January 17, 2013

Kentucky United Methodist Bishop Cites Obstacles to Evangelism

Bishop Davis

Kentucky United Methodist Bishop Lindsey Davis lamented that archaic structures of his denomination are inhibiting evangelism and spiritual revitalization. He addressed the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism outside Atlanta on January 2. Davis’s conference is one of only three conferences that gained new members in U.S. United Methodism in 2011. He was previously bishop of North Georgia, one of the other two that are also growing.

“I love our church,” Davis said. “But it greatly frustrates me at times because I so earnestly believe that our Wesleyan theology is exactly what our world needs to hear. Yet our structures and process seem so unable to chart a new course for our journey. Our future must be focused on evangelism. And there are parts of our church these days that won’t even talk about evangelism.”

United Methodism, while growing globally, has lost 3.5 million in the U.S. over 45 years. Davis pointed to the “inability of our church to adjust and change” to reach new people for Christ.

“A lot of what we’ve been doing is not working,” Davis regretted of United Methodism. “It’s not bearing the fruit God expects. Not reaching the lost. We don’t even call them lost any more. We don’t even see those people as lost.”

Davis said he would be willing to change “any of our structures…if I thought those changes would help us do a better job to make disciples for Jesus Christ,” with “everything…on the table.” He cited as topics needing consideration: the episcopacy, term limits for bishops, itinerancy, General Conference, local districts, and apportionments.

“All should be fair game,” Davis insisted. “We need deep change. Cosmetic change will not work. But we’re real good at cosmetic change.” He saw no need to change the church’s Wesleyan “theological stance,” which will “serve us into the future as well as it’s served us in the past.”

Davis cited “flickers of light” confirming United Methodists still have hope. United Methodism in the last quadrennium planted twice the number of new churches over the previous period, after several decades of no church planting. The church had lost “evangelistic zeal.” But church planting is the most “effective evangelistic tool in our toolbox” and is better for “reaching young people and never churched people and ethnic and new immigrant populations.” He cited the three growing annual conferences as all having “aggressively planting new faith communities.”

Kentucky United Methodism planted 15 new congregations in the last quadrennium and aims for 46 over the next 4 years, Davis recounted. Most of these new church plants are led by lay people and part time local pastors. The church cannot afford to start new church plants with full-time ordained elders. Most new church plants are outgrowths of existing churches and watched over by lay people with an “urgent passion for evangelism,” he said. He described one new church plant organized by a young man who created a congregation of about 40 among people meeting in a sports bar on Sunday afternoons.

Davis noted there’s “lots of conversation in our church about metrics.” But he warned: “We can’t metric our way out of our current reality.” Only about 20 percent of United Methodist congregations are healthy, he said. And we “can’t change the other 80 percent by requiring them to send in numbers. They will simply play the game.” Church revitalization entails “helping pastors to put together teams of their most spiritually mature laity.” Revitalization can only be from the bottom up and not top down.

Bishop Davis concluded by urging a “long look at our own personal witness.” Recalling John Wesley’s ineffective pre-Aldersgate conversion spirituality, he warned that evangelism will not succeed without the “witness of the Spirit.” Reevaluating personal witness “might be the path out of the wilderness for us and our church.”


  • Paul Hoskins

    Well, didn’t he hit the nail on the head: churches no longer use the term “lost” to refer to non-Christians. Instead of “repent and begin a new life in Christ,” we get “our church has a fabulous music program!”

    • Jennie Allen

      I asked a group of women recently what they would feel about our worship if we did not have the music. Many were practically speechless, I think because they had never realized what little was there outside of the music.

    • Pudentiana

      The UMC is so PC right now that this would be understood to be a new television series and some code phrase for getting out of rehab.

  • Bill Bouknight

    What a blessing to have a United Methodist Bishop lifting up biblical truth rather than some cultural fad!

  • John PISIONA

    Nailed by the Bishop. Needs to remove the might from the solution and add IS.

