Thursday, April 28, 2016

William Payne: Probing Reasons for Mainline Decline

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary. He writes in response to a piece by Dr. David William Scott from last week, "Coming to Terms with Numeric Decline in the American UMC."

At an earlier time in our recent history, mainline leaders focused the American church on social engagement, an engagement that was very sympathetic to the social upheavals of the time. At the same time, large numbers of traditional and progressive people began to abandon the mainline churches for a variety of reasons. Some fled to other denominations. Others curtailed their active participation in a local church. The mainline leaders blamed the drastic and prolonged numerical decline on negative contextual factors related to environmental constraints. Since the Mainliners could not control the contextual factors, the leadership was happy to ignore the decline as it celebrated the respect that it garnered with liberal America through its social engagement.

On the other hand, while the mainline churches declined, the "upstart" sects and evangelical churches enjoyed membership surges. In particular, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists grew rapidly. These traditions had social strength and shared a common set of core values related to the mission of the church. All were strongly committed to evangelistic outreach. At the same time, the mainline traditions were gripped by an institutional conflict in which internal constituencies battled with each other about social positioning.

If the negative contextual factors drove the decline in the mainline churches, the same determinative factors did not cause other churches to decline. Clearly, the evangelical surge happened at the very time when the mainline denominations plunged.

In fact, negative contextual factors greatly influence the growth and decline of a denomination in a given social milieu. However, how the denomination responds to negative contextual factors will determine the long term consequences of the external environment.

Institutional factors also influence growth and decline. As the mainline tradition prioritized a particular type of social engagement, it de-emphasized other types of social engagement. As many have noted, denominations that do not do evangelism do not grow or maintain their memberships. Additionally, a shifting emphasis from the local congregation to the denomination, the adoption of a progressive theological agenda, and the socializing of pastoral candidates into the ideals of academia all pointed to changing institutional priorities.

In the end, the UMC did not decline because of negative contextual factors. It declined because its institution adjusted to the changing social milieu in specific ways that mitigated long term numerical strength with its core constituency or numerical growth with unchurched populations.

There is a hidden story in the data. The mainline churches declined most in traditional America where the values, theology, social commitments, and seminary educated pastors from the mainline seminaries no longer reflected the prevailing ethos of the majority population. At the same time, younger people from traditional America who were more sympathetic to the mainline emphases began to abandon rural churches as they moved to the urban centers. This reduced the vitality of the rural church and did not grow the church in urban America.

Curiously, why didn’t the new urbanites from rural America populate the urban churches? In fact, the urban churches also declined even as the urban centers swelled with a variety of new populations. Even today, urban America is less churched than traditional America or suburbia.

The sociological literature offers an insight into this question. It suggests that the local church is not as important to the new urbanites as it is to those in rural America. That is, it does not offer them something that they want and can’t get from other sources. For example, it is not an indispensable dispenser of eternal life. According to survey data, over 80 percent believe that all are saved, that religious tolerance entails accepting other faiths as authentic encounters with God, and that a dogmatic commitment to an evangelical faith may fuel social animosity. Additionally, in light of evangelical political entanglements and the negative responses to it in the media and the Democratic Party, progressive urbanites further pulled back from church as they embraced other voluntary organizations that were more focused on the things that mattered most to them, (e.g., arts and entertainment, progressive politics, the environment, race, economic justice, peace, and homosexual rights).

When seen in this light, the current debate in the UMC becomes a little clearer. The progressive elements of the UMC share the values of liberal America and want to make the church more relevant to the prevailing ethos of liberal society by lowering its tension with secularism and by adopting its premises. In so doing, they hope that the unchurched, progressive demographic will align with their churches.

Unfortunately, liberal America is not joining progressive or traditional churches en masse. Furthermore, because the UMC is a global connectional system, the process of aligning (contextualizing) with liberal America will change all of United Methodism in ways that are fully unacceptable to large portions of the membership who seek to grow the membership of the UMC with different demographics (e.g., rural America and Africa) by remaining strongly bibliocentric, morally conservative, fully Christocentric, and potently evangelistic with an emphasis on a personal religious experience. It should be noted that both African and traditional United Methodism have engaged in dynamic social witness within their particular contexts without reneging on the above core commitments.  

