Author's details

Name: UMJeremy
Date registered: March 3, 2012

Latest posts

  1. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Christianity is not the Greatest Religion in the World — December 17, 2014
  2. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Buying Organic Yogurt at Wal-Mart makes me ready for The Rob Bell Show — December 15, 2014
  3. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Debunked: The West costs the #UMC too much — December 12, 2014
  4. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Why do the largest #UMC’s not have female pastors? — December 10, 2014
  5. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Which Nation really rules the United Methodist Church? — December 8, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Holding the #UMC Hostage 01 – The Setting — 5 comments
  2. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: About that UMReporter Article…[response] – A Methodist Church United for our Daughters — 2 comments
  3. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Restricting Marriage is a Justice Issue — 2 comments
  4. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Is the #UMC the Rebellion…or the Empire? – Unity in Diversity…or Unity over Diversity? The choice is yours. — 2 comments
  5. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Defeating the Dark Side of Church Metrics #UMC – Measuring transformation or accumulation? — 2 comments

Author's posts listings

Dec 17 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Christianity is not the Greatest Religion in the World

Original post at


America is not…But it could be

The opening scene of HBO’s The Newsroom has haunted me for a long time. Jeff Bridges’ opening monologue is brilliant and well-acted: here’s the scene on youtube and the fulltext (NSFW language). Bridges plays a famous news anchor who is asked the question “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” The other panelists give canned answers, but Bridges is goaded into something more and he says “America is not the greatest country in the world.” The shocked audience listens as he explains why:

We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.

And then he closes with what we can do:

We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars…we aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior…

The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.

That’s what we start with. You start with the problem. Then you move into what to do about it. Far from crestfallen anti-America sentiment, this is a yearning for what one’s country stood for once and could be again–and recognizing that we’ve lost our way.

Christianity is not…

I think if we poll America, it would say: “Christianity is the greatest religion in the world.” And that might be a problem.

Since the Church allied with Emperor Constantine, our problem has been that we’ve never been satisfied with being the #2 religion. Our predominantly exclusivistic theology–only through Christ can one be saved–drives our need to convert the entire world. I’m not disputing the legitimacy of that belief; just pointing out that the belief inherently means that Christians want to be Number One–for the world’s sake, perhaps.

However, this belief has led to the place where we’ve been unwilling to be wrong. Our Popes are infallible when they speak from the throne. Our churches couldn’t possibly be where child molestation occurs. Those youths in jail couldn’t have done those terrible things because they’re good Christians. In the Church, Galileo was wrong for 350 years after science proved him right. And today the holdouts to the full inclusion of LGBT persons keep entire denominations from moving forward with honesty that “we are not of one mind.” Indeed often the ends justify the means because the ends are…perfect.

There’s no need to refer to the Crusades or the Salem Witch Trials or the Inquisition–there’s plenty of everyday moments with everyday people and everyday failings that make it very difficult for Christians to say “Christianity is the greatest religion in the world.”

 …and that’s Okay.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be.

Even though progressives are ridiculed for seeking public acts of repentance (like for the Sand Creek Massacre or the Internment of Japanese Americans), I think such humility and open recognition of faults make Christianity more attractive to a world we no longer dominate. Humility is certainly becoming part of the evangelical approach in recent years: I see many conservative evangelical churches offering up “We’re sorry” billboards, and sharing “imperfect church for imperfect people” taglines. While some of this may be marketing savvy, I do think it comes from a deep recognition that acknowledging faults makes the Church better.

In his book Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One is Looking, researcher and Big Data analyst Christian Rudder draws out one aspect of human psychology: an attraction to imperfection and variance from the norms.

The idea that variance is a positive thing is fairly well established…social psychologists call it “the pratfall effect“–as long as you’re generally competent, making a small, occasional mistake makes people think you’re more competent. Flaws call out the good stuff even more.

This need for imperfection might just be how our brains are put together. Our sense of small, which is the most connected to the brain’s emotional center, prefers discord to unison…the pleasant scent given off by many flowers, like orange blossoms and jasmine, contains a significant fraction (about 3 percent) of a protein called indole. It’s common in the large intestine, and on its own, it smells accordingly. But the flowers don’t smell as good without it…indole is also an ingredient in synthetic human perfumes.

