To begin this morning, I have a couple of maps to share with you.
First, take a look at this map of the Methodist Church in the United States in 1939.
It shows the totals of memberships in Methodist Churches across the country. The thicker black lines denote jurisdictional conferences. If you total them all up, they amount to approximately 7.5 million Methodists in a country of 131 million people; roughly six percent of the total population at the time.
Since 1939, this country has grown exponentially; from 131 million to 321 million people as of the latest data. That’s 190 million new people in the last 81 years. With the Methodist church counting six percent of 131 million Americans in 1939, in order to maintain our presence, our market share, we should have today at least 19.2 million American methodists; six percent of 321 million people.
So let’s take a look at the same map of American Methodists, by jurisdiction, with numbers from today.
The Southeastern jurisdiction, our jurisdiction, the yellow shaded area, gained 519,335 members.
The South Central jurisdiction, the purple shaded area, gained 330,739 members.
The Western jurisdiction, the blue shaded area, lost 10,871 members.
The Northeastern jurisdiction, the green shaded area, lost 288,435 members.
The North Central jurisdiction, the red shaded area, lost 484,029 members.
The jurisdictions together total 7.5 million Methodists out of 321 million Americans, or 2.3 percent of the total population. That means, since 1939, we have lost about 3.7 percent of the American population, or about 11.7 million people. We are far short of the 19.2 million mark. We have shrunk. Children and grandchildren of Methodist parents haven’t returned and we haven’t recruited enough new people into the church to replace those leaving. In 76 years, we have become less than half the church we used to be.
That news gets worse if you consider this fact: in 1939, we were called simply “The Methodist Church.” We became the United Methodist Church in 1968 when we merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. So, since 1968, we have added an entire denomination of people to our ranks, and yet, have still managed to shrink in membership.
But let’s go back farther still. Ulysses S. Grant, former President of the United States in the 1870s, once observed the force of Methodists in our country’s culture when he said, “there are three parties in American politics: Republican, Democrat, and Methodist.” When our denomination split over slavery in 1844, Henry Clay, the biggest name in American politics of that time, noted that the “cords of the country were snapped with the split of the Methodist Church.”
Why would such prominent politicians make such staggering remarks about the Methodist Church in the 19th century? Because best estimates put our membership around 1850 at twenty-five percent of all Americans. To put that in perspective, if the United Methodist Church today held twenty-five percent of all Americans, 80.25 million people in this country would call themselves Methodist. Today, instead, we have 7.5 million methodists in our country. The decline is staggering.
What are we to do about it?
Let’s hear from Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, as she prays a prayer to God; one that would later inspire Mary when she prayed her Magnificat.
Hannah is an obedient servant. The author of 1 Samuel pauses the narrative so that the reader and hearer might also pause to simply hear Hannah’s song of praise. It’s a beautiful, poetic, moving Psalm of praise to the God of justice. She praises the God who has this character of justice, who rights the wrongs, upends the oppressive social structures, brings peace instead of war. Imagine all the people, living in harmony. She can imagine it because she knows God can make it so. God is all powerful, God always acts for justice, and God will continue to do so, both for her and the people of Israel.
We as Methodists can relate. In the UMC, we have social principles; statements of what we believe the world should look like and what we, together, advocate for. Things like this:
Rights for women
An end to racism
Justice for refugees
An end to sex trafficking
Access to healthcare
Care for creation
Access to fresh water and healthy food
Diplomacy over war
Not that we all agree on all of these things but that we recognize that we must work together to see the Kingdom of God come about; that our labor as a church is common, for it’s through us that God will birth a world of justice and peace. We submit to God as obedient servants slike Hannah so that, through us, God can bring about the Kingdom.
That’s why we’re focusing this year on acts of piety and acts of service as we live into what it means to be Methodist. We make ourselves subservient to God, to God’s purposes, growing in faith. It’s why we prayed the covenant prayer to start the year and why we prayed it again last week; to place ourselves before God as servants.
That’s Hannah’s perspective. Hannah is an obedient servant. She cried out to God for a child. She waited and waited and waited. In time God gave her a child; Samuel for whom this book is named. She then gave that child to the temple, as she had promised to do, for the temple to raise and train him to, one day, be a priest or prophet.
But imagine Hannah, leaving baby Samuel at the temple, as she had promised God she would do. Imagine if you have a child, or a child who’s very special to you, leaving that child at the church for the pastor to raise. You only get to visit a few times a year. You only get limited exposure. You’re not the one raising him or her. You’re not really mom. You’re the special birth-giver who visits occasionally.
If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, it’s just like Edith leaving her illicit daughter Marigold in the hands of the farming family to raise. Edith gets to visit occasionally, play with her daughter, but she’s not really mom; she’s the special friend who visits occasionally. It destroys Edith internally to only be the birth-giver, not the mom.
We’re not wrong to expect that kind of reaction from Hannah. And perhaps Hannah’s like Edith at first. But somewhere along the way, somehow, she turns to God in praise for God’s character as a just God.
She can do that because she is, first and foremost, a servant of God. She recognizes that her life is in service to God before anything else. God is first in her life. It takes an amazing act of faith to sacrifice in this way; but lest we get too distracted by the enormity of her act, we all must admit that living the life of faith requires sacrifice.
