Mainline Body Embracing New Ways to Do Church

One of the largest mainline denominations has embraced innovation, a characteristic more common among postmodern churches, to connect with the people in the pews.

The United Methodist Church launched a revolutionary new website, UMC.org, on Monday to make church available to congregants 24-hours-a-day amid reports indicating continual losses in mainline pews on Sundays. And the site's biggest feature is what UMC leaders say is the first major faith-based social networking system developed by a mainline denomination.

"We think that these changes are revolutionary in that we are dealing with and combining information that people from the grassroots say they want in the way they want it," said the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn., during a press conference Monday.

While a website is nothing new for United Methodists, the new facelift comes out of years of conversation and research with lay people, and not clergy, to cater the site towards congregants around the world moreso than just those from the pulpit.

"This website is not based upon what the administrators of the church believe people need to know about us as an institution so much as it is built upon the request of the people who use the site telling what they want to know," added Hollon.

Two years in the making, UMC.org – a $250,000 site – was designed from the response of more than 250 denominational members.

"A new UMC.org is about community," said Hollon. "To put it simply, [it] is informational and relational."

Other features besides the social network include a page to search for volunteer opportunities worldwide, stories of United Methodists, a global map telling visitors what's happening where and providing missionaries biographies, a "Methopedia" (Methodist Encyclopedia), and a find a church page among others.

Taking further steps to reach the Millennials, a tech-savvy generation that many mainline denominations have struggled to maintain or grow, United Methodist Communications also plans the launch of a youth site before June.

"A youth need isn't exactly the same need as somebody who's ... been seasoned in the church," said Matt Carlisle, director of Web Ministry for United Methodist Communications. "They really need a different experience."

Some predict dissonance between the old traditional denomination and a 21st century approach. Hollon, however, says the churches are already moving into the digital age.

"The challenge we have is keeping up with the church," he commented.

While United Methodists among other mainline groups may still not yet be as up-to-date on multimedia and technology as other evangelical and postmodern churches, Hollon indicated that technology cannot replace real connections in the church. The online community is a "doorway" to the local church, and not the full embodiment of the church.

"An online community will never replace the church experience," he said. "What we hope is those who use this doorway will move beyond the website to actual face-to-face contact.

"The way we all connect is face-to-face."