For too long, the Church (and denominations, especially) has been allergic to the pratfall effect. We are unwilling to be wrong. The inertia of those decisions is astounding.

But oddly enough, if we are more honest about our shortcomings, I think our good aspects will come out stronger.

In 2014, the top stories about my denomination of the United Methodist Church were sexuality issues, certainly, but also our sustained and courageous response to Ebola and eradicating Malaria. In the words of a Facebook friend: “my irrelevant, out-of-touch, institutionally-oriented, ready-for-retirement dinosaur of a denomination” helped drop deaths by malaria by 50%. While people lament that sexuality conversations are front-and-center, I think the combination of stories draw out that the Church is worth the struggle because of what it can do when we are united.

In short, by recognizing failings, by being open about shortcomings, by being open about doubts from the pulpits, we both live into our humanity better and do greater work together with our ministry partners around the world.


I would rather be the second best religion in the world that is doing real, substantial work.

I would rather have a smaller denomination that boldly steps out of the crab buckets into something new, with an honest polity that recognizes the substantial, sustained diversity of beliefs.

And I believe that begins with admitting that the church is broken, that the church has erred and continues to err, but being Christian is still worth it. We’ll fall and fall again, but as long as we keep falling forward, by the grace of God, we’ll find our way to the full realization of the Reign of God indeed. And I think there’s biblical precedent for that.


  • Where do you see the Church modeling brokenness, being open about doubts, shortcomings, and human failings?
  • Where does the Church need to be better at it?

Thanks for your comments and for your shares!

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Dec 15 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Buying Organic Yogurt at Wal-Mart makes me ready for The Rob Bell Show

Original post at

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Creative Commons Share: 1, 2

Rob Bell has a new show coming out (trailer). The author and former megachurch pastor will debut his new “The Rob Bell Show” on Oprah’s OWN network on Sunday, December 21st, 2014. According to the early experiences, it sounds interesting.

Also coming out are the myriad of evangelicals who are already dismissing Bell. For Rob Bell to team up with Hollywood–original home of the gay agenda–is too much to bear. While there are some who see Rob Bell as functionally sound in the evangelical sense, for the most part, evangelicals are cautious of the former megachurch pastor who denied hell and now embraces marriage equality and has a TV show.

But for progressives, the question is: how ought we view The Rob Bell Show?

The Stonyfield Wager

As a progressive, I view this Rob Bell Show like I do organic yogurt at Wal-Mart.

In the 2008 film Food Inc that investigates injustices in our food chain, we are introduced to Stonyfield Farms and their line of organic yogurt that is sold at…Wal-Mart. Yes, Wal-mart. There’s a great scene where the CEO Gary Hirshberg is explaining why an organic food company sells its products at one of the biggest capitalistic vultures of the modern world.

When I run into my old environmental friends, many are initially horrified by the kinds of company that I’m keeping these days. But when I then go on to explain what the impact of one purchase order from Wal-Mart is, in terms of not pounds but tons of pesticide, tons of herbicide, tons of chemical fertilizer, the discussion–we get away from the emotion and we get down to the facts.

I have no illusions about this. I don’t believe that Wal-Mart has come here because they’ve suddenly had a moral enlightenment. It’s because of economics. I can debate with my radical friends all day long, but nobody can challenge the fact that a sale of another million dollars to Wal-Mart helps to save the world.

For Hirshberg and Stonyfield Farms, there was an acceptable trade-off to work with Wal-Mart: they were giving financial benefit to a company with terrible economic and labor injustice, but in the process, they were both changing the culture around organic food and removing tons of chemicals from the food chain.

It’s a wager: you gamble that participating in an unjust system will spark enough good to make it worth it–at the moment.

The Bell Curves…

I see Rob Bell in the same light. There’s a lot to be worried about. He has moved from builder of church community to self-help individualism. He is participating in celebrity culture (a regular cautionary topic on this blog). And yet I wonder if the trade-off is enough to allow a more open sense of spirituality and a fresh take on the conversation to seep into the public consciousness–and to cause them to want more and deeper faith discussion. Is the gamble worth it to see what might happen?