Ours may be less than Hannah’s, but there will still be sacrifice: sacrifice of time, money, energy, priorities, desires, ambitions. Faith, really being a servant of God, comes with sacrifice. For it’s in sacrificing ourselves that we discover our true self. It’s in sacrifice that God moves through us to bring about a good, verdant, and peaceful world; just like Hannah describes, just like we as Methodists say in our social principles, just as we as humans desire.
Hannah submits herself, yields herself, to be only about God’s purposes; God’s Kingdom purposes we would call them. For the world we want, the world we long for, the world our social principles describe, the world Hannah sings of, the world the church seeks to birth into the world, is the Kingdom of God.
But the sobering reality is this: God’s Kingdom, the world we want, cannot come to fruition by our own efforts. It’s God’s world to birth. It’s God’s world to create. We just know it will come through the church. And so our membership and labor on behalf of the church is vitally important.
But what about church decline? What about faltering numbers? What about how people are fleeing religion left and right? What are we to do about that? Shouldn’t correcting decline be the first priority? How do we get more people in the church?
That is where we began this morning, with the hard hitting news about the church. It’s news we all know. And the typical response to this decline focuses on worship attendance and membership numbers. If we can get more people in the church, we’ll fix the decline and create the world we desire. That’s how the thinking goes.
A thinking that misses a truth Hannah knows well, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD.” Only through God’s spirit, through God’s power, did Hannah receive a child. She knows and testifies that only by God’s spirit will there be justice in the world. Only by God’s power.
So it is with the church. It’s God’s church, with Christ at the head, not ours. That means God will make use of it to God’s own pleasure and for God’s own glory, regardless of decline or growth in numerics.
That means we cannot fix the church by our own efforts. We can’t even determine if the church is broken by our own efforts! God can work through our efforts, as God worked through Hannah’s, to bring about justice, but we cannot create justice on our own.
There are churches full of people, growing rapidly, who do no good for the world and do not grow as disciples. And there are declining churches in the world, where the pews are mostly empty, who are doing great things for the world around them. Here at our church, we have done a ton of good ministry. Just look at the list for 2019 shared last Sunday and available on the website. It’s staggering what a church our size has done together. And a church that has grown in worship attendance every year for the past three years.
But numeric growth doesn’t equal more ministry. And more ministry doesn’t cause numerical growth. Our job is to be available to God for God’s work. God will grow our worship attendance or allow it to decline. That’s not up to us and it’s not a measure of success.
What is measure of success is whether or not this church is engaged in the work God calls us to. And we are. But let us not equate that work with attendance increases and let us not believe that we are somehow doing for God. We are not; we are simply being obedient servants.
We cannot do God’s work for God, but we can be about God’s work on this earth. We, like Hannah, must be obedient servants.
And we live lives as obedient servants by living a life of prayer.
Hannah’s example, and the author of 1 Samuel’s example here in pausing the narrative, is to set an example for prayer. Hannah lived a life of prayer, and in doing so, she knew how to follow God. Prayer changes things, most notably, us. We cannot help but be changed by being in God’s presence, by being available to God, by being present with God in prayer.
Prayer is a spiritual act that says to God, “not by my might, nor by my power, but by your Spirit.” And that is how we are to be as a church, a prayerful servant of God.
God will accomplish God’s kingdom purposes and restore the church. The wrongs will be righted, justice will be accomplished, world peace will occur, food insecurity abolished, all of humanity will find equality, poverty will be eliminated, and the church will continue to endure as it has always endured.
These are God’s kingdom purposes. Ultimately, these are the moral purposes of the church. We know they are. We rejoice in them.
And we can participate in them not by trying to bring about change on our own, not by trying to stem a decline in church attendance on our own, not by trying to create justice on our own, but instead by simply being a prayerful servant.
This is why we focus this year on what it means to be a Methodist. Prayer is an essential part of who we are; it’s one of those acts of piety. We engage in acts of piety, regular spiritual discipline and corporate worship, so that we can know God better. We engage in acts of service, regular volunteering of our time at church and in our community, to offer God to the world. That’s what we do as Methodists.
Is that what you do?
Do you spend time regularly with God? In acts of piety?
Do you regularly volunteer your time? In acts of service?
If the answer to either is no, this year is the opportunity to change that. You’ve already covenanted with God, twice, to do just this; first through Wesley’s covenant renewal service and, second, through committing to keep our goals for 2020 just this past Sunday.
There will be many opportunities presented this year to serve. Will you respond when the Spirit moves you? There will be many opportunities presented this year to be pious; to be practicing spiritually. Will you respond daily?
Will you pray daily? Praying the Psalms daily is a great way to begin.
And, when you hear news of the decline of Christianity, of churches closing, of worship attendance declining around the country, don’t fear; pray. For in prayer, we learn that God will take care of the church. God will move for justice. God will create the world God has promised us. God will make use of the church no matter how big, or small, it becomes.
God will. So don’t fear; pray. Be pious, be a servant, be a Methodist, and watch the world be transformed.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.