There are lots of valid concerns about how the various plans submitted to the United Methodist Church’s special February 23-26 General Conference may affect those of us already in the denomination.
But which plans would put us in better or worse positions to reach new people for Christ and see our churches grow in areas where we have long been declining?
It is widely acknowledged that no matter what happens in St. Louis, some will be unhappy with this and leave the UMC.
But after the initial dust settles, which plan would then put our churches in a stronger position for growing again, bringing in new people?
This question is related to other questions on which we can evaluate the plans.
As you can read about here, either passing the One Church Plan or passing nothing would in many ways continue, worsen, and expand our current conflicts, while the Modified Traditional Plan would minimize voting in local churches and offer a realistic path for plenary sessions of future General Conferences, potentially as early as 2024, to no longer feature the same unpleasant, emotionally charged, dramatic debates over reconsidering our stance on human sexuality.
The more of our limited time and resources are devoted to internal conflict with other United Methodists, the less we will have for other things, like outreach and evangelism. And the more we can have peace within our church, we will be a more attractive witness to a watching world (see John 13:34-35).
As and you can read about here, despite its name, the One Church Plan (OCP) would follow the very same pattern seen in other denominations to guarantee that the UMC would lose a large chunk of congregations and individuals, while the Modified Traditional Plan (MTP) can be expected to keep a greater number of us together. Survey data and other factors indicate that the OCP would likely cause us United Methodists to lose a greater percentage of our American members than other denominations who split after liberalizing their standards on marriage. And it is worth remembering that these liberalizing policies that split other denominations did not go nearly as far as the OCP in removing room for traditionalist dissent.
With fewer congregations, and many of our remaining congregations suffering large losses, this would mean less money available for mission in the USA and other countries, less money for planting new churches, and less money for supporting smaller-membership churches.
Again, the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) is not my preferred outcome. But an argument can be made that the way it creates genuinely protected spaces for different approaches on marriage (unlike the One Church Plan) could helpfully set different groupings of United Methodists free to pursue their different theologies of ministry, without being held back by the same internal conflicts within their new sub-group, allowing each to grow. There would just remain the same questions of how sustainable this could be while all remaining under the same denominational umbrella.
What about other factors influencing our future ability to grow as a denomination?
The One Church Plan (OCP) is more explicit than the Simple Plan in how it would change our church’s official understanding of marriage to be more open to same-sex couples, allow United Methodist same-sex weddings, and affirm the good standing of United Methodist clergy in homosexual relationships.
I have seen no one seriously dispute the fact that doing this would greatly hurt our currently global denomination’s reputation in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Philippines, so that we would lose a lot of people and also cripple our ability to later grow again in these regions.
But what about the United States and Western Europe?
It is true that in these countries, the general population tends to hold more liberal views on sexual morality. So if our church would just follow the secular culture’s lead, and perhaps even go as far as the Simple Plan does in deleting disapproval of sex outside of marriage, then some claim that this would draw in new members in Western countries, especially young adults.
But such arguments seem to view churches as essentially businesses, and treat bringing in new people as a purely secular matter of marketing to reach a greater share of “customers,” while leaving little to no room for the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in leading people in, or for blessing faithfulness.
Furthermore, the actual evidence points to very opposite conclusions about “what works” for attracting more Americans and other Westerners to church today.
Since 2003, we have seen several other large, U.S.-based denominations liberalize their standards on marriage and sexuality along similar lines to the OCP. EVERY SINGLE ONE not only lost an initial chunk of people initially, but then continued losing people, year after year. I have not heard of a single denomination in the USA liberalizing its standards on marriage like the OCP would do and then ever experiencing a “V-shaped curve” in which, after first losing some members, they eventually turned around and stopped their ongoing decline.
On the other hand, we see other denominations in the USA, such as the Assemblies of God, which have been gaining members, which not only have clear traditional standards on the definition of marriage, but also do not have our denomination’s well-publicized conflicts of widespread clergy disobedience to these standards. Even though this is a counter-cultural stand to take in America today, that is where we are seeing the most growth in American churches.
We have also seen the list of fastest-growing large American United Methodist congregations consistently dominated by those who take a more traditional theological perspective, with some exceptions, as reported here.
As for other Western countries, a report last year by European Christian Mission highlighted impressive statistics for the growth of more evangelical expressions of Protestantism in recent years in France and Spain.
As a member of the “Millennial” generation myself, I am deeply concerned that we have not done better in reaching members of my generation. Having lived for the last two decades in three major urban areas where the culture is very politically and socially liberal, I have seen a consistent pattern, with some exceptions: the thriving, growing Protestant congregations, whose worship services are packed with people in their 20s and 30s, are those whose official stances on the core questions on marriage and sexual morality are unambiguously traditional, while churches with more “affirming” approaches have lots of empty seats and attract fewer young people.
Of my peers, I have observed that even if their personal views on marriage are more liberal, they are more likely to either go to a church with a traditional stand or not go to church at all than to seek out a congregation flying a rainbow LGBTQ pride flag.
Over a decade after the Episcopal Church made its fateful 2003 decision to decisively turn towards a liberal approach to homosexuality, the leader of youth and young adult ministries for one of that denomination’s dioceses was surprised to see the Episcopal Church struggling to maintain the loyalties of gay Millennials.
Within our own denomination, you don’t have to dig deep to find plenty of United Methodist pastors who take a clearly traditional stance on the questions before us delegates, and who are also happy to welcome members of the LGBTQ community who attend their congregations, even when that means driving past one more “affirming” churches to do so.
Also, people’s views are not set in stone. For a great many of us, we initially were influenced by our culture and had rather liberal views related to homosexuality, but then through continued Christian discipleship and studying what Scripture teaches about God’s good design for marriage and sexuality, we came to embrace traditional biblical teaching. That is what happened to me.
If we are evaluating the alternative “way forward” plans solely based on which would put us in a better position for growth in the future, there is far more potential with the Modified Traditional Plan than the so-called One Church Plan.