as many of us realize, The United Methodist Church is aging, and our numbers are declining:
- The average United Methodist is 57 years old.
- In some countries, notably the United States, we are not effectively reaching youth and young adults; United Methodists under age 18 account for 4.6 percent of church membership.
- The number of ordained and commissioned elders under age 35 is a mere 850 in the United States.
- Membership globally is increasing, but U.S. membership has slipped below 8 million for the first time since the 1930s, even as non-white and immigrant populations in the United States rapidly grow.
- While total giving in the United States has increased, the number of givers has decreased.
- Research reveals a deep yearning across the church for a common focus on mission and ministry...
***One quick piece of information before I get started on this, if a child or youth or anybody in your church asks if there will be a camp for them this summer, 2015, please answer "Yes." We don't know exactly where it will be yet, but we will know soon. It will be different, but there will be something, and it will be great because I know the people like me who are committed to making it great.***
I'm not saying that anything has been hidden, or that we've been deceived. I'm saying this change in direction has more to do with combining Camping & Retreat Ministries with Youth Ministries (CCYM) into the new "Next Generation Ministries" than we may realize. So, a lot of the conversations leading up to this change were a part of aligning the conference ministries with the mission statement: "leading congregations to lead people to actively follow Jesus Christ." (side note: I've always thought the word "actively" was unnecessary or redundant because isn't following an action? can you passively or inactively follow? I think those would be "not following".) The impression that people seem to have is that this emphasis is just a Missouri Conference thing. It bothers a lot of us because it appears to make us more congregational in polity rather than connectional. For example, I've seen this post passed around on the interwebs, and it's titled "Disconnecting Missouri Methodism." The fear that we are becoming more congregational may be valid (I don't think so), but it's not a Missouri specific thing.
In addition to our mission statement, the Missouri Conference of the UMC has the following vision: "Growing, fruitful, vibrant congregations changing lives through Jesus Christ." This also puts an emphasis on local congregations, and seemingly away from our connectional nature and more towards congregationalism. However, this is not just a Missouri thing. It's a Council of Bishops and Connectional Table thing. It's a denomination thing.
A while back (2008), the Council of Bishops and The Connectional Table announced the "Four Areas of Focus." You can read an overview of it at the umc.org website. Among those four foci (is that how you pluralize that?) is...drum roll please..."Growing Vital Churches." Specifically, the focus is on planting NEW churches (actual wording is "new faith communities") and creating NEW ways for people to connect with God and The Church. But, they also include renewing existing churches. If you dig deeper and click the link to find out what they mean by "Growing Vital Churches," you will find more details for the vision of what exactly a vital church is. One of the components of a vital congregation is..."strong children's and youth ministries." (Note this as an emphasis on "Next Generation Ministries.")
What prompted this vision for our denomination? Why is there an emphasis on strengthening local congregations? Why emphasize children's and youth ministries? Here's what the website says:
The vision of emphasizing these Four Areas of Focus is "not for the next quadrennium, but for as far as the eye can see." We will be living into this vision for many many years to come. I think it's a great vision for us to strive for wholeheartedly. (Personal Confession: In fact, I wish I would have paid more attention to our Bishop announcing this stuff and found all of the material on the website sooner.) In order for us to truly be connectional and accomplish this vision, we need Vital Congregations. Without vital congregations, we won't have a denomination to be connected to. The good news is, someone has done a lot of work to show us how to develop a vital congregation. The website has this PDF document that your church can use as a guide to implement what they call "drivers of vitality," which are things that help the church fulfill the vision of a "vital congregation." The first (of sixteen) drivers of vitality is focused on small groups for all ages. The next two are focused on Children's and Youth Ministries. So again, there is an emphasis on "Next Generation Ministries."
I'm pointing all of this out because I want us to see that this is bigger than just the Missouri Conference, Bishop Schnase, Rev. Garrett Drake, and the Camping & Retreat Ministries Board. Sure, maybe the Missouri Conference is somewhat of a pioneer on shifting the focus to local congregations since this began for us prior to 2008, but still, this is not about people leading us away into congregationalism. This is about the future of The Church, our church, the United Methodist Church.
On the one hand, it looks like we've taken support away for Next Generation Ministries because first we closed our campus ministries, now we're closing campsites, and soon CCYM will be different. But in reality, we haven't had this type of concerted focused effort and alignment of resources to reach the next generation and form new communities of faith that reach the next generation. I give kudos to our Bishop for slowly (he's been here 10 years now) and persistently leading and influencing us to re-align our mission and vision and way of doing things (budget and staffing) to actually catalyze next generation ministries in our local churches. Did you see the stat above? The Average United Methodist Is 57 Years Old. Our conference leadership is being intentional about trying to change this. (And I am unique: one of only 850 people in the world who are under age 35 and ordained UMC clergy. Woo Hoo! Go me! Maybe if the process didn't take so long we'd have more, but that's a whole 'nother issue.)
These two emphases, vital congregations and next generation ministries, are critical for our church worldwide, and especially in the US. This vision is an effort to recapture the original Methodist Movement, not an institution. The Movement was always focused on small groups in local congregations who lived out their faith in their local communities. The local congregation (the people, not the building) is the primary locale that people connect with The Church.
To sum it up, I'm trying to say that this change is connected to more than just finances or ambitions. I'm trying to say that this is not us devolving into congregationalism. This is not denominational leadership sticking more to selfish ambition of growing a great organization. No, instead, this focus is deeply rooted in a desire to see us living as followers of Jesus Christ, disciples who care for the poor, lead our communities with integrity, and improve world health (historically Methodist emphases). We do this at the most basic level through our local congregations in communities, cities, towns, neighborhoods across the globe. People connect to people. The Church is people who connect people to the person of Christ. This vision is not necessarily trying to save a denomination, but it's trying to do the important work of continuing the Methodist way of Following Jesus Christ. Even if the denomination ever goes away, I think there will still be people who follow the Jesus Way in a Methodist Style, and I think these Four Areas of Focus capture that and it's well worth giving my life to...even if I won't get to use the same camp facility that I have grown to love.
I am a United Methodist Pastor, but I'm trying to re-define that as a Missionary sent to my corner of the USA. What would it look like for you to envision your life as a Christian more like a Missionary than a Church-goer?