Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An Emerging Generation for the Church

That the North Alabama Conference made reaching a new generation of Christian leaders a Conference Priority was prescient, according to recent reading that I’ve been doing on young adults.

Robert Wuthnow, a noted sociologist of religion at Princeton, has just done a thorough study of the twenty to thirty something. Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers (Princeton University Press, 2007) is a challenging read for those of us who are entrusted with the future of the church. Unfortunately, much of his data suggest that the future of the church is being shaped more by the absence of younger adults than by their presence. With few exceptions, the church has failed to respond to the changing life patterns and social trends that characterize contemporary young adulthood, says Wuthnow.

For one thing, young adulthood is getting longer. While those in their forties were once considered to be middle-aged, Wuthnow contends that young adulthood today extends to age 45. This is due, in part, to increases in life expectancy that make age 49 the midpoint of adult life. And while young adults age 20-44 still make up 50.7% of the population—roughly the same percentage as 30 years ago, they are a much smaller percentage of the constituency of most major faith traditions. Since the early seventies, the percentage of young adults that say they attend religious services weekly has fallen from 19% to 14%; and the percentage that never attend has increased from 14% to 20%. We Mainline Protestants have been hit hardest by these trends. The proportion of young adults 21-45 among mainline church adherents has declined by five percentage points since the early seventies, and the proportion in their twenties has fallen by seven points.

The most pronounced social trend defining the life patterns of this generation is delayed marriage. In 1970, 62% of people in their twenties were married; whereas now only 28% are married. Among those in their thirties, the percentage married fell from 83% to 52%. “Being married or unmarried,” says Wuthnow, “has a stronger effect on church attendance than anything else.” Almost all the decline in religious attendance among 21-45-year-olds has taken place among unmarried younger adults. Increasingly, when our churches manage to attract young adults, we are attracting an unrepresentative cross-section of young adults—those that are married with children.

“Many congregations have gotten spoiled,” says Wuthnow, “thinking they can serve young adults by sponsoring a lively high school group and then catering to young married couples with children.” Unfortunately, this approach leaves out three-quarters of today’s young adults. His research identified several characteristics of youthful congregations (those where more than 35% of participants are under age 35). For instance: 1) newer congregations seem to have an advantage in attracting young adults—30% of congregations successful at attracting young people had been founded since 1970, compared with only 16% of less youthful congregations; 2) youthful congregations tend to be located in metropolitan areas where many young adults live; and 3) youthful congregations are more racially and ethnically mixed.

I want to stress that reaching young adults is more than a matter of institutional survival. Of the most important decisions that we’ll make in life, most of those decisions are made during young adulthood. The church ought to be there. Also, Jesus is doing some amazing things within this generation. We ought to be working with Him.

If your congregation has launched some new, fruitful ministries with Emerging Adults, share what you have done with Robert Mercer, who coordinates and encourages our Conference Student and Young Adult Ministry. Let’s share those practices that God is using to get us back in touch with this generation of Christians.

William H. Willimon

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mercy Despite the Misery Among North Alabama Methodists

In the past month I’ve met with dozens of United Methodists individually and in groups discussing the future of their church, their discipleship and their response to the Conference Priorities. Our discussions were focused on church matters, but in the course of those discussions at dozens of locations throughout our Conference, mostly in small congregations, I became aware of other concerns.

From what I’ve heard I am becoming increasingly troubled about the economics of the middle class. Methodism is a mostly middle class movement, in our past and today as well. Something about the way we do church (maybe our middle-of-the-road theology?) appeals to folks in the middle. Today, folks in the middle are hurting. The “misery index” – inflation linked with the wages and jobs – is squeezing our people. Add soaring energy prices to this, as well as the housing crisis that is greatly reducing the value of homes, and it’s a crisis. It is downright un-American that our tax and wage structure have enabled the rich to get richer and the middle class to get squeezed. It’s ironic that we have chosen to wage the ill conceived “War on Terrorism,” borrowing most of the money for the war, charging it to our grandchildren, when the economy is hurting mid dle class Americans more than Islamic terrorists. For the first time in our nation’s history, the middle class is shrinking.

