The United Methodist Church faces a looming adaptive challenge that can only be addressed by major learning, innovation, and prayerful discernment. United Methodists in the United States have a future only to the extent that we can reach “more people, younger people, and more diverse people.” This phrase, now commonplace among United Methodists, emerged out of clues from multiple conversations with annual conferences about their future.
The church’s new frontier
The United Methodist Church did very well “growing up” with the United States through the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth century. Then, as the 20th century unfolded, the nation changed, and the church did not. Earlier generations followed people from East to West, from urban to frontier, and from lower to middle and upper-middle classes. But success led to staying with practices even as they became increasingly less effective. Today the United Methodist Church in the U.S. is not only dramatically smaller, but it is older and less diverse than the population.
In thinking of those three categories — more, younger, diverse — some may identify more with one or perhaps two of them. My observation is that we will either successfully achieve all three goals or will achieve none. They are inextricably linked. If we reach more people, they are likely to be younger since United Methodists are overrepresented in every age category above 50 and underrepresented in every age category under age 50, the age of the vast majority of the population. Likewise, if we reach more people, they likely will be more diverse. Our denomination is vastly overrepresented among white people compared to their presence in the population and underrepresented in every other racial group at a time when diversity is growing. If we reach younger people, they are likely to be more diverse since the younger population is vastly more diverse than the nation’s older population.
Statistics make clear whom we are not reaching for Christ. They tell us that as we respond to the call to take the Good News to all people, we must give special attention to younger people and more diverse people. United Methodists have expressed a commitment to reaching these underrepresented constituencies. We must learn now to link such commitments to accountability for our action and fruitfulness.
No persons are more valuable in the eyes of God because of race, age, or other categories. However, the church is called to minister to the people God has given us. Therefore, the changing makeup of the people God has given us in our communities needs to capture our careful attention. While we celebrate and cherish each person already in our congregations, staying attuned to “who’s missing” is a way of looking at our mission fields as God sees them.
In September a symposium was held at Wesley Theological Seminary on the theme, “Take the Next Step: Reaching More People, Younger People, and More Diverse People.” Three thoughtful leaders among United Methodists — Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, Jr.; Bishop Janice Riggle Huie; and Dr. Joseph W. Daniels, Jr. — each took one of these components of United Methodism’s challenge and addressed it considering current circumstances. Videos of their presentations are included in this issue of Focus.