May 5, 2011

The Disease of the UMC

In a recent blog post, Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, discussed the decline of "mainline," "evangelical" churches in the U.S. He writes:

Mainline churches are in decline because these movements reached a critical mass such that sufficient numbers of bishops, pastors, elders, deacons and laypeople lost, forsake or otherwise failed to remember the true marks of the church. The church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. When the church becomes divided, unholy, parochial and forsakes historic orthodoxy, then it will decline.
As I was reading his post, I was especially struck by his words concerning the UMC:
The United Methodist Church has spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting the smart marketing byline: “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.” But all this “smart marketing” does is underscore the United Methodist disease. This marketing line says nothing about Jesus Christ or the apostolic faith. It actually communicates the very blandness which is the problem when a denomination loses its center.
Could it be that the decline of the UMC is related to the "blandness" of our message as Dr. Tennent suggests? That by saying "Open hearts, open minds, open doors" we aren't saying much of anything and the very message we thought would attract individuals, especially younger ones, is lacking the substance so many are desperately looking for.

Individuals want to know what the United Methodist Church stands for and stands on. I believe we will continue to struggle as a denomination if we lose our connection to the Gospel and fail to "market" that connection to the world around us.

What do you think? Does the UMC (or your church) have a disease? How would you label it?


michael said...

So, i think if one looks at the research they'll find that the Open Hearts campaign did very successfully reach and bring new (un-churched) folks into our faith communities.

i would argue the reason that it didn't then go on to produce the kind of sustained growth we so desire is that those new folks soon came to realize that the campaign was what's known as a 'bait and switch.'

For example: 'Our hearts and minds are wide open to you new long as you come do things our way.'

Or: 'God, our hearts and minds are open to you, so whatever it long as it's on our terms.'


Craig L. Adams said...

And, if anything, the problem gets even worse with the new "Rethink Church" campaign. We tell folks what they want to hear, to bring them in — only to discover that our churches are mired in their old ways of doing things, etc. These ad campaigns are dishonest.

As for what Dr. Tennett is saying, there is some truth in it. The reality is more complex. But, the UMC has definitely become a house divided against itself. How can it possibly stand?

Matt Lipan said...

michael: thanks for the read and comment.

interesting point about the "bait and switch" that has been taking place. i have certainly seen this type of thing happening.

so your issue is not so much w/the tagline as our inability to embrace and engage change?

Ben Simpson said...

As someone who is a member of a United Methodist Church, but whose denominational history is outside of the United Methodist Church, I have a number of reasons for being sympathetic to charges that the United Methodist Church has some significant flaws. I agree with Craig that the problem is not as simple as Dr. Tennett suggests, yet I do think that a commitment to the gospel and to historic Christian orthodoxy does reach very, very far in curing many ailments. The challenge then becomes identifying an articulation of the gospel that those within the denomination agree upon, as well as an identification of those facets of historic orthodoxy around which consensus can be built.

In other words, doctrine matters, and doctrine unites as much as it divides. William Abraham has made this point clearly, and I agree with him.

To offer something constructive, I think movement towards a renewed center, or a renewed church, begins at the local level. As an ad campaign (Open Hearts, Rethink Church), the denomination looks to project an image, but Michael is right in saying that if those expressions of faith are not localized, we only breed disillusionment, bringing more harm than good. Stated plainly: United Methodist leaders can accomplish a great deal of good if they discern a vision for the gospel and for church that is faithful, true, engaged, embodied, and clearly articulated. If such a venture bears fruit, that can be a step towards launching a gospel movement within the denomination that can bring glory to God.

Matt Lipan said...

Craig L. Adams: as always, thanks for the read and comment.

i hear your point but when you describe these ads as being "dishonest," i'm wondering if you think these ads were designed to intentionally mislead people? or is it that we can put together a catchy tagline that we are unable or unwilling to live out in our churches?

your point about a "house divided" is one i wouldn't mind hearing more about sometime... divided how? over what? etc.

kerushing said...

I just heard one of the Rethink Church ads earlier today, and I don't think it was making a bunch of promises that it doesn't keep. I don't remember all of the questions it asked, but for many of them, I felt that the church was already fulfilling those roles. What if church was a social network? It completely is, if you want it to be. What if the church was a community garden? (Well, that one is up to some grouchy trustees.) What if church was a chance to change the world? What it wasn't just about Sunday, but the other days of the week? The opportunities are there, people just have to reach out for them.

PJ Zeilstra said...

I feel that this might be the most important line in the post: Individuals want to know what the United Methodist Church stands for and stands on.

"Open minds, open hearts, open doors" What does that me? I am not a marketing person and I am not trying to say that this isn't a good idea. I just think that a problem with our society is that if it takes more than 3 seconds to understand something, than we have gone on to something else.
Jesus can't be communicated in 3 seconds. This means that we have to come up with some kind of catchy tag line to get people in the door,but that 3 second tag line puts any number of ideas in a person's head. I would guess that very few of them have to do with what the Church, UMC or other, stands for.

