Why the UMC is Such a Dismal Failure at Church Planting #UMC

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It was a moment of amazing clarity as I suddenly saw why the United Methodist Church has such a dismal record creating successful church plants. I am defining “successful” as a plant that is showing extensive growth to the point of needing to plant satellite campuses within a few years, has a number of young adults and children participating in it, and is financially self-sustaining.

A little history here: Even before I retired from my full-time appointment, I had long been the religion columnist for the Denton Record-Chronicle, sister paper to the Dallas Morning News. I wrote a weekly column on anything that came to my mind that also had anything to do with religion.

After my retirement, a new managing editor, Scott Parks, came to Denton from the Dallas News and he was thrilled to know this smaller paper had a religion column. He and I soon met, and he offered this column idea for the next year: visit as many different churches as possible and describe my worship experience at each place. My model was to be Bill Martin (Dr. William Martin, Sociology prof at my alma mater, Rice University), who had done a well-received series of these columns for the Texas Monthly Magazine in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Intrigued, I agreed to the project and have been doing this since the end of this past July. And in so doing, I do believe I have uncovered the reason why we in The United Methodist Church are essentially dismal failures at the church planting process. Despite the careful training offered and the support given to church planters by various Annual Conferences, with a few notable exceptions we are not doing well in this area.

There is definitely a formula that underlies a successful church plant and I’m beginning to suspect any deviation from that formula means inevitable failure. I think I’ve figured out that formula.

The Formula

  • A young, male, good-looking, charismatic pastor, preferably with a beautiful “smokin’ hot” wife and a couple of photogenic children. Best if he is a former athlete, and has muscles bulging under his tight t-shirt.
  • Superb branding and technology. One of my companions on these mystery worship visits owns a firm that creates brands and he observes signs of a pre-packaged and superbly produced branding every time we visit one of these successful church plants.
  • Simple doctrinal statement: The Bible is inerrant; substitutionary atonement the only possible theory of atonement, everyone who does not ask Jesus into their hearts goes to hell, male leadership necessary particularly in lead pastor/preaching roles but often across the board in every key leadership position.
  • No doctrinal disputes are permitted; there are especially no arguments over the inclusion of the GLBTQI community–they just all need to repent and become hetero or at least declare eternal celibacy.
  • Sources of really big money undergird the movement. The latest, best and most visually stimulating technology is used along with paid professional musicians, worship leaders, and technology people.
  • All worship bands have two slender and attractive women, preferably blonde and wearing tight jeans, singing and subtly (or not so subtly) dancing to the beat of the music.
  • An extremely flexible and adaptive administrative structure which functions independently from any larger ecclesiastical oversight.
  • An empire-building mindset: a desire to dominate the market, both local and international.
  • Immersion baptism for adults only and very infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper (and nothing even approaching a weekly Eucharist).
  • An homogeneous target audience.
  • Much use of simple proof-texting to support the message of the day. In-depth biblical scholarship that may reveal doubt or cast any suggestion that the Bible is not dictated by God is neither necessary nor desired.

In other words, keep it clean, neat, male-dominated, subtly sexual, simple and flexible, with professional branding AND no-funds-spared technological support.

This is total opposite of the world of The United Methodist Church and other historic, connectional-type churches.

  • We have central administrative structures, hierarchical leadership and/or bloated bureaucracies with almost little or no flexibility to move quickly as t
    he markets change.
  • Our “brand” (open hearts, open doors, open minds) and our logo are anything but trendy and catchy, nor are they used consistently across the board.
  • Our theology is anything but unified and uniform and is hotly debated in every possible forum.
  • We operate out of strong social consciences which call for sacrificial action in order to offer inclusion to women, people of color, the physically differently-abled, and older clergy.
  • We keep even dying churches alive out of respect to their long contribution to the world-wide church. Thus we do not have the financial means to pour into the plants and we do not have the empire building mentality that can discard those marginal churches as past their prime and a hindrance to the movement.
  • We fight any kind of “ism” with passion, including the sexism that permeates these church plants.
  • Our choices to live out of the Gospel mandates in these areas make it nearly impossible for us to be “successful” church planters.

I remember sitting at a clergy retreat a couple of years ago, looking around the room and thinking, “We are one beat-up looking group of people.” There are exceptions of course, but we tend to be older, plumper, more-female dominated, socially conscious people who so honor our connection that the idea of empire building rarely enters one of our theologically-trained brains. As a general rule (and yes, there are exceptions) we are not adequately young, handsome, male, sexually enticing or ambitious to be really successful at this venture.

So what do we do? How About “WalMart Needs Mom and Pop”?

