18. And Are We Yet on Life Support?

Another ìProvocative Questionî Dr. Lovett Weems put before the Council of Bishops (see previous post, or access Lovettís website), is ìCan medical science continue to keep U.S. United Methodism alive?î At first, I chuckled with everyone else at Lovettís humorous way of describing the aging of the United Methodist Church. Then I began to reflect on something: In the 1890ís, the average life span was lower than the median age of our current membership and clergy leadership! If not for medicine, nutrition, and a growing prosperity among American Methodists, we might now be history. Medical science has contributed to our ability to survive as a church! Wow!

Lovettís real point is about how our median age is about 58 while our cultureís median age is about 33. We started diverging from societyís age demographics in 1975, and each year we become even older than the communities we serve. He further describes how the wealth of those over 50 years of age dampens our perception of the devastating impact on our churches of missing younger generations. Churches continue on with their business, maintain their buildings, give to missions, pay their apportionments, and manage their salaries without noticing how skewed the age ranges are and how few young adults we have. This is scary stuff.

I deeply respect Lovettís analysis here, and I hope we can hear what he is suggesting. However, while the medical-patient-in-hospice-care metaphor grabs our attention, Iím not sure it helps us figure out a way forward. Metaphors shape, or limit, or encourage responses, and if we see ourselves only as an aging body, we may feel more hopeless than Lovett intends.

A retired bishop tells the story of a pastor who was asked how he viewed his church. He answered that the church he served was like road kill, an animal quivering with its last breath before it finally dies. Hmmm. I wonder what that metaphor implies about the calling of a pastor or the role of a passionate lay leader. Are we merely road maintenance crews sent to clean up the carcasses? Are we animal lovers left to grieve the wasted life? Are we veterinarians attempting heroic efforts at healing? Are we merciful passersby called to put the suffering out of their misery? Whatís our role, and can it make any difference if the church is as this pastor describes?

And frankly, (I donít want to push this too far!) but wasnít Jesus run over by the forces of his time, left to suffer and die? But the story of Jesus ends in resurrection, new life, new hope.

Maybe part of our role was leaders of the church is to shift the story, and change the metaphor according to what we see in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

One of the metaphors that sustains my vocation in the church is that of seedtime and harvest, planting and plucking up, sowers and soils, vines and branches, of plants and trees and fruitfulness. For me, the church is like a large field. There is old mature growth. There are some decaying logs, decomposing to feed future growth. There is some dead brush, some weeds for sure, some poor soil, some thorns and spines and poison ivy maybe. But there is also new growth, sprouts, some surprisingly healthy and strong plants, some stems and shoots and vines and trees that are producing beautiful fruit. My job, and yours? To figure out how to nurture the growth, till the soil, scatter the seeds, and to pluck up a few weeds, graft and plant and water as God of seedtime and harvest provides the growth.

We are aging as a denomination. Medical science canít save us. Ours is to sow, to learn the practices of fruitfulness that touch the lives of those around us with the truth of Christ. There are wonderful signs and examples of fruitful ministry and fruitful congregations that are reaching younger generations and new people. What can we learn from them?

Yours in Christ,