And Are We Yet Alive?

Jumbotrons somehow manage to make Annual Conference look even more conventional.

Thursday night reminded me why I used to love going to Annual Conference.

I was there for the annual memorial service, when the conference lifts up the names of clergy and clergy family members who've passed away since the last conference session. I was there to honor my father. This was yet another in the long line of observations of Dad's passing that will culminate next month with the scattering of his ashes. I was prepared for the reading of his name, for the singing of traditional hymns, for the extended sermon by a retiring clergy person. What I wasn't ready for was how much it felt like coming home.

In so many ways, it was if I'd never left: all those faces I recognized, so many of them coming up to me before and after the service to warmly greet me, share their condolences, wish me and my family well. Participating in the service was like putting on an old shoe: everything about it felt familiar, easy to wear, no breaking-in necessary. The liturgy was the same mixture of litanies and unison prayers I used to lead from the pulpit, led earnestly by the pastor given this task, shared earnestly by the congregation. Being there, I could almost imagine it was sixteen years ago, and I was sitting at one of these tables as a clergy delegate, suffering through the endless reports, stirred up by the debates, luxuriating in hymns being sung with far more vigor than any of my congregations ever managed, delighting in being surrounded by so many people I'd known for so long. And those people were all there--those that were still alive--and there were very few I didn't recognize.

And that is precisely what is wrong with United Methodism in 2015.

It's the same people, the same dedicated, hard-working, sincere, caring, wonderful people. They've spent their whole lives making a difference, and now they're getting old, and there's hardly anyone taking their place.

One of the most striking things about the service was how few people were actually there. The memorial service was, in my time, one of the best-attended services at conference. It was traditionally held at the First United Methodist Church of whatever city was hosting conference, and the huge sanctuary of that church was filled to capacity. That's not the case anymore: this service was held in the same ballroom that houses plenary sessions, and the room only appeared to be about half full. 

The service itself felt low-energy to me. It may be that I've been spoiled by my years as a Metanoia Peace Community member--worship at Metanoia was always deeply felt, participated in passionately by all present--and the five years I spent providing music and frequent sermons for an African-American church. My experiences as a church musician in two other white Protestant churches was also marked by low-energy worship services. But I think there's more to it than that: conference worship when I was a delegate was genuinely energetic in a way that this service was not. This felt tired, defeated, as if, for all their sincerity, everyone present, whether in leadership or in the congregation, was going through the motions of worship.

That's consistent with the sermon, a well-considered meditation on how Methodists should be viewing their declining numbers. Working from the story of the feeding of the five thousand, Rev. Lisa Jean Hoefner, retiring this year, spoke at length about doing more with less. No, we don't have the resources or numbers we once had, but our faith is all about turning a little into a lot. It was an inspirational message, but the main thing I got out of it was the acknowledgement of how much we've shrunk.

There was talk both before and after the service about a potential merger of the Oregon-Idaho, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska Missionary Annual Conferences into one enormous conference that would both cover the greatest area and have the least members of any conference in the entire global United Methodist Church. Combining resources, sharing clergy, streamlining the work of the single bishop who already oversees all these conferences--it makes ample sense.

It's also very sad.

Methodism has never been big in the Pacific Northwest. Nor, really, has any variety of Christianity. Organized religion never took hold here as it did in other parts of the United States. Since the 1960s, what churches there were have been shrinking as each successive generation finds its spiritual needs met better by alternative theologies and philosophies. That Thursday's service could have been performed at the 1995 Annual Conference without raising an eyebrow is telling: Methodism's presentation isn't changing.

And yet, why should it? The active Methodists, the people who make up congregations on Sunday morning, who perform both clergy and lay ministries in their communities and elsewhere, are the same people--grayer, more wrinkled, but still the same people--they were twenty years ago. Many of these churches have attempted to create worship space that millennials will find welcoming, only to have none of them show up who weren't already there to begin with. Liturgy, I was taught in seminary, is the "work of the people," and as such it should be expressed in the idiom of the people worshiping, as opposed to those they'd like to have worshiping with them. "If you build it, they will come" just doesn't work.

The church that shaped me and, for fifteen years, employed me is declining. It may even be dying. That doesn't make me want to go back and save it: apart from all those reunions and being able to sing one great old hymn lustily, Thursday's service had little to offer my post-Christian spirituality. The Communion service, always my favorite part of worship when I was younger, offered me nothing but the chance to lip-sync every word the presider was saying (for an old clergy hand like me, it's like riding a bike. With your mouth.). All I wanted, during that service, was to have it be over so I could go back to embracing old friends. And that's what I got: one reunion after another, always with the shock of seeing how much older these people were.

But that's the life cycle of human beings--and, I think, of churches. Most of the people I was recognizing in that service are from the generation that came before mine. I wonder how large a room it will take to hold conference once they are gone.


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