The simple answer: If we really want to save the UMC as an institution, we need to let the Evangelicals take over. They have the simple doctrinal base (no gays, no divorced, inerrant Bible, etc) and tend to attract the good looking young male ambitious pastors that are absolutely necessary for success in this arena. They also apparently have some of the massive funding of the IRD (Institute for Religion and Democracy, a right-wing based political organization that appears to have been working hard to dismantle the UMC for quite a while now) behind them in order to make it work.

Those in the progressive wing–and I clearly am one–are not, for the most part, of the empire building mentality. Without that, and without the strong theologically-based fear that the vast majority of the world’s population is destined to burn in eternal torment if we don’t get the word out to them, we don’t have the base motivation for really successful church plants that bring large numbers of people and much money to the worship services. Also I suspect that many progressives are uncomfortable with the fact that sex sells, even in churches, and are less likely to buy into the subtle but undeniably present sexual undertones that seem to permeate the successful church plants.

But there may be another option.

What I think many progressives do well is make disciples. We ask people to seriously consider their own progress toward entire sanctification and their willingness to live out of the baptismal vow to stand firm against oppression in whatever form it takes.

We are willing to be more generous theologically and trust that God does want all to come into that place of gracious, holy and transformational love, having received the joy of forgiven reconciliation with God and thus willing to offer that to others.

Admittedly this doesn’t make big churches. It asks too much of people, requires them to think and to consider their own paths of righteousness and to take seriously the model that Jesus set that welcomes the unclean, the outsider, the marginalized, the unpretty and unnoticed and poor and beat up ones.

It’s important but it’s not popular. It works well with an organic church model, but not with the mega-church plant model. And without a series of highly successful mega-church plants and the high-dollar givers they attract, we are not going to make it as a denomination.

For some time now, I’ve been working on the idea that the large mega-church genuinely needs the smaller, disciple-making church. They can compliment each other as do the huge factory farms and the smaller organic gardens. Both have value. One can feed (evangelize) the masses; the other can concentrate on deep health and longevity.

To use another analogy: I’m suggesting that WalMart NEEDS the Mom and Pop stores–and it goes both ways. Yes, the big box stores often have lower prices and far greater inventory, but there is a significant subset of people who very much prefer to shop at locally owned places where they are known. They find the higher prices worth the personal connection and sense of “everyone knows your name” enjoyment.

But we have to work together, to honor one another, to see and acknowledge the need for one another in order to make a cohesive whole. Obviously that mutual respect and honor rarely happen, in agriculture. commerce or in the world of church and theology.

But what if we could re-create the UMC as a place that honors both the aggressive evangelistic push and simpler theology of the more conservative branch AND the more theologically open, disciple-making progressive branch?

What if we could recognize that we need both to thrive, not just one side. That a healthy church ecology mimics a healthy physical ecology and that monoculture is ultimately destructive even though for the short-term it seems more productive?

Could we then sing together, “Blessed be the Ties that Bind?”

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Would that we could mimic the unity of the Trinity in our own.


14 thoughts on “Why the UMC is Such a Dismal Failure at Church Planting #UMC

  1. I think the main point is that successful church plants have a well defined target market. I don’t think all churches should chase the same target market (i.e. married couples in their early 30s with 2.5 children), but they do need to have a target of some kind. Having a well defined target market is not the same thing as excluding anyone, it just helps people make a decision to attend your church. They have to see themselves in it. There are many under served markets – hence such high numbers of unchurched. Singles now make up the majority of the population, but church leaders worry they are too diverse. I think that is both a problem and an opportunity. Surely at the local church plant level, some segment of the single population could be successfully targeted and marketed to? Singles aren’t more indifferent to church than married people. Churches just spend all their marketing dollars trying to attract marrieds because that is what the neo-calvinists do. The neo-calvinists aren’t successful because their target market is marrieds. They are successful because they *have* a target market (or what is sometimes called a “tarket” in marketing circles). A good target market doesn’t have to be based on any particular demographic, but it should (at the very least) be a well-defined psychographic.


  2. Thanks for a great article. I am a 4th generation United Methodist who received a M.Div from a very liberal-progressive and amazing seminary here in the East Coast. Personally, I would consider myself a moderate and am thoroughly Wesleyan theologically, but I find myself much more in tune (literally) with the “modern” worship style, liturgy and the overall approach to reaching out to the “seekers.” To this end, I thought and wrote extensively about why I prefer (and that the UMC should seriously consider) the contemporary worship and liturgy – John Wesley advocated that Worship and Evangelism go hand in hand. Liturgically, I find the UMC to be too “Catholic” and stifling – simply put, it’s stuck in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I left the UMC and currently serve as an electric guitarist at a non-denominational church in NJ that’s growing and very “successful.” However, as you have noted, it could use the “mom and pop” approach to discipleship. I hope to introduce this element into the church, God willing.

