Sunday, March 09, 2008

Is the Decline of the UMC Tied to Doctrinal Laxity?

John Meunier takes issue with Thomas Oden's argument that a liberalization of UMC doctrine is a cause of the overall numerical decline of the denomination since 1968. John writes:

The connection from data to claim seems to be this: Doctrine is what drives church membership.

Here’s where I have several questions.

1) What evidence do we have that the “doctrinal problem” is a new problem? I seem to recall Karl Barth quite aggrieved by liberal theology long before 1968, for instance.

2) The 1968 figure is the peak for the UMC - since it was formed that year - but I’ve heard people say the peak for all the predecessor denominations was much, much earlier. Is this true? If so, what does this do to the argument?

3) There is at least one significant counter-thesis that says the big issue is that the UMC stopped building churches at just about the same time. These people connect the decline to our failure to build new churches where the new people were. If this is factually true, does that complicate the doctrine argument?

4) Do we have evidence about the role of doctrine in church membership or church choice among lay people?

5) Sociologists have remarked on the decline in membership and support for all sorts of institutions since 1968. Is there evidence that the UMC is caught in a sociological shift rather than a revolt over orthodoxy? If so, does doctrinal retrenchment offer the best possible response?

What do you think? Is there a causal relationship between a leftward shift in the UMC's teachings and numerical decline?


Anonymous said...

The 1960s were when the mainline denominations got irritated that the media --TV and radio-- would no longer have to give them free community service air time. They made an intention decision not to pay for time and gave TV and radio over to the evangelicals and charismatics. It is not about theology; it is about reaching out and using the technology and the language of the culture.

larry said...

If we could easily pinpoint THE cause of membership decline, then I think we would have dealt with it by now. If it were as simple as doctrine, for example, then surely the general shift back to more evangelical doctrine (in the best sense of "evangelical") would be resulting in growth, but that is not really happening in North America. In reality, it isn't as simple as a single cause, nor would one cause even be responsible for the majority of the decline. I happen to think both have valid points.

I agree church planting has been all but forgotten in many conferences, and attempts to do it now are helpful but almost 40 years too late.

However, if you plant a new church that proclaim the easiest part of liberal theology to believe, or perhaps the most prevelant, a kind of universalism, then I think there is very little incentive to reach out and grow in membership within the local church. Only a doctrine that leads us to believe that people absolutely NEED Jesus Christ for salvation can give a proper framework or rational to want to grow. To my mind, that "universalism" aspect of liberal theology is not Wesleyan at all.

In effect, doctrine matters AND practice matters. Being doctinrally accurate while being culturally/demographically ignorant will not lead to growth, and same holds true the other way around.

Wabi-Sabi said...

I think you're right. Correlation does not equal causation.

To illustrate, people eat more ice cream in the summer. There are also more shark attacks in the summer.

That does NOT mean that eating ice cream causes shark attacks.

However, people frequently use similar statistical comparisons to justify mistaken conclusions.

The same is true here.

Dan Trabue said...

Seeing as how ALL churches, including my very mainstream, traditional, conservative So Baptist churches of my childhood, are declining in numbers and vitality, that'd be a hard case to make, seems to me.

Dan Trabue said...

I'd suggest that the church has just become increasingly irrelevant. But what do I know?

The Great Awakenings have all, as I understand it, been accompanied by an increase in the so-called Social Gospel. It's a good thing to keep in mind.

Michael said...

Opinion is about the best we can offer because, as has been aptly pointed out, it is virtually impossible to make a distinct connection.

My own opinion is that internal strife and politics may cause many to walk away. These things they can get anywhere; no need to get up early on a Sunday morning for it or be expected to contribute money to it. The conflict is just not worth it.

One the other hand, it could be just another example of degeneration or that "spirituality" we hear so much about in which folks justify themselves and their absence from church as being restrictive to that spirituality. And it seems to me that many mainline churches are trying to combat this phenomenon by serving coffee, donuts, and soft yogurt in the entry ways and allowing consumption of same in the sanctuary during "contemporary" worship. This alone keeps me out. It is either WORSHIP of the Lord-time, or it is a community gathering with no real sense of common purpose except maybe some feel-good ministries - and even these can be scattered to the winds according to mood swings.

Enough said for now, I think. Not my blog!

jimmorrow said...

If you look at where church membership or participation is growing in the world, you will not find it in fully industrialized countries that have a great deal of personal freedom and internal safety.

China, Africa, South America, etc are producing bold Christians in great numbers.

North American Christians generally do not have to suffer for their faith and cling to it for hope in the same ways as those in oppressive areas.

So, my idea is that declining church membership has a lot to do with our culture and a feeling of overall security.

Just a thought.

RERC said...

Some very thoughtful posts here.

I believe there are a host of causes. The lack of media exposure (essentially ceding media to far-right evangelicals and charismatics) mentioned earlier is certainly part of it.

The internal strife is part of it too. Our churches often just don't work very well.

Not "getting" church plants is also huge. I was part of a failed UMC church plant and it was clear from the get-go that our handlers in the conference had no idea what they were doing.

I'd also throw in:

--being "behind the curve" on most all evangelism/growth trends. By the time the UMC gets to a trend, it's been over for a while.

