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U.S. churches face crisis, discipleship leaders say

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Bishop Michael J. Coyner
By Linda Green*
March 21, 2006 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

The fact that 43 percent of United Methodist churches in America did not receive a member by profession of faith in 2004 is an indicator that congregations are in trouble, say leaders of the denomination's discipleship agency.

Both the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, and Bishop Michael Coyner, board president, cited that statistic during addresses at the March 14-18 board meeting.

Coyner, leader of the United Methodist Church's Indiana Area, made the observation during a presentation on the seven vision pathways the Council of Bishops, with the denomination's Connectional Table, is using to help the church make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation the world. One of the council's pathways is transforming existing congregations by helping them become more effective and faithful in ministry.

"There is one number in our denomination which keeps going up," Coyner said. "It is the percentage of churches that did not receive even one person as a new member by profession of faith, a number that is now up to 43 percent.

"If there is any number in our denomination that is steadily growing, that is it, and it is causing all kinds of other numbers to decline, including our ability to stand before God and say we are doing a good job in making disciples."

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

"Our churches are in real trouble," says the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, top executive of the Board of Discipleship.
Existing congregations need to be transformed in a variety of ways, but at the heart of the transformation is "simply to have a passion that we are all about making disciples for Jesus Christ," the bishop said.

The other pathways include developing new congregations; teaching the Wesleyan model of forming disciples of Jesus Christ; strengthening clergy and lay leadership; reaching and transforming the lives of new generations of children; eliminating poverty in community with the poor; and expanding racial-ethnic ministries.

Greenwaldt said many of the denomination's U.S. churches "are in real trouble." In addition to receiving no members by profession of faith, she said, membership and church attendance are also in decline, as well as contributions to conference benevolences.

She noted that the average age of people in the denomination's U.S. churches is between 57 and 62, but millions of young people who live in the same towns, cities and suburbs are attending house churches, marketplace ministries and cyber-churches. "They continue to avoid going to our churches and to similar denominations," she said.

'Consumer church' problem

Though the denomination emphasizes clergy and lay collaboration, Greenwaldt said "the reality is that many churches continue practices that call for a passive laity who wait for the direction of the clergy." She described this laity as "passive churchgoers" or "lethargic consumers" who are addicted to a "consumer church."

The Rev. Tyrone Gordon, pastor of St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church in Dallas, agreed. He and the Rev. Kent Millard, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, addressed openness, the need for being passion-driven, evangelism and discipleship, and the impact of evangelism on the local congregation.

"We are producing a generation of religious consumers who are always looking at what the Lord can do for them, instead of committed disciples who ask what is it that we can do for the Lord," Gordon said.

He attributed the continuous growth of his congregation and his understanding of discipleship to a cycle of reaching, teaching, training and employing - a cyclical view of the task of evangelism and discipleship.

"In order to make disciples ... we must capture the minds, hearts, trust and respect of people," he said. "The task of evangelism and discipleship is to make the liberating power of the gospel of Christ become real in word and deed."

Radical change needed

The time for an incremental quick fix has passed, Greenwaldt said. "We are living in a world and in a church that need radical intervention. The status quo will not overcome the inertia holding us in place."

She called on church leaders and members to return to the basic disciplines of the Christian faith: prayer, Bible study, fasting, participating in worship and the sacraments, doing good and doing no harm - the essential work of spiritual formation.

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

Board staff members Foye Webb and the Rev. Safiyah Fosua sing during the agency's March 14-18 directors' meeting.
"The church does not need more managers," she said. "Rather, the church needs leaders."

Instead of emphasizing what is wrong, the church's focus instead must be on gifts and opportunities for ministry, she said. "We must throw away our belief that command and control systems will change the church in order to impact the world. Instead, we must learn our way into the future" and follow God's lead.

"Our task of making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is not a small task," she said. "It is a worldwide task, and it is needing urgent attention."

Making disciples means helping people understand the basic patterns and practices of the faith and using the formula found in Micah 6:8, she said. "We must do justice. We must love kindness, and we must walk humbly with God. This work of being a disciple and making a difference in the world is not our work, it is God's work through us."

Laity Sunday themes

During the meeting, board members also:

  • Participated in an interactive panel discussion moderated by Bishop Charlene Kammerer on making disciples.
  • Became familiar with the agency's new strategic directions document.
  • Called for staff to continue work on a new agency logo and slogan and to pursue a single brand identity for all the work and content of the Board of Discipleship.
  • Approved themes for Laity Sunday for 2009-2012. The themes for "Disciples Transforming the World" will be Through Prayers, 2009; Through Presence, 2010; Through Gifts, 2011; and Through Service, 2012.
  • Received an update on "The Seeker Study," a joint project with United Methodist Communications, to better understand the needs, preferences, motivations, attitudes and behaviors of spiritual seekers in two age groupings - 21-40 and 41-60.
  • Began compiling legislation for the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

Related Audio

Bishop Michael Coyner: "There is one number in our denomination."

The Rev. Karen Greenwaldt: "The church and the larger world need attention."

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