Rise and Fall

The United Methodist Church: Is there Hope for Declining Denominations?

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Conflict in the United Methodist Church last week reminds us that all over the Western world, denominations that were once dynamic movements are in decline. Some have been on the slide for generations.

Demographic trends, secularism, prosperity, cultural shifts — they all play their part. Yet the answer is to blame external factors. The issue is much closer to home.

The great mistake that movements make is to lose touch with who they are.

Every living thing needs to adapt to its environment or it will die. As it does so, it continually refers back to its unique identity. It changes and it stays the same.

How do the United Methodists do that? It’s as simple as asking what did John Wesley do? What did Francis Asbury do? What does that look like today?

Know who you are. That’s the conservative side of renewal. Express that Identity in a fresh and innovative way. That’s the radical side of renewal.

Think about the movement pioneer who inspired Wesley and Asbury. What was his Identity? Between his life as Jesus of Nazareth, and the launch of his missionary movement, stand two events — Jesus’ baptism and wilderness testing. They reveal and test the Identity of Jesus and by implication, the movement he will found. Three essentials stand out:

1. He obeys his Father’s living Word.

When the Father speaks to the Son, he echoes the words of Scripture. When Jesus confronts Satan, his only weapon is to quote the written Word of God — “It is written!”

2. He is dependent on the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit comes upon him at his baptism, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, the Spirit returns him to Galilee in power to launch the movement.

3. Jesus is faithful to his Mission.

He will give his life as a ransom for many and starts a movement that will go to the ends of the earth multiplying disciples and churches.

These are the three essentials that drive the rise and fall of movements. A church that is willing to obey God’s Word, depend on his Spirit and pursue multiplying disciples and churches throughout the world will be renewed. It must, because God is faithful and he is our only hope.

Southern Baptists vs United Methodists

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Mark Tooley challenges the conventional wisdom that evangelicalism should become more progressive to prevent its decline.

The popular conventional narrative asserts that young people in droves are quitting evangelical Christianity because it’s too socially and politically conservative. Of course, the implication is that if only Evangelicalism would liberalize, especially on sexuality, then it might become more appealing.

But all the available evidence as to what happens to liberalizing churches strongly indicates the opposite. Mainline Protestantism is in many ways what critics of Evangelicalism wish it would become. And yet the Mainline, comprised primarily of the “Seven Sister” historic denominations, has been in continuous free-fall since the early to mid-1960s. Its implosion accelerated after most of these denominations specifically liberalized their sexuality teachings over the last 20 years.

  • Episcopal Church peaked in 1966 at 3.4 million, now 1.7 million (50% loss).

  • Presbyterian Church (USA) peaked 1965 at 4.4 million, now 1.4 million (68% loss).

  • United Church of Christ peaked 1965 at 2.1 million, now 850,000 (60% loss)

  • ELCA (Lutheran) peaked 1968 at 5.9 million, now 3.5 million (41% loss)

  • Christian Church (Disciples) peaked 1964 at 1.9 million, now 400,000 (80% loss).

  • United Methodists peaked 1965 at 11 million, now 6.9 million (40% loss).

  • American Baptist peaked 1.5 million, now 1.2 million (25% loss).

What unites these denominations in decline? The undermining of Biblical authority. Tooley points out that the two Mainline denominations that have not officially liberalized on sexuality, United Methodism and American Baptists, have declined the least.

In contrast, All growing denominations in America are conservative, including the Assemblies of God, which in 1965 had 572,123 and now has 3.2 million (460% increase), the Church of God in Cleveland, which in 1964 had 220,405 and now has 1.2 million (445% increase), the Christian Missionary Alliance, which in 1965 had 64,586 and now has 440,000 (576% increase), and the Church of the Nazarene 1965, which in 343,380 and now has 626,811 (82% increase).

What about the Southern Baptists, America’s largest evangelical denomination? They have been in decline for the last 18 years from 16.4 million to 15 million. That’s a loss of 8% compared to the average Mainline loss of 50%. While SBC membership figures are down, its worship attendance was up by 120,000 in 2017.

Meanwhile the Southern Baptists have been planting churches with a 20% increase in the number of churches over the last twenty years. There’s been a strong focus on planting black and hispanic churches. Something the liberal/progressive Mainline denominations find impossible to do.

I’ll have more to say on this topic soon. Over January I’m working on my next book which is on the Lifecycle of Movements — how they rise and fall.

Why the Southern Baptists are doing ok

Recently I compared the demise of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) with the continued vitality of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Demographics play their part, but in the end, movements make their history depending on their core identity. The PCUSA has chosen decline and decay, the Southern Baptists have chosen differently. Here are five elements I can observe (from a distance) that characterize the SBC: 

1. The authority of Scripture

If there’s one thing that distinguishes Southern Baptists from the Protestant mainline, it’s their belief in the authority of the Bible. Now belief must be backed up by obedience, but there is no hope for a movement that won't come under the authority of Scripture. 

Movements are born and renewed by the Word and Spirit.

2. The primary missionary task

At the heart of the SBC's mission is the spread of the gospel, the making of disciples, and the multiplication of churches. This is the reason for their existence. They may not always live up to it, but the Great Commission is central to their identity.

3. The independence of the local church

The SBC is a Convention of independent churches, not a centrally governed denomination. Every movement institutionalizes. But it’s a lot harder to institutionalize if the local church owns the property, governs and finances itself, and has the authority and responsibility to plant new churches and send out missionaries. Centralize those activities and your future is bureaucracy and decline.

