Thursday, August 25, 2016

Cultural captivity in the American UMC, part 1

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

A few weeks ago, Robert Hunt wrote a series of blog posts (post 1, post 2, and post 3) about The United Methodist Church’s difficulties in taking culture into consideration in our conversations about what it means to be a global church. Dr. Hunt, focusing in particular on how decision-making processes are embedded in culture, wrote, “The whole UMC is set up in decision making structures that are distinctly Anglo-American in culture. … These structures are significantly different from those of ethnic minorities within the US, and even more so United Methodists outside the U.S.”

While Dr. Hunt details this argument for United Methodists outside the US, I’d like to pursue just a couple of examples of how this argument plays out within the US, with special reference to leadership rather than decision-making.

Itineracy is a deeply-held value in the UMC, despite a long-term trend toward longer pastorates and notable exceptions at big-steeple church. Yet Anthony J. Shipley notes that frequent changes of pastoral leadership do not fit well with prevailing African-American expectations of church leadership. He writes, “Wherever you see a strong African-American church in an urban center, you will see a pastor who has been there a long time. The way we do business in The UMC, moving pastors every few years, you cannot possibly build a strong church.”[1] The examples of strong African-American churches Shipley provides have all benefitted from longer-than-average pastoral stays.

In another example, Justo Gonzalez has written about the challenges associated with providing theological education to rising Hispanic pastoral leaders in the UMC. Because the percentage of Hispanics with college degrees is lower than it is for other groups and because many Hispanics lack the financial resources and time to complete a three-year M.Div. degree, this pre-requisite for fully ordained ministry in the UMC may be out of reach. Gonzalez states bluntly that “we must acknowledge the cultural captivity of much of our institutional and ecclesiastical life, which prevents us from recruiting and making way for the growing minorities that will soon be the majority of the church.”[2]

The two examples cited address pastoral leadership, but one could make similar arguments related to lay leadership, decision-making, finances, and other areas of organizational life, as well as the much more obvious realm of cultural differences surrounding worship. The examples have been framed in terms of cultural differences related to race/ethnicity, but there are also cultural differences related to socioeconomic class (both Shipley and Gonzalez have strong words on this point, too) or even generation that are also relevant to the church.

The upshot of this difficulty of the UMC in responding to culture is not just the possibility for cultural misunderstandings and conflicts that exists in the global UMC but a real limit to the UMC’s reach in the US. Despite the presence of some very faithful members and leaders of color, we are overwhelmingly a white, middle-class church in a country that is less and less either.

Robert P. Jones’ recent book The End of White, Christian America is surely hyperbolic in its title, but it makes an important point: Christianity is declining among white Americans, and the growth segments for Christianity in America are among non-whites. As this blog has previous reported, the UMC is one of the whitest denominations in the US.

The Pew Forum and others have thoroughly documented the decrease of the middle-class in the US, as more people move either up or down the economic ladder. As this blog has previously reported, the decline in the American middle class parallels the decrease in American UMC membership.

Hence, if the UMC is not able to acknowledge, account for, and adapt to cultural differences domestically as well as globally, we can expect our decline in the US to continue no matter what position we take on sexuality, no matter what revitalization plan we put into place, no matter what sort of restructuring we undertake.

[1] Anthony J. Shipley, “The Future of African Americans and Mission” in Christian Mission in the Third Millennium, ed. Charles E. Cole (New York: General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 2004), 185.
[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, The History of Theological Education. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 139.


  1. Good post and good idea, David! Picking up for UM Insight.

  2. Great post David. I'll just add that this immediately affects those of us in theological education. We are far far behind the curve in preparing men and women in our contemporary cultural context. Our programs are centered around now out of date expectations for ordained ministry mandated by the UMC Discipline. And they remain tied to assumptions about language and social location that are no longer relevant. Either the church will adapt to reality, and we will, or we'll all go down together.

    1. Amen. Gonzalez really hammers at that point in his book. The challenge is to get both the institution of the church (as reflected in the Discipline) and the institutions of our seminaries to change together in the same direction. But as you say, the consequences of not doing so are high.

  3. I've been United Methodist all my life. Whole o have had experience in with other denominations, I have chosen to stay the course in the midst of being presented with livelier worship options,ministry opportunities and varied cultural experience. I also thought about leaving the UMC because of the attitude toward minorities. Some older members maintain the stance that all poor people are brown/black and all brown/black people are poor or in dire need of assistance. This can make for uncomfortable interactions and encounters. Personally I feel like many in leadership are intimidated by younger members that are more educated and knowledgeable concerning the Christian experience. This is where the dogmatic behavior comes in and causes many in that demographic to leave the denomination.

  4. It seems that the white UMC -- as stodgy and antiquated as itineracy and its middle class cultural mores may have been or still may be their tireless global outreach, apportioned financial support for, and disciplinary flexibility with central conference churches seem to have been a pretty effective measure of engagement. It will be interesting to see if the the new global pluralities (communities of color) that comprise the current General Conference majority, will use similar mechanisms to foster increased white American membership. The Gospel would suggest -- as would simple material realities -- that this is not just a "white problem " but a problem of all who cling to the UMC brand. After all -- "What would it profit a man . . ."