Most of us feel bombarded by surveys during an election year! Candidates often assign their staff to determine what impressions, feelings, biases and memories are behind the opinions expressed by the sampling.
A recent survey by LifeWay, a Southern Baptist agency, had interesting data on how the United Methodist Church is viewed by Americans. Like the politicians, we need to ask ourselves what is behind the opinions uncovered by the poll takers. We need to avoid denial and ask ourselves how we can use these numbers to become more creative, to enhance our profile, and to reach more people to become disciples of Jesus Christ.
The survey found that 62 percent of Americans have a favorable view of United Methodists. That might work as an upbeat headline, but digging deeper, one learns that only 15 percent have a “very favorable” view of our denomination. Forty-seven percent have a “somewhat favorable” view, and this does indeed give United Methodists a higher positive total than either Catholics, Southern Baptists, Mormons or Muslims.
No other religious groups were factored into the survey. The good news is that when we approach a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a neighbor, or a stranger about attending our United Methodist church, nearly two-thirds will not tell us that ours would be low on their list of churches they might seek as a gateway to a first-time or renewed personal, meaningful relationship with God.
Another telling stat was that United Methodists had the lowest percentage of respondents who have a “very unfavorable” evaluation of our denomination: only 6 percent. By contrast, Mormons and Muslims generated very high negative feelings.
Now the disturbing “kicker.” Who is growing and who is declining in membership, attendance and vitality?
We all know the answer. We are declining and the Mormons and Muslims are growing.
One must wonder what our image really is. Perhaps it is the church of one’s family heritage, the “little country church of my childhood,” the church with “dignity and high respectability” or some other rather benign or innocuous impression.
After all, 47 percent rated us “somewhat favorable.” That lacks a cutting edge, a high curiosity, or any in-depth knowledge. Most likely, those who rate us “somewhat favorable” had no idea of our grace theology, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, or persons who we in the denomination know have found “the living water of Jesus” through a life-changing experience that happened in a United Methodist church!
The bottom line question is: What are we doing to capitalize on this “soft” favorable response?
The LifeWay study has another disturbing stat. Sixteen percent of Americans have no opinion at all about United Methodism. We have 37,000 churches in the United States and 16 percent of the people do not know we are here! We are not even on their radar screen!
This anonymity is higher than Catholics, Baptists, Mormons or Muslims. We are vanilla. We lack “brand” or “flavor.”
So here we are. People have nothing against us but little interest in us. Have we become part of nostalgic Americana like the white clapboard churches on every New England village green? Many of those have paint peeling from the steeples, empty pews on Sunday mornings and little influence in the village where they were once the dominant cultural influence.
Is that our destiny?
Once upon a time, Methodism had a “brand” and it was not vanilla!
John Wigger, historian, writes of the early Republic era, “Methodism provided a great many Americans . . . not only with a source of spiritual meaning, but also with fellowship and community, with comfort and aid in times of distress, in short, with a sense of belonging that all people crave. The extent to which Methodists were able to accomplish this is what most clearly distinguishes their movement from the other denominations of this period.”
He continues, “Early American Methodism’s leaders understood the nature of the post-revolutionary cultural marketplace, in effect designing an innovative marketing strategy to master what historians call ‘Jacksonian America.’ No company could match Francis Asbury’s nationwide network of class leaders, circuit stewards, book stewards, local preachers, circuit riders and presiding elders. They led the movement’s system of class meetings, circuit preaching, quarterly meetings, annual conferences, and quadrennial conferences—all churning out detailed statistical reports to be consolidated and published on a regular basis.”
One conclusion is almost irrefutable: In the 19th century, 16 percent of the American people would not be oblivious to the presence of Methodism to the extent that they had “no opinion.” We were the most talked about denomination in every American setting, from the country store to the political “smoked filled room.” Dr. Wigger calls Methodism “first and foremost a religion of the people.”
One concluding appraisal of the “muscle days” of Methodism’s decades of growth was the comprehensive effects of spiritual formation, social support, missional outreach and numerical increase. Research by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark indicates that this gargantuan growth had such a head of steam that it continued well into the 20th century.
Then comes the sad news. We gradually evolved from what John Wesley clearly saw as a “counter-cultural” religious movement to be a substantial part of dominant American culture. Now we are part of the woodwork.
Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us needs to be, at least for a season, our denominational “playbook.” She understands what happened. She notes the evolution of mainline Protestantism from “congregations” to “denominations,” with a loss of spontaneity, fluidity, receptiveness to change, and adaptation to local needs.
She continues as a prophet who needs to be heard: “If American religious institutions are to regain their spiritual grounding, they will need to listen to and learn from the spiritual practices of local congregations.” Then she gives us this word of wisdom: “. . . we are, again, in a time when faith would live through rebirthing its tradition, not through maintaining or improving its inherited structures.”
These lessons are profoundly important. Methodism began with disenchanted, dislocated people seeking “spiritual footage.” That is the major spiritual and psychological need of people in our own time.
Gradually though, we ceased to be the “voice crying in the wilderness” and blended into the cultural woodwork. As Dr. Butler Bass put it of her home United Methodist church, it was like “my father’s Rotary Club at prayer.” Both in Sunday school and the pulpit, the message ceased to be transformational. Most messages centered on personal morality and superficial ethics. With the 1960s, “social holiness” morphed into an insistence that a non-transformed people of “half-way covenanters” embrace a somewhat radical posture of social justice ethics.
Can United Methodism be reborn with some of the theological integrity, missional outreach and life-changing evangelism of the Evangelical United Brethren and the older Methodist churches? Dr. Butler Bass, a former Methodist herself and now an Episcopalian after a sojourn into fundamentalism, says that we can. She warns though that “the old way of organizing religion in America has vanished.”
Her hope is that a new kind of Protestantism is being born, building upon tradition, faithfulness and wisdom. The new venture is that of a pilgrim who seeks a spiritual “growing place.” Pilgrims are looking for a place they cannot yet see: a future undergirded with faith, enhanced by hope and enriched by love.
The key phrase in our Council of Bishops-backed Call to Action reform agenda is “vital congregations.” To see more of those will require a loosening of authority, a lessening of connectional “costs of doing business.”
It will require freedom for congregations to have a voice in who their pastor will be and what their local mission is. It will require encouraging them to find out whether they have the “nerve to submit” to the lessons of our early heritage, before we copied corporate structures in the early 20th century.
Diana Butler Bass has an intriguing invitation: “There are many pilgrims on this road. Welcome to the way! We are glad for your company.” Let this be the hope and prayer for the outcome of the 2012 General Conference. T.S. Eliot once wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
We must do just that: arrive at where we started and, in our generation, know the place for the first time.
Let go of God’s being cabined, cribbed and confined in a United Methodist box. Let God go free!
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org . Commentary courtesy of the United Methodist Portal.