I heard little from either political party, at their conventions, that specifically addresses the problems that are engendered by our government related to the economy. Alabama has lagged behind the rest of the nation economically; now we are among the first to feel the middle class squeeze. Dozens of our congregations have programs to feed “the poor.” They report for the first time ever they are having members of their own congregations ask for help and they are having record numbers ask for help. Pastors are reporting an increased number of pastoral care cases that are directly attributable to economic pressures. A United Methodist student at Birmingham Southern told me last week that he could not go to college (because his mother and his father have been laid off from their once good paying jobs) if BSC had not given him a full scholarship. He thanked me for the church’s help. I sure don& rsquo;t have the answer to this increased misery, but let’s be sure to push our leaders to get out there and listen, learn, and pray that God will give them the political creativity and courage to act.

Of course, my major concern is the church. And my point is not the ineptitude and insensitivity of our national leaders, which is self evident. My point is that the current middle class squeeze makes all the more remarkable the response of the United Methodists of North Alabama . I thank God that I have the opportunity to see people in the middle show, even amid various levels of misery, the mercy of Christ. Last Sunday I dedicated a beautiful new building at little Hopewell Church in the Southeast District. Their pastor led them in doubling their space, building mostly with their own hands, debt free, AND paying more than their fair share of Conference obligations (apportionments)! (Cost of church buildings is the main excuse that pastors give for their congregations not paying 100% of their apportionments.) This summer the apportioned giving of the Northeast and the Southeast Districts has risen rather than fallen.

Alabama Christians are near the top of national percentage of income giving to charity and church. Last year our churches (filled with people in the middle class squeeze) gave millions of dollars to help people in need – two dozen Habitat Houses, 160 Volunteer in Mission teams, half a million dollars in Katrina relief, and more. It’s an amazing testimony to Christian generosity and gratitude to have such stewardship even in tight economic times. It is a sign that the mercy of Christ for those in need is astir among us. It’s evidence that good preaching and teaching, passionate worship and opportunities bear fruit. In a culture in which people are encouraged to look after themselves and their families, to vote their self-interest, and conspicuous display of affluence is praised as realization of “the American dream,” Christian stewardship has become a countercultural witness.&nb sp;

Average, middle class people made this country great. The promise of entrance to the middle class has been, at least until this last decade, part of the American dream. But more than any of that, the mercy being shown toward those in need among us by people who are themselves under economic stress, is a credit to the power of Jesus Christ to enable average, ordinary, people in the middle, to be spectacularly faithful.

So, this Sunday, when the offering plate is passed, or you are asked to make your yearly commitment to the work of the church, thanks for your witness. The world is seeing the mercy of Christ in you.

Will Willimon

Monday, September 15, 2008

Learning and Growing

Recently I saw a study of “successful aging.” According to the study, the number one factor in whether or not a person ages gracefully experiencing "the joy of being a ifetime learner" . . ,” There really is something to the old adage that we older adults must “learn something new every day” in order to stay youthful in spirit.

Perhaps that’s why I have so enjoyed my role as Bishop – I am forced, by the demands of this job, to learn something new every day. It’s rather amazing that I could say that – after all, I spent over two decades working at a university before coming here. And yet, it’s true. This job has been the most demanding educational experience of my life.

Recently I spent a day learning from a group of our assembled clergy and laity who were convened by Dale Cohen to discuss the state of the church, to label what we’ve learned and what we’ve achieved, to note lingering problems, and to give me my job description for the next four years. It was a great day, a gratifying time in which we claimed what has been done and we named that which is yet to be done to make our church more faithful to Christ’s mandates.

After the day was over, I listed my major learning from the discussion:

1. A great deal has been changed in our Conference that moves us from a culture in which decline and loss are normal into a culture in which growth and forward movement are planned for, evaluated, and expected.

2. There seems to be widespread understanding and enthusiasm for our Four Priorities as a way of focusing our work and moving us forward for the Kingdom.

3. There is much encouragement, particularly from the laity, about more attention to results, particularly growth in our churches.

4. There is a need for, and much encouragement of, greater accountability among our clergy and churches that is specifically linked to growth.

5. Many note and appreciate the changing role of the District Superintendent as a coach, mentor, and supervisor. As I noted, one of our slogans on the Cabinet is that the D.S. doesn’t only “make appointments” but also “makes appointments work.”

6. There is real pride that our Conference has become a leader in starting new communities of faith.

Thanks to all of you who are teaching me that our beloved connection can have a future, that God has great things in store for us if we will take risks for God, change lives, and grow more disciples (Conference Vision Statement).

I am so grateful to have been given another four years among you.

Will Willimon

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Early Methodism was organized by Wesley and Asbury on the basis of a series of questions. Wesley believed that the leader led by putting two questions to the church, and the church lived by responding to the leader’s questions.

