced our spiritual commitment to a one and done spirituality when what it needs is a system that reinforces a daily walk with Jesus. This is what I know, disciple making is scriptural, historical, and practical and demands that we reclaim our focus upon disciple making as a driving force to empower the renewal of our local churches.
Why Is Intentional Disciple making Important?
Scriptural: Since Moses received the Ten Commandments the Bible testifies to the absolute necessity of being formed by the Word of God. Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were to “make disciples,” not make spectators. Reproduction is part of the requirement for being Christian, it is not optional.
Historical: It is part of our United Methodist history. We are supposed to be people “of the Book” and what we have become is people of the back row. Historically worship has never been the center of Methodist life, small groups, or groups that met in homes for prayer, scripture, and support called class meetings has. The reason we are struggling is not only because the world has changed, it is also because we have become something we were never meant to be, Sunday morning, sideline Christians. The three pillars Methodism was built on were strong lay leadership; intentional disciple making; and missional action.
Practical: It works. At the end of the day your church and my church must have an intentional disciple making process because it works. Margret Mead once said: “Do not doubt that a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”I want our congregation to be part of a movement to change the world. Regardless of whether you have ten or five hundred and ten, make a plan. This is what I know, if you don’t hear anything else here this, if you aren’t dead, you aren’t done! God has a plan, path, and purpose for your church, you have the potential, but will you persevere?
Consumed by the Call,
The views and opinions on martycauley.org are those of Dr. Marty Cauley and his guest writers and do not reflect those by the NCCUMC, or its leadership.