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Church must guard against division, Methodist bishop says

FORT WORTH -- As United Methodists strive to feed the physical and spiritual needs of the world, they must guard against denominational fractures that can interfere with their mission, an Illinois bishop told nearly 4,000 people gathered Thursday at the United Methodist General Conference.

By categorizing one another with labels like conservative or liberal on social issues, "we treat our baptized brothers and sisters as if they were enemies," Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher said to those at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

Nearly 1,000 delegates from across the world are meeting for 10 days to examine church policy on matters ranging from establishing new churches and stamping out killer diseases to addressing issues including same-sex unions and the war in Iraq.

There is good and bad news for the 11.4-million-member denomination, she said.

With congregations in more than 50 countries, its global membership grew more than 34 percent between 1995 and 2005, with a 200-percent gain in Africa and Southeast Asia.

However, the number of Methodists in Europe has declined more than 10 percent. The number of United Methodists in the United States has dropped even more dramatically, from 10.7 million members to fewer than 8 million, she said.

As the church faces the future, it must find ways to reach out to young people, denomination leaders say. The average age of United Methodists is 57 years; less than 5 percent of the denomination is younger than 18.

But the church is using new and successful approaches in its mission, Christopher said.

Video presentations on big screens portrayed congregations growing from such unlikely sites as a rented cafeteria and a former tattoo shop. A Colorado prison ministry inspired inmates to create artistic interpretations of the Bible using scrap paper and pencil stubs.

"In our mission lies a role for each and every United Methodist," Christopher said.

For the first time, the conference included a Young People's Address, delivered by seven people ages 16 to 29. Among them were college students, a law student and a recently ordained minister.

Matt Lockett, 20, a college student from Seattle, said that for many young people, faith is less about internal belief than it is about action.

"There's nothing you can say to make them stay in the church," he said at a press conference. "They have to experience something.

"The best way I've found is to give them some responsibility over something they enjoy doing. Instead of saying, 'Would you serve Communion?', say 'What would you like to do?'"

The Rev. Annie Arnoldy, 29, of Grand Junction, Colo., said that in ministering to young people, Methodists "have to be intentional about explaining church words and things that are second nature to some of us."

And Kira Volkova, 24, a candidate for ordination from Kirov, Russia, said Methodist ministers influenced her to become at Christian at age 10.

"Their lifestyle, their calling and example inspired me to become a minister," she said. "People in Russia know very little about the United Methodist Church and theology. It's still a new thing for them.

"I think young people, young clergy, speak well to young people."

In a laity address to the conference, Lyn Powell of North Georgia said it is unreasonable to expect clergy members "to chase the unchurched single-handedly."

The United Methodist Church’s membership has declined every year for the past 40 years, she said, and much of the reason is the laity’s inaction.

"Does that mean you stand on the street corner flagging down passersby, grabbing them by the collar and saying, ’Are you saved?’" Powell asked.

She suggested instead that United Methodists "invite, invite, invite" acquaintances and strangers to their church. "Do not whine, ’I can’t do this,’" she said.

"You look for a logical opening to mention your church. Do anything you can to keep the conversation going. Then ask the million-dollar question: ’Do you have a church home now?’"

Too many people think of the church as a private club, she said, but "so many people will visit if an acquaintance will meet them at the door."

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