The United Methodist Church has an image problem.
Mainline denominations have known of this for at least a decade. It’s why money has been poured into campaign efforts like, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” As more and more people no longer see the necessity to be connected to a faith community, headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post have not helped Methodists make their sales pitch.
In 2015 the Pew Research Center cited the nones - those not affiliated with any religious tradition had grown to 23%. It is estimated that by 2050 that percentage will overtake the number of people engaged in the mainline Christian traditions in the United States.
I think retired UMC and former Dean of the Chapel at Duke Divinity, Will Willimon has said it best:
In the four decades I’ve been an ordained leader in the UMC, we have lost 30 percent of our membership. Our response? Spend millions of dollars and hours of work to decide who else we can exclude. From what I know of Jesus, I predict he will not deal graciously with the infidelity of this church born in John Wesley’s exuberant, extroverted, “Salvation for all!”
The writing is on the wall. Our Closed Hearts, Closed Minds, and Closed Doors will not help us overcome what coming (statistically).
So what are churches to do? Much of what has been told to church leaders by the denomination does not speak to the growing population of millennials and nones in our communities. Headlines like, “United Methodist Church Votes To Keep Bans On Same-Sex Weddings, LGBTQ Clergy,” in national news publications need actionable steps to overcome.
When asked what we should be doing (or really should have been doing all along) a friend told me, “be in LGBTQ spaces.” If there was ever a time to step beyond the walls of the church to share Christ’s all-inclusive love the time is now.
This friend told me hanging a rainbow flag on the church sign is not going to work.
This friend told me an inclusivity statement cannot repair the damage done by headlines like, “United Methodists Tighten Ban on Same-Sex Marriage and Gay Clergy.”
Inclusivity in the church will need to take a page from the church’s original play book. In the Book of Acts we see how the first followers of Christ organized themselves. Yes, they met and prayed in the synagogue but the early church was also full of entrepreneurial evangelists who intentionally stepped out of the religious center of their lives and began the difficult work of meeting people where they were.
They were healers, caring for the community and healing those presented to them facing affliction and pain. Healing within the community may look vastly different from the work the first apostles and churches performed, but healing is a necessary work of the Methodists must engage in aftermath of the 2019 General Conference. Often, the communities where churches are planted have experienced the pain of distrust and abuse. And now, pain and abuse has been done by the hands of those who proclaim love while spewing hate.
Churches will find themselves face to face with individuals who have previously been hurt by the church, the people who are supposedly on the same team as the local pastor. In these instances, the healing work of repentance and reconciliation, on behalf of the Church may be the healing work the church planter and plant are being called to.
Lent has come at the perfect time for Methodists. Healing the relationship between our LGBTQIA siblings requires the church to look inward and repent. The image problem we have has been self-inflicted and repairing this image will require self-reflection.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.