As I wrote about last week, the latest iteration of Vital Congregations data were released last month. They show growth in some faithful practices among American United Methodists, but declines in the production of new members. Combined with the death and other losses of existing members, this struggle with producing new members contributes to a pattern of numeric decline among American United Methodism that continues a decades-long trend in place since the formation of the denomination through merger in 1968.
I also indicated that this year's numbers have also perpetuated another long-term trend among American United Methodists: the attempt to interpret and make sense of the numeric data. Some of these interpretations anxiously see this trend as a crisis in the denomination. Anxiety might be counter-productive, but even those interpretations that identify an impending crisis contain a belief that is common to most United Methodist interpretations of our American decline: the belief that there is something we can do to reverse it.
The solutions of what we should do to reverse American United Methodist numeric decline vary. Perhaps it is using metrics to focus on vitality. Perhaps it is reorganizing budgets, boards, and agencies. Perhaps it is continuing to emphasize a biblical rejection of homosexuality. Perhaps it is ending the oppression and exclusion of the LGBT community. All of these solutions to American United Methodist decline, varied as they may be, share the belief that American United Methodists can reverse their fate.
That may not, however, be true, at least in the foreseeable future.
If United Methodism was declining while most other churches prospered, that would be an indicator that we suffered from some peculiar dysfunction that, theoretically, could be remedied to produce turnaround.
Yet that's not the case. Mainline Christianity has been in numeric decline for the last half century, and within the last decade, American Christianity as a whole, including evangelical Christianity and Catholicism, has been in numeric decline. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but the general trend is clear, especially for all of the largest denominations in the country. Moreover, because of the generational dynamics of religious change in the United States, that trend will probably continue and even accelerate in the next couple of decades.
It's always possible that the general trend could reverse itself. Following the upward membership trend of the 1950s, few mainline churches in 1960 expected the sort of membership decline that would set in by the end of the decade. As they say in the stock market, past trends do not always determine future results. We might be surprised by a turnaround, and I pray we are.
Moreover, even if we agree that further numeric decline over the next couple of decades is inevitable for the American UMC, that doesn't excuse us from living out our denominational mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are still called to share our faith through evangelism, to support each other in pursing lives of holiness, and to pass on our faith to future generations. It's possible, too, that carrying out these tasks well will affect the rate at which the UMC experiences membership decline in the US, perhaps significantly decreasing it.
Still, it seems a reasonable conjecture to predict that, no matter how faithful we are, the number of American United Methodists will continue to drop for the foreseeable future. That will strike many as bad news, though it needn't be seen a sign of lack of faithfulness on our part or on God's. While I, too, mourn the loss of faithful United Methodists, I also think such a situation can be a time for prayerful learning as a denomination. It should prompt us to ask two very important questions about our collective life:
1. How do we become a more global denomination in the face of shrinking demographics and (eventually) resources in the historic American base of the denomination?
2. How do we preserve the ethos and values of our current model of structures and programs even when we are no longer able to preserve all of those individual structures and programs?
These questions are what leadership expert Ronald Heifetz would call "adaptive challenges," which means there aren't easy answers. Yet if we're willing to engage them, we may just find that even numeric decline can be a profound time of learning about and communion with God for American United Methodists.
A parallel with the physical declines that precede the death of individuals may be reassuring. While American have a hard time confronting death, God still loves the dying, and the dying process can be a time of deep meaning for those going through it. It used to be a mark of a good Methodist to die well, strong in their faith. As John Wesley said on his own deathbed, "Best of all, God is with us."
Part of what enabled those faithful deaths was a strong assurance in that central Christian truth: Death is not the end. God promises life after death. May we believe that for ourselves, and may we believe that for our church.