|Researcher analyzes State of the Church report|
The State of the Church report, commissioned by the
Connectional Table, provides a comprehensive overview of the life of The
United Methodist Church.
UMNS file photos by Marta W. Aldrich.
By Linda Green*
Nov. 8, 2007 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS)
The United Methodist presence in the United States today is the same as
it was in 1820. And, if trends in aging and membership losses continue
at their current rates, the church will shrink to its size at the time
of the first Christmas Conference in 1784.
The analysis came from the Rev. Lovett Weems, a United Methodist
researcher, speaking Nov. 6 to the denomination's Council of Bishops
after examining the State of the Church report released churchwide in
The report provides a baseline of the thoughts, feelings, values and
judgments of a cross-section of United Methodist leaders and members,
said Ohio East Bishop John Hopkins, president of the Connectional Table,
the leadership entity that coordinates the mission, ministries and
resources for the denomination.
The Rev. Lovett Weems
The Connectional Table commissioned the report in 2005 and asked Weems
to review the resulting data and feedback and identify emerging
questions, contradictions and implications. Weems is professor of church
leadership and director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of
Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.
Weems provided his analysis in the form of questions related to 10
areas: 1) theological grounding and spiritual vitality; 2) a global
church; 3) church structure; 4) the aging church; 5) finances; 6) young
clergy recruitment; 7) diversity; 8) the church's future; 9) large
churches; and 10) pastoral effectiveness.
The questions "lead us to wonder if we can have a future worthy of our
past," said Weems, adding that "without a new vision, the future does
not look bright." However, he also told the bishops that new visions
often emerge in times of hardship.
United Methodist leaders have been struggling for decades to understand
the gradual decline of the denomination's reach in the United States,
where membership is almost 8 million, a decline of 19 percent since
1974. Forty-one percent of United Methodist churches in the United
States did not report a single profession of faith in 2005.
Age and ethnicity
Weems said The United Methodist Church has a future in the United States only if it can reach younger and more diverse people.
The church grew up in America in the 19th century and early decades of
the 20th century, but "as the last century unfolded, the nation changed
and the church did not."
"As the last century unfolded, the nation changed and the church did not." Today, the
U.S. church is smaller and older and less diverse than the country's
population, he said, noting that the denomination has steadily grayed
–The Rev. Lovett Weems
Weems said the issue of race and ethnicity is not as prominent in the
State of the Church report as would be expected given that the United
States is undergoing one of the most dramatic racial and ethnic shifts
in its history.
He said all mainline churches have statements about inclusiveness, but
"there is not single mainline denomination in the United States that has
shown that it can reach any group of people other than white people as
well as it can reach white people."
The United Methodist Church is most effective at reaching whites and
African Americans but is even struggling today to reach those groups,
according to Weems.
"The need for a renewed spirit of inclusion of people is crucial today,"
he said. The church's future will be shaped by "its willingness and
ability to respond to the changing face of America."
Graying clergy, large churches
Weems called the lack of young United Methodist clergy both a crisis and
a "complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon" and asked if they should be
declared an endangered species. Over the last 20 years, the
denomination's U.S. clergy under the age of 35 has dropped below 5
Neil Alexander presents a report summary to the
Connectional Table at its May meeting in Norcross, Ga., while Bishop
John Hopkins listens.
"There is no single cause and no single solution," he said.
The church must recruit young clergy to bring new ideas, creativity,
energy and cultural awareness, said Weems. He added that, without them,
these characteristic are lost, jeopardizing the wisdom and experience
that can come with long ministry tenures.
Weems told the bishops that large churches have attracted young people and diverse congregations for at least 30 years.
Only 1 percent of the 34,892 United Methodist churches have a worship
attendance of more than 500 people, and those larger congregations
represent 20 percent of membership, 20 percent of attendance, 24 percent
of professions of faith, 25 percent of youth, 26 percent of children
and 29 percent of people of color.
The numbers, he said, "cry out for attention to what we all can learn from these congregations."
The good news is that the report indicates that United Methodists are
immersed in experiences leading to theological grounding and spiritual
"United Methodist core beliefs are clear," and there is "remarkable"
consensus on key tenets of the Christian faith, he said, with variations
of emphasis in the United States and across the globe.
Weems described the church as evangelical in a liberal tradition. The
church, he said, is the first to challenge assumptions and to open
windows and doors to new ideas and possibilities when faith demands it.
"Could such a vision that is both deep (in faith and piety) and open (to
new needs and possibilities) sustain us over the years ahead?" he
The report is based on surveys conducted between June and September of
2006, and involved interviewing a cross-section of about 3,000 United
Methodist clergy, lay leaders and members from across the globe.
Connectional Table leaders said the project was the first time the
church has attempted to produce a comprehensive overview of the life of
the church and was designed to stimulate churchwide conversation.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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