"More than one-quarter of American adults (28 percent) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44 percent of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether."
These are results of the new U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The findings have been quite the talk of United Methodists and other Protestant denominations.
Religion in American is undergoing radical changes.
Like members of other mainline denominations, United Methodists are generally older, whiter and wealthier in a nation that is increasingly populated with young adults, people of color and families with modest incomes.
The United Methodist Church also is losing more members than it's gaining, with its parishioners increasingly moving to evangelical Protestant churches or choosing not to affiliate with another religious group at all.
I am one of those statistics. I wasn't reared in The United Methodist Church. I grew up in an independent non-denominational church that emphasized a personal faith, and a faith that did not include African-Americans, nor mainline Protestant theology.
Following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death in 1968, I abandoned my childhood faith and for three years wandered in a spiritual wilderness looking for a faith that squared with Scripture and was concerned about social justice for all people. At the invitation of a United Methodist, I became a United Methodist because it was a connectional church that reached beyond itself to make a difference in the lives of people, all people, including me. I am not alone. Many of my childhood acquaintances also abandoned their childhood faith - some to mainline churches and others to no church at all.
In this study, I read of a reversal of what I experienced. That is United Methodists leaving their childhood church. Of the 53 percent who left the Methodist faith tradition of their childhood, the survey reports that 19 percent went to evangelical churches, 11 percent to other mainline Protestant churches and 3 percent to historically black churches that are not Methodist. Another 12 percent say they no longer are part of any faith group, and 8 percent moved to a non-Protestant religion. As far as I know, the study doesn't include those who left their childhood faith to become United Methodists.
In a recent story about the relationship to these findings and The United Methodist Church, the Rev. Lovett Weems, a researcher and professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, commented, "There is no future for The United Methodist Church in the United States unless we can reach more people, younger people and more diverse people.
"It's not that we're not making the efforts or spending the money to reach younger and more diverse people, but we're not focusing our efforts on outcomes."
In other words, the future of the growth and vitality of The United Methodist Church is ours to the glory of God if we choose to refocus our efforts and talents to bring a more economic and ethnic diverse church into being. I believe that efforts of the Imagine Indiana movement among United Methodists here can bring about this renewal by focusing upon the strength and vitality of congregations, both existing and those to be established in the next decade. Those new congregations need to be diverse and quite different than our existing congregations.
Although The United Methodist Church works to attract "seekers," some spiritually inclined people are also "institutionally suspicious" and wary of religious organizations that use such data to target them, said the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship and a clergy member of the North Indiana Conference.
"Every time we do that, we miss the point," Burton-Edwards said. "Instead of adjusting our message to get those people with us, we should be working to be in mission with people, whoever they are, wherever they are."
Burton-Edwards said the study's data is useful but shouldn't be the focus in measuring the church's vitality. It takes more than numbers, he said, to address the core question of whether the church is following Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
"We've got the paradigm turned around. … It's not about getting people inside of the church; it's about getting Christians out," he said.
"It's not how many people are in our organization, but what level of spiritual impression people are experiencing. How are they being imprinted with the likeness of Jesus Christ? And what is the impact crater around them as a result?"
So to whom do we bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Those who are not among us - young adults, people of color and families with modest incomes.
And how? By reaching out to those who aren't affiliated with any church, then inviting them to come worship with us. That's why I'm a United Methodist today.
Daniel R. Gangler
Information contained in this editorial came from an United Methodist News Report written by Marta W. Aldrich, news editor of UMNS based in Nashville, Tenn.