The question is not, what tag line should we use as a major organization. The question is, how can the Church start a grass roots movement to show people of Jesus' love for them.

Matt Lipan said...

Ben Simpson: good to hear from you, thanks for reading.

i appreciated your point about a "renewed center" and how closely it is related to historic, orthodox Christianity. there is little doubt what the historic, orthodox Church stood for and it wouldn't surprise me if we "marketed" ourselves in a similar way that we might even experience sustained growth.

your point about this needing to happen at the local church level is well taken. not to mention the thought of glorifying God, what a novel idea.

thanks for sharing!

Matt Lipan said...

kerushing: thanks for the read and comment.

i agree with you that in order for the Church to truly be what it is designed to be, individuals must engage it and each other. it reminds me of what my dad use to tell me about church, "you get out of it what you put into it," maybe not the most solid theological point but you get what i mean.

community garden...ha!

Matt Lipan said...

PJ Zeilstra: thanks for the read and comment.

good point about our fleeting attention span. our challenge is to communicate enough of who we are and what we're about w/o losing individuals attention but remaining true to the Gospel story. as you mentioned, we need to move at the grass roots level (aka the local church) to truly engage individuals helping them to know what we stand for and on.

Jonathan Andersen said...

I agree with alot of what Dr. Tennett is saying and think that Paragraph 121 in the Book of Discipline hits our problem spot on: "Whenever United Methodism has had a clear sense of mission, God has used our Church to save persons, heal relationships, transform social structures, and spread scriptural holiness, thereby changing the world. In order to be truly alive, we embrace Jesus’ mandate to love God and to love our neighbor and to make disciples of all peoples."

The converse of this statement is a scary truth that we need to heed as well.

Like Ben Simpson, I too have appreciated Dr. Abraham's work on doctrinal renewal in the church. Anyone looking for more a deeper argument on this matter should read his book 'Waking From Doctrinal Amnesia.'

Erik said...

Please remember, the "Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors." tagline was developed for people OUTSIDE the church... an evangelical effort to reach out and create interest in our denomination to people who knew next-to-nothing about us. Marketing research indicated that mentioning "Jesus" to these unchurched people turned them off... and turned their ears and hearts off, too. So... the criticism that this tagline did not mention "Jesus" is not valid because it comes from an inside-the-church perspective... in my humble opinion.

Jonathan Andersen said...

What if McDonald's never mentioned their menu or food items in their marketing campaigns. How would you know what they served or what they were about?

The church is all about "Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." If we don't let people outside the church know this is who we are then they will be coming into our midst on the basis of ambiguous marketing taglines.

Open hearts, Open doors, and Open minds could easily be the slogan of many groups.

If people just want community they can join the Rotary Club. If people just want social justice they can join the PeaceCorps. If people just want to be have their own ideas heard and discussed they could join a local book club.

The church is different from all of these groups because everything we do is founded upon and in imitation of Jesus. Should we not proclaim this as our distinctive?

John Wilks said...
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John Wilks said...

Jonathan, your McDonalds comparison is particularly apt in terms of Dr. Tennent's point.

No matter where you go, a Big Mac is the same. Sing it with me: "Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun."

Walk into an McDonald's the world over, and while they might add a few local twists, the core menu is identical in recipe and usually in execution.

But walk into a random United Methodist church and ask the pastor or the Sunday School teacher to explain the Gospel to you, explain discipleship to you, explain the person and work of Jesus to you- can you expect an consistent response?

No- in fact, you may find diametrically opposed definitions offered by UMC churches right down the road from one-another.

Imagine if starting tomorrow morning, the company decided let each franchise and each manager to change the Big Mac recipe to suite their preference, do you think McDonald's would continue to expand into new markets?

To the contrary, the whole organization would collapse just as fast as it expanded.

And yet that is exactly what we have done in United Methodism. We won't treat the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the degree of respect, preservation, and adherence which McDonald's gives to a hamburger.

And we wonder what the problem is?

Lord have mercy!

journeyman37 said...

We have doctrinal standards in the way we have them for a reason.

What we have are a condensed version of the Articles of Religion (C of E, 1563), a 20th C EUB version of similar statements, a selection of Wesley sermons (a parallel to Cranmer and Jewel's Homilies for the Church of England), and some biblical commentary (Notes upon the New Testament).

