We've all heard the news. The United Methodist Church in the US is in decline. Indeed, participation in religion in North America is in decline, with the fastest growing contingent being the non-affiliated.
The recent Pew Report on Millennials and Religion in the US supports that view. Younger people (ages 18-29) do engage some spiritual practices on their own or with affinity groups, though at significantly lower rates than religiously affiliated persons do, and a lower percentage of this age cohort does this with "organized religion" than any previous age cohort in living history (back 70+ years or so, based on Pew's report). Fully 23% profess no affiliation.
Perhaps under-reported in this report is that of those Millennials who are affiliated, about the same percentage (37%) describe themselves as "strong members of their faith" as the two cohorts that preceded them. So the news isn't ALL bad, right?
But that's the point. These are just facts. It takes some sort of interpretation to translate these findings into meanings, and those meanings into judgments, and those judgments into some sort of response.
So the question before those of us who are religiously affiliated, and particularly for those of us whose affiliation is through the United Methodist Church, is what do these facts mean for us?
In other words, what do we make of this? And then how do we respond?
What I think I'm hearing as the almost predictable responses are:
1) The sky is falling! We need to go back to doing revivals, or charismatic prayer, or more seeker-sensitive worship, or better marketing, or planting churches again, and fast, else we'll lose them all!
2) The sky is falling! Our numbers in the UMC are only going to continue to decline if we don't get these younger, non-affiliated people connected with us right now!
3) The sky is falling! Unless we can claim we're continually getting MORE, we're utterly failing!
Well, as I noted in yesterday's entry, Response 1 would represent an inaccurate reading of history. There was no golden age when we were converting non-affiliated people to affiliation in the past century at any rate higher than 4%-- much less to discipleship to Jesus Christ. Revivals have their place. Praying in the Spirit can be a good thing. Planting new churches has merits in many places. But none of those has changed the 4% "real conversion rate."
Response 2 is pretty much what the proposal to try to make the average age of members of the UMC younger by a decade in 10 years amounts to. There are four unethical ways I can think of to do that. We could a) remove, b) refuse to receive or c) "terminate" older members. Good thing, I suppose, that we have a procedural process that makes a) difficult, principles of inclusion that should prevent us from doing b), and both law and morality making c) punishable by prison or worse. We could also just fudge the data-- either by "adding" lots of younger "members" (by whatever means we want to count them) or by just flat out pretending (i.e., lying about the actual ages and numbers of our constituents). I think we all know of cases where congregations were doing that. Some might still be-- either to avoid paying more apportionment dollars (so in this case actually reducing their rolls or refusing to add new members, including refusing to work at confirmation with youth!), or adding or not removing members from the professing role to look better to the DS/Bishop even if that means paying more apportionment dollars. It's unethical, but it does happen. And it probably will again.
Trouble is, I can think of few reasonable mathematical ways, given what appears to be a pretty fixed 4% "conversion" from non-affiliated to affiliated rate across ALL religions (not just Christians!) in the US over the past century combined with an escalating trend of non-affiliation among the "rising age-cohorts" (ages 18-29 in a given decade) over time. Over the past three cohorts it's gone up at an increasing rate... from 12% in the 1980s to 16% in the 1990s (an increase of 33%) to 23% in the 2000s (a decade on decade increase of ~50% and a 2-decade increase of close to 100%!). If the "conversion rate" is a steady 4% but non-affiliation rate is rising geometrically, then we'll catch up in...
Maybe we need fuzzier math?
As for Response 3, I wonder if that's the assumption that needs the most substantial rethinking. That rethinking requires us first to admit how pervasive and deep that perspective is for us. We may have to admit our "gut level reflexes" are "tuned" or "primed" or even "addicted" by the idea that "more" must always be our first concern.
Dan Dick addressed this issue of our denomination's fixation on "More" in his blog, United Methodeviations a while back. It's well worth the read.
We seem to be really stuck on this idea that "more is better" and maybe even "more is the highest good."
But is more always better?
No. More is more. Better is better.
And not all more is better.
More cancer cells are not better, that is unless "you" are cancer, and then it's better only until you've managed to kill your host. Then you die, too.
More weight is not generally better, except for things like Sumo Wrestling and perhaps weightlifting, but then only if you're also committed to a) a short lifespan and b) a lot of hard, hard training. Blessings on those who are. I'm not.
More worship space isn't always better, especially if that space gets heated and cooled nearly every day while it's actually used for its intended purpose only one or two days per week for a few hours at a time.
So more isn't always better. Or even desirable!
Yet somehow when we look at the Pew Report on Millennials and UM membership/worship stats and other similar reports showing declines in participation in organized religion in the US, the immediate leap is...
We need, really need, and now absolutely desperately need more, and especially more younger people to sign on with us. And to some of them we seem to say, "If we were like X, would you come?"
I'm not a Millennial. I'm GenX. But if I weren't connected with the UMC already (and don't get me wrong, I'm very glad I am!), I'd likely never join a congregation or religious group that seemed to "need me" so much that they'd pander to "my interests" just to get me to come. This would sound to me like more like an group that's desperate to get "more people like me" than one that knows what it's doing and is serious about wanting to connect me with God and be part of transforming me so I can join God's mission in the world with them.
If all I'm there to do is make your group "more," then I'm not going to be there.
But if your group shows me you can make me better, not just part of your more... If you can show me you will put me through my paces and keep me primed so I'm like those athletes the apostle Paul describes and a lot of us are watching on the Olympics right now-- different story. Count me in.
It's the practice that makes perfect. Last time I read it, Matthew does record that Jesus calls us to perfection. None of us gets there without practice. We don't practice if our focus is on more-- we just grab people to fill up our never sated appetite for more and more and more. But if our focus is always, always on better, we DO practice.
Sometimes that leads to more.
ALWAYS it leads to better!
So I look at the Pew numbers, and I hope against hope that at least some of us don't pick any of three response above, and maybe especially not the third.
And I say: Forget "more." Think "better!"
Peace in Christ,