Stay or Go? How members decide

March 19th, 2019

This is part 2 of a 6-part Stay or Go series focused on the future of The United Methodist Church. Download the entire series as a PDF booklet at the bottom of this article.

We all know that the General Conference approval of the “Traditional Plan” is controversial and (not surprisingly) passed by a narrow margin. My previous article explored how churches decide, but the truth is that whether or not the church organization stays or goes, what will be more decisive for the community presence and future mission impact of The United Methodist Church is how member households decide.

The trend since the late 1960’s has been that more and more lifestyle segments choose “flight” rather than “fight.” Some member households will stay within the church either to sustain a prophetic influence that might change future policy or to defend their ownership of the institution in which they have worshipped for years. Yet even among lifestyle segments of the cultural left (which in my book Sideline Church I call the Culturally Ambivalent) and the cultural right (or Culturally Righteous), impatience with church institutions is growing. They may fight… but not for long. Indeed, many lifestyle segments among the cultural middle (or Culturally Passive) may well agree with denominational policy or congregational majority opinion, but avoid conflict like the plague.

How will member households decide? What are the “deciding factors” that will be uppermost in their minds? Once again, I believe demographic and lifestyle research can help church leaders anticipate what they will do.

Empowered Personal Choice

Today individual church members feel more justified to make religious decisions for themselves than ever before. Among lifestyle segments that are more liberal, this might be described as the rise of “personal” religion and the growth of faith-based non-profits and parachurches; and among more conservative segments, it might be described as “personalized” religion.

Among United Methodists, this trend has been accelerated as a result of the last General Conference for two reasons. First, the tacit rejection of the episcopacy by delegates encourages individual members to chart their own spiritual course. They may choose to listen to other gurus or media personalities, or other countries and cultures, but the bottom line is that it is their choice. Traditional spiritual authority has eroded. Second, the “Bible-based” church envisioned by the General Conference is not really Methodist. Methodism has always discerned truth through the spiritual method of comparing tradition, reason, the contemporary movement of the Holy Spirit, and Scripture for mutual critique and consensus. They may choose one interpretation of the Bible or another, but the bottom line is that it is their personal interpretation that matters most. Although Methodist members may claim to be “Bible-based”, they still make decisions based on the quadrilateral.

Therefore, it is even easier today than it was three weeks ago for United Methodist laity to walk away from the church with a good conscience. There is no guilt, less regret, and the confidence that they can always return to the church for the next family wedding or funeral because what matters is not allegiance to the denomination but personal ownership of the church facilities. Members are free to pick and choose which denominational policies to affirm or ignore. The individual’s current lifestyle orientation is now the primary authority that shapes religious opinion. As individuals age, marry or divorce, relocate, choose second or third careers, become more educated, grow richer or poorer, and migrate from one lifestyle segment to another their religious opinion will change. And for people today, that is as it should be.

Individuals or Households?

The second insight lifestyle research provides is that, contrary to popular belief, we do not make decisions as individuals. We make decisions in the context of relationships. What we decide takes into consideration the thoughts and feelings, anxieties and aspirations of the people we love most, and an individual might well make an uncomfortable choice for the sake of those relationships. It is far more important for churches to track households rather than just members, because this is the core relational melange (or network) in which, and for which, decisions are made.

Yet the network of relationships that we define as a “household” has dramatically changed in American cultural diversity. I think this is a key point that UMC global partners fail to see. Just as Americans project their own assumptions and misunderstand the households of Africa or Asia, so also they project and misunderstand the households of the west. “Colonialism” has an afterlife.

A “household” in the postmodern world of the United States is not what a “household” used be. Today there are more “non-traditional households” than “traditional households.” This is especially true in urbanizing contexts, but increasingly true in mid-market city and small town centralizing contexts, and even rural isolation contexts. I don’t want to belabor the point, but my readers need to do more than nod at generalizations. They need to see grit and grind of diversity.