4. The priesthood of every believer

A professional clergy class is the end of any dynamic movement. The Southern Baptists have a long history of empowering ordinary people to share the gospel, make disciples and plant churches. Their explosive growth on the US frontier was achieved long before they built their first seminary. Again, they may not always live up to the ideal, but it’s who they are and a key to their future.

5. Descendants that can't be counted

Historian, Philip Jenkins wrote an article on how Baptists are being left behind other Protestant traditions in the explosive growth of the church in the developing world. He's wrong.

Baptists differ from virtually all other Christian traditions in that newer churches are nowhere near matching or overtaking their northern world counterparts.
— Philip Jenkins

What he doesn’t know is SBC missionaries don’t plant SBC churches, they plant churches. Those churches will share the same convictions outlined above. But they are indigenous churches. The churches don’t belong to the SBC. Now they are becoming partners in fulfilling the Great Commission.

For a generation, SBC missionaries have been at the forefront of pioneering church planting movements around the world. Now many former SBC missionaries are leading the way in a host of other mission agencies that are catalysts for indigenous church planting movements.

The SBC has children and grandchildren all over the world, we just can't name or count them.

The PC USA and the SBC — Two histories, two futures

Baptism: PC USA & SBC

Baptism: PC USA & SBC

The Presbyterian Church (USA)  has released a new hymn for its 223rd General Assembly meeting in St Louis, Missouri this week (June 16-23). The hymn is entitled “Draw the Welcome Circle Wider.” But statistics released ahead of the gathering reveal a denomination struggling to retain it’s aging, mostly white (91%), membership.

In 2017 the PCUSA lost 67,714 members and a net 147 congregations.

2017 was not an aberration, but a continuation of long-term decline that dates back to the 1960s and shows no sign of change. 

Issues to be discussed at the Assembly include:

  • Seeking God’s Peace Through Nuclear Disarmament
  • A call to the denomination to divest from investing in the fossil-fuel industry
  • The creation of an Advocacy Committee for LGBTQ+ Concerns
  • A number of anti-Israeli measures

In Dallas last week the Southern Baptists held their annual Convention amidst some controversy and some signs of decline. Membership was down for the 11th year in a row. Baptisms were down.

But Southern Baptist were still baptized a quarter of a million people in 2017. The number of SBC churches grew for the 19th year. More important than the membership, weekly attendance grew from 5.20 million to 5.32 million in 2017. Congregations gave over $1 billion to missions.

Compared to the PCUSA the Southern Baptists are doing ok. The question is Why?

A few thoughts before I fly home

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I’m in Manchester for the Launch Europe event. My last engagement before flying out of London for Melbourne. I'm heading home after three years in Britain. Apologies to the readers of this blog and listeners to the podcast. With the move back home, a string of commitments and work on a new book, I’ve had to cut back on the blog and podcast.

I’ve been prompted to dive back in after news, as expected, that Australians have voted in favor of same-sex marriage. I’m not a cultural warrior. I’m not focused on saving Western civilization. My concern is the spread of the gospel, multiplying disciples and churches.

The world will do what the world does. And face the consequences. The great tragedy of this vote is how easily church leaders and ordinary believers forsake (or remain silent about) the clear teaching of the Scriptures.

The Anglican church in England has a leader who can’t say publicly whether same-sex sexual relations are right or wrong. He has endorsed a new transgender policy in Anglican schools. He has awarded an LGBT activist with the Thomas Cranmer Award for Worship. Cranmer was burnt at the stake rather than surrender his commitment to God’s Word.

These are not matters where we can agree to disagree. The teaching of Scripture is clear. Jesus was clear — you can choose to build your house on rock or sand. But you can't choose the consequences.

There is only one true church and that church is under the authority of God’s living Word and the Holy Spirit. The only way out of this morass is to return to being governed by the Word and the Spirit. It’s not easy in this cultural climate, but God gives grace for what he expects us to do. That’s the example Jesus set. He obeyed the Father regardless of the cost.

Any movement, church, individual believer, denomination, Christian organization that steps away from the safety and blessing of obedience, will face God’s redemptive judgment. He will defend his Word. He loves us that much.

Theology Matters

Katharine Jefferts Schori

Katharine Jefferts Schori

Why do progressive/liberal/mainline churches decline?

For years academics and church officials have denied that decline has anything to do with beliefs. Decline resulted from external factors, not internal factors.

Former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, claimed that since Episcopalians were better-educated and cared for the earth, they had lower birth rates than other Christians.

Recently a Canadian study has concluded that theology does matter.

The authors of Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy surveyed 2,225 churchgoers in Ontario, Canada, and conducted interviews with 29 clergy and 195 congregants.

Some of the results:

  • Only 50% of clergy from declining churches agreed it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians”, compared to 100% of clergy from growing churches.
  • 71% of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19% from declining churches. 
  • 46% of people attending growing churches read the Bible once a week compared with 26% from declining churches. 
  • 93% of clergy and 83% of worshippers from growing churches agreed with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb”. This compared with 67% of worshippers and 56% of clergy from declining churches. 
  • 100% of clergy and 90% of worshippers agreed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers”, compared with 80% of worshippers and 44% of clergy from declining churches.

About two-thirds of congregations at growing churches were under the age of 60, whereas two-thirds of congregations at declining churches were over 60.

Why study the decline of the Protestant mainline? We watch and learn, or their future will become ours.

The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom

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Every generation has to rediscover the power of the gospel. Movements that become fuzzy about the gospel deny their reason for existence. Their decline is followed by decay.

That’s why you should read Simon Gathercole’s excellent article on The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom.

via Justin Taylor.