“The people of God… must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world.” - Paragraph 130, 2012 Book of Discipline.
“Our best days are still ahead of us. I really, truly believe it, and I’m going to keep saying it until it happens. Our theology and DNA is perfectly poised to reach the next generation.” - Pastor Adam Hamilton
Annual Conferences are beginning. It's that time of year, when around the world the people known as United Methodists will gather to evaluate, reflect, and change for the future. I read this report from the Detroit Annual Conference and it really made me think. Because, Detroit is one of those places in America where everyone is getting out. Just like my home conference, people are fleeing to warmer weather and better jobs. My adopted conference is in the fastest shrinking country in the world.
Adam Hamilton explained that the United Methodist church will bottom out in the next ten years. Bishop Bickerton as referred to it as a church decline tsunami. In ten years we will have to weigh all of the facts and figures and make the decisions that need to be made.
As a young person, I'm not much for waiting. After our tragedy, our wise and humble bishop sat me down and told me that nothing would look or feel normal for at least a year. My boss at GBGM sat me down and explained that real recovery wouldn't begin for at least a year. I didn't want to believe them. I wanted to fight that notion and press full steam ahead. As almost always happens, wisdom won out over impatience. I still have the occasional four hour conversation with a student from our ministry who is trying to sort out the theological and personal implication of the tragedy. Every month I feel that things are moving more and more in the right direction, but I feel that we still have a few months to go before we will be back to "normal."
But what is extraordinary, what is the life blood of this moment, is that in this "tsunami" - in this "bottoming out" - we have grown, and developed, and changed. When things were going great and attendance was up, we didn't have to ask the hard questions. We could rely on easy sermon topics and momentum to carry us through. We weren't constantly stretched and pulled from place to place.
It is in the crucible of death, that change can become a reality - and it is in the reality of change that we may find our hope in Christ and not ourselves.
As I think about the future of the United Methodist church, I am filled with great hope. I've had the unusual privilege of worshiping with United Methodists in eleven countries. I've worshiped with Methodists from far more countries than that. In my lifetime, I've probably worshiped with more than 500 congregations. And in those contexts and ministry settings, I have seen the challenges and problems. But I have seen the warm hearts of the worshipers and the swift movement of the Holy Spirit. I have seen the tremendous hope of the future.
And at Annual Conferences around the world, we will gather and discuss our challenges, failures, successes, and opportunities. And hopefully we will see and heed the need for change. And hopefully in all of this mess we will find the living Christ who is our hope.