In response to my series on the UMC and Institutional Decline, reader (and United Methodist Professor of Mission) Rev. Dr. Jack Jackson writes:
“Hello David, thanks for these articles. You are bringing up some important issues. I wonder if you plan to address the underlying problem which, if not addressed, will make all these other renovations irrelevant? Namely, the current collapse of the United Methodist species. We simply aren't reproducing ourselves in the West. Clearly the denomination is reproducing in the Philippines and a handful of countries in central Africa. But apart from those 6 or 7 countries (so much for being a global church) the UMC is in the midst of species collapse. Will you address the need [for a] new vision regarding mission and evangelism that centers on making disciples for Jesus? I'd love to hear more of your thoughts.”
Given the significance of Rev. Dr. Jackson’s question, I wanted to spend an entire post responding to it, rather than trying to do so within the confines of the comments section.
The Relationship between Membership Decline and Institutional Decline
First, in his comment, Jackson gets at what is absolutely an important truth: It doesn’t matter what denominational institutions look like if there are no denominational members left to be part of them. Decline in denominational membership (especially among white Westerners) is an essential bit of context that shapes and shades all other discussions of the UMC’s future, including discussions of its institutions.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude that because membership decline has the potential to make institutional decline irrelevant that we should focus entirely on membership and not on denominational institutions (not that Jackson is saying so). Such an argument would only make sense if membership and institutions were unconnected, but there is a relationship between the two.
The sorts of institutions that we have as a denomination can influence how effective we are at inviting new members through evangelism, retaining our current members through discipleship, and developing the next generation of members through Christian education. Rightly conceived, updating institutions can be a means to better equip the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
A football analogy may help. The only undefeated NFL team in history was the Miami Dolphins in 1972, incidentally the same year that many of the institutions of the UMC achieved their current form. Obviously, that team knew how to win. But if we were able to bring that team and their equipment, strategies, and training regiments to the present, the 1972 Miami Dolphins would likely struggle in the 2021 NFL season, where rules of the game have changed, game strategies have changed, technology used to help players play their best has evolved, offensive and defensive lines are much larger physically, and the season is three games longer. We can’t assume that just because the 1972 Dolphins knew how to win, none of the rest of these changes would matter.
In a similar way, evangelism (and discipleship and Christian education) is not just about knowing how to win people to Jesus in some ahistoric sense. It’s about knowing how to win people to Jesus in our present time and contexts, as Jackson’s writings highlight, and then developing the systems of rules, equipment, strategies, etc. necessary to support that approach. And our rules, equipment, strategies, etc. should be updated from their 1972 versions, just as the 1972 Dolphins would need to update if they played in the 2021 NFL.
The importance of church structure for the growth of the church is something I have addressed in several other posts (http://www.umglobal.org/2018/03/mission-structure-and-innovation.html; http://www.umglobal.org/2018/05/structure-financing-and-early-methodism.html; http://www.umglobal.org/2018/05/movement-vs-institution-choices-and.html).
Tracking Membership Trends
Second, as Jackson points out, there are important differences across The United Methodist Church in terms of how the church is doing in reproducing itself. Assessing the danger of “species collapse” and responding appropriately requires good information about where The United Methodist Church is and is not growing, how those trends compare to other forms of Christianity and population demographics, and the group-specific trends within the whole.
Over the years, developing this sort of data that can help United Methodist leaders discern where the church is and is not doing well, including in comparison with others, has been a major effort of my writing on this blog and elsewhere:
- In a co-written article from 2011, Dana L. Robert and I looked at UMC demographic trends relative to other Methodist and closely related denominations (https://www.methodistreview.org/index.php/mr/article/view/48), and I very briefly touched on a similar comparison this year (http://www.umglobal.org/2021/04/us-membership-decline-and-rhetoric-of.html).
- I crunched the numbers to analyze worldwide UMC membership growth or decline relative to the overall population (http://www.umglobal.org/2019/05/umc-membership-growth-and-decline.html), and I have encouraged United Methodists to be more specific in their thinking about global growth or decline (http://www.umglobal.org/2016/11/getting-specific-about-global-umc.html; http://www.umglobal.org/2018/02/making-sense-of-umc-membership-numbers.html).
- For another perspective on growth and decline, I put together an analysis of worldwide UMC clergy numbers relative to laity membership (http://www.umglobal.org/2021/01/clergy-vs-laity-membership-numbers.html).
- I have examined the racial components of membership trends in the United States (http://www.umglobal.org/2017/03/american-umc-decline-is-white-people.html) and compared membership decline to contextual economic factors (http://www.umglobal.org/2013/07/middle-class-methodists-and-church.html).
- I have put together comprehensive data on where Methodists from all denominations are located around the world (http://www.umglobal.org/2018/02/resource-maps-of-locations-of-world.html; http://www.umglobal.org/2018/04/resource-more-world-methodist-maps.html) and have looked at how these maps highlight historical factors influencing the spread of Methodism to date (http://www.umglobal.org/2018/02/analysis-of-locations-of-world.html).
In addition, I have suggested a variety of explanations for these trends that try to look not just at The United Methodist Church but at other forms of Christianity and wider societal contexts, especially in the United States.
I have tried to enumerate factors influencing church growth (http://www.umglobal.org/2019/05/factors-influencing-church-growth.html) including organizational and cultural explanations (http://www.umglobal.org/2021/04/organizational-vs-cultural-explanations.html; http://www.umglobal.org/2016/04/coming-to-terms-with-numeric-decline-in.html; http://www.umglobal.org/2018/03/are-there-too-few-mainline-denominations.html) and the role of the witness of the church amidst suffering (http://www.umglobal.org/2018/06/is-suffering-cause-of-umc-growth-in.html).
I have examined the role of empire in the fate of Christianity in the West: http://www.umglobal.org/2020/06/secularization-and-collapse-of-empire.html; http://www.umglobal.org/2020/12/what-is-imperial-religion-and-why-do.html; http://www.umglobal.org/2020/12/american-christianity-as-imperial.html; http://www.umglobal.org/2020/12/routes-forward-from-imperial-american.html
This work is not the same as developing a theology or method of evangelism, but I do see it as important background for such work. Since evangelism must be contextual, United Methodists must understand the contexts in which they evangelize.
Jackson suggests that the UMC needs a “new vision regarding mission and evangelism that centers on making disciples for Jesus.” I wholeheartedly agree that evangelism is an essential part of mission and that the UMC should be engaged in evangelism.
That is an important part of why I developed the definition of mission I use in my book on mission for congregations, Crossing Boundaries: Mission is “cultivating relationships across boundaries for the sake of fostering conversations in word and deed about the nature of God’s good news” (http://www.umglobal.org/2019/03/a-new-definition-of-mission.html). By emphasizing conversations about God’s good news, this definition of mission is intended to include evangelism as a core component of mission.
This conviction that evangelism is an essential part of mission means that evangelism is among the subjects that UM & Global covers, even if I don’t always write those articles myself. You can find UM & Global articles about evangelism here: http://www.umglobal.org/search/label/evangelism.
Given my background as a social historian, I tend to write about areas that I feel I am uniquely qualified to analyze and that others are not writing about extensively (such as organizational theory and demographics). I then try to lift up the voices of those who are more insightful than me on other topics. Evangelism tends to fall into that latter category, not because I don’t believe it is important, but because I recognize the insights that others have go beyond my own in this area. I believe I can better contribute to furthering evangelism by doing some of this background work that I hope others will draw upon.