Don’t you find it significant that the key questions with which Methodism’s first conferences opened were these three: 1. What to teach? 2. How to teach; and 3. What to do; that is how to regulate our doctrine, discipline and practice (Doctrine and Disciplines, 1798, Pg. 18). Notice the very first question – What to teach? Wesley was convinced that Christians must be intellectual equipped to follow Jesus. The demands of discipleship are too great not to have the whole person engaged by the claims of Christ including a person’s intellect. Wesley believed that preachers were primarily guardians of doctrine. They not only preached in such a way that won people to Christ, but to make sure they were winning people to Christ!

This past year I have had a number of experiences as bishop that have confirmed my sense that Wesley was right. The day we spent at ClearBranch pondering the Methodist Christian way of believing, including the follow-up sessions in numerous churches, the Conference-wide discussions on War and the War in Iraq, as well as the teaching experiences I have had in dozens of Alabama churches, have all convinced me that Methodist people want to be taught. They long to grow in their faith. They expect their church to offer meetings whereby they grow as disciples.

The Wesley movement was distinguished principally by its determination not only to win people for Christ but also to grow people into Christ. Notice that our Conference mission statement explicitly states our intention to “Grow More Disciples” for Jesus Christ. A primary way we grow in our faith is by continuing to be informed about our faith, to explore the richness of Christian believing and to learn more about Jesus and his way.

I am therefore impressed that any growing must also be a teaching congregation, where the chief teacher is the pastor. In congregations that are successful in reaching new disciples, the need for teaching and Christian formation is even greater. We not only want to reach people for Christ we want to teach people for Christ. Every pastor ought to be able to identify a setting, other than the pulpit, in which that pastor is teaching people for Christ.

Woe to any pastor or congregation that gets preoccupied with merely caring for the congregation, managing and maintaining the organizational machinery of the congregation and neglect the duty to teach the faith.

One of the most appealing aspects of the younger generation that we are trying to reach is that they appear to have a wonderfully “teachable spirit.” They realize that they have not been well informed about the faith, and they appear to be grateful to, and attracted to a church that takes the teaching office seriously.

What to teach – the substance of the Christian faith, its most important convictions – how to teach – how to let the Holy Spirit energize a new generation of disciples – note that this comes before any of our righteous work, our regulative responsibilities and our organizational forms.
Someone has said that the primary work of leadership is asking the right questions. It is up to the leader to ask good questions; and it up to the congregation to give appropriate answers. Thank you Wesley and Asbury for teaching us to ask the right questions!

William H. Willimon

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Thinking Like Christians

I’ve just returned from the third of our “Bishop’s Conversations on the Iraq War.” Thanks to Anne Wheeler and her team for organizing these events. Nearly four hundred Alabama United Methodists engaged in fruitful, prayerful conversation and thereby modeled Wesleyan “Christian Conferencing.”

These conversations were planned to be learning experiences. I told each group, “Here we are going to try to think like Christians about war and this war. We will try to think biblically and in a specifically Christian way.”

I was proud of the way we discussed a passionate, controversial issue. I hope everyone grows in the faith and understanding. I sure did.

Here are some of my learnings:

  • It’s a real challenge to think about things as followers of Jesus Christ. It’s much easier to think like Americans of the left or of the right, to ask merely “What works?” or “What do most people think?” It’s a challenge to ask, “What does Jesus require of his followers?” or “What does the Bible say?”
  • There is no Christian consensus on the current war, even though I did find general agreement that scripture and the church’s tradition make war, this war in particular, or any other war, a questionable action for Christians. Christians who defend war as an appropriate response to evil and conflict have got their work cut out for them.
  • Among those United Methodists who defend the war as justifiable they are diverse and conflicted in what they think about the war. Many people who believe this war is justified, believe that these who initiated this war have done a terrible job of executing the war. There are many diverse opinions, which is one reason why I don’t think “resolutions” do justice to the complexity of the issue.
  • There is widespread regret and even deep repentance among our United Methodist people about this war.
  • Many of our people are eager for their pastors and their church to give them help in thinking like Christians about the war. They were grateful that their church had these gatherings, though many felt that such discussion was long overdue.
  • Church resolutions, statements by bishops or Annual Conferences about this war may not be as helpful as prayerful, humble, conversation with fellow Christians. (Perhaps I was the one who said that!)

After these experiences around our Conference, I encourage your church to engage in “Christian Conferencing” on this issue. Write Anne Wheeler annewheeler@yahoo.com and she can send you some great resources from our church that should be helpful.

William H. Willimon