In my recent United Methodist posts, there’s been a recurring theme by some commenters.
The Western churches suck.
- They don’t have the membership, so they suck.
- They don’t have the finances or the connectional giving like the other jurisdictions, so they suck.
- They are mostly progressive (at least at the annual conference level), so they suck.
- The creeping skyward percentages of agnostic/atheist populations in their towns means they suck.
- The tiny number of delegates to General Conference (the entire jurisdiction has fewer delegates than some annual conference) means they suck.
- They can’t even pay for their own bishops, which means they suck (though it IS constitutional as the Episcopal Fund is unified and not divisible per Judicial Council)
As a recent transplant to the West (I moved from Oklahoma to Portland, Oregon in June), I feel this moniker of the West as the rear-end of Methodism is both (a) unjustified and (b) short-sighted in the long run. Let’s see why:
Quantitative or Qualitative Metrics?
First, if we are playing the metrics game, then it is true that regarding membership and finances, the West sucks. But those are not all the interesting statistics.
- The Western Jurisdiction may give the least amount of apportioned funds, but their per capita giving is the highest (by several percentage points) in United Methodism. See page 552 of the Advance DCA 2012. While the West has fewer members and total giving, on average each Methodist gives more to the General Church than any other jurisdiction.
- The Western Jurisdiction may have the smallest membership, but their per capita church involvement is the highest in United Methodism. Rev. Anthony Tang of Desert Southwest blogged during General Conference that if you divide the average worship attendance by actual membership, on average each Methodist attends church more often than any other jurisdiction.
- For all our talk about vital congregations and how everyone is lamenting that only 15% of congregations are vital…the Western Jurisdiction has the highest percentage of vitality for its churches. While other jurisdictions have more congregations, bigger and more financially strong…according to the denominations’ criteria, the West has the highest percentage of vital churches.
- The qualitative aspects matter of their delegates as well. While women comprise about 50% of United Methodist membership across the globe, only 37% of delegates to GC2012 were women. The highest percentage of female delegates came from…the Western Jurisdiction with a whopping 65% of their delegation being women.
Little wonder that the Southern jurisdictions want to reward quantitative aspects of church growth rather than the qualitative aspects of discipleship…while discipleship is alive and well in the other jurisdictions, it seems to have reached a different level of parity with the cultural Christians that the other jurisdictions haven’t matched yet.
It could be a contention that the West has much to teach the Rest of Methodism about active and giving members and the practice of not artificially inflating membership (many churches do keep inactive members on the rolls for far too long…my own church removes members if they haven’t attended/communicated with the church for 2 years).
Welcome to the Future of United Methodism
Second, the West is a field of United Methodism that the rest of the country should be happy we exist: we’re the glimpse into the future.
In a previous post “No Large Southern Church Left Behind” where I examined the hegemonic power of the Southern Jurisdictions who sought to increase their representation even more at GC2012 (a measure which failed), I wrote this about why the South should appreciate the mission fields of United Methodism:
We cannot just reward success with more representation: they already have that. The Southern Jurisdictions can have their way with anything in the UMC with only a modicum of support from the global church. Instead, why aren’t we valuing the voices from the margins, from the extremes, from the areas of the country where slow growth is the norm? The creeping secularism will reach the South one day, and if they do not empower the churches already in this culture to deal with it now, then the South will be under-equipped to deal with it later. As Virginia Bassford says [in her GC2012 book I Love the Church and We Need Help], “we each have distinctive points of view. Together, we can have a wide-angle outlook.” We can weather this storm together, but only if the hegemony opens itself to its role of guidance, not dominance, in the global church.
That blog post ended up with almost 60 comments, most of them negative towards my articulation of why the South should value the West. Good times!
But there’s more now to the conversation.