--the large disparity between what the church at conference level and above thinks the UMC's priorities are and what goes on at the local level (eg the open hearts campaign)

--the lack of understanding in the church hierarchy about the problems of the local churches, and few resources to address them. (So the local churches get sicker over time and less able to fulfill the mission the hierarchy sets before them).

willdeuel said...

To make such a claim convincingly, first it must be proven that there really is a leftward shift in doctrinal teaching in real churches. I am skeptical. Many pulpits are filled with LLPs and Course of Study Elders who, in my experience, are generally more conserving than those with seminary degrees. Further, I've experienced more than one elder who has said, "forget all that liberal seminary stuff and preach the good ol' gospel" - which I find an utterly offensive statement. I have also experienced several Elders who claim to become more conservative the further separated they are from seminary. Finally, the wording of "our theological task" section of the Discipline is more conservative than it used to be.

IMO Oden may be looking for a boogeyman to blame for the decline rather than a solution.

Stephen said...

anonymous is partly right. A roommate of mine in seminary did a study about the rise of technology and the fall of mainline denominations. Radio and TV used to be forced to air religious programming and at that time it came from the "mainline" denominations.

Evangelical, Non-Denominational, and Charismatics were forced to "buy" their own air time. When the Radio and TV stations were no longer forced to air religious programing they dropped it. The only groups then on TV and radio where those churches who bought their own. The rise of PTL and other Televangelists actually fueled this shift. Television was the language of the 70s and 80s. There seems to be another shift underway in the internet, but still I notice 70% of mainline churches are failing to recognize this shift.

Check out some church websites if you doubt me. :)

Jeff the Baptist said...

I'm not a Methodist, which puts me in an interesting place in this discussion.

(3) seems wrong to me. Even if factually true, not building or expanding churches is a symptom of decline not a cause of it. The UMC might be healthier if they closed and consolidated more churches not less.

A college friend married a UMC minister. His wife was bouncing around between at least two local churches on Sunday mornings and never has enough time to minister to any of them. If they consolidated, she might be able form a coherent ministry. Instead she is a minister serving two congregational masters which just doesn't work.

(5) Is the UMC caught up in a major sociological shift? Almost certainly. Are all denominations? Yes, but some are effected more than others. My outlook on this is decidedly local however and I don't have numbers.

(1,2,4) I know a number of conservative lay Methodists who have left the UMC. The only reason my college friend returned to the UMC is that he married a UMC minister. Given your apparent shortage of ministers, the UMC just can't count on that as a dependable way to create church growth.

But data is not the plural of anecdote. I don't have the kind of numbers I'd need to do an actual analysis on this.

John Wilks said...

Certainly, there are many reasons why we are in decline.

The question in my mind isn't so much "how did we get here?" but "how do we get out?"

To that end, on a practical level, I think any large organization wishing to revive itself needs to define and focus on its raison d'ĂȘtre in order to have a foundation to build upon.

And this is where doctrine comes into play. The raison d'ĂȘtre of the Church (and, therefor, any denomination or congregation) is to continue the work of Jesus of Nazareth.

If we don't understand or agree on basic doctrinal matters, we will not be able to unify nor will we be able to find a common vision upon which we can build.

I'm not saying we must be in total theological lock-step. There is room for disagreement on many issues. But at the least- we need a common confession of who is Jesus and what does He want for and from humanity.

Without that, we will continue on the chaotic path we've been on for these 40 years.

Andrew C. Thompson said...

This is a great discussion. I think it is worth noting that, at least in terms of formal doctrine, the UMC and its predecessor bodies have changed very little. Our highest levels of doctrine are the Articles of Religion & Confession of Faith, together with Wesley's Sermons and Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament. If you use "doctrine" broadly and include all types of church teaching, then you start to include things like the Hymnal and the Social Principles. But these do not carry the same weight as the aforementioned.

Billy Abraham makes the point in Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia that we have forgotten doctrine (not that it has necessarily changed). So much of our theological reasoning has become skewed because we turn to forms of deliberation that are not really theological at all. The major culprit here, for Abraham, is the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. We use the sources within it in ways much differently than Wesley did, and besides that Albert Outler never intended it to be a kind of magic decoder ring whereby individuals could come up with easy solutions to complex faith issues. But that's what it has become, and people often say that can "use the Quadrilateral" to back up whatever the heck they wanted to believe anyway.

This is a long way of saying we should be preaching our doctrine, particularly that having to do with Original Sin, Justification by Faith, and the Holiness consequent thereon. Doing that will require a lot of us, of course, and our comfortability and complacency will be sorely tested. But we should do it anyway. And let the numbers take care of themselves.

Anonymous said...

Peter C. Murray in his book "Methodists and the Crucible of Race, 1930-1975" suggests that the Methodist Church's unwillingness to do away with a separate structure for African-American Methodists and its determination to maintain the Central Jurisdiction long after the larger society realized that the separation of the races was not biblical (as many Methodists argued)resulted in the loss of many who were young adults at the time. But this doesn't explain why other mainline denominations were losing members at the same time.

John said...

I'm inclined to think that the decline of the UMC has far less to do with a formal (mis)understanding of who Christ is and more to do with "What is the purpose of the Church?"

Jeff wrote:

But data is not the plural of anecdote.

Zing! I like that line!

John Wilks said...

John- I would argue that knowing the purpose of the church follows naturally from our understanding of who Jesus was and is. Ecclesiology is a natural and logical extension of Christology.