UMReporter & Cokesbury: The Splintering of Methodism? #UMC

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The United Methodist Church has no Pope. Our last individual in charge of everything was John Wesley, our founder. When he died, his authority was delegated to some Bishops. And then some regional entities. And eventually, some national entities that became global entities.

But all the while, the primary characterization of the UMC is that it has no head. The top bodies of the UMC are the connectional glue that hold disparate areas together, structured much like the United States government. General Conference serves as the Legislative Branch, creating doctrine and polity. The general boards and Bishops serve as the executive branch, putting into action the will of General Conference. The Judicial Council serves as the…well, judicial branch, ensuring the constitutionality of General Conference’s doctrines. So everything works together even though there’s not a single person at the head, creating the narrative for the United Methodist Church from the top-down.

However, in recent months, this delicate balance is being undone because of issues at the bottom-up side of the connection.

cokesbury-oldtime

First, Cokesbury bookstores were closed in the past few months. While deeply flawed as a business, they served an important function for the laity. Laity could walk in and learn something, they could look at curriculum, peruse (most) of the books that were not outright Calvinism, and get a good exposure to United Methodist polity and practice. Now, the bookstores are gone, and the only business model is traveling salespeople that attend to both churches and regional gatherings…in other words, focused on pastors and staff, not the average layperson. So the effect is that the laity will have less exposure to United Methodist teachings outside of their local church.

Second, this week the United Methodist Reporter is shutting its doors, closing the book on an institution since the 1840s. Here’s the UMR writeup and a Christian Post article. The UMR had editorial independence from the mothership, so the articles were a good source of varieties of perspectives. Most importantly, the voices were not the Hamiltons, Slaughters, or Bishops…they had tons of articles by young adults, especially young clergy. They were a strong champion of a plurality of voices that perhaps didn’t fit the narratives by the mothership communications. So the effect is that laity will have less exposure to the variety of voices within the UMC.

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The unintended but definite effect of these twin actions is that there’s no longer an unofficial forum with authority in the United Methodist Church. Sure, there are bloggers, each with their own slant and tribe. There are regional newspapers from various conferences. There’s even UM-Insight, which is a helpful distribution channel but with a particular slant. In short, clearinghouses of varieties of perspectives, easily accessible to the laity, are more or less dried up.  [[update: Cynthia Astle of UM-Insight responds in the comments]]

Or are they?

The truth is that there are entities with strong distribution networks of the United Methodist voices and perspectives and with strong respectability/tribal followings.

  • Church of the Resurrection has media distribution networks for Adam Hamilton studies, is multi-site and online, and will soon house a seminary (St. Pauls)
  • Ginghamsburg Church has media distribution networks for the Michael Slaughter books and is multi-site.
  • Grace UMC is multi-site and Jorge Acevado has a strong presence in southern Florida.
  • The Woodlands UMC in Houston houses the brain trust of the Confessing Movement and will continue with their promotion of that longtime caucus group.
  • Caucus networks of supporters for RMN, MFSA, Good News, etc will continue their promotion of their causes within the United Methodist Church via their strong distribution networks.
  • The IRD has their bridge that they lurk under, trolling all who pass within reach.
  • Even official United Methodist groups like United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men (well, until the BSA snafu) maintain a strong following within individual churches and may have more influence than the rest above! Who knows!

In short, without the Cokesbury/UMReporter, we not longer have the connectional glue which introduced the average laity to the variety of voices within the UMC in ways that catalogs and news aggregates could not.

Instead, what I believe we will rapidly have are distributed allegiances to particular geographic megachurches or cults of personality because of their already strong distribution networks. These allegiances will exacerbate the findings of the Call To Action that distrust in official Methodist entities is already too high, leading to reliance on these more local/more theologically aligned sources of authority within the UMC. We may end up with Hamilton Methodists, Acevado Methodists, etc…more shaped by individual, uh, men, than any elected leader or theologian.

I’d like to think that maybe it’s okay.

For our connectional church that has strong regional variances, perhaps it is okay that we decentralize “what makes us Methodist.” Maybe it will teach more folks that a decentralized polity and missional expression would be good for the church.

But in the meantime, I wonder what might happen. Because from my perspective, these twin losses will exacerbate the gulf between the leadership and the laity and strengthen the powers of those with already strong distribution networks, becoming even more of an echo-chamber to their geographies or constituencies. And some of those powers scare me when I wonder what United Methodism might become if one of these distributed channels wins out overall…

Thoughts?

Thanks for reading, and considering this a reliance, if opinionated, source of what Methodism is or can be.

