More Evidence that America’s "Mission Field" Future is Progressive

Several online friends sent this essay to me this week:

Religious Progressives Predicted To Outnumber Conservatives, Survey Finds 

It’s well worth the read, and cites data that comes from the Public Religion Research Institute. A few standout quotes:

“With each generation, the popularity of religious conservatism has declined. Forty-seven percent of the Silent Generation (ages 66 to 88) are religious conservatives, compared with 34 percent of Baby Boomers, 23 percent of Gen Xers and 17 percent of Millennials.” 

But, it’s a more complex picture than simply claiming a decline of religious conservatism, or a dramatic rise in religious progressives:

What we see is not a one-to-one replacement of religious conservatives with religious progressives,” Jones explained. Instead, the ranks of religious conservatives over time are declining, while religious progressives maintain their share of the population. “But there’s also this growing number of non-religious Americans.” If the trends continue, religious progressives eventually will outnumber religious conservatives.

I am not at all surprised by these results and this data. It absolutely mirrors things I have been saying for quite some time.

Let me remind you of several blogs I have written on these subjects. First, just after the presidential election, I reminded everyone that that data shows quite clearly that the United States is a “center/left,” not “center/right” nation.

Find it here: “What the Presidential Election Should Teach The United Methodist Church

Again, it’s not to say that the US is a socialist paradise. But the compelling evidence is that the nation continues to move to the left, while our denomination continues to move to the right.

IMHO, this has profound implications for the future of the UMC in America. Unless we stop drifting to the right,  start fully embracing our own progressive wing, we’ll continue to be more and more out-of-step with Americans, and unable to reach the”mission field” of the future.

The data in this new survey seems to confirm this view.

I followed that up more recently with this essay, making the same argument with respect to the specific issue of Same-Sex Marriage: “What Do the Same Sex Marriage Rulings Teach us About the American UMC?

This essay shows very clearly how Same Sex Marriage will soon be the law of the land in almost every state. Estimates are that majorities are likely to approve of Same Sex Marriage in forty four states, as early as 2020. Again, this at the very same time the United Methodist Church has moved to a more conservative polity regarding these ceremonies.

My argument about the future of the American UMC is that, if we’re going to have one (a future, and a Church) we’re going to have to stop drawing such a hardline on social issues like homosexuality.

People understand there is little Biblical evidence for the stridency seen in many churches. Many Christians, more every day, are having a conversion of the heart on these issues.
Three groups, not two, should be of interest to the American UMC:
Conservative Christians
Progressive Christians
“The Nones”

For some years now, I’ve been talking about “The Nones” in blogs and in sermons at Northaven.

My own sense is that many of “The Nones” have left Christianity, altogether. They have left what they see as a too political, too conservative, form of Christianity, and have replaced it, broadly, with the “spiritual, but not religious” movement, or with other religions not so associated with conservative politics.

Here’s a part of the article that seems to agree with this view:

“”Increasingly, people identify and link organized religion with anti-gay attitudes, sexual conservatism, a whole range of those kinds of social cultural values,” Fischer said.”

Yep.

The United Methodist Church spends a lot of time wringing its hands over membership losses.
We also spend a good bit of time asking ourselves about “the mission field.”

But, it’s clear that there are clear answers. There are clear ways forward. Time and time again, the evidence that the “mission field,” leans to the left.

I had an interesting exchange in the comments section of my blog the other day. A conservative United Methodist told me that his opinion was that if the UMC fully embraced LGBT persons, it would cause an exodus of conservatives to more conservative churches. Further, he suggested that the number of these persons would far exceed the number of progressives who would leave.

Several rebuttals to this…

First, off, Progressives are already leaving. A slow, drip-drip of members each and every year….each and every General Conference. Time and time again, I hear of clergy friends lamenting how their own children have left the UMC. Not, often, for conservative churches, but often for more progressive denominations, or as new members of “The Nones.”

So, it’s happening to Progressives already….right now.

Secondly, when conservatives leave the UMC, they are ikely to leave for another Christian denomination. When progressives leave, as we’ve just noted, in many cases leaving the faith altogether!

The point I need to make is: that’s not the same kind of leaving.

I think my friend is right and that if the UMC become more progressive, some conservatives would leave.

Frankly, I don’t believe it would be as many as is feared, precisely because Methodists have always been wiling to be a “big tent” denomination, and because the overall number of American religious conservatives is in decline now, and will continue to be so.

But! The bigger point not to miss is that the real place for the UMC to find future growth is among the “Nones.” And the Nones lean left.

They’ve been burned by conservative religion, and  are often unaware of progressive options.

Reaching “The Nones,” appealing to Progressive Christians, is actually far more difficult and time intensive. They are often extremely thoughtful, they are wary of any kinds of organizations, and they are commitment phobic.

But aren’t those the kinds of folks Jesus was trying to reach?

In fact, time and time again, Jesus reminds folks he hasn’t come to reach those already INSIDE organized religion, but that he has come to make room for those who are on the outside, without a place to call home.

There’s a great “mission field” out there in the United States still. But it leans to the left, and will continue to do so.

There’s till time for the United Methodist Church to grasp this.

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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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