Those of us in ministry are not free of the push and pull of anxiety about ourselves, our status, our power, our income, and our future. This anxiety is exacerbated when facing a crisis of denominational decline.
In the movie Titanic, those in power are first to learn of the doom facing the ship, a collision and failure that were the tragic result of hubris and neglect. The knowledge of the crisis becomes a source of privilege shared selectively among the wealthy and connected. They are first to lower the insufficient life rafts without filling them, locking the poor in the lower decks, and leaving the others behind to perish.
The United Methodist Church within the United States of America is a denomination in a state of catastrophic decline. Each year, there are fewer members, fewer opportunities, and, consequently, declining collective resources. As scarcity advances, difficult decisions must be made. Downsizing and deprivation are directed by those at the top. They begin at the margins and work backwards toward the center, crafting new ideologies that justify every decision even as the bureaucrats devour their own bureaus.
None of us are immune to the lure of power or the temptation to a crude pragmatism driven by material attachment and the desperation for survival. We must remember, however, that decline is the default process of all living things. Decline will take place very quickly if sustenance is withheld.
Scarcity, failure, disintegration, and dissolution, bring to the surface our deepest fears even as they reveal our foundational ideologies. It is precisely here that we must address the decline of the United Methodist Church, morally, spiritually, and individually. What we do, how we do it, why, where, with whom, and to what degree, all matter.
The decline of the UMC is not a secret. It is not the fault of one or another party within the church. It is not a recent phenomenon. One of the best ways to visualize the decline of U.S. Methodism is by examining the historic prevalence of Methodism within U.S. society (graph).
From the moment of organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist prevalence in U.S. society has been in deceleration.
The graph above compares the prevalence of Methodism in U.S. society to an ideal parabolic, ballistic trajectory. (Data source: GCFA, UMC). The prevalence of Methodism within the U.S. follows a ballistic trajectory.
Two conditions must exist to produce a ballistic trajectory. First, upward acceleration (force) must cease at the beginning of the trajectory, leaving the speeding object free to fall under its own weight. Second, a single, constant, negative force must be applied throughout the remaining trajectory (gravity).
Within Methodism, the first condition is brought about due to the shift away from Wesley’s para-church Methodism (a process that began before the M.E.C. organized). The M.E.C. was created as a substitute and analog for the Imperial Church, the very church Wesley’s Methodists sought to reform. American Episcopal Methodist attention moved quickly from spiritual reform to temporal establishment, from idealism to pragmatism. The political complexity of the organization increased exponentially as did its temporal footprint and appetite. The three core spiritual practices of Wesleyan Methodism, the pietist class meetings, the commitment to mass evangelism, and egalitarian social activism became marginal within the life of this new church (as they were for the Church of England). We see echoes of them in the various UMC agencies.
The consequence of the radical shift from idealism to pragmatism is best evidenced within the episcopacy of early U.S. Methodism. Only one generation passed between the evangelical poverty, radical itinerancy, and abolitionist pacifism of Francis Asbury and the scandalous, capitalist, genteel entitled slave-holding diocesan regionalism of James Osgood Andrew.
Consider the UMC episcopacy today. Which of those two bishops does it most emulate?
Like a hot brand plucked from the fire, the spirit of original Methodism survived in the 19th century. Even as it chilled, it managed to pass its fire to other religious movements.
Although we live within a period of rapid decline, there is but one ballistic trajectory. The gravity pulling us downward now is the same that decelerated the church in the past. We continue to privilege the pragmatic over the idealistic, the elite over the egalitarian, the temporal over the spiritual. We remain thoroughly white supremacist and Anglo-normative (whites “include” others in United Methodism). Our polity remains committed to colonialist and feudal structures of monarchy, crony power cliques, and our ministry is organized into racial and social castes. Our approach to mission remains enthralled and entwined with American imperialism, capitalism, consumerism, populism and cults of personality.
As the graph shows, we are approaching the end of the ballistic trajectory. At that end, we are faced with an inversion of original Methodism, a reversal of its values, an anti-Methodism. At this antithesis, congregationalism replaces connection, prejudice determines privilege, privilege is considered preparation, and princes and palaces know best how to serve the people.
The Articles of Anti-Methodism are these:
Equity punishes the successful.
Fairness rewards failure.
Impartiality diminishes profits.
Democracy foments division.
Transparency weakens authority.
Inclusion undermines excellence.
Values obstruct progress.
Theology distracts from reality.
Justice alienates allies.
Dissent leads to disorder.
Holiness is a form of harassment.
Intellectuals are an irritant.
Schism is a means of grace and reconciliation.
Clearly, the bitter has become sweet, and the sweet has become bitter.
Our egalitarian structures, together with the eclectic spiritual practices that gave birth to our movement are treated as quaint nostalgia, a faded memory that is too embarrassing, too costly, and too eccentric for our bourgeois sentimentalities. At the same time, they are a dangerous memory, a memory with the power to ignite us once again.
We can, and shall do better.
(Pray for the cannon ball to bounce.)