In urbanizing contexts (where population density and diversity spreads outward along transportation corridors) we see (to name a few):

  • Households with three or more financially-supporting generations (e.g. among B07 Generational Soup);
  • Households supporting adult children (e.g. C14 Boomers and Boomerangs);
  • Blended families with children and adults who are not their biological parents (e.g. K39 Metro Fusion);
  • Cross-cultural, bi-racial, multi-lingual families (e.g. P56 Mid-Scale Medley or D18 Suburban Attainment);
  • Divorced single or multiple marriage families (e.g. K40 Bohemian Groove, C12 Golf Carts and Gourmets);
  • Singles and co-habitating couples (e.g G25 Urban Edge or F22 Fast Track Couples);
  • Poor singles and couples living in declining or dangerous neighborhoods (e.g. S70 Tough Times).

In centralizing contexts (where younger adults and seniors are migrating for employment, education, and health) we see (among others):

  • Financially struggling single-parent households (e.g M45 Diapers and Debit Cards);
  • Lower income boomers leading quiet lives (e.g. L42 Rooted Flower Power);
  • Struggling, disabled, or sporadically employed singles and couples (e.g. S68 Small Town Shallow Pockets);
  • Small town seniors with deep community roots (e.g. Q64 Town Elders).

In isolation contexts (where populations decline, residents are aging, and boomers are retiring) we see (among others):

  • Hardworking parents and children barely sustaining themselves (e.g. M44 Red White and Bluegrass);
  • Seniors with low incomes in deteriorating homes where they have lived their entire lives (e.g. J35 Rural Escape);
  • Independent mixed generations, working and praying hard (e.g. N00 Pastoral Pride).

This is what diversity really looks like in America, and I haven’t even mentioned the Empty Nesters, broken families alienated from children or parents, same-gender couples (married or unmarried, public or private, with or without children), or generational differences among immigrant households from around the globe. Diversity is no longer about race or ethnicity, age or gender anymore. There are variations with race, ethnicity, age and gender which defy generalizations. When church members decide whether to stay or go, they are not just concerned with personal preferences, but with the impact their decision will have on the people they love. And the variety of persons they love will surprise you.

Kin or Kindred?

The third insight that lifestyle research provides is that a household today is no longer defined by blood relatives. The demographic search engine (available to every United Methodist Church in America) enables leaders to explore attitudes and life priorities. It often shocks church people to discover that many lifestyle segments today prefer to spend time with friends rather than family. When “member households” make religious decisions to stay or go, they are often more concerned about the impact on expanding layers of friendship, rather than on grandparents, parents, siblings, or even children. It’s not good or bad. It just is.

"Sideline Church" by Thomas Bandy. Order here:

For some lifestyle segments, a “household” is composed of “kin.” Friendships may fracture, but family relationships are sacred. The former is painful, but the latter is tragic. Parents and grandparents still want their children to feel at home when they return to the church of their childhood for weddings, baptisms, and special occasions. Children and grandchildren still want to cherish warm memories of the open-hearted church of their youth. At church, they may cheer sermons, sign petitions, and elect boards based on ideological principles. However, if the second son or daughter in the family comes out as gay or lesbian, or if a gay family member urgently wants to honor his or her grandparent, they are usually surprisingly tolerant. The grandparents are unconditionally welcoming, embrace the “eccentric” loved one, cry together at funerals and laugh together with cousins in spite of their lifestyle disagreements. The gay grandchild is unconditionally generous, embracing their “eccentric” family members, laughing, crying, and sharing holiday dinner. Our family might be odd, but it’s still family. If a church honors that unconditional generosity we stay; and if a church doesn’t we go. Family first! We stay or go for the sake of kin.

Yet for many other lifestyle segments today, a “household” is composed of “kindred spirits.” Families may fracture, but friendships are sacred. Friends want to support and defend each other, share confidences through good times and bad, and overlook differences and disagreements for the sake of enduring intimacy. Regardless of sexual orientation, true friends help one another fulfill their human potential, protect their civil rights, and generally pursue life, liberty and happiness. It doesn’t matter what ideology they endorse or behavioral habits they practice. Every circle of friendship is heterogeneous and every individual is odd. What matters is that Christians practice love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and other “fruits of the spirit.” If the church honors our unconditional friendships we will stay; and if it doesn’t we will leave. Friendship first! We stay or go for the sake of our kindred spirits.

