Rev. Adam Hamilton guesses at this rate the United Methodist Church will cease to exist in 44 years. After he states that he goes on to explain how he thinks it can be stopped. Rev. David Livingston also has solutions to this apparent rather large and looming problem. As I hear pastors and denominational leaders discuss this I become rather weary. Many think that we need to get more young people to church. Some believe we really need to recruit more young clergy and then ask them how to reach their generation. Some people attribute the decline to social mobility. Others say that the internet has defined a new way of building relationships and with the high number of spiritual sites and online services people are plugging into their "faith" through the web. There are more people now in the United States who claim no religious affiliation than ever before in our history. A study released called the American Religious Identification Survey breaks down the loss of people who identify themselves as Christian. As I read through the survey I realized that this problem is not isolated to any specific region of the country, or one specific denomination. I guess the first thing we need to figure out is why the Christian faith has lost ground. And then figure out how to change the trend. For me I believe the biggest problem facing Christianity is that we have allowed the church, Christians and our beliefs to be defined by what we are against as opposed to what we are for. The churches that are really growing these days seem to have a clear sense of who they are and where they are going. Can something be done to change the decline? I honestly do not know. Our Bishop sat with a group of young clergy a year ago and told us that the Missouri Conference is on the decline. He asked us, "If we do nothing different where will the church be in twenty years?" Most of the respondents in the room said that if we don't change and continue to do the same things that the Missouri Conference would be much smaller, meaning fewer churches and continuing to die. It's as if we are traveling toward a cliff and we are not sure if we have gone over yet or still sliding down. Our Bishop often says that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So we need change to stop the decline. Our Conference has already started to enact radical and Godly change. I feel a sense that we are moving forward and I pray that the changes are working.
I serve in a local church so much of my focus is what clergy can do to help change the trends. So here are a few things I believe that might help us turn around.
1. Stop focusing so much on what we don't have and neglecting what we do have. (in other words, the answer is not just found with young adults)
2. Provide better problem based learning for clergy and church leaders (beyond seminary)
3. Someone once told me enter each church appointment as if it is your last.
4. Don't preach against people, preach for the Kingdom.
5. Remember we are all on the same team.
6. Be gracious with other people's time.
7. Develop a clear sense of identity for the local church.
8. Put a plan of action in place to move toward health.
9. Get the message out into the community.
10. Don't let fear motivate the church, let love be the main motivator.
11. Be an example to your church, family and community.
12. Stay connected, no lone rangers please.
This list could probably reach 100 quite easily, but I wanted to keep it brief. I wonder what other things we need to change to slow or stop the decline. I pray that in 44 years the UM church is still around. I hope that more local churches are growing than dying. Well people of Grace, do you have an answer? What would stop the national trends of church and Christian decline? Go in peace and go with God.