As we have passed from Thanksgiving into Advent, perhaps some thankful reflection on the state of The United Methodist Church is in order. One can be given to negativity when considering the trends of much of the denominational data, yet there is much to be thankful for. Of course, we are not beyond hope and have many strengths, which can be celebrated and built upon. Clearly some things will have to change to reverse decline, but we don't have to start from scratch.
We still are the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with nearly 8 million members and 34,000 churches. These churches are present in nearly every county. We have a presence and still have a brand that is widely recognizable. We own massive amounts of land. Granted, many of these churches have location, facilities, and other issues, yet they exist and are present. Furthermore, these churches have value. End-of-year valuations in 2008 were over $50 billion. Parsonages represented nearly $4 billion more. Also, there was only about $4 billion in debt against these properties, which sounds like a large number, but is less than 10 percent of the value. While finances are tightening in the current economic downturn, there is still money in the bank, so to speak, in the form of these vast real estate holdings. Many denominational leaders are considering how to best leverage these properties to forward the mission of the overall church.
We can be thankful for the positive ministry taking place and the number of vital local churches making disciples. The cumulative figures are declining, but some conferences are growing. At the local church level, roughly one-third of the UMC churches in the US are growing, some in an amazing manner. Even the declining churches are often doing vital ministry in their communities. A real plus in all this is the growing emphasis on congregational development, indicating an increasing interest in finding new vitality in existing churches and in starting new faith communities. The number of staff people allocated by annual conferences to specifically address this, even at a full-time level, continues to grow. The School of Congregational Development continues to have strong attendance every summer. Furthermore, the Nordic conferences (primarily Scandinavia) will be holding their third School of Congregational Development next fall!
Additionally, there are some statistics that are encouraging. As noted in a General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) report concerning the 2008 data, the number of constituents is growing. Since increasingly we find ourselves in a culture where folks don't want to "join," but want to participate, this number is key. Another statistic that has turned for the better comes out of a study of young clergy by Dr. Lovett Weems and his team at the Lewis Center at Wesley Seminary. This study notes that in recent years the percentage of pastors age 35 and under serving full-time churches has increased.
Another strength of United Methodists is their high giving elasticity. This may not be a familiar term to many, but it has been an especially helpful characteristic in the recent economic downturn. Don House, Ph.D. economist and member of GCFA's Economic Advisory Committee, has done studies on this elasticity, leading him to conclude that we United Methodists are a generous people. In circumstances where personal income has increased, giving has increased even more. On the flip side, giving has demonstrated amazing resiliency in light of the economy of late. Additionally, we all observed the huge giving response to the Tsunami and to Katrina. People will give when motivated.
While most of this article addresses the US church, it is important to remember the international UMC. Our African presence continues to grow. The Philippine UMC is famous for starting new churches with unmatched zeal. The General Board of Global Ministries' Mission Initatives ministry is on track to see 400 brand new churches started this quadrennium in frontier locations such as Mongolia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the former Eastern Bloc countries.
Another invaluable asset we can be thankful for is our heritage. The Wesleys and early Methodists modeled being a thriving movement by making disciples, which truly brought transformation to their world. Francis Asbury and the early American Methodists likewise can be a great source of inspiration, as noted in the September issue of this newsletter. The fires once burned brightly. Maybe they can be rekindled in our current context.
Currently, the Connectional Table is moving forward on a project as part of the Call to Action, with the intent of offering recommendations leading to reordering the life of the church for greater effectiveness and vitality in mission. It is surely encouraging to find that this group of key denominational leaders, in cooperation with the Council of Bishops, is so actively seeking to provide actionable leadership revitalization at every level of the church.
What seems to be often assumed or overlooked is the most significant resource, the one that served the Methodist movement so well in its most vital days. This is the same resource that has served the Chinese church so well over the past 60 years. This is a church that once had a strong Western missionary presence, trained leaders, many fine buildings, and numerous strong congregations. After the Communist revolution, the Western leaders were evacuated, the buildings confiscated, the indigenous leaders imprisoned or killed, and the congregations wiped out. From the usual perspective there was nothing left, certainly in comparison to the UMC presence and resources in the US today. Estimates are that there were around 1 million Christians in China in 1949.
Yet there are currently multiple millions of Christians in a land where genuine persecution still exists in many areas. Accurate determination of the actual number of Christians is difficult to obtain, and estimates vary wildly. This is due in large part to the majority of Christians being unregistered and intentionally meeting under the radar. Even so, the most conservative estimates are around 10 million, while other estimates are 100 million, or more. Even a tenfold increase with no leadership or physical resources, in the face of persecution, is impressive. Decline or even extermination would have been expected. Ten times a tenfold increase is phenomenal.
The same resource used by the Chinese church is available to us. The Chinese display intense commitment to the faith and tell others about their faith, sometimes at great cost. They pray and fast. They make disciples. So did the early Methodists. God blessed these movements. There is no reason to believe God won't do it again. We have much to be thankful for.