The first page of a Google search for "why i stay methodist" turns up these hits:
Jenny Smith (picked up by UM Portal)
Kevin O'Neill (a Beliefnet thread)
These are each really good posts. There may be more on this theme. If you know of any off the top of your head, let me know in the comments.
The question on my mind has been, why are there so many blog posts on the subject of staying in the United Methodist Church? Of course, given that there are a whole heck of a lot of blogs in the world, I know that this represents a pretty small sampling. But the topic seems to have been on people's minds lately, to say the least.
The question has been around for a while, too. I remember my dad talking about the question years and years ago. (He's old.) Old school social justice people have answered the "why I stay" question among themselves with some variation of "because I want to change the system from within" for a couple of decades now.
To answer a question about why you stay in a group means that there is a reason one might leave. There may be anecdotal evidence, perhaps even statistical evidence that people ARE leaving. You may have good friends who have left, or know people who have made the decision to leave for one reason or another.
+ I know people who have left because of the way the denomination treats people who are homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered.
+I know people who have left because of the way the denominational ordination process had ground them up and left them behind.
+I know people who have left because a pastor has abused his or her power in a way that is demeaning, abusive, or disrespectful.
+I know people who have left because they believe the itenerancy to be outdated and unfair.
+I know people who have left because the church down the street has a cooler band (etc.).
And so it goes.
However, the anecdotes of people leaving and the statistics that show denominational decline are describing two different phenomena. The denomination is in numerical decline not primarily because people are leaving, but rather because people aren't coming in. It is, as Bishop Schnase says a lot, not a back door problem, but a front door problem.
Granted, there is a "given that..." inferred in a "why I stay" response. Given that the denomination is in decline .... or ... Given that the denomination does not marry people who are gay ... or ... Given that the ordination process is so long ... or ... Given that there aren't any young people in the church ... why do you stay? Or something.
But I do not think there is a correlation between the denomination-wide decline in membership and the individual stories of people leaving. The denomination is in decline because people in it are dying much more quickly that people are joining. (Not to put too fine a point on it.) Children of members are not joining the churches their parents belong to, but are looking for their own places to be. People with no church relationship are finding life meaning in other places. And they don't care if the place is Methodist or not.
And so here's what I'm thinking - the "Why I Stay" trend in the Methoblogosphere is another symptom of the panic that is setting in across the denomination. It is the same panic causing the whole "young clergy will save the day" attitude. It is the same panic causing us to define effective churches merely as those whose numbers are trending dramatically upward.
We seem to feel this urge to defend our decision to stay when in fact the question hasn't really come up. Except for other United Methodists, no one really cares why people stay. I'm not saying this to disrespect my fellow bloggers, because I myself have written and talked about it from my own perspective. So I include myself when I say that talking about "why I stay" is just a sophisticated form of navel gazing.
Instead, our response should be to claim the distinctive identity of the Methodist movement. I think this is what the "why I stay" posts are trying to do, but are coming at it from the flipside. I think we're all trying to describe the feeling of resonance that we sense when we read John Wesley or attend a connectional event or receive communion around an open table. But we somehow struggle to talk about it without seeming a bit defensive.
It's shouldn't be "why I stay," but rather "why I am." (Or maybe "why we are.")
I'd like for us to write articles and have conversations and design events that help us think about "Why I am a Methodist." (I know that Bishop Willimon has a book with that title, almost 20 years old, and I'd like to see us reclaim that kind of language.) I'd much rather think about church as a description of who we are rather than of what we do.
See, "staying in the church" doesn't make sense when church is more about identity than activity. The church is not a club we join, then decide to quit, or stay in, as if having our name on a list of members is all that "being the church" is comprised of. The church is who we are, and the denomination is a particular manifestation of that identity. Our congregation, then, is a local expression of that identity.
And as I've written before, if we as the church are faithful to being the church, if the church is the herald of the gospel it is called to be, if the church is the body of Christ, if the church is the realization of the reign of God in the world, then we'll have no need to write any more "why I stay" posts.
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