  • http://twitter.com/halehawk Holly Boardman (@halehawk)

    As a retired pastor attending a “vital” UMC mega-church, I haven’t heard a sermon on justification for a decade. The only time I have heard our greatly esteemed pastor mention the word “sin” in a sermon was when he admitted his reluctance to use the word. Instead our church is “thriving” due to the investment of a great deal of money into an excellent music program, and an emphasis on short-term mission trips which appease the guilt of our wealthy congregation. I miss Jesus, and I’d love to preach again; but I’m “out-of-touch” with my theology these days, and I’m not invited.

  • Sloan Smith

    As a Methodist, I find it ironic that he cites structures, processes and tradition as barriers while donning a robe and stoles. Perhaps, if trying to be “cool and edgy” while reaching the lost, he could ditch those?

  • Del

    UMC needs to take a vibrantly pro-life position against abortion, just as they took a vibrant pro-freedom position against slavery.

    If we want to grow, we have to take a strong position against the world’s death-wish.

  • http://www.ELVISNIXON.com ELVISNIXON

    Eve Tushnet manages to articulate in the nexus between the value of family and the value that a society places on marriage. At the end of the day women and children need to come first.

    “The same-sex marriage debate has focused on the question of what marriage is. But perhaps it’s better to begin from a different angle: Why does society give marriage special honor?
    Because it’s this honor that activists are really seeking. If homosexual couples could cobble together all the bureaucratic oddities and benefits (and penalties) that attend marriage but the law still refused to call their unions “marriages,” no one can pretend the activists would be satisfied. …

    And finally, unlike easy divorce, same-sex marriage would change the fundamental ideal of marriage. Even the most ardent defenders of divorce today view it as a necessary evil, a response to the tragedy of marriage failure. Same-sex marriage, by contrast, would say that the ideal marriage is gender neutral — not a way for boys to become men by marrying and pledging to care for women. It would say that the ideal marriage includes children only when they have been specially planned and chosen — children would become optional extras rather than the natural fruit and symbol of the spouses’ union. It would say that the ideal family need not include a father — a message that is especially pernicious in a country where one-third of births in 2000 were to unwed mothers.”

  • http://elvisnixondotcom.wordpress.com elvisnixondorcom

    Eve Tushnet manages to articulate in the nexus between the value of family and the value that a society places on marriage. At the end of the day women and children need to come first.

    “The same-sex marriage debate has focused on the question of what marriage is. But perhaps it’s better to begin from a different angle: Why does society give marriage special honor?
    Because it’s this honor that activists are really seeking. If homosexual couples could cobble together all the bureaucratic oddities and benefits (and penalties) that attend marriage but the law still refused to call their unions “marriages,” no one can pretend the activists would be satisfied. …

    And finally, unlike easy divorce, same-sex marriage would change the fundamental ideal of marriage. Even the most ardent defenders of divorce today view it as a necessary evil, a response to the tragedy of marriage failure. Same-sex marriage, by contrast, would say that the ideal marriage is gender neutral — not a way for boys to become men by marrying and pledging to care for women. It would say that the ideal marriage includes children only when they have been specially planned and chosen — children would become optional extras rather than the natural fruit and symbol of the spouses’ union. It would say that the ideal family need not include a father — a message that is especially pernicious in a country where one-third of births in 2000 were to unwed mothers.”

    http://elvisnixon.com/2010/04/10/women-and-children-first-why-gay-marriage-is-wrong.aspx

  • Brian Chisholm

    My in-laws have 50+ years at a large UMC church in Houston and I have visited many times over the years. Not a Methodist myself, it breaks my heart to see the name and love of Jesus Christ missing in their services. The words of Bishop Davis are true and good. A compelling diagnosis of rise and fall of the UMC and other denominations since 1776 is a book called “The Churching of America”. It 100% corroborates what this article says about church growth with non-seminary trained clergy.

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  • http://revjohnhill.wordpress.com revjohnhill

    Reblogged this on John Hill's Blog and commented:
    This is worth the read