Bishop Lindsey Davis’ 12-year tenure in the North Georgia Conference comes to an end next week, and MethodistThinker.com is offering a retrospective — in the bishop’s own words. On Sept. 1, he will move from the North Georgia Conference to the Kentucky Conference.
Under Bishop Davis’ leadership, North Georgia has grown to become the largest U.S. conference in the United Methodist connection.
Today, excerpts from two interviews with Bishop Davis — one that took place late last year, and another that occurred just a few weeks ago.
The United Methodist Church in the United States has been declining in membership and attendance for a number of years, although the notable exception has been the North Georgia Annual Conference under your leadership. To ask a broad question, why do you think that is?
Whenever you have a growth trend in an Annual Conference there are many variables involved. The first is that we’ve had tremendous population growth in Atlanta, and so we certainly have had ample opportunity to reach new people for Christ.
The key for us started back in the 1980s when the [North Georgia] Conference, under the leadership of [Bishop] Ernest Fitzgerald, began a very — at least for United Methodists — aggressive church-planting program, and over the years we’ve planted a lot of new congregations in the area.
We’ve planted over a hundred since I’ve been there, and those new churches have accounted for much of the growth.
One of the things that we know about new churches is that they tend to reach more people, more unchurched people, more younger people, and more diverse populations. And all of those are areas where the United Methodist Church has not excelled very much in recent decades. So that’s been part of the key to our success.
I would also say, though, that in spite of having grown every year for over 30 years now, we still have lost what in business you would call “market share.” Over the past 40 years, the percentage of persons in Georgia who are United Methodists has declined, although it’s a little over 5 percent of the population now, which is better than it would be for almost any other state in the Union….
There’s also within North Georgia a theological framework among many of our pastors that says having an intimate relationship with Christ does transform individuals and it does transform communities. There’s a sense of urgency about sharing Christ with the unchurched. And that kind of theological perspective may be a little stronger within North Georgia than in other places….
How do you think the sorts of things you just discussed that have worked for North Georgia, at least relatively speaking — in terms of growing the church, making more disciples of Jesus Christ, bringing people into a saving relationship with Him — how do you think that could, in practical terms, be implemented more widely across our denomination in the United States?
I work with the initiative of the Council of Bishops called Path 1, which is a church development national strategy. What we’re trying to do is to take the best knowledge, information, and best practices for developing new congregations — wherever that happens in the United States — and begin to raise up a new generation of church planters….
[In our denomination, w]e’ve been planting, generally, between 80 and 100 new churches in the United States every year — throughout all the Annual Conferences in the United States. And we need to be planting in the neighborhood of 350 congregations a year in order to reach the populations that we now have [and] in order to, in some cases, replace the churches that are dying — but especially to reach new, more diverse populations.
The United Methodist Church has not done a good job in the last 50 years in particular of reaching the poor, reaching new immigrants, reaching the working poor. In some ways, we kind of abandoned those populations, yet those are the very people we need to be reaching. And I think the only way we’re going to do that — or it may not be the only way, but the most effective way to do that — is to plant new congregations.
So I’m hoping that we can take the good things that have happened — not only in North Georgia, but also in North Carolina, in Arkansas, and in lots of other places throughout the country — and begin to do kind of a culture and climate change in the United Methodist Church that reemphasizes the planting of new congregations, that reemphasizes evangelism.
Some people have a hard time with the word evangelism. I don’t. I think it’s a perfectly fine word.
But I’m hoping that we can begin to realize that we can’t just sit and be satisfied with tending to the people who are in our little church and doing maintenance ministry — that we’re really called to reach the world. And we’ve become very timid about reaching the world, I think.
How do you hope that our church might finally move beyond the perennial challenges to our church’s historic and democratically confirmed teaching on homosexuality, and the drain of time and energy associated with those challenges?
That’s interesting. I support our church’s position on homosexuality, I happen to think it’s biblical and also that it’s compassionate. I realize a lot of people disagree with me on that, but I happen to think that where we are is where we ought to be.
I do get a little weary of the conversation sometimes, in part because I don’t ever hear anything new. It seems like the different perspectives are never changed and there’s not much new information being shared. It’s like, “Well, we’re going to get together again, it’s been four years, so let’s get together again, and say the same old things to one another.”
I do think that our position, frankly, in the United Methodist Church is consistent with Christendom throughout the world. If you somehow could quantify it, I would think that 95 percent of Christians throughout the world would agree with our position.
One of the reasons that I would be opposed to any change is that I think it would fracture our relationships with most Christian faith communities around the world.
Shortly after the July announcement that Bishop Davis was being assigned to the Kentucky Conference (as well as the Red Bird Missionary Conference), he was interviewed by Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal:
The mainline denominations have had problems with a declining and aging membership and with controversies. What are your thoughts about the future of the [United] Methodist Church here and beyond?
I frankly think the future’s bright. After 12 years of being a bishop I’m more encouraged now than when I started about our ability to turn around that trend. But the key to it is lodged in new church planting and new church development.
One of the issues we’ve struggled with as a denomination — and so have other mainline churches — is that we’re not reaching younger people, we’re not reaching diverse populations. New churches always tend to do that.
And also, when you plant a new church in an area, it’s amazing — in two or three years you start to see other churches around begin to innovate. You put a new church in, they’re very creative, they go after a lot of the people who are not in church — and then the churches around them say “Hmm, maybe we ought to do that too.” That’s very positive….
Is it harder for existing churches to reach these hard-to-reach people because they’ve been doing things a certain way for a long period time and they get a little ingrown?
That’s part of it. Many times the tendency is to become very comfortable with the crowd you already have. You forget that really the church is not about us, it’s about reaching the lost and reaching those who are unchurched and do not have a relationship with the Lord.
It’s so often easy to become very satisfied with the crowd we know and the people we’re familiar with and the people who look like us and use the same language we do. It takes some effort to break out of that complacency.
Would you describe yourself in a particular way theologically — conservative, liberal, evangelical, charismatic, progressive?
Those are all loaded labels. I tend to be theologically conservative, but I think very progressive on some other issues.
I’m very orthodox theologically — [that] would be maybe the best way to say it. I’m not uncomfortable with those terms….
How do you balance having your own views with your role as being bishop for all the Methodists in your area, regardless of whether they agree with you?
You have to be very open and transparent about who you are. We have wide diversity of thought within the United Methodist Church. I’ve never had any trouble being pastor to all my people.
Sameness and always agreeing on every issue is not ever going to happen. We learn to love and care for one another in spite of the fact that we might have strong differences on issues.
I’ve never served a congregation where everybody agreed with me. I think we learned to love, care and respect one another, and then we have to be honest about our differences in perspective — and be good at listening to people who might have a viewpoint different from our own.
I understand that you have appointed people from a range of perspectives to positions in the North Georgia conference.
I look at performance, I look at outcome, I look at fruitfulness. If people are fruitful, they don’t have to line up with my theological perspective in order to be given more responsibility.
I’ve been a very strong advocate for women in ministry and, for lack of a better phrase, cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments.
The thing I look at primarily is: Have they produced fruit in their ministry?