Methodists Tackle 'Consumer Church' Mentality, Call for Radical Transformation

About 43 percent of United Methodist churches in America did not receive a member by profession of faith in 2004 – a figure some leaders attribute to the rising “consumer church” mentality and the falling discipleship levels in the denomination.

"There is one number in our denomination which keeps going up," Bishop Michael Coyner, president of the denomination’s Board of Discipleship, said during a Mar. 14-18 board meeting in Nashville, according to the United Methodist News Service. "It is the percentage of churches that did not receive even one person as a new member by profession of faith, a number that is now up to 43 percent.”

"If there is any number in our denomination that is steadily growing, that is it, and it is causing all kinds of other numbers to decline, including our ability to stand before God and say we are doing a good job in making disciples,” Cayner said.

Falling figures include the rate of membership and church attendance, as well as contributions to the denomination.

The Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, top executive of the Board, explained that all these figures combined lead to yet another disturbing trend among most mainline denominations – the rapidly graying demographic of the church.

The average age of people in the UMC is between 57 and 62 – higher than the average U.S. population. Millions of youth are opting for house churches, marketplace ministries and cyber-churches, she said. “They continue to avoid going to our churches and to similar denominations.”

In light of such alarming figures, the board suggested a variety of ways for existing congregations to be transformed, including a call for local churches to “have a passion that we are about making disciples for Christ.”

Other suggestions included the development of new congregations, teaching the Wesleyan model of forming disciples, strengthening clergy and lay leadership, reaching and transforming the lives of new generations of children; eliminating poverty in community with the poor; and expanding racial-ethnic ministries, according to the UMNS.

However, the bishops warned that these transformations cannot occur without clergy and lay collaboration.

“The reality is that many churches continue practices that call for a passive laity who wait for the direction of the clergy,” said Greenwaldt.

These “passive churchgoers” and “lethargic consumers” are addicted to a “consumer church,” she explained.

The Rev. Tyrone Gordon, pastor of St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church in Dallas, agreed that the “consumer church” mentality is one of the greatest threats to proper church growth.

"We are producing a generation of religious consumers who are always looking at what the Lord can do for them, instead of committed disciples who ask what is it that we can do for the Lord," Gordon said.

Explaining the model of growth for his congregation, Gordon said the most empowering tool the church can use is living by the gospel of Christ.

"In order to make disciples ... we must capture the minds, hearts, trust and respect of people," he said. "The task of evangelism and discipleship is to make the liberating power of the gospel of Christ become real in word and deed."

In that light, Greenwaldt called on attendants to return to the basics of the Christian faith – prayer, Bible study, fasting, participating in worship and the sacraments, doing good and doing no harm - the essential work of spiritual formation.

"The church does not need more managers," she said. "Rather, the church needs leaders."

"Our task of making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is not a small task," she added. "It is a worldwide task, and it is needing urgent attention."