    On a more important note, this is my take on the liberal and progressive presence in the UMC I find disappointing, if not, alarming. Recently, I wrote the following on my Facebook page that summarizes this sentiment and observation: “Christians who champion social justice, climate change, equal rights for all, and other causes, but fail to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord of all and the source of love that would truly transform the world and the souls of its inhabitants, simply make such causes as their idols.” So, instead of tackling this I decided to join a church that is relevant, in-touch, unpretentious, “low-brow” (as in the way John and Charles Wesley went to the people from their “high places”), and, YES, technologically and musically savvy! 🙂


  3. Christy.. thanks for sharing this blog and pointing out what you’re seeing in Church Planting in the specific area… I would value having a conversation with you and celebrating the numerous UMC Church plants that are indeed operating just as you shared that wrestle with all that it means to be diverse and complex and Wesleyan.. they are various shapes and sizes and are celebrated in their Annual conferences with diverse leadership both clergy and lay… We indeed have a long way to go in planting churches and our progress looks better than some of the examples that you’ve seen…


  4. Well, I enjoyed the writing and the commentary. I like your both/and thinking here… as it pertains to size of congregation. I am a female church planter in the UMC, just outside of Detroit.

    For a while there, I thought they got church planters from Specs Howard School of Media in Detroit… which fits your description. They could easily sub for any game show host. At the same time, you have to admit the non-denominational/mega-church appears to be kicking the butts of the denominationals. Joel Osteen is about to get his very own Sirius station… gasp.

    The history of the UMC includes some dastardly decisions in the mid-60s that contribute to it’s decline… first the decision to stop planting churches and secondly, the decision to no longer require Sunday School (education/group involvement) as a part of membership. I also serve my Conference in the area of revitalization and have seen more than my share of declining congregations who have a strong contingency of social clubbers who would rather die in the social club than make a change that would breathe new life into the group. I cannot comment on whether they were conservative or progressive; many congregations are a mix. But, if you add those all together, and omit planting… well, the math is fairly easy.

    One solution is to plant. A planting pastor is not always aimed at mega-church. I’d be thrilled to pastor a group that really creates and nurtures disciples by living into its faith in outwardly focused ways (to offset an inward focus that just went too far).

    I could go on… but just wanted to offer a few thoughts.
    Rev. Dr. Margie Bryce
    DownRiver UMC

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Christy, one way of thinking about this is to draw on Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development, which is some ways was part of the original mega-church model of Willow Creek. The model suggests that the earlier stages of faith are indeed more simplistic, more theologically rigid, and much more about homogeneity than diversity. As one progresses into a deeper relationship with God, the simplistic faith no longer provides the answers to increasingly difficult questions, and other forms, which are less populist and consumeristic are needed. The problem is that the mega-church, seeker sensitive model never truly provided a system for guiding folks through those stages of faith, and what I observe is that folks (usually young adults) who outgrow the mega-model generally drop out in the belief (usually created by the mega-marketing) that other forms of church have nothing to offer (a conclusion stated by Bill Hybels himself). True discipleship that is willing to deal with ambiguity and mystery requires spaces for honest conversation and worship that allows space for reflection.

    In this model, what if we understood ourselves to be a place where people who “outgrow” the megachurch model have a place to go. Of course, I’m using the mega-descriptor, and there are UM congregations like COR in Kansas City that are certainly mega-churches in their own right. What COR does right however is to articulate clearly that people are at different places on the journey of faith and create a discipleship system that embraces all wherever they are on the journey, and grows with them as they grow.


    1. Jay, I think you are exactly right–those stages of faith are not being adequately addressed. I remember first reading Fowler’s work when I was attending the conservative seminary when I was in the Evangelical world and thinking how much sense it made to me. I also knew that his work was anathema to the theological world I was inhabiting because the higher stages often mean leaving behind that far more literalist, black and white world view.


    2. We have such a UM congregation in our district, running over 2000 on a weekend with four services at their main campus, as well as three other satellite sites. Lately, it seems that the UMC’s response to churches like this and/or COR is to merely mandate that all UM churches become clones of the megas, mimicking their methods and styles.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have thoroughly enjoyed this series of columns. Your mention of Dr. Martin at Rice brought back memories of sitting in his classes in the early 70’s. Keep up the good fight!


  7. Yeah I was thinking about Dr. Martin when I first noticed you doing this series. I think you should visit some different kinds of churches to get more perspective – predominately black, or Korean, or gay for instance. Or even non-Christian. I think they would be more interesting than the mega-churches.


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