by Mark Tooley
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.”