Stardate 2258.42. “We have had no word from Captain Pike. I've therefore classified him a hostage of the war criminal known as Nero—Nero, who has destroyed my home planet and most of its six billion inhabitants. While the essence of our culture has been saved in the elders who now reside upon this ship, I estimate no more than 10,000 have survived. I am now a member of an endangered species.”
What would it mean to be a member of an endangered species? Shall we ask an African Elephant or perhaps a Snow Leopard? Maybe we should ask a United Methodist? Stephen Rankin suggests as much in his blog post “The United Methodist Church is Imploding” (Rankin File: January 19, 2013). He specifically says, “As a number of our leaders have pointed out, within ten years at least half of our clergy leaders will retire or reach retirement age. Financially, we have all but exhausted our reserves. We have reached our limits. Institutionally, we are dying.”
I don’t think I have the heart to argue with him, because I too feel that if not dying, then a change so radical is coming that it will not resemble the original organization. This is really depressing for me, a United Methodist Clergy, hoping for a long career in the ministry—specifically the pulpit.
I have noticed for a while that it isn’t only United Methodists, but many other Christian Protestant denominations in the United States are also diminishing. In fact, most of the mainline denominations are losing members. In a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center (“Nones on the Rise: One in Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation, October 9, 2012), it is noted that those who list “no religious affiliation” are an increasing demographic in the US culture. I believe these “nones” are just being honest. It has long been noted by those who conduct research on churches that the numbers are decreasing. It would only make sense as to the decrease in membership and the rise of the population there would be an increase of those who claim no religious affiliation.
So, the question remains—what do you do when you are part of an endangered species? There doesn’t seem to be a preserve for the endangered species of United Methodist or even Protestant Christian. As I look to the future it seems kind of sad and grey. As I have recently begun my doctorate program, I realize that it isn’t only congregations, but Christian educational institutions as well that are facing downsizing and change. The future seems bleak.
After General Conference 2012, I determined that it really didn’t matter what all the talking heads (and this includes quite a few respected friends and colleagues) think about the future or what the answers might be. We really don’t know the future, and I think we certainly have no clue as to what to do about the situation as a whole—although there have been quite a few suggestions. Great effort and energy is being spent on this issue and I am sure some of the discussions will play into what the future holds. I do not believe, however, any of the answers are 100%, and there is great polarization occurring. Unless we can pull together, our extinction will only come about more quickly.
But I know exactly what to do for me and the congregation I serve—my job. I am, as found in the example of Jesus, to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and to announce that the time of the Lord’s favor will come again (Luke 4:18-19). I will continue faithfully in that regard, encouraging those in my congregation to grow in their discipleship, to confirm their faith, and strengthen them with love. I am doing this, and I am letting God take care of the future, that is my personal strategic plan. May God grant us wisdom in the other work we may have to do.