While I was at the Wild Goose Festival (The Western event in September 2012), I had a chance to ask Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of a weird ELCA church in Colorado, about her thoughts on the power imbalance of small churches and large churches within a denominational system. She said something like this:
- There’s two types of churches: Resource Churches and Creative Churches. Think of the latter as think-tanks. Churches that attract cultural creatives to smaller places where they can connect and evoke the kinds of ideas that larger churches with serpentine bureaucracies often cannot accomplish.
- It’s not what we are giving, it’s what kind are we giving to each other. It’s not about that we give value to the amount that each one contributes. It’s that we value about what kind of contribution it is.
In short, some churches are resources and accomplish terrific things on a scale unimaginable by the mom-and-pop churches. And some churches are tiny and insular and will not survive. Some churches suck, that is true. But some are havens for creative ideas, small-scale manifestations of the kingdom of God. And when those ideas work, it is the Resource Churches that will up the scale to a level where they can succeed even in the face of creeping secularism. In Bolz-Weber’s characterization, we are all in this together and all bring different gifts to the table.
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
While I wonder about the colonialistic implications of such a characterization (where the West’s successes are co-opted by the Rest of Methodism, kinda like a colonial relationship where exotic furs or oil is taken in exchange for something of lesser value), the characterization actually supports some of our beliefs. Within our Worldwide Covenant amongst all of United Methodism (ratified in 2012) is a recognition of more sources of mutual support than financial. Here’s the quote:
In covenant with each other, we see each other as partners in ministry recognizing our gifts, experiences, and resources as of equal value, be they spiritual, financial, or missional.
What matters in a connectional relationship isn’t the quantity of the relationship but the quality. Some churches give funding, some churches give energy, some churches give novelty, some churches give leadership. Each plays an essential role in the Body of Christ. Kinda like each seminary has a specialty and contributes something to the academic, social, or pastoral support of United Methodism.
Per 1 Corinthians 12, not all churches can be eyes, ears, noses, or mouths. Each is essential, not only in the quality of their body part but also in their diversity helping the unity. And for our church facing a Death Tsunami or whatever sensationalistic term we can come up with, should we continue to cut off our arms because they are not eyes? Or our eyes because they are not ears? Or the West because it is quantitatively–but not qualitatively–inferior to the Rest?
The culture, the mission field, that the West is a part of is creeping East and South. I suspect that maybe the Bible Belt is 20-30 years in the past from where the West is right now. I wonder if maybe the West exists 20-30 years in the future from the Bible Belt. And if we don’t resource the churches in that mission field now, how will the other churches fare when the culture reaches their doorstep?
Let’s be clear: there are numerous Creative churches in the South and growing parts of Methodism–that is not in dispute. They are creative and adaptive to the culture around them. There are Resource churches who, through their money and energy pools, are doing super-creative things as well. Those successes are not in dispute. But the question is whether their techniques will translate cultures when the jarring reality that the mission field has reached the house becomes real?
In conclusion, my question is this: in our relationship as a Connectional Church, is continuing to denigrate and disempower the West the best solution? Is relying on the creative churches that are not in a secularized culture the most long-term solution? We’ve seen the crumbling of flagship churches that began fifty years ago and could not adapt to a changing culture. Do we want that cycle to repeat, all because we didn’t resource the churches already in the culture–the ones that are truly being creative and adaptive?
Or maybe I’m wrong and this secular culture will stay where it is at, and the Bible Belt will continue to be the shining beacon of Methodism with both Resources and Creativity to support itself through whatever comes its way. But can United Methodism take the risk? Can it cut off the mission fields, continue to hamstring the West’s evangelism because of doctrines that do not relate to the culture, continue to push for quantitative measurements and representation instead of empowering the mission fields with a voice of significance? Is it worth the risk to a global Church?
My hope is that the South sees the West as a risk worth taking. My hope is that we can say together in 20 years that we did it. That we weathered the storm and emerged as a Global Church–one of the few Protestant denominations that is truly global and not increasingly regionalized–a Global Church that is stronger because of its diversity, not in spite of it.
That’s my hope. Is it yours?(Header Photo: “West” by nicholasjon, Flickr Creative Commons share)