aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,
aefenglommung
aefenglommung

UMC-BSA at 100: the Last Hurrah

The United Methodist Church became the largest charter partner of BSA this year. We had been a strong No. 2 for years and years, but with the LDS Church quitting the field, The UMC reigns supreme among religious orgs using Scouting-type programs in ministry. This year is also the 100th anniversary of Methodist-BSA cooperation on a national org-to-org basis. But this year of supposed Methodist summitting is really a kind of last hurrah. Take a good, long look around, because we won't be back here for a long time, if ever.

The UMC is not just dying, it is coming apart at the seams. Aging, dysfunctional, only waiting for the postponed General Conference to ease the way to a global denominational split, The UMC as we have known it is already passing from the scene. COVID-19 is removing the last illusions about our strength. In terms of Scouting ministry specifically, The UMC's production of religious emblem awards (what we used to call "God and Country") is plummeting. A canary in the coal mine, perhaps.

I have been warning my Scouting friends -- especially those who have seen The UMC as a reliable go-to community org they can always ask to charter a new unit, or rescue an old one -- that the clock is ticking on the kind of relationship they have depended upon. The backbone of The UMC has been the congregation that sees itself as a community center, a place where not only specifically religious goals are pursued, but where everybody is welcome to advance their vision of community betterment through the good offices (and facilities) of the church. Nothing wrong with that, it's just that those churches are all dying. And their frailty is accentuated by the angry politics of church division. In the successor denominations that will come out of all this, the old flagship congregations that saw their ministry of hospitality as part of their raison d'etre will be even further weakened. If BSA is counting on the dinosaurs to save it from extinction, they are betting on the wrong brontosaurus.

Meanwhile, the two largest groups within The UMC that will form the core of new denominations have very different visions of what the church should try to do, and neither of them will be interested in helping aging congregations that can't get with the program hang on to their existence. Not only that, but selling Scouting to either of these dominant wings is going to be a hard sell. The progressive wing of the church, which will probably inherit the UMC name and most of its bureaucracy, is going to be promoting ever more lurid visions of wokeness. Existing Scouting programs in those congregations are probably not immediately imperiled, but it's important for Scouters to realize that the Awokened just aren't much into Scouting, no matter how trendy BSA tries to make itself.

The traditionalist wing of the church was a major supporter of BSA on ideological grounds until BSA gave up the fight over admission of practicing gay Scouts and Scouters. Some of them now view BSA as an agent of the enemy in the culture wars. But even among those who would be willing to listen to a pitch from the local Council, BSA faces a serious problem. The traditionalist churches that intend to grow and flourish intend to do so by following the maxim that The main thing is to keep the Main Thing the main thing. The Main Thing for these churches is making disciples of Jesus Christ. Can Scouting help us do that? Can you tell us how Scouting can help us do that? Because if there isn't a direct, immediate path from chartering a unit to making disciples, then your admittedly good cause would be a distraction from our mission, using resources that we could better devote to something that would further our goals. And here, BSA has to face its own failure. Scouters have assumed that everybody understands Scoutese. We don't bother to research our charter partners' goals in order to explain how our product can help them get where they're trying to go. We don't speak their language.

So, to restate: the kind of Methodist churches that BSA has always depended on is a dying breed. There's not much future there for the Methodist-BSA partnership. Looking to the future, BSA is ill-positioned to appeal to either progressives or traditionalists. They would have a better chance with the traditionalists, I think, but they have to learn to speak the language in order to make a sale.

This is something all other businesses do that sell products to the church. A company that sells copiers knows how churches use copiers and comes in to do a pitch ready to explain how their product can help the church reach its goals. They can give examples of similar congregations that use their product to reach their goals. Insurance companies do the same when they come in to make a pitch. Shoot, T-SHIRT COMPANIES know how to market to churches. But BSA keeps assuming that their vague do-goodness and civic-mindedness is good enough to mark them as a ministry worth pursuing by any religious body.

I have been doing Scouting as ministry for forty years. I have been teaching Scouting as ministry for thirty years. I can explain to fellow church folk the linkage between operating a Scouting unit and making disciples in terms they can understand: as religious education, as spiritual formation, and in terms of Church Growth/evangelism/missions theory. Getting a hearing is the problem, since so many of my clergy colleagues assume they have all the answers (or can find them in the next Seedbed publication or Holy Spirit conference). But even if I can get in the door, I find no real interest among BSA poobahs in learning to talk church to church folk. I leave a lot of Council Board meetings feeling like someone who has been speaking eis aera (cf. 1 Cor. 14:9).

There will be a future for Scouting ministry, since the good stuff always survives. But the orgs that thought they had a corner on the good stuff don't, necessarily. The UMC is in its death-throes, waiting for something new to be born. BSA is feeling pretty poorly, too. But faith in Christ is still the greatest adventure of all, and there will always be those who will make the trip. Lord, I want to be in that number.
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