UMC: Identity Crisis and the Failure of Mission (especially to our children)

If it’s been said once, it’s been said a thousand times… the UMC, and the Mainline, has a 20-30 something problem.  Sunday morning is an increasingly grayer affair.  The young people we had are entering their 50s and their children aren’t replacing them.

Evangelicals don’t have it as bad, they’ve had better retention.  But this shouldn’t gloss over the fact that more Millennials are “nones” than are Evangelical.  Nonetheless, Evangelicals seem to have a certain sway over their children that Mainline churches don’t – Baby Boomers and Gen X included.
This RNS article on the similarities between Orthodox Jews/Evangelicals offers a clue.  Both are restrictive in theology and social norms, defining clear in and out groups.  And both seem to have better member retention.

I’m won’t praise harsh in/out group distinctions; they have negative effects, but they do enable teens and young adults to navigate the world nonetheless.  Definite in/out group markers aids in identity and community formation.  This is why those age groups are cliquish more so than older adults; it’s developmentally appropriate.   This is also why the restrictiveness of Evangelicalism and Orthodox Judaism enables strong, if tribalistic, identities and higher rates of ingroup member retention and devotion.

I speak from experience when I say the UMC has poor identity markers.
In comparison, Evangelicalism offers better ones.  It’s why I turned evangelical in college.
Their identity markers are often restrictive and harsh, but they meet the developmental and missional needs of teens and young adults.  I don’t think I can point to a distinctive UMC ingroup. Our theology and social structure is more fluid and porous, ie. membership (whatever that means to laity or clergy) and a spectrum of theological views.  Therefore, group delineation cannot be policed by either norms or beliefs.  

This hasn’t always been true, at least that I’m aware of.  It’s a common critique that the UMC hasn’t changed (culturally or structurally) since the hey-days of 50 years ago.  And from what I’ve seen that’s been carried over in the Southeast, the defining marks of a Methodist then were: where one was on Sunday morning, how that morning operated, being involved in good works (community services, social justice, foreign missions, etc.) and administrating an organization to direct that involvement.

Only problem? The significant cultural shifts since the 60s.

Evangelicalism handled the cultural shift well, because they never had to change.  Their identity markers, a particular understanding of holiness and salvation allowed them to simply move from who they are, so they established ways to reach their children and strengthen their boundaries: like campus ministry, apologetics and contemporary worship – all of which took their shape in the 60s and 70s.

But for the UMC? Our defining marks are no longer that defining.  One can go somewhere else Sunday morning to find a more preferable service and you no longer have to go to church, or even be a part of one, to get involved with services, missions and social justice.

The culture shift required us to change and we’re only recently really trying to get around to it.
We rode the wave of our hey-day success, not really look to the future until the future became the present. So now the UMC is in an identity crisis.  Erikson defines identity as the awareness of one’s idea(s) of themselves that help them remain who they are through life, which also allows their meaning to others remain the same.

We don’t know who we are and we are trying to figure it out.  You see it in our denominational structures, our leadership, our corner of the blogosphere and our seminaries.  What makes us Methodists: our theology, polity, inclusiveness, holiness, etc.?
Since we don’t know what to think of ourselves, we can’t be meaningful for others.  We can’t move from ourselves to have a definite mission, especially to our youth and young adults, which is why we’re mostly an older denomination.  We haven’t been able to help our children know how to navigate the world in a meaningful Methodist way.  We’ve made it easy for them to turn evangelical, like myself, or “none”, because those tribes can help them navigate better.

The solution? We need to draw our boundaries better.  We need to define who/what we are against who/what we are not. I’m not suggesting a tribalistic or harshly restrictive move and, in fact, I don’t think we need to change much of anything.  But we do need to better know ourselves in order to define ourselves.  

I returned to the UMC because who and what it is is opposed to Evangelicalism.  The UMC is not who it saw itself to be in the hey-days.  And frankly, I think much of that was a corruption of our original identity.  The UMC supports good works and social justice.  It wants to reach the entire world for God’s love and call it to that holiness.  So it is, must be, porous and fluid, the context demands it.  That’s not bad, it’s just not restrictive and tribalistic.  It’s different from the world.  

We need to define that identity, so that we can stand on it and invite people into it.  Otherwise, we’ll see them fleeing into the separate tribes, secular and religious, in our cultures.

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2 thoughts on “UMC: Identity Crisis and the Failure of Mission (especially to our children)

    • Good question. I would expand on what I said drew me back to the UMC, the fluid porousness that stems from the UMC’s devotion to spreading the gospel in preaching and missions. Probably another post for another day.

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