Over the next few years, churches will see households deliberately, and often sacrificially, stay or go. Staunch Methodists, ninety-year-old patriarchs and matriarchs, and pillars of the church will weep and grieve, but they would rather leave a church that threatens familial affection than suffer the loss of a precious child. And if they stay, the church will be on probation and woe to any preacher who disrespects our kin!

Similarly, committed Methodists, confirmed teens and 30-year-old regular attenders, habitual volunteers, and key leaders of ministry programs may be sad and regretful, but they would rather leave a church that threatens their friendship network than remain idle when a friend is hurt. And if they stay, the church will be on probation and woe to any preacher who denigrates our friend.

Household Decisions about Religious Participation

MissionInsite enables leaders to isolate the top reasons why current church member households leave their churches. The most common reasons across the country are that clergy are not credible, church people are too judgmental, and church institutions are too greedy. There is a mix of other reasons (unfriendly, unhelpful, boring, etc.), but what is notable is that the top reasons church members leave their church does not include disagreement with denominational dogmas or social policies. These are the least of their concerns.

Of course, these reasons for non-participation are made in response to surveys. Surveys are always misleading. We say these are the reasons for dropping out, but are they the real reasons? After all, this clergy leader may not be credible, but Methodists can always wait for a new pastoral appointment. Church people may be too judgmental, but we can always retreat to a small group where we are fully accepted. Church institutions may be constantly asking for money, but we can always designate our giving. So what is really going on?

Different lifestyle segments are motivated by different anxieties, and each quests for God with different expectations. This is why some lifestyle segments skip the traditional Sunday service but attend the Healing Service. It is why some lifestyle segments prefer educational worship that exposits scripture and explains doctrine, and other lifestyle segments prefer coaching worship that offers tips and tactics to live like a Christian in the daily grind. While most seek “inspirational” worship, what they find “inspirational” varies considerably. Inspiration for some is lyrical music, quiet meditation, and waiting for God; for others “inspiration” means rhythmic music, multi-sensory experiences, and urgent action. And of course, for a growing number of Americans of all generations, the expectation of worship is none of the above, but simply the intervention of a Higher Power to liberate you from addiction or whatever self-destructive habit or outside persecution entraps them.

So the real reason church members drop out is that they are not finding what they urgently seek, and they are not experiencing God in the way they need. They may say they don’t like the music, message, seating, refreshments, wedding policy, but (self-aware or not) they are lying. It’s deeper than that.

Anxieties that drive quests for God vary. Some lifestyle segments (especially 50-60 year old Baby Boomers) are driven by chronic depression and a feeling of being lost. They want to experience Jesus as a Teacher and Guide. Others are driven by estrangement and feelings of abandonment (especially seniors in declining population areas and transitioning neighborhoods) and seek Jesus as Friend and Comforter. Still others are driven by shame and anger (especially aspiring young adults) because of chronic abuse and frustration. They seek Jesus as a vindicator and justice bringer. Or they are driven by foreboding and feelings of entrapment and seek Jesus as a promise keeper and transformer.

Heart to Heart

In the end, the social policies of any denomination are less relevant than church leaders think. They matter intellectually, but they don’t necessarily matter existentially. I’ve consulted with churches across the theological and ideological spectrum for over twenty years. I am in liberal churches that affirm LGBTQ sexual orientations, but have remarkably few LGBTQ people in membership or worship! They agree with the social policy, but drop out of the church. I am also in conservative churches that condemn LGBTQ sexual orientations, but a remarkable number of LGBTQ people attend! They disagree with the social policy, but stay with the church anyway. Moreover, I am in churches that were started and grow specifically with LGBTQ leaders members, but the fastest growing segment in church membership today are straight!

The reality is that LGBTQ people are human beings like everyone else. The existential anxieties that drive their quests for God, and their hopes to experience Christ in relevant ways, are as diverse as anyone else. There is no specific lifestyle segment identified as “LGBTQ” because LGBTQ people are a part of all 71 lifestyle segments in America. The more we are sensitive to the deepest anxieties besetting the human beings around us, and the more open we are to celebrate the incarnation of God in all the various ways Biblical human beings experienced Jesus, the more likely our church members will stick with us through thick and thin.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, "Stay or Go: How Adherents and Visitors Decide."


Stay or Go?
comments powered by Disqus