Various progressive personalities have participated in the public consciousness over the years but they’ve mostly been one-issue people: Rev. Jim Wallis and his “budget is a moral document”; United Methodist laity Bill McKibben and climate change; Sister Helen Prejean and the death penalty; Bishop Minerva Carcano and immigration reform. That’s not a bad thing, of course, but hardly equivalent to what Bell is trying to do with having a new forum for conversation about faith.

The question for progressives is “Can we tolerate Bell long enough to see if he is doing good on a scale that is not been seen before in progressive circles?”

…towards a more diverse public square?

We don’t often have these moments when the media has something worthwhile for progressive values. Progressives may feel like we are passive recipients of the Christian Entertainment Industry. We may feel powerless to take on the Evangelical Industrial Complex. We may feel too tired to write letters when Beth Moore has a new book out. But these shows and events keep taking place because people keep watching.

Two can play at that game. If progressives tune in, if we engage, and if we discern that the show might be a forum for transformational discussion, then we create the market. If we show them that there’s a market for open faith discussion, then imagine what might come up! Instead of a solely right-wing Christianity being seen on TV and heard on Talk Radio, and the occasional straw-man progressive invited onto a slanted show, imagine what might happen with a more diverse public square.

I’m not saying Bell will be able to do that by himself, and I’m not pre-emptively saying the show will even be good. What I’m saying is that if it is good enough, then we have an opportunity to create the demand for a more equitable public square for faith discussion.

Going back to organic yogurt for a moment, Hirshberg concludes in Food Inc.:

The irony is that the average consumer does not feel very powerful. They think they are the recipients of whatever industry has put out there for them to consume. Trust me, it’s the exact opposite. When we run an item past the supermarket scanner, we’re voting for local or not, organic or not.

Like Stonyfield Farms and Wal-Mart removing tons of dangerous chemicals from the marketplace, I believe Bell has the potential to also remove the toxic chemicals from the air that suffocates Christianity, relegating us to one political party, one way to heaven, and one losing side of the generational divide over LGBT inclusion.  There will be theological minefields, there will be challenges to orthodoxy, and he may even be too “out there” for this progressive Christian.

But until I taste the yogurt and see it’s actually gross, I’m going to celebrate Rob Bell taking just a little bit of attention away from reactionary monolithic Christianity and putting it towards something that could be transformative to conversations about faith in the public square.



Thanks for reading–and tune in on OWN on December 21st to see what the fuss is all about! I’ll likely be live-blogging it on Twitter if feasible.

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Dec 12 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Debunked: The West costs the #UMC too much

Original post at

The following is an entry in the Big Data and the UMC series: how data can help disrupt false narratives in the Church.

It is often said that the Western parts of the United Methodist Church cost the rest of the UMC too much money. The real numbers tell a different story…

CC0 License

CC0 License

 A Portion too little?

For years, there’s been a persistent narrative on the comments of this blog. Here’s an example:

[T]he Western Jurisdiction doesn’t even meet the basic connectional responsibility of paying for their own bishops and haven’t for a long, long time (since 2000 and likely before that). For 2012 (the Financial Commitment Report is now available from GCFA), the Western Jurisdiction fell $242K short of paying for their own bishops and contributed ZERO toward the central conference bishops and the retirees. What is connectional about that? [source]

The West has been decried as the worst part of Methodism. Not only are we the home of biblical obedience, not only are we flaming progressives, not only is one of our bishops facing a complaint for violating the Discipline, but we cost too much.

The majority of that may be true. But the last accusation? That one dies today.

To understand the accusation, the United Methodist Church requests Apportionments from each local church, which is a “church tithe” given for local, regional, and global ministry support. Everything that makes the United Methodist Church a denomination–all the national agencies, Bishops, regional leaders, and infrastructure–is funded from these apportionments. Each “portion meant” for others is calculated on a complex equation that involves church budget, pastoral charge, and other factors. Each local church is allocated a certain amount of money that is expected each year, and then Annual Conferences then report how much of that allocation they actually pay.

So that’s what the comments harp on: the West does not pay their full apportionment, and they are costing the rest of Methodism too much.

