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.