UMC Decline: Society’s fault?

Here is an angle on the decline of The United Methodist Church I hadn’t considered before: living “in a culture that is less and less sensitive to communities of faith and Christian values.”

(before I go on, every time I capitalize the “T” on “The United Methodist Church,” which is the correct thing to do because the UMC has so determined, I wonder if this fact itself doesn’t tell us an awful lot about our denomination’s 43 year decline.)

I’m a bit incredulous at this excuse.  I don’t recall the Roman Empire being particularly “sensitive to communities of [Christian] faith and Christian values.”  While the first couple centuries of Church history were not as rife with persecution as some would like to believe, calling any Emperor before Constantine truly Christian friendly would be a stretch.

Rather than blaming an unfriendly culture for our decline, perhaps culture seems unfriendly for the very reasons we have been in decline for more than four decades.  What The United Methodist Church has offered American Society has (obviously) been nothing that society at large senses a compelling need for.

More succinctly, perhaps they are not interested in what we offer. Not what we say we offer; what we actually offer.

11 thoughts on “UMC Decline: Society’s fault?

  1. I’m on board with your incredulity. Look at some of the nations where Christianity is growing the fastest… they’re societies are not just “less sensitive” their horribly hostile!

    We’re living in a culture where Christians look absolutely no different (and in some cases worse) than their non-christian neighbors…. so really…. why would anyone be interested in being a part of that?

    So perhaps a better “excuse” if you will, might be that we’re living in a culture where “Christians” are less and less sensitive to matters of faith and Christian values.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • Amen brother. Our brothers and sisters in the Western Jurisdiction tell us that the ground is exceptionally unfriendly but where is Saddleback??? We are the original counter-cultural movement. Numbers of followers doesn’t tell the whole story. But, therefore, we cannot continue a structure that assumes a large base will continue to financially support it.

  2. I’m in the midst of reading a book called “UnChristian” that was written by two conservative Christians who are grappling with the idea that the younger generations (characterized by them as being the people between 16 – 35) are out of step with their traditional view of Christianity. It’s an interesting read so far, but I’m not sure how much it speaks to me (I’m a 35-year-old ex-Catholic in New England).

    I’ve been saying for years that our culture isn’t friendly towards Christianity; however, it’s not friendly towards religion in general from what I can see. As a culture we put a lot of faith in science (and I chose my words very carefully there, because believing in quarks and leptons and muons requires a leap of faith even if the majority of people don’t acknowledge that…), and it has been positioned in such a fashion as to oppose religion despite the fact that both are artificial human constructs, and do not naturally oppose anything.

    I find that, amongst my peers, I am viewed with some incredulity when I mention that I am a churchgoing Methodist. Some think I’m antiquated, some thing I’m dumber than they first realized, and some just don’t quite know how to process it. I’m non-evangelical in all possible ways; I don’t try to convert anyone, because it wasn’t that long ago that I myself saw religion as a very effective method of mind control.

    I don’t shy away from talking about the good work that my church does, or that the larger church does; I find it particularly helpful to put things into contexts that my peers will understand, like how much of each UMCOR donation goes to the project being supported vs. how much of Bono’s dreadful “RED” campaign goes to administrative and overhead costs…but I digress.

    We’re living in times that are unkind to Christian beliefs in a different and more subtle way than during the Roman empire or during the Islamic expansion into the Iberian peninsula. The challenge to Christianity now is the systematic dismantling of its foundations. Our culture lacks an understanding of symbolic language, which leads to biblical literalism and its corresponding ridicule. Compassion is reduced to charity and viewed only through the lens of capitalism. The bigger picture is parsed into small snapshots and never fully considered.

    I’d like to see our culture become more open to the ideas of Christ, but given the nature of transmission through the church I don’t know how possible that is. We have a signal-to-noise ratio problem coupled with an image problem, and I haven’t been able to come up with a way around either of those.

    • I really appreciate your thoughts. I like the “dismantling the foundation” point esp. I am becoming convinced that as we (if we) return to Jesus’ life and teachings AS our foundation, we will find many willing to, even interested in, engaging us in conversation, if not wanting to know how to follow, too.

  3. Here here, to the 3 commenters above. I would only really take issue with how “friendly” our culture is to Christianity. How rare is it for someone in our culture to get elected to any kind of office (especially major office) without declaring and somehow “proving” their “Christian-ness”? Only Christians, I think, would consider this country “unfriendly to Christianity.” To those of us in other religions, or in none, the relative “friendliness” of our culture toward this one religion is actually quite staggering.

  4. This country is unfriendly to Christians? Yes and no. It really depends on the generation. One of the major philosophical shifts in the history of the world happened. The shift from modernity to post-modernity. There are many ‘modern’ Christians in America who embrace the Social Gospel and that is really what the politic mentioned above is about. It is not really about proving your Christianity, as it is proving the modern concept of Christianity to an electorate of a certain age. I don’t believe younger generations care so much about a candidate’s Christianity.
    To be fair, America, on the grand scale and scope of things is not ‘anti-Christian’ so much as it is apathetic to Christianity. Most in our culture feel like they know what Christianity is even while being very ignorant of the basic teachings.
    My latest thought that I have been chewing on (and even said so in church yesterday) is that the main cause of a missing generation in mainline denominations, including the UMC, is Sunday School. At first blush you might find me off my rocker, but I still am exploring the working hypothesis is that parents neglected their responsibility to teach their children the faith because the Church told them that they would teach their children. Now the SS classes I went too were moralistic fables at best. They taught Bible stories, but never the meat or heart of the Gospel. I was taught that Jesus was a good guy who loved me, but nothing really of the person or work of Jesus. It was so dumbed down that I never got anything approaching real substantial knowledge of the Gospel.

  5. I was raised in the UMC and up until 2 years ago was an active member. I am 59 years old so I am very familiar with the workings of the UMC. I live in a small Indiana town. Our church was small-mid sized. I became concerned with our denomination several years ago as I slowly saw the UMW (United Methodist Women) group increasingly given more “social” lessons to present in our monthly meetings. Jesus seemed to be taking a backseat to “racial injustice”, “environmental awareness” etc. It became more and more simply an activist organization. While all that is fine and good, that’s not where I felt our focus should be.
    My husband and I made our decision 2 years ago to seek out a church where the focus was the Gospel.
    While there are good points for the “connectional church”(pastor security, never being without a pastor, etc.) there is a down side to it. In our situation it was being unable to get rid of a bad pastor. After 4 years of a pastor who delivered “put you to sleep” sermons, half the congregation leaving, the youth group dwindling from 25 teens down to 3, the entire praise band leaving, etc. we still were stuck with the same pastor because the District Superintendent refused to do anything.
    We now attend a church where there is church control of whether the pastor stays or goes and this church is thriving!

    • Debbie, thanks for your comment. I have known many people who tell a similar story, and others who have transitioned the other way. I’d like to think that truly following Jesus would look rather radical – compared with our society as a whole – in a number of ways.

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