What the Presidential Election Should Teach the United Methodist Church

One of the trends in United Methodism these days is to talk extensively about “the mission field.”

It’s a buzz word. It’s a concept.

The question is asked: “In every place where we do ministry, what does the mission field look like?”

It’s a very very good question, and I’m glad we’re asking it. Demographics, we are learning, matter to church growth. In fact, seen from one perspective, demographics are destiny when it comes to church growth.

So it is that many of us United Methodist pastors/congregations are now asked:
“Who are the people your church is trying to reach?”
“Who are the people who would miss you if you were not around?”
“What demographic trends are changing in your neighborhoods?”

We’ve taken to analyzing demographic data, as we can get our hands on it, to see just how well (or not well) we are “working our mission field.”

All this is good. But it is not the only question.

Because, while we absolutely should be analyzing the demographic data on the micro-level of neighborhoods, we also need to analyze it on the macro-level of our nation too.

Tuesday night, we got deeply important new data. We got the results of this year’s presidential election. We got new data that can help us answer the macro-question:

What Does the “Mission Field” of the United States look like?

If the United Methodist Church is going to survive in the future, it’s deeply important that we ask and answer this question, and that we seek the best data to help us with this.

This will, of necessity and whether we like it or not, involve asking political questions:
What are the politics of the American people?
What do they care about?
What issues are becoming more important?
What issues are becoming less important?

So, having set this out for us, let me jump right to the punchline and work my way back to the end….

The United States is a “center/left” nation.
But the United Methodist Church is, increasingly, a “center/right” denomination.

That should be of deep concern to all of us. We are, increasingly, out-of-step, with where the nation is, and with where the nation is going. We are “big ship” that takes a long time to turn, especially on social issues. We are behind. We should expect to fall farther behind in these next four years. Not because I am cynical about us, but because the demographic data tells us this.

How do I come to this conclusion?

I do it by first by analyzing the highest, top-level demographic data available to us: the Presidential Popular Vote.(1)

Arguably, there is no better demographic indicator for the heart of the nation than the popular vote. But what I want you to focus on today is not just what happened Tuesday, but what has been happening for years.

Muse on this fact for a few moments: 
The Republican Party has now *lost* the “popular vote” in five of the past of six elections.

I know this will blow some folk’s minds. So, go and check yourself.

Here it is:

1992: Democrat (Clinton)
1996: Democrat (Clinton)
2000: Democrat (Gore)
2004: Republican (Bush)
2008: Democrat (Obama)
2012: Democrat (Obama)

That’s the data, right there. We tend to forget that Gore won the popular vote in 2000, because he wasn’t elected president. But he absolutely won the popular vote that year.

And while folks in the past two days have said “Well, Obama barely squeaked by this year,” the facts are that he won by 3 million votes (exactly the same as Bush/2004) and 2.5 percent (slightly higher than Bush/2004).

Digging in the demographics of this election, we also see the following:
— Women favored Democrats by wide margins in both state and national elections.
— So did African-Americans.
— So did Hispanics.
— So did young people of all races.
— Two states, a popular vote, approve gay marriage
— That brings to ten percent the number of states that now approve it.

All of these are the fast-growing parts of our United States population.

And all of this demographic data leads me to the following inescapable conclusion: Despite what you have been told for decades, we are a “center/left” nation.

Please hear me very clearly! We are neither a nation of “flaming liberals,” nor “reactionary conservatives.”

All I am saying is, just looking at the data, from a factual point of view, our nation is slightly to the “left” side of the fence, not the right. And these are trends that do not appear to be reversing themselves. If anything, they appear to be growing stronger.

What does this mean for the United Methodist Church?

Over that same historical period (1996-Present) it would be hard to argue that the United Methodist Church has done anything but move more to the right.

— On key social issues of the time, such as homosexuality, we have either kept the same language or become more conservative.
— Our delegates now include an almost 50 percent African contingent, and just about everyone agrees these delegates, on average are more conservative than even most US conservative Christians.

The inescapable conclusion is that over twenty years we have become socially and demographically “out of step” with America.

America is multi-ethnic society (40 percent of whites voted for Obama this year), increasingly younger, increasingly embracing of women in leadership, and increasingly accepting of homosexuality.

But, the United Methodist Church remains overwhelmingly white, unable to attract the young, and fearful of embracing LGBT persons in their full personhood.

When seen from this hindsight of this election, the failure of the “Hamilton-Slaughter” resolution at General Conference is a colossal and tragic missed opportunity.

What can we do?

First, we can acknowledge the reality that we are out of step. 

Second, we can begin to see these social movements, such as homosexuality, not as a threat, but as the genuine moving of God’s Holy Spirit in our world.
It’s long past the time to admit that the theological justifications for our “Incompatibility Clause” are terribly flimsy. The Bible has far more passages embracing slavery and the subjugation of women than it does about homosexuality, pro-or-con.

In ten states now, pastors and church must now ask “What does legal gay marriage mean for me, pastorally? What is the right way to support LGBT families as they are raising their children?”

These questions will come to all us, and very very soon.

Study after study shows that young people (who voted for Obama) approve of homosexuality in large numbers. Meanwhile, we can’t even pass Hamilton-Slaughter?”

Let those with ears hear. This is bad bad news for us, friends.

As Adam Hamilton said after that vote: we will lose the next generation of evangelical Christians. Not just “mainline” ones. Evangelical ones too.

Conclusion:

In some ways, demographics really is destiny. We increasingly acknowledge this at the local level. We push our congregations to “look at the data” of their “mission field.”

But we seem unable, or unwilling, to do so at the national level.

Yes, we United Methodist do need to continue to keep our eye on the international “mission field.” But not at the sake of the mission field here.

“The world IS our parish.” Even America. And our parish is speaking to us with their feet and their votes, increasingly leaving us behind. 

I have said for years that this is not just about demographics. It’s also about the working of God’s Holy Spirit, at a macro-level, in our society. These demographics are an “outward and visible sign” of God’s inward and Spiritual grace, blowing through the nation itself.

Are we listening?
Will we respond?

(1) If analyze Congress, you could definitely make the argument the US is still “center-right.” However, dispassionate observers on all political sides can admit that there is a whole lot of “gerrymandering” of Congressional districts…on both sides…that tend to lean, on average, toward Republicans. Please hear me: Dems have “safe” districts, drawn poorly, too. But Republicans currently have more…which makes Congress a very poor “barometer” for where the nation is as a whole.

(As always, if you like this post, then “share it” or “like” it on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too…)

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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