Seven Sisters

Signs along the Methodist trail

Sex, sex, sex. That seemed to be the only thing United Methodists were talking about the year that the Rev. James V. Heidinger II took command at Good News, a national movement for his church's evangelicals. That was in 1981.

"Every time we turned around we were arguing about sex, and homosexuality in particular," said Heidinger, who retired last week. "Frankly, I was already weary of it and that was a long, long time ago. We wanted to get on to more positive things, like missions and church growth. ... Yet here we are years later, still arguing about sex."

Two events defined that era. Colorado Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., defied his colleagues in 1980 by rejecting a church policy stating that homosexual acts were "incompatible with Christian teaching." Then, in 1982, he appointed an openly gay pastor in Denver. When challenged, Wheatley said: "Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God's grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin."

The most important word in that statement was "sin," explained Heidinger. The fundamental issue at stake was whether United Methodists could find unity on basic doctrines -- like whether sex outside of marriage was "sin." This, of course, raised another issue: What does "marriage" mean?

Liberals kept quoting a statement added to the church's Book of Discipline in the 1970s affirming "theological pluralism" as an essential element of United Methodist life. Then conservatives managed to have "theological pluralism" removed in 1988, and language affirming the "primacy of scripture" added.

"That started a lively debate about the role of doctrine," said Heidinger. "Until then, it seemed like you could believe anything you wanted to believe and still be a Methodist. ... Want to say the resurrection of Jesus is a myth? That was fine, because of 'theological pluralism.' "

Meanwhile, United Methodists were learning other complex and painful truths about their church, long been known as the quintessential Middle American flock.

In the mid-19th century, 34 percent of all believers in the country were Methodists. Then in 1968, the Methodists joined with the Evangelical United Brethren to create the United Methodist Church -- with 11 million members. But by 2006, membership had fallen to 7.9 million, with staff cutbacks, gray hair and shuttered churches becoming the norm in many regions.

After decades of "thrashing around in denial mode, trying to find somebody to blame," United Methodist leaders finally admitted "that our house was on fire," said Bishop William Willimon of northern Alabama.

It was also painful to admit that United Methodists were worshipping in churches that disagreed on key matters of doctrine and church law, said Willimon, co-author of a mid-1980s study, "The Seven Churches of Methodism." The bottom line: It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the "Yankee Church," "Industrial Northeast Church," "Western Church" and "Midwest Church" with those in the "Church South" and the "Southwest Church."

Talking about the future is hard, when discussions of the recent past are painful.

"It's a tribute to Jim Heidinger and other people like him that, when they first came on the scene, they were just the old-fashioned guys who wanted to hang on to church doctrines and traditions," said Willimon. "But somewhere in the last few decades, the evangelicals turned into the people who were talking about wild ideas about how to change where the church was going. They're the ones finding out what the growing churches across the nation are doing."

Nevertheless, wars about doctrine and sexuality are far from over.

Progressives wield great clout in the seminaries, boards and agencies, stressed Heidinger. Yet in recent years, more than a third of the church's clergy have studied at the certified, but not officially United Methodist, Asbury Theological Seminary. The other two-thirds are spread among 12 official seminaries. An alternative, evangelical Mission Society for United Methodists sends roughly the same number of fulltime missionaries overseas as the official General Board of Global Ministries.

But, for conservatives, the most important trends are global. Thus, 25 percent of the delegates at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference came from overseas. That may hit 40 percent in 2012, said Heidinger.

"When you ask United Methodists overseas -- like in Africa -- about the big issues, they don't mind telling you what they believe," he said. "That's where the future is. That's where the growth is, right there."

Out the church door

At the last church she attended before dropping out, Julia Duin was not impressed with the service opportunities available to her as a single woman.

She could do child-care work, greet people at the door or join the women in the altar guild. However, since her journalism work required frequent travel, Duin sought more flexible commitments. Perhaps she could play harp before services? Fill an occasional teaching role, using her seminary training or material from her books?

After several frustrating years, she quit going to church.

Soon she discovered that she wasn't alone, which caused the Washington Times religion-beat specialist to do what reporters tend to do. She started listening, reading and connecting dots. What she found was, as one researcher put it, a "spiritual brain drain" out of churches today.

"I found that a lot of people who were leaving were not necessarily new believers. They were the Baby Boomers who had been involved in all of this for 20 years," said Duin, speaking at the recent national Religion Newswriters Association meetings in Washington, D.C. These active, committed laypeople had "been there and done that. ... So you couldn't just say to them, 'Oh just try this. Oh just try that.' "

Many believers, she said, are sad or mad -- or both. "They say, 'Listen ... I've done everything. Now I'm in the middle of a mid-life crisis and I'm not getting any answers.' These are the people who are saying, 'I'm out of here.' "

The result of her research is a new book, "Quitting Church," that pours painful experience over a foundation of troubling statistics.

It's important to stress that Duin -- a longtime family friend -- focused on active churchgoers, not the "backsliders, the slackers and the complainers" most church leaders think would quit.

Also, this is not another volume about the fall of the "seven sisters" of liberal Protestantism -- the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptists and the Christian Church (Disciples). In recent decades, their membership totals have declined 20 percent or more -- a trend shaped by falling birthrates, bitter doctrinal fights, an aging population and other factors.

Now, sobering statistics are showing up elsewhere. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, has seen a steady decline in baptisms. While the nation's largest non-Catholic flock claims 16 million members, Duin noted that its 2007 report indicates that about 6.1 million people regularly attend worship services.

Gallup polls keep showing church attendance hovering at roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population. However, Duin noted that two other studies from 2005 cut that number down to 18 to 20 percent.

What's happening? Duin shows evidence of parallel and even clashing trends. Many people say they're too busy, some are burned out and others are mourning the loss of great churches they knew in their past.

There are paradoxes in this story, too. In recent decades, thriving megachurches have dominated the landscape, offering media-friendly services and chatty sermons in gigantic sanctuaries that give seekers a cushion of anonymity. But in 2007, the influential Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago found that many older members said they are now spiritually "stalled" or "dissatisfied."

Duin is convinced many evangelical churches are also struggling to deal with rising numbers of single adults and single-parent families. In 2005, a University of Virginia researcher found that 32 percent of married men and 38 percent of married women are churchgoers. But only 15 percent of single men and 23 percent of single women go to church.

There's another reality that is hard to put into statistics, said Duin. Many believers have grown tired of quickie services, PowerPoint answers and pop lyrics. Many "quitters" she interviewed were yearning for intimate, down-to-earth churches where pastors and people knew their names. They'd been born again. Now they wanted to know how to face the doubts and pains of daily life. They wanted real spiritual growth.

Many candid believers, said Duin, "are perplexed and disappointed with God" and they found that when they asked tough questions, they "were not getting meaningful answers from their churches. In fact, they were encouraged not to talk about their pain. ?

"The big questions are not going away and the answers can no longer be put off."