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Comments

  1. says

    “Hamilton-Methodists” might be a bit far-fetched but I get where you’re headed. I think first and foremost, this change illustrates the move towards a more localized emphasis. Like it or not globalization has caused large systems to decentralize has the world becomes more connected. I also believe a good deal of the change we see happening around the connection is beyond our control. We’re simply caught in the tides of major societal/structural change. The real challenge we face is deciding that our main task is not preventing this change, but rather learning how to adapt with it.

  2. norman1950 says

    My concern is what you express in part; that without a publishing entity we will find ourselves lacking a set of basic standards for teaching and preaching as time goes along. The problem I see is based in the power of the laity. They are much more powerful than they realize. In and of itself, it is the principal power to balance bishops and church leaders. However, with so much material already Calvinist in orientation, I fear that eventually clergy will not be able to withstand those congregants who decide to embrace that form of theology. It would be the one element that is beyond ling the ability to lead effectively. Adaptation is one option but what is blended and what is tossed away?

  3. Nancy Day-Achauer says

    I have lived the bulk of my life as a lay person in a geographical area that did not have a Cokesbury store – most UMs live in such areas. I have been a UM my entire life (52 years) and I have never known a lay person who read The Reporter. I have served four churches in Central Ohio (a place that had 2 Cokesbury stores) and none of my parishioners ever went to those stores. My experience is not unique. The average UM lay person was not exposed to Cokesbury or the Reporter and won’t even notice they’re gone. Most UMs rely on their pastor or other church leader for education, resources and information so nothing is really changing for most lay people.

    • says

      I agree with Nancy.

      I don’t believe I’d ever been to a Cokesbury until I was living in a town with one. (Wilmore, KY) And I’d never heard of the Reporter until a family member in Texas sent me a couple of copies with particular articles he wanted me to read.

      Perhaps they played a greater role than I observe in Texas/Oklahoma, but in my neck of the woods I doubt many will even notice.

    • Robin says

      Have to agree, too. I think the consternation at the loss of Cokesbury stores is overblown for the very limited and local effect they have had–not a presence anywhere remotely close to anywhere I have served churches.

    • Sue Kimmet says

      I am a layperson who read the Reporter. In fact, it used to be commonly distributed; I grew up with it on the coffee table in my home. Much of my understanding of what it meant to be a Methodist came from reading it. And Cokesbury? I really miss it already. I knew that I could rely on Cokesbury (mail order before on-line) for good reading. I cannot count how many books I purchased from them. And I have never set foot in one of their stores, though I always wished I could.

      I am very sorry you and the people you know missed those opportunities. I do not believe anything can replace them.

    • Jonele Nash says

      I think we’re also trending towards acceptance of information we’re given instead of searching for ourselves. Most people seem quite content to have information handed to them and taking it as…gospel. It makes us more susceptible to beliving whatever news slant or theological point is being made, with nothing to balance it out. So I’m saddened, but not surprised, that the majority of UMers don’t bother informing themselves. I’m a lay person too, and I’ve always enjoyed reading the communications and at every opportunity browsed Cokesbury offerings. I also think I’m unusal in that respect; I love the connectionalism. If you were to ask a small sample of people at any church, I’m not sure they would be able to tell you much about the connectional system. They are happy just to go to church.

  4. Trey Witzel says

    While I believe that if the UMC fell into the hands of Hamilton and Slaughter they would be some of the better hands of all the possibilities, I do not think it would sustain us for more than a couple decades at most. With all of the loses you mentioned, becoming more centralized would put us in our own corner of the world–particularly America. It’d be like a pre-9/11 atmosphere. I foresee us losing our focus on being a global church in many aspects. I agree that becoming stronger in regions and also in our communities is a good thing, I fear what we are/would be losing.

  5. says

    Nancy is right. In a situation like this, where we’ve had two major institutions that have, or will, close their doors, we can’t imply causation where there isn’t any. The truth that these institutions were failing for a long time, and in large part not because of the people that worked there. The churches left them. For most people, there wasn’t a Cokesbury store close enough to them. It was easier to order things by phone, or go to another Christian bookstore

    Why should we be surprised when these two groups are closing, when they are mirroring what’s happening in the rest of the world. There are fewer book stores now, than ever, and traditional print media is disappearing just as quickly. What we have to do is catch-up with the ways that folks are communicating now, but so far we haven’t shown that we can do that either.