Based on past performance, if the progressive wing drives the UM train after General Conference, it will not grow the church with liberal America and it will cause the UMC to suffer rapid decline with other receptive populations who are being reached. (At this point, we should consider regional contextual and institutional factors.) In response to this, the progressive caucus will argue that it is not about numerical growth. Rather, it is about prophetic witness and social justice. The fact that they argue this point shows the wide division and points to why liberal portions of the UMC have suffered sustained numerical decline. Sadly, an ardent emphasis on American style social justice has not attracted new members or maintained the membership base of liberal leaning conferences. Additionally, it has alienated many because it identifies the church with a particular political branding.

From this perspective, it is clear that the LGBT debate is embedded within a larger dispute, a dispute that has polarized political America and the UMC. The UMC will not be able to address the LGBT issues decisively until it works through the larger affinity issue that continues to bifurcate the UMC membership. Furthermore, the LGBT debate will never go away until the UMC gains a shared vision that embraces and motivates all of its constituencies to common action related to shared core convictions. Unfortunately, for that to happen, it may be necessary for the UMC to acknowledge that it is a hung jury and allow progressives and traditionalists to go separate ways.


  1. One could easily read this story as one of fidelity to Christ in the face of American values that in the context of the post WWII era were clearly unfaithful to Christ. And of course numerical decline in a situation of counter-cultural witness isn't merely inevitable, it should be celebrated. Still, as the article points out, now those traditional values are in decline and it isn't clear what will constitute faithful witness going forward, or which of the two broad wings of the church will be able to formulate such a witness. I do take some exception with the statement that African and Traditional United Methodism have engaged in "dynamic social witness within their particular contexts." In my part of the country most of "Traditional United Methodism" has been completely silent and disengaged from the virulent attacks on the Muslim community and the US constitution, not to mention the ongoing problems of racism within not only police forces, but more broadly public politics, and the rise in gun violence. And while there are some notable evangelical voices on the issue of immigration and the well being and rights of migrants, "traditional UM" voices have been largely absent. Leave aside the contentious LGBTQ issue, where worldview differences make resolution impossible. Where have pastors who identify with UM's "traditional" values (Good News, Confessing Movement) spoken out in the face of Islamphobia and virulent hatred of immigrants? The answer is, (and I did a little search through the archives of Good New Magazine) they haven’t. Nor on immigration. Nor on gun violence. Nor on racism. Good News Magazine ran one puny article by a Christian of Muslim descent that never actually addressed the fact that only 10 miles from his home church violent armed Christians harassed Muslim worshippers on a regular basis. What is obvious is that for “traditional United Methodists” staying within their particular contexts means never challenging the islamophobia, anti-immigrant bigotry, and love of guns of their core constituency. I wouldn’t call this a “dynamic social witness.” I’d call it conformity to the basest instincts of your constituency so that you can continue to grow numerically.

  2. (Part 1) Robert, thank you for reading my post and taking the time to respond to it. I note that you did not respond to the substance of what I posted but latched on to one sentence in my larger post. I do not want to minimize the larger message of my post. However, for the sake of conversation, I will attempt to respond to your issue. Before I launch into my response, I want to remind you that the African connection has fought against apartheid, ecological devastation, sex trafficking, jihadism, exploitation of children, theological imperialism, poverty, and a host of other worthy justice issues while remaining firmly attached to biblical morality. Personally, I share their commitment to each of the aforementioned items. In light of this, one should not assume that African UMs are opposed to justice merely because they oppose gay marriage, divorce, and issues related to sexual immorality.

  3. (part 2) I do not speak for all American UM evangelicals, but I do speak for most. I speak against racism in class, in the church, and in the street. In many of my classes I am the only white person. I am embedded in the lives and ministries of my students. Often I have attended their churches. I also speak against models of contextual education that seek to separate African American students form other student populations. This is a new form of segregation that many academics are promoting in order to empower minorities.

    We have a vision of the new humanity that God is creating, one in which we take off the old person and put on Christ. Our primary identity is in Christ. Our primary commitment is to God’s kingdom. As such, all those things that are associated with the old person are re-evaluated in light of the new reality. This includes race, gender, economic status, and all socially constructed walls that pit people against each other (Col 3).

