April 27, 2012 Tom Berlin

Facts are our Friends

Some time ago I attended a conference where the speaker said, Facts are our friends. I quote that a lot at Floris UMC, along with the other staff who work there who also heard the same speaker. We say it when it is tempting to put our fingers in our ears and hum a tune when someone is giving accurate information that is also bad news. Facts are our friends has become a prelude of sorts to everything that follows. Last year, for instance, we had a downturn in our worship attendance and our giving at the church. After the numbers were shared with me, I shared them with others, comforting them with our little mantra: Facts are our friends. As a result, we started thinking and planning and considering new ways to address those concerns. We did that not because we feared the downfall of our church, but simply because those numbers showed that we were not accomplishing the mission to which we had committed to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We changed some plans, came up with some new ideas, asked for God’s help, and before too long, things turned around.

Now I am at General Conference, spending two weeks thinking about the ministry of our denomination and the churches that support it. Consider these facts about the UMC in the United States, provided by the General Board of Global Ministries, for the last five years:

  • Membership down 5.3% or 425,000 persons
  • Worship down 8.7% or 291,000 persons
  • Confirmations and baptisms down 21%
  • Average member is nearly 60 years of age

At this rate, the UMC will have no children or youth in 25 years.

At the current rate of decline, there will be no UMC in less than 50 years.

In terms of clergy leadership, we currently have 16,951 Elders. Only 951, or 5.61%, are under 35. Yes, 35 years of age. 52% of these clergy are 55-71 years old. That’s why I introduce myself at 48 as a young adult.

Let’s just say there is lots of room for humility as a United Methodist these days.

What intrigues me is the reaction people have when these facts, provided by an agency of the UMC, are shared. Twitter feeds begin to respond, doom and gloom! Delegates bemoan the scare tactics used to undergird plans for change in church structure. Preachers share that while some of the numbers are down, We’re Not Dead Yet! 

We’re not dead yet is a fine line from Monty Python, useful in many circumstances. However, it is not an adequate plan for addressing the reality of the present or for having hope for the future. It is fine for the pep rally. It will not do as a game plan.

It is my observation that large institutions resist change and organisms that are unhealthy because of their habits often resist the hard work that accompanies freedom from illness. Take tenets of the Call to Action Plan, a proposal to organize and budget for future vitality in local churches and the denomination. This would be different. It would be a new way of doing the work of the church. And that is just what people don’t like about it. It is my bet that while we are in Tampa the plan will be whittled down into something that looks very similar to our current organizational structure. Years ago I had the opportunity to fly over a rural area of Sierra Leone, Africa. I could see very small clusters of houses, tiny villages, all connected by small trails. That is a lot like the boards and agencies of the UMC at this time. There is no coordinating body that oversees these ministry villages between sessions of the General Conference. No episcopal leader has oversight over the whole. As a result, they compete for scarce resources in a declining financial environment and are free to pursue their agendas, which are tweaked every four years over a two week General Conference. When someone suggests a bold plan to focus our human and financial resources on church vitality, it is suggested that they have some other agenda than working for the future health of the church.

Facts are our friends, and I doubt we will change the future by refusing to move past the present.

On Wednesday night, they showed a video of one our UMC’s that had closed. The congregation once had a beautiful building in which it met. There was one member left, who walked through the facility reminiscing about all that the church had done through the years. She also shared some hard facts. As the community changed, the church remained the same. They did not reach out to meet people’s needs. They did not find new ways to invite their neighbors. They did not find ways to bless new generations of children and youth. She said that soon she would lock the door for the last time, have a good cry and walk away. The video made me realize how much of a pastor I have become over the years. I felt such sadness at the thought of a dead church in a neighborhood with so much opportunity to do good. I felt sad for the community this woman had lost. And as I was feeling this wave of sadness, I heard someone near me say, the church is not a building!

Let me say simply, of course the church is not a building. I didn’t get that seminary degree for nothing. But facts are our friends. The church is not a building is another way of denying the essential fact that a woman locking up an empty church facility with a For Sale sign out front only does so because that congregation is no longer in need of it. They have grown old and died. They have drifted off. They have failed to invite the neighbor and the stranger to their fellowship. That church is dead. And I’m not talking about the facility.

That should make us sad. Because in the end, when churches die, real people lose something. Many of us have been blessed by the church from the time of our birth. We were cared for and nurtured. Our values and aspirations have been formed by the gospel of Christ. The church is often the voice for the poor in our communities. It is the hands and feet of Christ that feed the hungry, house the homeless, and educate people while offering them the intangible grace and transforming love of Christ at the same time. When churches split or slowly fade away, it is the young and the poor that lose out the most. The whole community suffers when the church dies. So much opportunity for God that goes unfulfilled.

That is the other part of the story here in Tampa. The UMC is doing so much good that should be sustained. We are building new churches, offering new life in Christ. We are making a real difference in combatting malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa. We are offering job training, recovery to those with addictions, sustaining schools, clinics and homes for aging persons. The stories of good really are limitless. That is worthy of our effort and worthy of our attention.

I am sure that God does not need the United Methodist Church to find ways to extend the grace and love of Christ in this world. If we do not continue as a denomination over the next 50 years, the Lord Almighty will find other pilgrims for the journey. God does not need us, but we do need God. We need God to call us to take some risks, to do some things differently, to resist our denial and our excuses and have a holy conference with our friends the facts. They beckon us to a new future. They long for us to change their trajectory. If you have read this far and care about the UMC, if it has been any blessing in your life or if it has ever blessed your part of the world, pray for all of us in Tampa. Pray consistently. Lord knows, we all need it.


Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

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