After CBS This Morning started a new series called “Note to Self,” I wrote a letter to my 15 year old self last week. This week I’ve written a letter to my church, The United Methodist Church, when it was 15 years old.
Dear United Methodist Church,
It’s 1983, and you are 15 years old. In fact, you are 29 years younger than the church is today. In 1968 The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged to form The United Methodist Church. Of course, you had a few previous lives as well. Do you remember that you are a product one of the greatest renewal movements that swept across the face of America?
The Methodist Episcopal Church that was founded in 1784 emerged from the spread of English Methodism to the American colonies in the New World. Methodist circuit riders moved west with the settlers, bringing with them a revival that emphasized a warm heart, evangelism, vital piety, and acts of mercy.
By the late 1800’s you were the largest denomination in the country because you didn’t stay in the big cities, put on airs, or cater to the rich. You got your hands dirty in the harsh beauty of the frontier and were convinced that God was calling you to transform both individual lives and the world.
Camp meetings and then Sunday school became the primary means for people to enter the church, as Methodists yearned to know the scriptures and apply them to their lives. Missionaries were sent across the ocean to share the love of Jesus, laying the groundwork for an African church that is not only spreading across the continent like wildfire but is teaching American United Methodists how to grow again.
You’re a mere teenager, and like all 15 year olds, the world is at your fingertips. You may not realize the implications right now, but The United Methodist Church in the United States is already starting to drop in membership. It’s in your power to determine the course of your future, so perhaps a few observations from one looking back will prove helpful.
- Always focus on your mission.
From the beginning John Wesley’s dictum that that his preachers reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness across the land became the rallying cry of the Methodist movement. Don’t be distracted by structure, money, or competition. Remember, your only mission is to save souls, make disciples, and change the world.
Everything you do should align with that mission. Allow for diversity of belief at the same time as you hold on to the essence of Wesleyan theology. Don’t use scripture as a weapon, but allow it to engage your highest level of critical thinking and feeling as you encounter God and empower others to do the same. Synthesizing scripture, tradition, reason, and experience can be your greatest tool in forming mature disciples and growing the church.
- Connect with the deepest needs of people in whatever way is most appropriate to your context.
Don’t gain the distinction of being the best kept religious secret in America. Open your doors, go outside, and interact with your communities. Discover their unique assets and challenges and work side by side with your neighbors. Welcome all people into the life of the church by offering excellent worship that facilitates a transformative experience with God.
Tell the story in any way you can, for you have a message about the grace of Jesus Christ that people long to hear in the year 1983. As with every generation, they yearn for the church to be relevant to their deepest hopes as well as the cries of our world. Be out in front of the culture. Lead, don’t lag behind. Be astute observers of the times, and find ways to engage people where they are. Warmed hearts and transformed lives propel people out into mission and bring in the kingdom of God.
- Don’t get too settled.
Like Jesus and his disciples, the early Methodist circuit riders had no place to lay their heads because they didn’t wait for people to come to them. They were constantly on the move from one settlement to another, preaching, teaching, and giving themselves away in ministry. That’s precisely why, as Lovett Weems writes in his book Focus, the 1900 General Conference bishops could report in the Episcopal address that since the 1800 General Conference the nation’s population grew by 14 times while Methodist membership grew by 97 times!
It’s when we settled down into cities and towns and stopped planting churches that our growth slowed and then reversed. Stay flexible and light, ready at a moment’s notice to seek out new places for new faces, start new faith communities in population-dense areas, and develop partnerships of every conceivable kind.
- Practice inclusivity, don’t just voice it.
Early Methodism included people from all classes and societal strata, but we have failed to make inclusiveness a priority over the last century. Remember, you were born in 1968 when the civil rights and women’s movements were very active. Yet the number of ethnic churches in 2012 is miniscule compared to the ethnic population as a whole. In addition, our denomination is becoming more middle to upper middle class and does not reflect the wide socioeconomic make-up of our country.
In case you haven’t sensed it yet, the focal point of exclusion from the church will soon shift to gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered people. The struggle will be every bit as fierce as the inclusion of women and African Americans in the life of the church. I thank God for today’s youth, who accept differences more readily than we do and have much to teach those of us whose vision is not as wide as God’s vision.
- Enlarge your borders.
One of the greatest joys that you will experience as you grow older is the impact of United Methodist churches outside of the United States. The fire, zeal, and intense commitment that fueled the origins of Methodism in our country has extended to our brothers and sisters in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Can you imagine? Missionaries in other parts of the world are now coming to America to evangelize us! As we learn from and empower each other, we will truly become a worldwide church.
I hope that these few suggestions will be helpful as you grow into adulthood, but what I am about to share now is the rest of the story. In 2012 we are fond of talking about adaptive change versus technical change as a paradigm shift in our church. We insist that our denominational malaise will not be cured by putting into place technical solutions for which we think we know the answers, such as shifting budget items, tweaking structure, or downsizing personnel. What we need instead is adaptive change that forges into the unknown and requires new eyes to see, news ways of working and being, and changed attitudes, values, and behaviors.
I’m all for adaptive change, but I’m still not sure we really get it. The kind of change we need above all else is a change of heart. The agony of our decline can become the impetus for one of the most amazing turnarounds ever, but we have some collective inner work to do before any outward changes will be effective. Our deep losses in The United Methodist Church join us to the suffering that is inherent in nature, our world, and its people. Yet just as a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies and then bears much fruit, so our decline can become the foundation for new life which is already springing forth. Are we willing to lose our denominational life as it is now in order to save it?
- Do we have the will to recover our strangely warmed heart, even if it calls for invasive procedures?
- Are we willing to repent of our insistence on control, give up our clinginess to pet agendas and causes, and allow the Holy Spirit to work its way into every nook and cranny of The United Methodist Church?
- Have we been sabotaging growth and diverting energy by scapegoating and projecting our own fears, insecurities, and prejudices onto others within our own UMC family?
- Can we create a new self that permits different geographical areas of The United Methodist Church to adopt social principles and structures appropriate to their context while holding in common our Wesleyan theological heritage?
- Can United Methodists in the United States give up our collective ego and power and eagerly anticipate the day when we become a minority within the worldwide United Methodist Church?
- Can we recapture our soul and destiny by going beyond technical and adaptive change to changed hearts?
- Can we die to what we’ve become so that we can live for what we are becoming?
Please don’t be discouraged and think that your church is literally going to die. Quite the opposite. Our decline is finally becoming a catalyst for transformative and determined change. We are coalescing around a vision that will take us boldly into the future. It will not be easy, but when we lead from our newly warmed hearts with passionate witness, missional focus, and persistent prayer, we will transform not only the world but ourselves.
You are 15 years old, and your entire life is ahead of you. If the Holy Spirit is stirring in you, go where the wind blows. If your love for Jesus gives you a story, share it and live it. If God speaks, answer the call. If you are called to lead, don’t say, “I’m just a youth.” If your heart has been strangely warmed, set yourself on fire. If God gives you a prayer, shout it from the mountaintop. Don’t hold back, claim God’s grace, and go for it!
Laurie, a United Methodist in 2012