The West Will Resource the Rest #UMC

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)
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Comments

  1. says

    I believe the West has the potential to be (and may already be) the friendliest towards innovation in The UMC. I think another indicator of that is that it’s a draw from young clergy, such as yourself and folks like Theon Johnson III. In other words, great post, I couldn’t agree more!

  2. Curtis Brown says

    Shhh. We’re not supposed to let the others know about the strength, innovation, and adaptation in our Western UMC. We need a little more time to quietly recreate a new expression of Methodism.

  3. Jarell says

    Interesting, I agree the West is valuable, I’m not so sure that the rest of the UMC will see it that way since the only thing that seems to matter to the Church is numbers of attendance and membership, not discipleship.

  4. says

    If there are innovative churches in the South, and if being a resource church is not mutually exclusive with being a mission field/innovative church, then I think the Western Jurisdiction does have some stuff to answer for. I think a lot of your arguments would sit better if the Western Jurisdiction UMs shared a similar spirit with the rest of the connection. Yet, as it stands, the Western Jurisdiction has done some very public things to sever itself from the other jurisdictions (excluding the Northeastern). We could run some good experiments if we all decided we were on the same side. Yet, as it stands, the experiments the WJ churches are doing are not in dialogue with other jurisdictions. I’m not sure that churches are even looking for longterm solutions to large social shifts over here. Most of the churches I look at are simply trying new programs and new hip trends. I don’t see many really engaging the popular culture aesthetics in any way other than by selling out. I know that’s inflammatory but…there aren’t many churches in the WJ who are bucking popular social trends. Rather, the main stuff I hear is how we should give into them.

    On a smaller note, I’m 99% certain that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 12 in reference to different individuals within one given local church; not about different churches altogether. When a body of believers is present anywhere, there should be an expectation of fruits. The problem is that the WJ isn’t bearing much fruit. The stats you gave at the opening of the article are super interesting, but they don’t make up for the fact that we are positioned much less favorably than we were a few decades ago. We’ve slipped. We’ve dropped the ball. Now some churches are working in earnest to correct that. But are they working any less hard than other churches elsewhere? I don’t think so. And I don’t think there is really any way to finagle the situation such that we are actually in a good light. If we legitimate ourselves as we are right now, then we are legitimating unhealthy connection. While there are good things going on here, there are also a lot of smug people who don’t want to admit fault. I think we’ll need to see humility before we see true connection. Stimulating article. Hopefully that troll dude won’t find you again. -J

  5. Creed Pogue says

    I have read your blog for a number of years. Even when I disagree with something, I remember what my grandfather told my father and then my father told me: “Out of the laws of chance and the grace of God even out of the mouth of a fool will come some words of wisdom.” And then he put his arm around my shoulder to tell me: “And son, you aren’t so smart that you can afford to miss any.”

    Unfortunately, you seem to have a growing tendency to see how far out you can go and try to provoke heated responses. One has to ask, “to what end?”

    Calling people who disagree with you while bringing facts to the discussion “trolls” does nothing to advance the conversation. Again, it may make you feel better but accomplishes nothing else.

    Telling us that members of the Western Jurisdiction give five dollars more per member than the Southeastern and using that as proof that the Western is more vital is like saying that the rooster caused the sun to rise in the morning. None of it changes the fact that the Western Jurisdiction not only doesn’t pay for its own bishops but contributes NOTHING toward the central conferences and the retirees. Where does that fit into connectionalism? The Western Jurisdiction does pay out a lot to the Advance. It is doing second mile ahead of first mile giving. How are these lessons for the rest of the connection?

    The Western Jurisdiction has shed members faster than any other jurisdiction. Is that an example for the rest of us? There are a number of churches that are growing in the West, but virtually none of them are United Methodist.

    The Western Jurisdiction seems intent on following the failing example of The Episcopal Church in the USA. We can judge by their fruits.

    I find it interesting that people who are likely as unhappy that Wyoming and Idaho each have two senators while New York and California also only have two senators as I am would lift up this undemocratic model for our governing structure. The only legislative body in the entire United States that is that undemocratic is the US Senate because everyone else has had to go to one person, one vote. Additionally, I could only imagine the outcry if we had a system where Mitt Romney gets 400 times as many votes as the average American much less the poorest. When you have to struggle so much to skew reality to get a satisfactory picture, most of us who aren’t working for Faux News know that there is a problem with your reality not the rest of us.

  6. Ken Harmon says

    It is sad that some parts of the church feel the need to see themselves as above (or better than) another. There is so much in scripture to warn of these feelings. I think it all goes back to how do we define “success”? It is not butts-in-seats, nor is it money in hand. Our society has changed, and the church must change with it.

  7. Jeremiah Thompson says

    Jeremy,

    I think you raise many good points, however I find this a bit too broad a brush in many places. You are making the western jurisdiction to out to be one thing, rather than many different regions. The point about vital congregations in the west is very interesting. In this jurisdiction generally progressive conferences are more vital than those that aren’t (with I think one exception and even that conference is a mixed bag) and I think that is a key point to raise.

    Good research and good points, however, I find the way you are referring to the rest of the denomination, and or country to be a bit off putting (comes off sounding a bit holier than thou), I think your points are strong, but the style could cause some readers to shut down and miss the deeper meaning.

    Jeremiah Thompson

  8. Stephan says

    Right on, Jeremy. My hope is we can just ignore the SE and stay focused on the quality and creativity that characterize our brand of discipleship.

  9. Anthony Tang says

    Hey Jeremy,
    Thanks for the shout out.

    I thought your reference to 1 Cor 12 was fantastic. For me, it comes down to 21&22: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable”.

    There’s no question that the SE is strong and provides great resources and fruit. But the struggle that the West faces against the strength of its cultural challenges should not be a rationale for cutting off the hand as was attempted through the variety of legislation to de-fund or eliminate the voting block of the West.

    I believe that the root of this problem is: the desire for homogeneity as opposed to diversity and this is seen in both extreme conservatives and in extreme liberals. Within the extreme conservatives, we see this played out in the belief that a unified doctrine upheld in the entire church will save us all. Within the extreme liberals, we see this played out in the belief that justice can only be fully realized when the entire body believes in full “equality.” Conservatives trying to force liberals to believe, liberals trying to forces conservatives to accept, everyone else caught in the crossfire and held hostage by the vitriol.

    Wesley was genius when he adhered to “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” Unfortunately, we disagree about the essentials, we want to make all of our own beliefs to be essential and everyone else’s non-essential, and in these moments, we completely lack charity. (Who knows, perhaps I’m hypocritically even doing the same in this posting. Crap.)

    So, what’s going to take our church forward? Part of me believes that the only way for our global UM church to move forward is by becoming an Acts 27:13-44 Church. 13: We’ve got to set sail together and to face the violent wind. 18: We’ve got to throw our baggage–all our baggage–overboard. 22: We may have to accept that this ship isn’t going to make it. 23-24: We’ve got to pray. 30-32: We will not be saved unless we’re in this together and we should prevent any attempts to make it easy for rogue churches of either side to take their property and separate. 33: Let’s break bread together, even in the midst of the storm, even with those with whom we disagree. 42-43: Please don’t kill anyone… including me. 44: …so that God will bring us safely to land, even if the boat was destroyed.

    Is this possible? I don’t know. But I’m guessing that whether we keep all our baggage or throw people overboard or refuse to pray with each other, we’re still going to hit that reef within the next twenty years and we’ll see what God has planned for us. My current hope is that we’ll get to shore together.

    Anthony

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