A former United Methodist Church pastor who now leads a fast-growing nondenominational multi-site church has offered the struggling denomination some advice.
Craig Groeschel, founder and senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv., was asked by a United Methodist leader to provide a few suggestions for the 7.8 million-member denomination as it struggles with membership decline and division.
Agreeing to share some of his thoughts, the Oklahoma City pastor devoted his daily blog posts this week to "Suggestions for My UMC Friends."
"Let’s start with the use of Financial Resources," Groeschel wrote. "While I wholeheartedly applaud the church’s aggressive efforts to reach people, I don’t think advertisements that promote a denomination are the best plan."
The UMC launched a more than $20 million ad campaign last year, targeting young adults and seeking to draw them to church. The "Rethink Church" campaign specifically conveys the message that the church is not a building but a movement of people empowered to transform the world.
Though the effort is ambitious, Groeschel suggested that the resources might have best been put to use in other areas such as church plants.
"Today's generation wants to join a cause, not an organization," the well-known pastor noted. "People are more likely to join a new mission rather than an old denomination.
"I would have suggested investing $20,000 each into 1,000 UMC church plants across the United States. Starting new churches is easier than revitalizing old churches."
Recognizing that the UMC has many empty buildings, Groeschel also suggested that Methodist congregations consider merging and becoming multi-site churches.
"If you have a strong UM church with limited space and a struggling UM church with an empty building, why not link arms?" the innovative pastor, whose church draws more than 20,000 people on over a dozen campuses across country, wrote Thursday.
Partnering with other churches outside of the denomination is another option, Groeschel recommended, noting that many UMC churches use LifeChurch.tv teachings at no charge.
"I can’t help but wonder how many struggling churches could have a chance for survival (and more than simply survival) if they shared resources with other churches in their communities or from around the world."
One of the biggest challenges for the UMC is its ordination process, the multi-site pastor pointed out.
Groeschel, who attended various United Methodist churches in Texas and Oklahoma growing up, did his undergraduate work at Oklahoma City University (a UMC school) and entered ministry as an associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in downtown Oklahoma City. When he wanted to plant a new UMC church, it wasn't an option for him because he was only ordained as a "deacon" and not an "elder."
"When I was a UMC pastor, I was an un-ordained 'local pastor' for three years, spent four years in seminary (while serving full time at a church) and had two more years before I’d become fully ordained as an elder," he recalled.
"While I appreciate the education and accountability, many younger leaders want to be 'in the game' more than they want to leap through lots of denominational hurdles. Today’s emerging Christian leaders are eager to make a difference – now."
Groeschel left the denomination to start a new church in 1996.
"Our burden to start a church became greater than our loyalty to a denomination," he stated. "We left the UMC on good terms with fond memories and many great relationships."
Providing one final and possibly "most controversial" suggestion, the LifeChurch.tv pastor said, "I think the United Methodist Church either needs to become united again or intentionally part ways."
Recognizing the divide in the denomination between the liberal Methodists and the evangelical ones, Groeschel indicated support for the latter group, saying evangelicals should be allowed a way to gracefully exit if they're not supported by their liberal brethren.
"While the UMC prides itself in being open, many of my evangelical peers don’t believe that their conference is very open to them," he noted. "While I don’t pretend to understand all of the nuances of the issues, I know that division doesn’t help anyone."
Debates in the denomination over homosexuality and scriptural authority began decades ago. In the most recent legislative meeting, the UMC chose to uphold its ban against the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the position that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching."
"While conferences are wrestling with questions around ordaining homosexuals and the inspiration of scripture, Methodist churches are dying daily. More importantly, people are dying daily without a relationship with Christ," Groeschel noted.
"Being an evangelical, I’m obviously biased. It is my humble opinion that pastors should boldly preach the life-changing Word of God and the new birth in Christ. Without the powerful proclamation of the Gospel, I don’t see any hope of survival. "
Groeschel stressed that the suggestions he made were offered "from someone who cares."
"I hope these posts don’t come across as arrogant but as humble suggestions," he wrote. "I acknowledge that my ideas may not be possible – or may not work, but hopefully, they will spur on helpful conversations."