A Speck In My Eye…

Beyond the commentators on this lowly blog, the caucus group the Institute on Religion and Democracy raises money and hackles off the narrative that the West is skimming money off the rest of Methodism. Quote:

Last year, the Western Jurisdiction paid 83.1 percent of all of its assigned denomination-wide apportionments, while the other four U.S. jurisdictions paid between 87.5 and 93.9 percent of their respective shares.

The difference is even more profound in payments to the Episcopal Fund, which pays for our bishops. In 2012 and 2013, the Western Jurisdiction only paid between 81.5 and 86.9 percent of its share of the Episcopal Fund, while the other four jurisdictions consistently paid over 90 percent of theirs.

…Thus the Western Jurisdiction is by far the least committed to the doctrine, covenant, and financial support of the United Methodist Church.

Really? Let’s see the numbers (and these are taken from the actual, scanned copy that the IRD referenced).

Jurisdiction Episc. Fund Paid Episc. Fund Owed Variance
Western $1,290,032 $1,484,170 $(194,138.00)

You might have to swipe sideways on your mobile device to read the whole chart.

Yeah, being short $200k is not good connectional giving.

But out of curiosity, how do we do compared to the rest of the jurisdictions?

Jurisdiction Episc. Fund Paid Episc. Fund Owed Variance
Western $1,290,032 $1,484,170 $(194,138.00)
SouthEastern $7,371,605 $8,106,424 $(734,819.00)
South Central $4,466,521 $4,934,569 $(468,048.00)
North Central $4,046,471 $4,242,593 $(196,122.00)
Northeastern $3,254,086 $3,530,540 $(276,454.00)



This is a textbook case of percentages hiding the true numbers. The truth is that while the West is short percentage-wise, the actual numbers are quite incredible: the Southeastern Jurisdiction is short an amount grossly larger than the West–indeed, more than the Northern and Western Jurisdictions combined.

To me, this is the same trick politicians use when they say that the Police Lieutenant on your block is a taker from the system (“Look at how much pension they’re getting!”) while drawing attention away from the millions of dollars denied to the public by corporations who pay no taxes.

The IRD raises money by pointing out perceived inequalities in the system to perpetuate a narrative of the West costing the church too much. Too bad there are now people willing to call them on their funny math.

…A Log in Yours

Indeed, it seems the schoolyard taunt “if you point a finger at me, there’s three pointed back at you” applies to this conversation about cost and connectional giving. If people are so willing to throw the West under the bus for their perceived shortfall on Bishop support, what about the whole Apportionment? The entire church tithe requested from each region?

Based on the recently-released 2013 numbers obtained from GCFA (see disclaimer), the Western Jurisdiction’s shortfall for its entire apportionment is:

Jurisdiction Apportionments Paid Apportionments Owed Variance
Western $35,601,354 $43,104,311 $(7,502,957)


Holy carp. The West is short $7.5 million? That’s a ton of cash. Little wonder the rest of Methodism wants to cut it off! Fall into the sea, heathens!

….But when you look at the rest of the jurisdictions:

Jurisdiction Apportionments Paid Apportionments Owed Variance
Western $35,601,354 $43,104,311 $(7,502,957)
SouthEastern $198,095,840 $226,949,040 $(28,853,200)
South Central $120,291,304 $134,529,758 $(14,238,454)
North Central $97,462,414 $120,457,640 $(22,995,226)
Northeastern $84,767,227 $100,011,681 $(15,244,454)


Holy carp. When it’s ranked among the other jurisdictions, it’s actually the lowest sum of cash short? While the burden isn’t as heavily on the Southern jurisdictions (I’m looking at you, North Central), the numbers are staggering. Look: the Southern jurisdictions are short almost the entire apportionment of the Western Jurisdiction. The entire apportionment!

The above isn’t to pick on the South. It is to show that while churches, pastors, and narratives from caucus groups like to point fingers at the West, the real numbers show a very different story. If a single jurisdiction paid their full apportionment, they would benefit the global church incredibly, and would have the moral high ground to demand equivalent giving by the rest of the connection.