    • Matthew Crandall says

      “Why should we be surprised when these two groups are closing, when they are mirroring what’s happening in the rest of the world. There are fewer book stores now, than ever, and traditional print media is disappearing just as quickly. What we have to do is catch-up with the ways that folks are communicating now, but so far we haven’t shown that we can do that either.” Truer words have not been spoken. I grew up Methodist; I never saw a Cokesbury bookstore (SF East Bay Area, CA) and certainly never saw a copy of the Reporter. While both of these will certainly be missed, the world is changing. Many newspapers I grew up with only exist in my memory; B. Daltons Booksellers is gone and so is Border’s Bookstore. For all that, a number of Christian bookstores are gone; the Western Christian bookstores I remember no longer exist. Yet just today I’ve gotten UMCOR updates, UM Communications updates, and several other updates in both my e-mail and Facebook pages. The UMC Website was a phenomenal resource for my Ph. D Dissertation. (Did you know there are free courses on basic Methodism available online?) This is not to be feared-but used for Connectional work. And isn’t that part of our heritage as Methodists?

  6. Sue Kimmet says

    To all of you who say that we won’t miss The Reporter or Cokesbury, I say that we should carefully think about the kinds of books that are often the only things available in those local “Christian” bookstores. There is a lot of trash that passes for Christian reading. How sad to think that could become the standard.

  7. says

    Jeremy, I understand the thrust of your argument to be that these uniting forces of the institution are clear signs of institutional crack-up. I agree, and plan to re-post this entry on United Methodist Insight.

    However, I have to take issue with your assertion that there is now now “forum with authority” that can expose United Methodist laity to the variety of voices around the denomination. This kind of open forum is precisely what we’ve been doing with United Methodist Insight since its inception in December 2011. Initially our goal was to ensure that decision-makers at the 2012 General Conference were exposed to significant alternatives to the Call to Action proposals and the legislation on restructuring the church. However, our forum proved so successful that before we could shut it down, as planned, our readers begged us to keep it going. Which we have.

    If anything, I think United Methodist Insight has become a symbol of the “shared authority” idea of the current paradigm shift. Currently we have some 50 frequent contributors, including yourself, who have given us permission to reprint their blog posts at will. These folks range from laypeople such as Henry Neufeld to top-ranking churchmen such as Bishop Scott Jones. In particular, Insight has focused on those visionary thinkers in the church who provide the sharpest critiques and ask the toughest questions about where we headed. Again, this group-within-a-group includes you and many of your esteemed colleagues including Dan R. Dick, Ben Gosden, Rob Rynders, and Teddy Ray. There are even old duffers like me in the mix.

    So if we want to continue to have a forum that will help create a new community for United Methodism, I submit that United Methodist Insight is already that channel. It can become even stronger, more diverse and gain more authority if more people will support it as we vow to support the UMC: with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. I suggest two immediate actions that anyone reading this response can take:

    1) Sign up to receive our newsletters on our home page at http://um-insight.net
    2) Invite all the folks in your circles of influence to do the same.

    Finally, I am always open to submissions, contributions, questions and critiques. Email me at one.scribe56@gmail.com and let’s talk.

  8. Tom Lambrecht says

    I agree with those who say the loss of the Cokesbury stores will not be that impactful on the church. We still have the publishing house and the materials available online and at annual conferences and other events. The local stores had such a limited reach in terms of the percentage of United Methodists who ever shopped there.
    The greater loss will be the Reporter, which had a much wider circulation through the annual conference editions. I think this is part of the fragmentation of the whole news business, as different cable channels and bloggers attract different audiences. I think it will be a loss to the church to not have a unifying voice and message (or at least forum) for the denomination that was not ideologically driven. I think this heightens the importance of the bishops as unifying factors in the church, along with the communications efforts of annual conferences. These local/regional communication channels, supplemented by the able (but limited) efforts of UM News Service, can make a difference in this aspect of the problem.

  9. Marjie says

    I think there is something here that needs to be looked at. If the closing of two entities separates us from each other and our history, then maybe we weren’t on solid footing to begin with. I have long lamented that the laity has no sense of their Methodist History and about the only time laity gets together is for annual conference or district training (and not without grumbling). So the question is not about how we have lost our footing, but how do we ensure we are on the right path.

  10. arleneg says

    In the comments above there are allusions to the creeping influence of Calvinism into Methodist theology, or the possibility of it. I see it in my own church. Our Sunday School classes and women’s study groups have stopped going as frequently to UM publications for studies. The places where studies are found are in the material which they find interests them and is done in an interesting manner, such as Lifeway or Rick Warren. There is a little Adam Hamilton influence in choices occasionally. The UM Church, UM Women in particular, has not understood many of the laity. They continue to promote studies that, though on important topics, are dry and drawn out. I have spoken twice to the head of UMW about the need to rethink their studies and reading program choices; I have received a polite smile and a few innocuous words, indicating that I must not understand the purpose of the present published materials or their purpose. Why does the UM church have to constantly write for the academic? I guess that is because that is who is controlling the choice of material. Unless the UM Church realizes who the laity is and what it wants, more and more will go to other sources. Going there will lead to loss of understanding the Methodist heritage. I see it happening first hand.

