The Blog of Bishop Will Willimon of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
A Short Account of a Continuing Journey – 3
In two earlier Bishop’s weekly messages this month I’ve been reflecting upon the journey that we have made as a church, in the past two decades – decades of unprecedented decline for our church but now – thanks be to the work of the Holy Spirit among us, a time of increasing growth. I have highlighted what we have learned and what we are doing differently within the church.
This week I want to name a few of the external, cultural factors that we are struggling with and building upon that make life in the church today such an adventure. As I’ve said before, the main difference between a growing, thriving church and a church in decline is usually the difference between a pastor and church that focus upon the internals as opposed to the externals. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” God loved the world, all of it and we must respond to our world in the name of Christ, loving as God loves.
How our world is changing and how we as a church must change.
While we were changing, the culture was also changing. Perhaps half of our congregations are now in areas that were centers of population a century ago but where today people are departing. We grew as a church because we went where the people were, willing to make any sacrifice to start new congregations where no other church would risk. At some point in our history we decided to maintain the churches we had and stop moving with the people. This is the single most important factor in church decline. About a tenth of our Conference budget now goes to establish new churches where the people are – that percentage needs to double in the next couple of years if we are to come close to keeping pace with our people.
Most of our institutions (colleges, children’s homes, and homes for the aging), that we founded in the last two centuries, are no longer totally dependent upon our church for their financial survival. Much of our early growth and development was fueled by higher education. How will we retain these institutions as truly Christian institutions when our financial stake in them has become negligible? Two hundred years ago Methodists established dozens of institutions that would serve other people’s children. We need to recover some of that same spirit in creatively ministering to contemporary needs – particularly because one of our Conference Priorities is reaching a new generation of Christians. We need our institutions to teach us how to reach a generation that we have nearly lost.
Our VIM teams have experienced some of the explosive growth of the church in our southern hemisphere. Hispanic immigration is presenting our church with some dramatic challenges (Alabama has about the third highest percentage of Spanish-speaking growth of the Southeastern states.). We need to expand our Conference tradition of mission work in the southern hemisphere. We also need to double our efforts to start Spanish-speaking congregations. Thomas Muhomba is giving us great leadership in this area with a half dozen new congregations begun in the last two years, but we need many more.
We continue to be an aging church, with the average age of our clergy and our membership higher than the national average, particularly in our predominately African-American congregations. While we have had some success in attracting younger clergy candidates (we are about fourth from the top in the Connection), we must do many things differently if we are to buck this trend. Every church needs to make inviting new, young Christians into the leadership of the congregation. This year’s Annual Conference will focus upon this priority and will share some of our successes in this area.
The past two decades will be known as the time of rapid growth in the number of our very small congregations (churches with under seventy-five members). In many ways the United Methodist Church is organized to support, to find pastoral leadership for, and to produce more small congregations. Our small congregations have shown themselves to be wonderfully resilient. Our medium sized congregations have been those most threatened by present trends. Most of our resources, and most of our pastors continue to support small congregations. We’ve got to find a way to deploy more of our pastoral and financial resources to start new congregations and to take new initiatives to reach a new generation. All of our small congregations were given birth by a church that was determined to go where the people were. We’ve got to show that same pioneering spirit in our time.
I fervently believe that God will continue to bless us and give us what we need to reach a new generation, to be faithful to the mandate of Christ in our time and place.