This is the fourth post in this series of articles about the UM Study that found ineffective pastors as the major obstacle with turning around the UMC decline. Even though I have other comments, I will make this my last article about this particular study. My main problem isn’t really the findings of the study, but that I feel the study didn’t go far or deep enough in looking at the issue of decline in the UMC. Why, for instance, didn’t the study deal with any cultural issues? There have been significant changes in our culture and I would think that would have some bearing on our decline.
The ’shrinking’ middle
One of the problems I have with this study is it’s disregard for what is going on in society and the culture at large. Some have commented on the fact that we are experience a “shrinking middle.” The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The middle class is being squeezed. Instead of dealing with the traditional bell curve, we now have a curve that is high on both ends and low in the middle.
Yet, it is the middle that the UMC has traditionally reached. What if the 40 year decline is simply and indicator that we have not reached ‘those unlike us.’ What if the model of ministry we have been trying to follow for the past 40 years was one that did well to reach the middle, but that middle is disappearing? Perhaps it is time to follow John Wesley’s lead and start ministering to our cultural ‘coal miners’ or the working poor. It may mean we have to discover new ministry models instead of the ones we continue to try to perfect that reach the middle. It could even mean that those we reach will not feel comfortable in our church pews and may never end up being included in any of our statistical reports.
The study doesn’t acknowledge that things have changed. Instead of admitting that the UMC has continued on, the way it always has while culture has changed, it takes the easy way out by blaming the clergy. Maybe it isn’t ineffective clergy that are the biggest obstacles to undoing the decline, but our inability to adapt to changes in culture and society.
Sometimes it seems like we are stuck in the 1980s trying to begin new church based on attractional methods. But the baby boomer generation, who flocked to these churches, are getting older. The 20 somethings that were starting the new ‘megachurches’ in the 80’s are about 30 years older. They are now in their late 40s and early 50s.
The older adults that funded the mega-churches are now 30 years older. Most are retired and some have died. The UMC is late to the party. We keep pushing an attractional mega-church model that worked in the past and still works for some, but leaves most of the churches standing along the wall instead of joining the dance. They don’t have the tools or design to do anything else.
The model we need is an adaptive model. One that recognizes that culture has always driven the ‘way we do church,’ (we change the method but not the message) but now that culture is changing quicker than we can adapt to it. General Conference meets once every 4 years. 2004 was a long time ago culturally.
I believe that these issues need to be addressed. We need to be able to honestly look at ourselves in light of the culture in which we live. Perhaps the clergy are ineffective. What system has created them? As we have heard, our system is perfectly design to give the results we are currently getting. If we want different results, we must look at the entire system, not just one part of it.
The real question is, will we be willing to sacrifice ourselves in order to do so?