Chances are your congregation probably doesn't offer a study about United Methodist identity.
Chances are it doesn't offer a course in Christian identity either.
With the continual secularization of American society, our identity as both Christian and United Methodist seems to be waning. Secular elements continue to erode not only the sanctuary with stagnant to decreasing worship attendance, but also the acceptance, by members of United Methodist and other historic Protestant and Anglican churches, of secular values such as legalized gambling, injustices toward the poor and minimizing the importance of faith expressions in the public arena, to mention a few.
Like secularized Europe where more tourists are present in churches than worshippers, America continues to secularize a culture once centered in Judaic-Christian norms. When we are encouraged to examine Starbucks as a role model for post-moderns to revitalize the church's outreach, when the class of new members consists primarily of members transferring from other churches rather than by profession of faith, when worship services are tailored to be short and convenient - then we need to ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a United Methodist in America today? Do we know who we are? Or have we become a mix of secular and sacred expressions of a feel-good culture?
With the millennial generation more attuned to spirituality than their boomer and buster parents, The United Methodist Church has an opportunity to grow spiritually and numerically to once again become a formidable force in American culture. But to fulfill this challenge, United Methodist Christian identity must be claimed and proclaimed not only to our youth, but also to our neighbors, friends, relatives and professional colleagues for the transformation of society one faith profession at a time.
Bishop Coyner preaches that evangelism is job one, not just to add people to our pews, but to offer new generations a Christ-centered, Spirit-driven life and the ability to show that new life in Christ to all. As Hoosier United Methodists, we are in the process of uniting our two existing conferences into one new and unified conference across the whole state. Again, not only to reverse 40 years of membership decline, but also to base mission and ministry in congregations.
We know we need to do church differently because what we have done for 40 years has not produced the image of a New Testament church taught by Jesus and the Apostles. We have placed too much emphasis upon the institution of the church, which has produced growth of institutions, but we have been reluctant to start new congregations and create new faith communities.
Wesleyan churches grew in the 19th century, because leaders of the denomination placed a priority on beginning new congregations with the influx of immigrants and the westward expansion of the American frontier. If approved by the General Conference, the top legislative body of The United Methodist Church, our church will once again commit itself to starting one new congregation a day across the United States. That goal will stretch us. But if we don't reach out to a new generation eager to experience the Christian faith, other churches open to Christ's call will claim the inevitable growth of Christianity.
We begin by claiming the identity of being United Methodist Christians in a growing secular culture that is more intent on collecting things than experiencing Christ-centered relationships within families and throughout communities. As United Methodists, we not only proclaim the love of God through Jesus Christ, but also proclaim social justice to those treated unjustly by a materialistic secular society that is more interested in a profit margin than what the biblical prophets taught about social justice to all, especially those marginalized by society.
Once we get our Wesleyan house in order according to the words and deeds of Jesus, we have the potential for genuine growth, not just by transferring new members from other denominations, but by transforming the lives of Americans who may have only experienced the church during weddings, funerals, baptisms, confirmations and a place for Scouts, AA and the annual fish fry.
For growth to become a normative reality, we must want to grow, realizing that our special guests are images of Christ who died to redeem the world.
We need to know who and whose we are so that we can make a difference in Indiana and around the world.
- Daniel R. Gangler