Wesley himself provided the Articles as a doctrinal standard for the Methodist Episcopal Church in America (1784). Methodists per se hadn't had a statement like this before this time, with the exception of the C of E articles for those of the Methodists who were also Anglican. What appears to be the case was that Wesley edited out items from the C of E articles that could become what to him would have been seen as a cause for unnecessary disputes among the Methodists, but disputes that could well have raged had he left some of the Anglican articles as they were given that the Methodists were not ALL Anglicans themselves, and those that were ranged from more Reformed to more Anglo-Catholic as it was. The thinking was, then, that these, at least, should be beyond reasonable dispute, and so provide a solid core for the doctrine Methodists would both hold and teach.

Wesley had previously established a collection of sermons to be used especially by lay exhorters in the societies who were not authorized by Wesley to "take a text," much as the C of E had provided the Homilies for those "vicars" serving remoter parishes more or less as "local priests." The idea was to make sure that what was preached by "non-professionals" was still doctrinally sound.

A General Conference over here (I don't recall which one at the moment) added the Notes upon the New Testament as a basis for biblical interpretation. Wesley, of course, also wrote Notes upon the Old Testament, but most Christians, including Anglicans at the time as reflected in the Anglican lectionary Wesley sent over as part of the Sunday Service, were not reading the Old Testament in worship at the time, so the Notes on the NT would have had greater practical value.

The EUB Confession of Faith appears as a product of the 1968 Union which created the UMC. Though it sharpens some statements of the Articles and blurs others, we hold, officially, that the two documents reinforce rather than contradict each other.

Maybe, just maybe, part of our inability to find unity doctrinally as a denomination stems in part from a) the variety of the kinds of doctrinal statements we have and b) "amnesia" (to use Dr Abraham's term) about how to apply each kind of standard appropriately. If we really don't know this history, we may look at these different sources as more of a "motley collection" rather than, as they were intended, doctrinal groundings for different parts of doctrinal our work as Methodists.

Of course, it also hasn't helped that too many of us have believed that the so-called "Wesleyan Quadrilateral" is our one true doctrinal standard, on which the actually established standards are more or less heritage and historical commentary, at most. The Constitution of The United Methodist Church would certainly beg to differ with such a view. We didn't place our doctrinal standards under Restrictive Rules for nothing!

John Wilks said...
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John Wilks said...

Journeyman- I completely agree about the value in our doctrinal standards. And while there are many statements in the standards- they are remarkably consistent with one-another. So I don't think the breadth and depth of material in Part II of the Discipline is the cause of our mess. To the contrary- if all our pastors actually preached and taught in a way consistent with the Doctrinal Standards the way we all agree to do in our response to the Disciplinary questions at Commissioning and Ordination, we would be unified, not divided.

The Quadrilateral is a fine teaching tool except when people treat it as an equilateral. Wesley (and Outler) were crystal clear that Scripture trumps the other three legs. Tradition is second. Reason and experience is used to help apply that which we learn from Scripture and which Tradition amplifies.

Unfortunately, too many "Methodist" scholars, teachers, preachers, and lay folk have done the opposite. They place reason and experience at the top of the heap and re-define or ignore the clear teachings of the Bible and the rich affirmation of orthodoxy in our great traditions any time they think those who came before us were too ignorant and old fashioned. I can only imagine how Mr. Wesley would have responded to such approaches.

Matt Lipan said...

Jonathan Anderson: thanks for the read and comments.

thanks for sharing the link to Dr. Abraham's stuff. i, personally, am not very familiar with him but it sounds like maybe i should be.

your McDonald's analogy is an interesting one. to think of the many and varied responses one would encounter when going from one UMC church to another concerning different issues, doctrines, etc. is interesting and maybe even confusing for those "outside looking in?"

Matt Lipan said...

Erik: thanks for stopping by and sharing.

i think you make a valid point about that particular tagline and its purpose of attracting those "outside" the Church. i also agree that a tagline does not need to include a specific mention of Jesus.

i wonder if the combination of an "open" tagline with doctrinal/theological inconsistencies from church to church could cause harm and possibly at best confusion?

Matt Lipan said...

John Wilks: thanks for the read and comment.

i appreciated how you expanded on Jonathan's idea and like you mentioned, i have experienced the drastic differences of definitions from church to church. i would guess most of us have.

may it not be so that we show less respect to the Gospel than McDonald's does to their hamburgers.

Matt Lipan said...

journeyman37: thanks for the read and comment.

thanks for making a great point from history. interesting to think how we have forgotten (perhaps ignored) it and where that has led us.

Jim said...

Just thought I'd say that this post and the comments here made me subscribe to the RSS feed here. Good stuff. Stuff I've been pondering up here in Alaska as I serve a UM church and wonder how we "rethink" our church in any way that's Biblical and Evangelical and Wesleyan while in an already-existing framework.

Matt Lipan said...

Jim: thanks! i'm glad you found the blog and am excited to hear you have found it meaningful.

i have never been to Alaska (but would love to visit) but i see most of us share the same struggle of "rethinking" while "remaining" faithful.

thanks again for sharing and subscribing.