Seven Shifts that Shape the Future of Methodism

I’ve always been intrigued by the future. As far back as I can remember I was enthralled by Science Fiction and what the future might hold. Several years ago I took the Strengths Finder 2.0 assessment and learned (not really a shocker) that one of my strengths was Futuristic. I enjoy looking at possibilities and outcomes. I like making predictions and evaluating how these things turn out. As we begin a new year, I wanted to offer some of my own predictions of shifts that will change Methodism as we know it.

  1. The shift from a primarily European Methodism to a Global South Methodism. Methodism has taken root in places like Africa, Cuba, and Korea. Here, and elsewhere, are Methodist bodies where the Holy Spirit has really begun to move in new and exciting ways. I went to seminary with many Methodist Koreans telling me about their evangelistic outreach and now sending missionaries to Russia! One of my church members just returned from Cuba. He told me that the Spirit is doing an incredible thing there. Every time I read reports or hear stories from these places of Methodism and what is happening in these places it makes my heart rejoice with the new possibilities.
  2. The shift from itinerate appointments to missional appointments. This is already happening in many Annual Conferences, but I think more and more this will be the norm. Itineracy is one form of placing clergy in local churches, another form is noticing what is happening at that particular local church, studying the trends, finding the details and then selecting the clergy person that can meet the needs of that particular situation. Appointments are less about moving chess pieces around a chess board and more about carefully selecting the right choice. This way of appointment-making analyzes strengths and growing edges of the clergy to match them with churches that can compliment them.
  3. The shift from professional clergy to bivocational/local pastors/alternative clergy. I am going out on a limb with this one, but if I study the signs: Insurance costs rising every year, general church costs rising every year, Annual Conference costs rising ever year, more churches being put on a charge or closing every year, seminary enrollment shrinking every year, local churches facing the end of the builder generation, average worship attendance declining, membership declining, local church costs rising. There will be a tipping point at which a critical mass of churches can no longer support the infrastructure of the denomination. At this time there will be some real decisions to make. As someone who sits on DCOM, and talk with dozens of local pastors every year this is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Many of our churches (especially in rural areas) will be moving towards non traditional clergy. The United Methodist Church could not sustain its ministries and churches today without local pastors!
  4. The shift in seminaries. Whether its a complete move into something totally different like St. Paul or a move to a new location like Claremont, United Methodist Seminaries are going to have to change how they operate. Some seminaries are shifting to different degrees away from MDivs. Some seminaries are shifting to accommodating different denominations and even different faiths. Some seminaries are expanding into other areas outside the church. All these things tell me that seminaries can no longer be like they were in the 50s and 60s.
  5. The shift in the local church. Several years ago I remember someone stating that local churches were going to have to choose who they were going to be in a largely secular (nones on the rise) future of America. They could become hospice care (caring for their members and keeping things tidy until the members die). They could become missionary outposts (providing services to the communities they serve). They could become new evangelists (proclaiming Christ to a different world). I remember thinking I don’t necessarily agree with this person on these outcomes, but I couldn’t necessarily fault their logic.
  6. The shift in annual conferences.  As our denomination shrinks our annual conference borders will be forced to expand. This is already happening in some Annual Conferences where there have been mergers with other Annual Conferences, but I can see this to be more the trend now that our annual conferences are mostly shrinking. This means old geographic boundaries are going to fall away very soon, and we will be dealing with new realities about ministry within annual conferences.
  7. The shift in the denomination. Like it or not. Want it or not. No matter which side you are on or which plan you prefer, The United Methodist Church will change in the future. If it doesn’t change in 2019, it will change in 2020. We have ensured that there will be a different denomination in two years than the one we are in right now. What it will look like is difficult for me to say. I won’t even speculate on the future in this case. What I do know is that it will be different from today. We might shift left. We might shift right. We might lose the left and the right. One thing I have consistently told my friends on all sides is that none of the plans guarantee a unity other than forced unity. They don’t actually make people think, act, or believe any different than they did yesterday.

There you have my seven futuristic predictions about Methodism. I would love to hear some of yours. What do you see happening in the future of Methodism? Leave us a comment below with your best prediction of the future!

4 comments

  1. Forced unity is the One Church Plan. It keeps both sides in a continuing cage match, when everyone knows that neither side wants to condone to the other’s moral or ethical values. We are going to lose entire countries over such changes. What are we thinking??

    1. My family has been Methodist almost from the beginning. My paternal grandfather was a Methodist minister. He grew up in Erath County, Texas and was at a conference when Texas Wesleyan College in Weatherford was founded. My father was one of the first male students at that college and played football there.? My grandfather’s churches were in various places including at least one in Oklahoma, several in New Mexico and Van Horn, Texas. Van Horn was his last appointment. After his retirement, in Van Horn, Texas, he would substitute for lack of a better term occasionally.

  2. I understand your comments above to foresee a vibrant Methodist Church overseas and a struggling church in the USA. I agree. The spirit of John Wesley, who was concerned about his message to the least and lost even as he approached his deathbed, will live on and flourish where Christ is central to the life of the church. Where the survival and unity of the institutional church is central, I expect further struggle and decline. I expect the outcome of the St. Louis GC to be a major indicator of the future. Will the UMC choose a path that God can bless?

  3. #4 (and by extension #3) especially caught my attention. I think these predictions apply to much of Protestant Christianity in general (at least in the post-Christian West). For the last several years I have been talking with good friends about how the traditional 3 year MDiv no longer seems to fit situations on the ground. Perhaps 1-2 years followed by lots of continuing education style courses (with lots of flexibility to adapt to situations clergy face).

    #1 also caught my attention – led a group to Cuba a couple years ago. I think we have much to learn from Christians in Cuba.

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