Bishops hear hope in economist’s report
North Texas Conference Bishop Michael McKee was quick to his feet following a presentation by economist Donald House at a recent combined meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, of the Connectional Table and the General Council on Finance and Administration board of The United Methodist Church.
House had ended his presentation on a grim note, telling the global audience that his team’s findings predict the denomination has 15 years to turn the tide of declining memberships in order to have a sustainable future.
“I do not hear gloom and doom,” McKee said as he spoke to his colleagues. “I hear hope.”
In an interview with United Methodist Communications, McKee expounded on his initial reaction to the report by the Economic Advisory Committee.
“I think the report represents some accurate facts, so what we need to do now is instead of saying ‘what is this telling us about what we’re doing wrong,’ we should ask ‘what are we doing that is leading us to the truth?’” McKee said. “And the truth involves the question ‘What is God calling us to do?’”
Pew report shows religious landscape changing
House shared the Economic Advisory Committee report one week after the Pew Research Center released its new Religious Landscape Study, the first in eight years. In a similar tone, the survey found a drop in the Christian share of the U.S. population from 78 to just under 71 percent and an increase of about 19 million in the number of Americans who claim to have no religious affiliations.
On May 20, Wes Granberg-Michaelson wrote an article in The Washington Post titled “Think Christianity is dying? No, Christianity is shifting dramatically.” The article, filled with stats on Christianity in countries across the globe, tells a story that is less about the demise of Protestantism and Catholicism and more about the areas where the number of Christian believers is growing exponentially.
One out of four Christians in the world currently lives on the continent of Africa, with the Pew Research Center estimating that number will grow to 40 percent by 2030. The Christian community in Latin America and Africa account for 1 billion people. Asia’s Christian population of 350 million is projected to grow to 460 million by 2025.
Cultural shifts harken back to founding principles
Protestantism in the United States has benefitted from Christianity’s rise in other countries through immigration, the Washington Post article said. More than 720 congregations of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a denomination of 5 million members in 147 countries, are located in the United States. The church, founded in Nigeria, has built a worship center north of Dallas that will hold up to 10,000 people.
Indeed, a shift is occurring. Recognizing and responding to cultural and societal shifts, however, shouts back to the principles upon which John Wesley founded the Methodist Church. Looking back, McKee said, is the key to moving forward for the denomination.
“We need to recover the very beginnings of the United Methodist movement, which was meeting people where they were – and it wasn’t in churches,” McKee said. “In those days in England, you had children working in mines and factories, so you began to teach them to read. In the same way, as an example, we need to find a way to be in ministry with children who are in situations where it’s impossible for them to achieve the kind of life God wants them to achieve.
“We can say to people who are outside the church ‘We heard your longing. Let us introduce you to the One who really brings hope to your life.’"
In a follow-up interview, House echoed McKee’s remarks about remembering the denomination’s roots.
“I think 20 percent of the U.S. population could have an affinity for our Wesleyan theology if they understood it, but we don’t sell it well … and for The United Methodist Church if they knew us well,” House said.
Turning the world upside down
Another part of the strategy involves the denomination’s four Areas of Focus and Vital Congregations.
“We have to create new places for new people, develop new clergy and laity leaders and be a church that people recognize is making a difference in the world – which is why ministry with the poor and global health are so important,” McKee said, listing the denomination’s ministry focuses.
At the Council of Bishops meeting in Berlin last month, top leaders voted to adopt a set of missional goals for 2020, building on the core focus areas. Goals include partnering with schools to help end poverty, starting new faith communities, building a culture of call, reaching children with life-saving interventions, and equipping congregations with disciple-making processes to continue making new disciples and increasing the number of vital congregations.
House agreed goals in the four Areas of Focus are part of the solution in revitalizing The United Methodist Church.
“We must continue with new church starts and other vital initiatives,” he said, adding that church leaders need to develop a sense of urgency in response to his report’s findings.
“We can be excellent,” House said. There are both small and large United Methodist congregations that are growing and doing things well, he said. “It can be done.”
Northern Illinois Conference Bishop Sally Dyck, who also attended the meeting where House made his presentation, also agrees the four Areas of Focus are key to the denomination’s future.
“We have to stay focused,” Dyck said, “and we can trust that when we’re engaged outside of our existing contexts of ministry, we will find a dimension of revitalization that will surprise us.
“I see it happening in our churches in Chicago that have engaged with the children in their neighborhoods who have nowhere to safely go when school is out. Not only are the kids learning, safe and fed, but the laity … are energized! That’s just one example. We must go forward into new ways of being church!”
McKee points to the original church’s founders as additional models.
“Look at what they said about the earliest disciples,” said McKee. “They turned the world upside down. We need to turn the world upside down.”