  11. John says

    I agree that the impact of the loss of the Cokesbury Stores will be minimal. Our church is an 8 hour drive from the nearest Cokesbury store so their closure had little impact on us. In fact, I don’t believe there was a Cokesbury Store within our Annual Conference (New Mexico). In our church, we generally don’t use Cokesbury materials because they do not meet our needs. We switched to Sunday School materials from the Wesleyan church because the age levels were better and we found the materials to be much more Wesleyan than the Cokesbury materials. I enjoyed the UM Reporter and will miss it, but I certainly did not regard it as an “authoritative United Methodist voice.” If you read United Methodist News Service reports, you soon see that there are no authoritative United Methodist voices on issues of theology, liturgy, or doing church. Our bishops, and boards and agencies would rather speak authoritatively on social and political issues than on the issues related to church vitality. Our churches flourish or die because of local leadership and vision; not because of the denomination or “brand name.” Connectionalism allows us to be in ministry in exciting ways and to support one another. However, it has very little influence on 90% of our members. I doubt that more than ten percent of our members could even tell me the name of our bishop.

  12. Julie A. Arms says

    I’m a 52 year old, lifelong UM geek layperson who loves Cokesbury stores, UMR, UM Insight, Advocate, UMNS, various caucus groups, and even the ancient UMC BBS discussion forum of the past. I’m happiest discussing issues with folks who don’t agree with me and enjoy forums where all voices are heard. I need to disagree with Nancy’s 5/18 9:09am comment in that I don’t rely on my pastor to educate me or point me to resources – I like the varied voices I hear in discussions because those voices urge me to find out more for myself. Living in an area where most clergy voices slant in a direction far different than my own leanings, if I relied on pastoral leadership to educate me, I would not have a broad mind. I will agree with Nancy that many don’t feel the urge to learn more about our Church. That is to the detriment of our congregations – why should people be angered about decisions made at General Conference when they don’t care enough to read or learn the Bible, let alone how the Church works. I was stunned on Sunday to find a peer didn’t even know what Ascension day was! Anyway, I’m going to miss Cokesbury and UMR.

  13. Txcon says

    I don’t think UMM is going to be a strong voice. I’ve been to a couple of meetings and I think I was the only one who was not retired.

  14. Stephen says

    1. Cokesbury has got to find their identity before they will begin to be effective. Are they a publisher or a distributer. I want them to be a publisher (HarperOne, IVP, Thomas Nelson) and leave distribution to amazon, b&n, etc…, but until they figure out who they are they will continue to divide their effectiveness.

    2. So you don’t believe in methodist split, but a methodist splinter is ok? :)
    I think you are on to something with the authority issue. It is something I have wrote about, worried about for years. The UMC as it stands today has no authority…no pope, bishops can be overruled, JC can strike down GC, Laity can run over Clergy and vice versa, our Orders are kinda messed up, and trust is eroded.

    So do we move to a congregational polity? A cultural polity? A local polity? What is the logical next step?

    • says

      I really appreciate your #1. I also think they should pour more resources into publishing except perhaps the stuff dealing with the CEB (it’s like printing money, I guess).

  15. Gary Bebop says

    You know, it just seems so far-fetched to think that the future can be controlled…by press or by social media or be fiat. What’s cracking apart is the liberal-progressive hegemony of information. We refused to fund it.

      • Gary Bebop says

        You’re suggesting we shopped at Cokesbury for “conservative? theological products? Wow! That’s a howler. Look at the whole catalog, not just the faint shimmer of conservative offerings…

  16. says

    I tend to see the downfall of Cokesbury and UMR as a reflection of exactly what is happening in the publishing and print media, in general. People can now easily tailor their news to their specific tastes with blogs that speak directly to their political affiliations (Huffington Post and Drudge Report, for example). Why pay for an online NYT subscription when I can go to a site that aligns with my world view for free? Although, NYT Digital is getting close to being profitable with a combo of paywall and advertising. How on earth was Cokesbury ever going to compete with Amazon or iBooks or Nook (which I believe is it’s main competitor, not other Christian publishing houses)? This isn’t about politics or theology, but about a changing media, publishing, and digital world. Adapt or die. That being said, UMR did great work and I’m sad to see them go. Perhaps, one day, they could be resurrected under a new funding model.

  17. Mary Gean Cope says

    Cokesbury is online, and UMR has gone digital. Where I grew up there was no Cokesbury Store and I had never heard of UMR. Methodist to the core anyhow. There have always been strong churches, groups, and individuals who are influential for their season. Our head is Jesus Christ. We need no other. Our connection and organization is the unique glue of Methodism. We will only crumble if all of us as individuals choose to crumble. Me? I am not crumbling. How about you?

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