  4. (Part 3) In my last church, I modeled this inclusive spirit by hiring two female associates, evangelizing a large host of African Americans, and planting a Hispanic ministry network. Our youth program became fully integrated and evangelistically potent. Ultimately, it grew into a youth church that took on the aura of a revival. Over a three year period, our Hispanic ministry outgrew our facilities and planted many other Hispanic outposts throughout the larger area. Hundreds of Hispanics were evangelized, loved, fed, equipped, and released in ministry. As a consequence, the church and the city were integrated since many of our Hispanics moved to the small rural city in order to be by the church. In short, we enjoyed a realized vision of the kingdom in which the reign of God was visibly celebrated in the church. In the process, the Anglo congregation went through its own conversation while enjoying the wonder of God's evangelistic out-pouring.
    Also, I have close friends in the Islamic community. Not only do I take students to the mosques, I also work with the leaders. Often, they invite me to special events and want to go to dinner with me so we can discuss issues related to Jesus, the Trinity, textual criticism, and shared social concerns. At one point, I was invited to share the gospel in the largest mosque in America because I built community and trust with the leadership. I supported the Dearborn mosque when the crazies protested against them and wanted to burn Qurans. Yesterday, I posted in favor of Islamic cemeteries and freedom of Muslims to practice their faith in America. All my students are sensitized to this and other issues related to religious persecution in America and around the world.

    At the same time, in my role as a UM clergyperson and a UM professor of mission and evangelism, I am unashamed of my evangelistic commitment to the Muslim world. Because of my deep connections with Muslim communities, I have developed contextual approaches to Muslim evangelism that are quite effective. Of course, evangelism has to be a two-way street in order to have integrity within the context of mutuality.

  5. (Part 4) I might add, we also include late term abortion, living together, divorce, elder crime, global economic inequities, nationalism, religious persecution, gender inequality, and a host of other issues that you did not mention on our list of justice issues. Discussions about justice have to have a global focus and can never be restricted to one context. Sensitizing students to the global context gives them a point of reference by which they can re-evaluate the unjust practices that flow from their contexts. Additionally, God and God's will as revealed in scripture are the foundation from which we discern kingdom justice, not the secular state or the will of humanistic society. For that reason, we are not committed to gay marriage and we do not advocate for it. This is a justice issue for us.
    I could go on and talk about each of the issues that you listed. Liberals often assume that they are the only ones who care about justice. In truth, all disciples of Jesus care about God's reign and God's justice. However, we do not all share the same formulations for justice, especially ones that are derived from and reflect a prior commitment to a political platform. At this point, our advocacy for justice may diverge greatly from your advocacy because it is tied to our witness to the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which Jesus is Lord.
    This is an undeniable fact. Those who have bought into the Westernized social justice gospel have mostly given up on a kingdom witness in which they invite people into God's reign through a commitment to Jesus Christ. Aligning with God in Christ and committing to God's reign is the first act of biblical justice. Taking on Christ and becoming like him as we interact with the larger social order is the second act. Love of God and of neighbor drives us in our social engagement. Commitment to the full witness of God can never be subordinated to a canon within a canon or a hermeneutic that distorts or minimizes the evangelistic mission of the church to make disciples. This includes social holiness.
    God is just and commitment to Jesus Christ is a commitment to justice. We can never achieve the biblical vision of justice by circumventing Jesus or by supplanting his reign by a quest to construct a political utopia that is controlled by a secular state. This is the tower of Babel. Emphatically, we will never achieve the kingdom by means of secular politics. We must be clear that we are Jesus people and we are counter cultural. Our social engagement must flow from our spiritual commitments to Jesus and his reign, and be guided by God’s self-revelation in the Bible. This must include a strong commitment to evangelism and sexual morality.

  6. You are quite right to point out that there is no necessary correlation between a theological commitment to traditional/orthodox Christianity and an equal commitment to justice across a wide range of issues. And I didn't speak to the situation in Africa because I don't it well enough to make a judgment. I didn't say anything about your personal commitments because I don't know them. Nor should you assume that my own theological commitments come from out of a liberal or progressive background. To the contrary. I have stood in solidarity with a deeply oppressed Muslim community. And I have baptized Muslim converts to Christianity. On the basis of doctrine I would identify with evangelicals and traditional orthodoxy. But at least here in Texas that would be to identify with a group whose political commitments, public speech, and social action I find loathsome and stands against everything that Christ said and did. I see nothing in them of social holiness. And I don't see much of real evangelism and sexual morality. They aren't doing the tough work of engaging those who are three generations from a Christian worldview. They don't even want to engage those serious challenges of differences in worldview. They are picking up the low hanging fruit of religious nostalgia among what is probably the last generation of cultural Christians. And far from standing for sexual morality they are fully engaged in affirming the American culture of serial polygamy. I agree with almost everything you have written, but not your valorization of UM traditionalists. They are no closer to being faithful to God's Reign in Christ than are progressives. They are simply engaged in a different kind of hypocrisy.