It is odd how little the local church is discussed at General Conference. When you think about “the church,” isn’t it the local church that comes to mind? That group of people who are your people, with all their virtues and foibles, is the church. That building, whether small and wood framed in the country, or brick and pillared in the city, is what comes to mind. People meeting for worship, small groups or to serve others are all a part of what I imagine when I hear the word “church.” At the General Conference, these things are discussed in laity addresses or sermons by bishops, but most of our time is spent talking about the denomination. This is well and good, since our work together, with a nearly $600 million budget, does need to be discussed. United Methodists are in a connectional church. What we do in a district is linked across a conference, which is connected to a Jurisdictional or Central Conference, and all of that is linked to the General Conference.
But when you think of the church, don’t you tend to think of the variety of expressions of the local church that can be found across the globe? It is important to understand that overall, the local church in the United States is not doing well in terms of vitality. Certainly there are many local churches that are vital and viable. But many others are losing ground. That is in the data provided by Don House, the head of the economic advisory committee of the General Council on Finance and Administration of the UMC.
Take a look at Don’s presentation. Let me give you one predicted outcome from his presentation of the numerical decline of our local churches, which began decades ago and has continued unabated until the present:
“By 2030, the denomination in the U.S. will likely have declined to a point in which a turnaround is not possible. By 2050, the connection will have collapsed.”
The central conferences are where United Methodists from a variety of countries work together in the developing world to provide schools, clinics, vocational centers, hospitals and a host of other life-saving ministries. From the living water of the Gospel to the drinking water of a newly drilled well, we are making a difference in so many places.
Here is the big denominational problem: about 97 percent of the current budget of the UMC comes from local churches in the U.S. As these churches shrink and go out of existence, so does that budget. The central conferences that have grown the fastest in Africa and Asia in recent years are predominately in developing economies where poverty is common, the income gap between the very rich and the very poor is large and the middle class is often nonexistent. If the local churches in the U.S. decline to the point that they cannot sustain the current economic model and if the economies of the developing world do not significantly change so that United Methodists there can carry a proportional amount of the budget, the good work our church is doing will simply cease to exist. Canceling our worldwide meeting will be a small concern. The real tragedy is that people who are often very poor will no longer have access to the good things the church offers. Future pastors will lose their scholarships and related funds, our work on numerous social issues will discontinue and new churches will no longer be planted. The list of tragic losses is way too long for this too long blog post.
We state that the local church is the primary arena where we fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We understand that the local churches in the U.S. are the basis of the economic model that provides for the worldwide mission of the church. So it seems odd that we discuss their challenges so little in Portland.
That was why I was pleasantly surprised when Don House introduced a document that passed in the Committee on Finance and Administration on Saturday for a “Standing Committee on Strategy and Growth.” I served on this committee and supported Don’s proposal, which in part reads, “Its purpose is to develop and implement a strategy to first slow the decline in worship attendance and professions of faith, and then to return them to positive growth within the jurisdictional conferences. The strategy’s target is to arrest and reverse the decline by the end of 2024.”
Most people are for the growth of the local church. When this plan goes to the plenary session this week, the problem will be that it calls for a $20 million investment in the local church, which will come from the proposed UMC budget. Yesterday was a day of rest here for General Conference delegates, and I can only imagine how restless this proposal is making most of the general boards and agencies of our church. I am sure that this proposal will be difficult for the delegates to work through. Prioritizing a budget, whether personal, family, church or denominational, is always hard work. I doubt anyone will want to offer up his or her funds for this cause. Friends of mine have told me how hard this will be and what programs it may impact. My response is to ask them what plans the Connectional Table, which is the leadership team for the UMC, has to turn around the current decline of existing local churches in the U.S.? The good work of PATH 1, the group responsible for developing and implementing a strategy to plant new faith communities, is offered. Beyond this, the Connectional Table offers very little.
This makes me wonder, before the debate begins, if no one came here with a plan for local church renewal, and the numbers shared with denominational leaders months ago tell us that in 14 years we will be at a point of no return, does anyone have a better idea than the one offered by Don House?