A UM Missional Future: Changing to Reach More, Younger and Diverse People

Part 8 of 21...

Can the church change to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people?

Dr. Weems notes that Methodism did well in the 19th century as it followed the people moving across the American frontier. But in so doing, it may have become a victim of its own success. It made an assumption that what it did to be successful in the 19th century should be the same things it did to be successful in the 20th and 21st centuries.

He writes:
Then, as the last century unfolded, the nation changed and the church did not. Earlier generations had followed Americans from East to West, from urban to frontier, and from lower to middle and upper-middle classes. But success led to staying with practices even as they became increasingly less effective.

Today the United Methodist Church in the U. S. is not only dramatically smaller, but it is older
and less diverse than the population. Thus, the premise emerges that we must learn to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people.

Actually, I would like to make a different argument, from an historical and missional perspective. In actual fact, the Methodist movement DID change in the late 18th through the 19th century, and very substantially, and not all for the good. Here is a brief listing of the most important changes.

1) Methodism became a church in 1784. Methodism prior to 1784 was NOT a church and was not trying either to BE a church or to found churches. Methodism was a movement in a SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP to churches, and not all of them of one denomination. Methodism focused on intentional, accountable spiritual formation (Rules 1 and 3) and missional deployment (Rule 2), while the functions of doctrinal continuity and worship were provided by the churches to which Methodists belonged and where they received the sacraments. This meant that Methodists as such didn't need to focus heavily on institutions that could provide those two basic elements of Christian life, and so could focus much more intently on the practices of watching over one another in love.

2) Methodism LOST its multi-racial witness and community in the early 19th century. After it became clear that Africans were not fully welcome in the life of Old St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (the legends are many, the actual history is a bit murky), Richard Allen gathered a group to found Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1794, though it was not formally recognized as a church in its own right until 1815 or 1816. One story (told at Old Saint George's these days) is that Richard Allen intentionally waited until after the death of Francis Asbury, who had been a champion for full access to all persons, regardless of race, to make a formal denominational separation from the Methodist Episcopal Church. Similar events in New York led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion, formally splitting as a separate denomination in 1822.

3) White Methodism began losing its distinctive and most effective discipling structure, the class meeting. Methodism was NOT like the other churches in early America, in part because it had not been designed as a church from the beginning. Other churches tended to depend on a gathering for worship and the emerging revival practices of the early 19th century-- which were also essentially designed around an extended worship/event model-- for their growth. Methodism HAD depended PRIMARILY on the class meeting-- small groups gathering to watch over one another in love toward growth in holiness of life through works of piety and works of mercy. But as White Methodism spread and encountered other denominations, and particularly as it "settled" into church life in local communities, it tended to move the class meeting from the center to the periphery, and, by the 1850s, nearly outside church life altogether. African Methodism retained the class meeting as a core practice, and many AME and AME Zion congregations do so to this day.

4) White Methodism divided over slavery in 1844. This was the culmination of a period of conflicting responses to slavery through the early 19th century, with Southern churches generally following the Southern cultural practice of permitting slavery, even for elders and bishops, and Northern churches rejecting it to varying degrees. Mr. Wesley and the General Rules had been very clear on this point. Rule 1 ("By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced") included this line: "Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves." That this was even tolerated in the South or by the North for so long was already a sign that the basic discipline of the Methodist small groups was breaking down on this point.

One could argue that this division could have made the Southern churches more culturally relevant to their context, and the North to theirs-- since slavery did exist widely in the South and rarely anywhere in the North by the time of the division. But such cultural relevance came at a price-- accommodation to what all Methodists just a generation earlier had clearly called "evil."

5) Another racial split occurred in 1870, with the founding of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now called Christian Methodist Episcopal Church) when it became clear that the Reconstruction-era Methodist Episcopal Church South would not tolerate the continued integration of their churches with now freed people of African descent, and neither would the liberated peoples allow themselves to be treated as inferior members of MECS churches.

More significant changes could be documented, but these have set the plate for the major branches of Methodism in the US and worldwide through the global outreach efforts of each of these four-- AME, AME Zion, CME and what has become The United Methodist Church. The UMC has worked valiantly at overcoming its history of personal and institutional racism, and has become one of the more diverse Protestant denominations in the United States. But that history still remains, and institutional racism is still part of how the denomination thinks and operates.

Therefore, I offer this provocative historical conclusion:

The persistent witness in the 19th century is not necessarily one of Methodist success, but rather a kind of institutional success in adding churches across the frontier and building a variety of helpful institutions for the nation-- including hospitals and educational institutions-- as well as in establishing mission outposts around the world.

To be sure, this institutional success brought with it many good things for all involved. My argument, though, is that that should not be equated with Methodist success, if by Methodist success one means the kind of outcomes that early Methodism achieved-- personal spiritual transformation and growth in holiness generated in a context of the multiplication of covenanted missional communities (class meetings). Early Methodist success was about the power of many small missional groups multiplying direct personal ministry and social witness in the name of Jesus. Later institutional success for the denomination came by creating larger attractional congregations and other institutions as the primary focus of ministry. These could have a bigger initial impact, but ultimately only in an additive, rather than multiplicative, way.

Methodist success would have meant combatting slavery and racism through the power of many small groups committed to do so, rather than being overcome by these things at the larger institutional level, and multiplying accountable, missional small groups rather than just worship-centered and ultimately attractional congregations across the land.

So what must we do now if we are to "
reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people" for a UM Missional Future?

Well, we could continue to do the kinds of things we have been doing in recent years. We have created lots of "contemporary" worship services to "reach seekers." Well over 1/3 of our congregations that offer at least two worship services report offering at least one service per week that they describe as "contemporary," and 73% indicate that they sing "praise choruses" (however they define that term) regularly. We can continue to advertise the denominational brand as "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" in hopes of interrupting a cultural vision of Christianity as closed in many ways, as well as training congregations to be hospitable when people DO come to worship or other church-sponsored programs. We can keep offering anti-racism workshops and require all clergy and other leaders at every level to attend diversity training regularly, and we can keep working on acknowledging and overcoming the institutional racism that pervades the structures of the UMC, pressing on toward the mark of full inclusion everywhere.

None of those things is necessarily a bad thing to do in itself. Most of them have some merit. But none of them is a Methodist response, much less missional. Why? Because all of them are still focused on attractionalism, on getting THEM to come to US, and maybe to stick around with US (inside the church building, or participating in our institutional programs) long enough to want to join our churches, by profession of faith or otherwise.

Early Methodism didn't wait for folks to come to them. They went out and did mission of all sorts in the world and actively invited others to join them in that way of life and service we now call discipleship to Jesus Christ-- not just at a worship service or other "programs."

The core change we need in order to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people isn't to jazz up or mellow out or otherwise "coolify" worship, or improve our hospitality, or even to end racism in our institutions. Those are second order changes at best.

The core change needed is a change in hearts and behavior by each of us-- to shift our PRIMARY focus from what someone else needs to do to what I and we here, where we are, CAN do to reach out directly, not primarily through some mediated process (whether worship, hospitality, or institutional reform).

This isn't about building the perfect "young-diverse-people snatching-machine." It's about us actually living missionally, about we ourselves reaching out to the people already around us, getting to know them, building community with them and each other, watching over each other in love, and being on mission with God in the name of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit with them.

Can we do that?

By God's grace, and with the clear examples of early Methodism, yes, we can.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards