A few weeks ago Adam Hamilton posted a blog suggesting that based on current trends the United Methodist Church would not exist in 44 years. He wasn't saying this was a forgone conclusion. He actually gives several good reasons why this won't happen. I agree with all of them, and I wonder if our "future with hope" is actually coming soon. I'll compare it to the current state of the economy.
Economists talk about leading indicators and lagging indicators. Leading indicators are events that precede a change in the economy (the stock market generally goes up before the end of a recession, so a higher stock market will be a leading indicator that we are headed out of the recession). Lagging indicators are events that come after a change in the economy (jobs generally don't recover until after a recession so if the stock market goes up and a few months later jobs go up that's confirmation that the recession is likely over). So what are the leading and lagging indicators that the UMC is turning things around? Let me suggest one of each.
Leading indicator: The true purpose of the church is to make and grow disciples of Jesus Christ (the United Methodist Church adds "... for the transformation of the world". If we are going to reclaim our signficance and be the Church God wants us to be, first we must reclaim our purpose. Reclaiming our purpose is a leading indicator of recovery in the Church. So are we doing this? In starts and fits, yes. Our Bishops are acting with more purpose than in the past. General Conference in 2008 clearly had a spirit of purpose. Pastors, particuarly younger pastors, seem to be recapturing the importance of the wholistic Gospel. I don't know of any stats to back this assertion, but it seems to me like the seeds of renewal are being planted deeply and are ready to sprout.
Lagging indicator: Church attendance and membership. Church attendance and membership will continue to decline for some time. We have too many churches and pastors that still have not (and may never) remember what we're here for. It will take years if not decades for those churches to (again in economic terms) "bottom out". But don't mistake a church with declining numbers with a church in decline. The turn around of the church will begin before the numbers themselves turn around. I would argue the turn around has already begun in local churches throughout the country.
I think it's an exciting time to be a United Methodist! What could be more exhilierating than to be a participant in a great movement of God that is about to begin moving again? We do have a future of hope!
Final note: All UM's should remember that when we talk about decline we are talking solely about the UM experience in the United States. Overseas, the United Methodist Church is growing exponentially, starting churches every day, and making a huge difference in people's lives. Those of us in the U.S. could probably learn a great deal from our UM brothers and sisters in other countries.