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GEN-X RISING: Individualism is reason for UMC ‘professions’ decline Andrew C. Thompson, Oct 31, 2011
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
It’s never a good idea to see how the sausage gets made. At least that’s the conventional wisdom.
I tested that particular piece of wisdom a few days ago. I actually ended up glad I saw sausage-making firsthand.
The “sausage” in this instance was the conferencing process that ultimately governs the United Methodist Church. Next spring the General Conference will meet in Tampa, Fl. And as a way to begin preparing for that quadrennial event, all the annual conference delegations of the South Central Jurisdiction (one of the five Methodist jurisdictions in the United States) met together in Oklahoma City.
All of what I saw was informative, and some of it was invigorating.
In two days of intense conferencing, one of the most striking presentations given was by Don House. Mr. House is the chairman of the SCJ episcopal committee.
Mr. House presented his case for the need we have for sustained church growth, in many areas but particularly in church membership. He noted the number of measures that show a decline in the church over the past few decades. Total church membership and worship attendance are two that are often cited.
The one standard of measure that he is most concerned about is the decline in professions of faith. The church in the U.S. has seen a 31.3% decrease in professions of faith since 1995.
To understand the significance of what Mr. House was trying to get across, we have to ask ourselves the question, “What exactly is a profession of faith?”
The key point about professions of faith is that they are instances of persons joining a local church by something other than infant baptism or transfer-of-membership from another church. Our Book of Discipline lays out the meaning of a profession of faith in ¶217: “When persons unite as professing members with a local United Methodist church, they profess their faith in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Thus, they make known their desire to live their daily lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. They covenant together with God and with the members of the local church to keep the vows which are a part of the order of confirmation and reception into the Church.”
Profession of faith is a key component of membership in the church for a denomination, like ours, that believes strongly in infant baptism. When an infant is baptized, it is the faith of Christ and the faith of the church that makes possible the sacramental response to the grace of God. A profession of faith, on the other hand, is the response of that baptized person once she or he reaches an age where such response is practicable.
The reason that the decline in professions of faith is so crucial to Mr. House is because it is through such means that the church grows. Transfers of membership are a zero-sum game: one congregation’s loss is another’s gain. But professions of faith represent new additions to the household of faith.
The concern Mr. House was raising should be a concern common to all of us. We live in a country with an expanding population. If we believe the gospel is really good news, there is no reason why our own church should not be expanding as well.
But we’re not expanding on the whole. We’re contracting. And that means we have a significant problem.
There are surely many reasons why our professions of faith seem to be lacking. We need to question our own commitment to evangelism. But we also need to look seriously at cultural factors working against us.
I think two of the most significant are twin trends that are dangerous to the church: individualism and privatization.
Individualism identifies all of life’s value at the level of the individual himself. Our culture embraces a fairly radical version of it. The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras is known for his saying, “Man is the measure of all things.” Well, individualism takes that view a step further and holds that every individual man (or woman) gets to measure all things.
Privatization is another cultural trend that is the inevitable companion to individualism. We resist identifying ourselves as fundamentally connected to larger groups, so we tend to see value as possessed by us personally.
Sounds a little complicated, I know. But it’s not. What I mean is simply this: As an individual, I get to decide the worth of a given thing. It is all a matter of my personal opinion. And once I decide, the value I attach to that thing belongs to me and me alone. I don’t have to explain it to you, and I don’t even have to admit it to you.
If you are starting to make the connections between this sort of thinking and the resistance to confessing one’s faith publicly, then you’re on the right track. The twin forces of individualism and privatization lead people to believe something like this: “My belief in God is something private to me. It can neither be called into question by anyone else nor can it be called upon for public witness unless I decide that of my own free will.”
It all sounds perfectly democratic and libertarian. To American ears, it has a nice ring. But it is also a deeply anti-biblical point of view. Nothing in Scripture or the tradition of the church supports such an individualized and privatized faith.
Mr. House is right to focus on the need to buck the trend against declining professions of faith. But to do that, we have to realize what we’re up against. It is nothing less than reversing a powerful cultural trend that is making the individual reign supreme.
The Rev. Thompson is an instructor in historical theology & Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at athompson@MemphisSeminary.edu.