Thursday, March 15, 2012

A United Methodist "Buffet Effect"?

So what would it be like if “the Buffet effect” swept through the church?

Wouldn’t the clergy equivalent of Betty White be a hoot in the pulpit every week?

Who is the Paul McCartney of pastors, still innovating as he approaches age 70?

The United Methodist Church, like so much of culture, has become youth-obsessed. In our panic to save the denomination, we have objectified young people as a “target demographic” that, if sufficiently engaged, will swoop into our churches and save us from oblivion.

I understand all the stats - our congregations are decades older than the communities around them; we’re just a couple generations away from extinction; the structures, styles, and systems we utilize are archaic - I understand the reasons for the panic. I respect the work that Lovett Weems and others have done about the age trends in our denomination.

But we have overcompensated, I think. We have negated much of what is good about being Methodist, while doing very little that actually means anything to younger people. In fact, the church’s sudden discovery of young people and subsequent obsession with them is kind of freaking people out.

Kenda Creasy Dean says it better than anyone: “To treat adolescents as a separate species instead of as less experienced members of our own was one of the twentieth century’s largest category errors. Teenagers, obviously, are people too, and youth ministry is as much about being the church as it is about working with adolescents.” (Almost Christian : What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church - p. 24)

And a sorry side effect of treating young people as separate from “us” is the perception that older people just don’t matter any more. Ministry is “about being the church” for youth, young adults, middling adults, and the really old ones, as well. And if there’s a place to point in order to explain the decline of the church it is at our ineptitude at “being the church” - period.

As Diana Butler Bass puts it, “Between business-as-usual church, internal stresses, external scandals, and rank hypocrisy, finally compounded by economic crisis, American Christianity is in a mess.” (Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening - p. 83)

The point is, of course the situation is driving young people away. That’s because it is driving everyone away.

You want to get young people to come back to church? Be a better church.

Which brings me back to my initial thought - Where are our pastoral Warren Buffets, Betty Whites, and Paul McCartneys? What are they doing? Are we relegating them to museum display identities that we smile at and applaud, but don’t really listen to?

Or are we engaging the wisdom, passion, and experience of such as these to provide vision, purpose, and integrity so that we can be as good a church as we possibly can?

Obviously, there is a lot of room for mulling over these questions. I am still in mid-mull myself. But I read two articles almost back to back this morning that started this mull, and I encourage you to give them a read also.

This one was a business piece in Newsweek. (Where the term "Buffet Effect" came from.)

This one was a column on the UMPortal.

I’m eager to read your mulling ... let's mull together!


Kevin Hewston said...

I thought your title, Enter the RAINBOW, meant the Methodist Church would FINALLY allow for LGBT Christians like myself FULL participation in the church. I guess I was wrong.

Audrey Phelps said...

It's so important to remember that welcoming someone into your church is more than coffee and donuts and a smile. Have a true conversation with someone, get to know them, invite them into your life and make a genuine connection. . .with anyone and everyone.

Andy B. said...

Kevin - I've written a lot about that topic, actually. If you'll search my blog you'll find the posts.
The origin of the title is a story - which you can read at

Thanks for reading!

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John Bryant said...

I wonder if the UMC is locked out of the Buffet Effect because of mandatory retirement.

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