To reverse the United Methodist Church’s decades-long membership decline in the United States, local UM churches must embrace innovation and commit themselves to constant improvement, according to Adam Hamilton, leader of one of the UMC’s largest and most successful churches.
Hamilton, founder and senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Leawood, Kansas, was the lead speaker at COR’s 12th annual Leadership Institute, attended last week by nearly 2,000 pastors and leaders.
Even if local churches are willing to embrace innovative change, a net membership increase in the UMC is still likely to be at least 10 years away, Hamilton predicted, because the next decade will see heavy membership losses due to the deaths of tens of thousands of older members.
“If we act now, in 10 years we might actually see that we begin to reverse the decline,” he said during the conference’s Friday afternoon session. “In 10 years, we’ll actually start to see that we have a future with hope.”
He did not address the serious doctrinal disagreements or sharply differing approaches to social concerns that have roiled the denomination over the past four decades and have helped fuel membership decline.
Adam Hamilton illustrated the need for innovation and improvement at the local church level by looking at how computers have changed during the 20 years since Church of the Resurrection was founded.
I bought a computer for us four weeks before our first worship service. It had just come out…. It was a Macintosh Classic…. And this was the hottest computer you could buy in 1990….
And I want you to imagine if Apple Computer had said…, “We have just built the best computer that anybody could ever build.”… [Or maybe they said,] “We’ll make if faster, but we’re going to keep it [looking] just like this.”…
Instead, they developed laptops… that had the capacity to do things that nobody had ever dreamed of when [the Mac Classic] was built….
And [now in 2010 they’ve] invented a whole new way of doing computers…[with the release of] the iPad….
[T]hey studied how people used computers, they studied to try to understand…the needs of people, and then they formed a product….
And so [as the church,] part of this [is] in our hands. We have to be able to ask: “What needs to change [so that we can better speak to people’s needs today and connect with them]?”…
[M]ost of our churches [haven’t] had leaders who understood that and we [have] just kept doing the same thing over and over and over again. And we’re realizing that can’t work. It simply can’t work for the future.
You either…innovate, you improve, or you’re going to die. That’s a [Church of the] Resurrection classic principle we use around here….
[W]e’re not changing the gospel, we’re not changing the Scriptures. But we are changing how we talk about faith. We’re changing how we help people experience the presence of God in their lives.
Hamilton also focused on ways new communication technologies are improving the ability of local churches to connect with people — and with other churches.
The world is changing. Are you willing to shape the future by embracing technology?…
I think our future [in the United Methodist Church is] rooted and grounded in our past. When the early Methodists went to start churches across the United States, here’s what they did: they sent circuit riders out, and those circuit riders were given two books — they were given a hymnal and a book of John Wesley’s sermons.
And they would preach in a place and they would form a church, and after three weeks they would say, “Now, you’re in charge while I’m gone…. Here’s a copy of John Wesley’s sermons. And while I’m gone, why don’t you just read one sermon a Sunday when the people gather together for worship?” So the circuit rider would go start five or six or seven more churches and would circle back around 12 weeks later….
How do you think John Wesley would do this today? Would he give them a book of his sermons? No, he would say, “Why don’t you log on…online and then you can join me and I’ll look in the camera and I’ll say ‘Hey’ to all of you….”
Circuits were the groupings of churches that worked together and they shared one pastor and then they had lay leaders and they would work together for the discipleship of the people….
Is it possible that there are super circuits in the future where there are multiple churches, not bound geographic areas — they may be in different parts of the country — and they join together voluntarily and become connected to one another in these circuits?
Some of them [would] have ordained pastors who are overseeing. Some of those ordained pastors [might be] excellent preachers and some of them, maybe not so much. So sometimes they [would] use the sermons from another congregation…. Maybe some of them [would] only use the sermons from the largest church.
They [would] all share the IT resources of that [largest] congregation, and all of the churches [would] work together and bring their strengths to the table to help them all be more effective and stronger congregations….
There are 19,600 churches in the United Methodist denomination in the U.S. that have less than 60 people a Sunday in worship. Currently, most people say those churches have no future. They’re going to have to close because they can’t afford pastors, they can’t afford benefits, they can’t afford apportionments — they simply are going to die.
But what would happen if each of those was seen…as a place that could be [connected by technology]? And…it costs nothing to do it in this place. The building is already paid for. And if we get 25 people and over the next three years we can grow it to 30, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in attendance in that place in three years, as opposed to closing it down….
What could you do with this? How could you help other churches in your community? Is there a way that you could create a voluntary circuit in which you are helping support and nurture one another in being healthy, vibrant congregations?
Renewing the church is going to require all of us looking at how we do share we share the resources we have so that other might have a chance to have future with hope.
Use the audio player below to listen to Adam Hamilton discussing the need for innovation and improvement in United Methodist churches (this 12-minute excerpt has been edited for length).
The purpose of the annual Church of the Resurrection (COR) Leadership Institute, launched in 1999, is to teach “practical, translatable principles” that have helped COR grow from four people in 1990 to about 17,000 today with multiple meeting locations.
DVDs of this year’s Leadership Institute will be available through The Well, the Church of the Resurrection bookstore.