I’m a believer that when there’s connections between those who share Christ and the Culture around them that powerful stuff that can happen. Christ transforms culture, culture shapes the framing of the Christian message, and other forms of engagement.
But what about when there’s no cultural connections to be found? Does it hinder opportunities when we constantly read things from other cultures that do not share our ministry context? Does reading “Surfing for Jesus” make sense in North Dakota? Do Dollywood devotionals have the same impact outside of Tennessee?
Since moving from Oklahoma–the buckle of the Bible Belt–to Portland, Oregon, I’ve become increasingly aware of how abandoned my new mission field is by institutional United Methodism. So when I received the Spring Catalog of my denomination’s book offerings, I flipped through and wondered “How many of these people know my context? How many are writing from a place where Christianity looks more like the None Zone than the Bible Belt?”
And I decided to find out…
Regionalism in UMC’s Book Offerings
As readers know, this blog prides itself on doing the work. So numbers were crunched and patterns were found!
I focused on Cokesbury, the UMC bookstore, and Abingdon Press, the publishing brand of the United Methodist Publishing House. By narrowing to the UMC branded publishing and retail distribution arms, we can more clearly see their intentional resourcing approaches.
New and featured books will be getting the most press, push, and prominence in their marketing strategy from any book retailer. Drawing from Abingdon titles in the Cokesbury Spring 2015 “Books and Bibles” Catalog and the Abingdon 2015 Fall/Winter Catalog, I broke it down by the new (and featured) non-fiction books by authors living in (or predominantly in ministry in) the American regions of United Methodism. Click the image above to see the list, or just click here!
I probably missed a few (note: check out the comments for community edits)–and I intentionally excluded the non-USA authors–but here’s the breakdown of 77 authors with new books coming out in the next 9 months or so from Abingdon Press.
- North Central Jurisdiction: 18 (23%)
- Northeast Jurisdiction: 8 (10%)
- South Central Jurisdiction: 20 (26%)
- Southeast Jurisdiction: 25 (33%)
- Western Jurisdiction: 6 (8%)
The low Western/Northeastern quantities do hide some serious quality. Californian Mary J. Scifres co-edits the popular Music and Worship planner that a lot of Methodists use. Fuller’s Joel Green’s thumbprint on all things Wesley and Common English Bible is undeniable. And Eric Elnes lived for a while in Arizona (with significant impact through his Phoenix Affirmation), but has resided for some time now in Nebraska. So there are some heavy-hitters in the West–along with Leonard Sweet who spent decades in the Northeast.
In summary, the weight of the numbers is staggering: 59% of the new and featured authors from Abingdon Press come from the Bible Belt and the surrounding nations in those regions, while only 8% are from the West.
How this Regional Gap impacts Discipleship
Coincidentally, the regions with the lowest representation in UMC offerings for Sunday school discussion, guidance for our pastoral leadership, and individual Christian living inspiration are also the regions with the lowest rates of church attendance.
The latest Gallup poll of church attendance repeats the findings of previous demographic pollings: the states with the highest rates of church attendance are in the South, whereas the states with the lowest rates of church attendance are in the West and Northeast. Obviously, a lack of materials is not to blame for the lack of church attendance–that’s ridiculous. But what is compelling to me is to ask “why aren’t we pouring more resources into the mission fields and lifting up voices who are doing well here?” For a missional people devoted to evangelism, you would think the mission fields would have more focus!
A lack of voices from the American mission fields–the segments of United Methodism that minister to cultures that are most dismissive of Christianity–impacts its effectiveness in three ways:
- We are letting the market determine our discipling resources rather than the mission field. Like it or not, what sells determines what is sought out and sold. With a large chunk of American Methodism in the South, little wonder that most of the authors come from there–there’s even a disproportionate number of them who live IN Nashville, Tennessee where the UMPH is located (hmmmm). The South needs Jesus at the same rate that the West does: can Abingdon offer a better balance to help those of us in the trenches?
- One size does not fit all. Our culture influences how we view the Church. The cultures that are the most secular/post-Christian need different touchstones than the Bible Belt. Social location doesn’t impact validity of perspective but it does nuance it. Region, ethnicity, gender, age, and other demographics are considered for the makeup of boards across Methodism: why not discipling resources too charged with connection with the local congregations? Why doesn’t Abingdon lift those up for the mission fields?
- We need models. It is human nature to listen to others who have “made it” or achieved some kind of success in our cultures. I daresay that the people who achieve even moderate growth in antagonistic cultures are more relevant to my context than the megachurch pastors in Texas. Does Abingdon specifically look for models in the West for the West–or just those in the West that could have popular appeal elsewhere? Or is the entirety of the West made up of crappy ministers that cost too much?
No Church Left Behind?
This is not a pitch to get a book deal from Abingdon for me or anyone else.
This is a reminder to the rest of Methodism that the West is also held accountable for receiving new members, worship attendance, offering dollars, and people in small group study or mission. We are held accountable for the same things that the South is–but the South has more authors, visibility, resources, and voices at every level of United Methodism and it shows in the discipling resources being put out by the Church.
The entirety of United Methodism has an intense focus on building up the local church. But the local churches in the most difficult hard-to-achieve-quick-success segments of United Methodism have fewer resources that speak to and from their ministry context. How missional is that? How much more is this like “No Church Left Behind” where we reward “success” and take away resources from localities that need it most?
Let us see each other as partners in ministry, brothers/sisters in mission, and be willing to commit to more resources who may not pay UMPH’s light bill, but who will bring more light into the areas of the country where United Methodism does not yet burn brightest.