Looking Beyond a Denomination in Crisis

A United Methodist leader refuses to lead a dying church. But the current reality, he indicated, is a denomination in crisis.

U.S. membership in the United Methodist Church is at its lowest level since 1930 with just over 8 million. Moreover, 41 percent of United Methodist churches across the nation did not receive a member by profession of faith in 2005.

Although the Rev. Paul Nixon, author of recently released I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, sees much hope in the United Methodist community, at the same time, he recognizes that the denomination is in "the midst of a cultural avalanche."

"Avalanches can roll on for a while and wipe out whole villages in their path. But if we are quick, nimble, and attentive in our skiing, we may escape burial in snow," wrote Nixon in the May/June issue of New World Outlook, a mission magazine of the United Methodist Church..

And when the "slide of snow ceases, we may view a panorama never before seen by human eyes, a place of fresh start," says Nixon, also director of Congregational Development in the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

But in that new terrain, doing church business as usual would be "insane," as Nixon stated.

Scholars and church observers have continually stressed the need for churches, particularly in the mainline denominations, to implement changes and to do so continuously.

"Churches that choose to live in yesteryear will be marginalized from further significant engagement with society, continuing simply as handfuls of old-fashioned and cultural-fringe folks marking time until the doors close," says Nixon.

For the United Methodist Church, the future doesn't look too bright for many of its congregations.

Nixon believes many of the United Methodist churches are "beyond the winds of opportunity for institutional renewal."

"We will close thousands upon thousands of churches in the next 30 years," he says.

Giving clues to what thriving congregational ministry may look like in United Methodism in the years ahead, Nixon calls United Methodist church planters to "believe in the Great Commission more than institutional survival [and] to love God and lost people more than it loves preserving its cozy fellowship and church traditions."

Nixon also suggests churches, especially in urban areas, share space and ministry. While some United Methodist churches may not currently be equipped to reach a specific population group in the local community, sharing space with another church that may be well suited for reaching a younger population or particular ethnic group can be effective.

Nixon predicts that multi-site churches, which have grown to some 1,500 over the past decade, according to Leadership Network, will soon grow to encompass a sizeable piece of the total United Methodist community.

He also sees a sizable bunch who are tired of theological arguing and calls churches to be on the lookout for "a renewed catholic spirit" and "a coming together of people with both evangelical and social passions, sighing with a collective yawn at much of what their parents have fought and fussed about at General Conference for the last 30 years" in the years immediately ahead.

Recognizing there is only a minority of people who express denominational loyalty, Nixon says, "Wise churches and leaders will embrace people who give only a portion of their total commitment. In time, and with good experience, most of these will be willing to invest more of their time with one primary church community."

Additionally, ecumenism and partnering with churches outside the boundaries of the United Methodist connection will be prominent.

Although numbers in the United Methodist Church are grim, Nixon believes, "There is an end to every avalanche."

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