A Missional UM Future, Part IV: The Aging of the UMC

Part 4 of 21...

Question 4: Can medical science continue to keep U.S. United Methodism alive?

What Dr. Weems notes in the first of two paragraphs commenting on this question is that from 1968-1975, the average age of United Methodists in the US was lower than the average age of the US population, and that after 1975 the average age of United Methodists in the US became (and continues to grow) older than the average age of the US population.

He adds some worse news. "The [State of the Church] report is clear that the gap between rhetoric and action appears to be as large as the age gap that some believe threatens the future viability of the denomination." Indeed, that is a direct quote from page 6 of that report, which may be read in its entirety here.

By the gap between rhetoric and action, the SotC Report is referring to two statements that laity and clergy alike were invited to indicate their agreement with in the survey behind the report.

One of the statements was:
"My church is willing to change/add alternative worship options to attract young people."

The other statement was:
"My church is willing to reallocate resources to attract young people."

The SotC Report found that 20% of clergy and about 33% of laity "strongly agreed" with the first statement, and about 30% of laity and 27% of clergy strongly agreed with the second.

As I recall, my response (clergy) was to disagree with the first and either take a neutral or slightly disagreeing position with the second.


It's the "attraction" thing-- a) that our job is primarily about getting OTHERS to COME and then b) assuming that "worship" equals the form of "church" by which young people (or any people who are not currently in meaningful contact with a Christian community) may be expected or SHOULD be expected to have "first" or ongoing contact. The whole question assumes that attractional response as normative-- that we SHOULD want to change worship as a PRIMARY means to "get" young people "into" church ... rather than BEING the kind of church that young people or ANY people would WANT to be associated with because they encounter us in community and in mission-- and in such encounters they receive what we offer as WE are on mission rather than take the bait we lay out to lure them in.

Maybe, just maybe, the low "strongly agree" responses to this statement COULD actually be a sign of hope-- a sign that we've been there, done that with attractionalism or the fixation on youth in US culture, that we're tired of trying to "gin up" our worship to some other end than actually worshiping our Triune God, and we're not going to go back there again.

The second statement was harder for me to know how to respond to. Where we allocate our finances individually and as a congregation DOES indicate at least to SOME degree what we think to be important. At the same time "attracting" ANYBODY per se, rather than being in ministry with and alongside people, is problematical to me from an emerging missional perspective. It feels like so much more marketing of the gospel-- which is an expensive and ultimately very costly excuse for not actually living as communities that bear witness to its power. So yes, I want a congregation's funding to reflect that it is serious about being in mission with people of all ages, and maybe even especially younger people whose lives perhaps fewer and fewer of us are actually engaging on an ongoing basis. Still, I don't want to be funding a process to make me as a older person (if I were one-- I'm 43, so I identify as late-GenX, early middle age) feel better for trying to "get" more younger people around me. The question left me feeling very conflicted. Clearly, it left about 70% of United Methodists feeling conflicted or less than enthusiastic for SOME reason as well.

Unfortunately, the State of the Church report does not seem to be listening or asking the deeper questions about what the low positive response rates to these two questions may mean. We aren't told (and in fact the survey had no way to measure) what less than stellar positive responses might be saying. Instead, there seems to be the presumption that we should KNOW what these answers mean-- that we just don't really care about young people, because if we really did then a) more of them would show up in our stats (i.e., worship attendance and membership data) b) we'd change our worship services to help that happen and c) we'd want to spend more money to get more of them to show up in our worship/membership stats.

So what's a missional way forward?

How about asking a group of people in each congregation, beginning with the one you may be part of, to make a list of the opportunities each person has to be in ministry with younger people every day. Wayne Schwab talks about six different relational settings nearly all of us has every day in which we can encounter people-- and he names them what they really can be for each of us, and consequently for all of us as congregations-- MISSIONAL settings: work/school, local community, wider world, leisure, spiritual health, and church life and its outreach. And then what if we helped the people in this group to decide to take on just two of these relational settings as missional settings-- that is, to see what God's kingdom was already up to or longing to be up to in these settings, and join God's action and longing in doing it with the abundant gifts and passions God has already given us AND them!-- and then helped them help each other to do this seriously.

Would that show up as an increase in worship attendance? Maybe not right away-- maybe not ever. Maybe not in the congregation where we are, but maybe in some other Christian community. Why should it matter that they necessarily worship with us if we're living out our missional discipleship with them, too? Would we change our worship if we engaged young people missionally this way? Well, if we were inviting them to worship with us, to offer THEIR gifts with us, yes, that would be a change, but it wouldn't be about GETTING THEM IN, but rather about helping THEM offer THEMSELVES to God in worship as THEY can-- which is just what all of us should be doing, right? Would that show up in an increase in the proportion of a local church budget dedicated to ministries with younger people? It might or it might not-- this could be entirely a collection of personal investments by church members/disciples in the lives of young people. Or maybe it would. There's just no way to know what the correlations might actually be.

But in either case, whether it results in increased attendance in worship in or dollars budgeted for ministries by the local church you are part of or not, if just one group of people in a congregation (say maybe 6-12 people) take on this kind of "experimental" Christian mission with young people, one can hardly say these people, or the larger congregation that prays for and endorses the work they do individually or collectively, doesn't care about young people. Quite the reverse!

And when one group does it-- with both successes and failures, and learning from each-- well, it might be a good bet that another may want to as well. NOT to attract more youth-- but to have the blessing of being on mission WITH youth, or maybe others in the settings around them.

If one of the purposes of leadership for a new UM missional future is to be asking the right sorts of questions, then maybe the right question to be asking about the "age gap" is NOT "Are we willing to change worship or funding to get young people to COME to us?"--

Maybe it's "Are we willing to live out the implications of our worship (including our baptismal vows, the teaching of scripture, our feeding at the Lord's Table and our being sent forth into ministry Sunday after Sunday and day after day in the name and power of our Triune God) by GOING OUT OURSELVES to be in ministry WITH young people in all the places God has already placed them in our paths?"

What other missional leadership questions might you ask to help United Methodists address our "age gap"?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards