A message of hope ends on a note of fear

Delegates to the 2012 General Conference may have felt a bit of emotional whiplash during Wednesday night’s plenary session.

First, they heard four bishops give an upbeat progress report on what United Methodists have accomplished in the Four Areas of Ministry Focus the 2008 General Conference adopted. But, for the bulk of the evening, delegates heard a message of crisis presented by leaders urging the adoption of the much debated Call to Action recommendations to reorder the life of the church.

On the Four Areas of Focus front, the news is impressive.

Over the past four years:

  • More than 6,700 United Methodists have become candidates for ordained ministry.
  • 610 new United Methodist churches have been planted in the United States, with the denomination on track to plant 40 more by the fall.
  • More than 400,000 people have participated in United Methodist mission trips.
  • United Methodists have distributed nearly 1 million insecticide-treated bed nets and have helped cut the death toll of malaria by half.

Next, delegates heard Moses Kumar — top executive of the denomination’s finance agency, the General Council on Finance and Administration — review the challenges The United Methodist Church has overcome since the 2008 global economic crisis.

It has been a scary time. More than 99 percent of the money that supports general church operations comes from the United States, which was experiencing its biggest downturn since the Great Depression. But Kumar reported that even at the lowest point of U.S. economic troubles, the percentage given to general church apportionments only dipped down to 84 percent. He also reminded the delegates that the denomination is growing with more than 13 million baptized and professing members worldwide.

“Fear challenged faith,” he said, “and faith won!”

Finally, it was the turn for presenters of the Call to Action. Their overall message was one of impending doom.

In the past five years, the denomination’s U.S. worship attendance has declined by 8.7 percent. That’s the equivalent of closing all the churches in the Northwest Texas, New England, Pacific-Northwest, Dakotas, Kansas West and Florida annual (regional) conferences and the Red Bird Missionary Conference, said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, a member of the Call to Action Interim Operations Team and senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.

“At the current rate of decline from the last five years, we have less than 50 years of The United Methodist Church in the United States,” he said.

His message: The Call to Action would be the denomination’s best and perhaps only hope for survival on this side of the Atlantic. He stressed that much of the work of developing vital congregations does not require legislation. But he and other Call to Action leaders stressed the importance of its legislation before General Conference includingthe proposedconsolidation of agencies, the set-aside bishop, and the redirection of general church funds.

Charlotte (N.C.) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster made that point as well at the start of the Call to Action presentation.

“It is of course not perfect, and I am sure that there will improvement on it, in the committee work that lies ahead. However,” he said with a pregnant pause, “the backbone of the proposal including a consolidated boardfor our general agencies and an executive general secretary who will lead the work on our behalf is extremely important to the future of the church.”

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