Our Brother’s Keepers

“Mission work around the world, whether it be a new university in Africa or bicycles for Cuban pastors, is the work of “the connection,” as opposed to the work of a single congregation.” –

Connectional giving is incredibly important. Our church tithes pay for discipleship resources, mission administration, our episcopal leadership, Taylor Burton-Edwards tirelessly answering every conceivable ecclesial question on Facebook, UMCOR eradicating malaria, interdenominational efforts, and tons of other things that would be beyond the ability of any local church. We are all in this together as a denomination, and that means everyone gives into the common pot while holding accountable the leadership charged with distributing those funds in a missional way.

Hacking Christianity takes financial obligations by the worldwide United Methodist Church seriously, and we are willing to call conservatives, schismatics, progressives, and church reformers alike on the importance of connectional giving.

The takeaways from this conversation are twofold:

  1. The South–and to some extent, the North–have great power but also great responsibility. If they are going to be champions of connectional obligations, they should be prepared to model such obligations.
  2. The West, though in real numbers it has the least power, nonetheless has the responsibility to give back to the connection. Our worldwide covenant affirms gifts beyond just money, so we need to be better about intentionally supplying the global church financially, spiritually, and missionally.



Obligatory disclaimer:

“The statistical data included herein were provided at no charge by the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church (GCFA) and may be obtained directly from GCFA, PO Box 340020, Nashville, TN 37203-0029. This data is proprietary and is owned by GCFA and may not be used in any commercial or exploitative way, to make a financial profit, or in a manner that defames the United Methodist denomination or its agencies or organizations. GCFA does not endorse any particular use of the data or accept responsibility for its interpretation or analysis by another.”

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Dec 10 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Why do the largest #UMC’s not have female pastors?

Original post at

The following is an entry in the Big Data and the UMC series: how data can help disrupt false narratives in the Church.

It is often claimed that, because the United Methodist Church has female clergy and female Bishops, we have broken the stained glass ceiling. However, a study of the most recently-available numbers and pastoral leadership in the UMC tells of at least one stained glass ceiling still present in the largest of the UMC’s local churches.


The Top Only Four

Pictured above is Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, Senior Pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, California. She is a rarity in the UMC, not only in her talent and ability…but also due to a unique combination of her gender and her status.

You see, Dr. Oliveto is one of the only two women who serve as Senior Pastors in the Top 100 United Methodist Churches (by attendance).

There are 207,700 United Methodists that worship on an average Sunday at the top 100 United Methodist Churches in America. Out of those, only 2% of them worship with a female senior pastor in charge of the order of that local church.

In fact, of the 177 United Methodist churches that have over 1,000 people on an average Sunday morning, only four have female senior pastors:

  1. Karen Oliveto, Glide Memorial UMC, California (appointed 2008)
  2. Juanita Rasmus, St. John’s Downtown Houston, Texas (began 1992 – co-senior pastor with Rudy Rasmus)
  3. Deborah McLeod, Mandarin FUMC, Florida (appointed 2009)
  4. Linda Harker, Norman McFarlin UMC, Oklahoma (appointed 2011)

For the top 177 churches in the United Methodist Church (in America, not worldwide) to have only four women is pretty bad. 2.26%!

In a denomination that celebrates women in ministry–and has female Bishops, church executives, and all levels of the church–why are our numbers so dire when it comes to the largest of our local churches?

Why are women shut out?

This is not a new phenomenon. In 2006, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry studied the topic and found that of the churches that worship more than 350 people on an average Sunday, men were twice as likely as women to occupy those pulpits.

But what is the root cause?

Dr. Oliveto (twitter) responded to this question with the following observation:

I think we don’t see women in our largest churches because church and society still value male leadership over female leadership. Stereotypes of who can lead–what style of leadership is valued, who is conferred authority and why—are based in cultural assumptions about gender and race.

One reason why the UMC has historically seen more women serving in local churches than other mainline denominations is in no small part due to our appointment system. A church must accept a pastoral appointment regardless of the potential pastor’s race or gender.

The appointment system breaks down around large churches. Large churches–which are organizationally more complex AND pay more–often get to pick their pastor and THEN request that the Bishop approve the appointment. This allows a congregation’s underlying sexism/racism to influence who may serve as their pastor.

Every church has to overcome a systemic level of bias away from the straight white male that has been the “traditional” pastoral image. Every. Church. Our connectional system is better equipped than call systems to take on these issues head-on, but as Dr. Oliveto said, it is when our connectional systems become more like call systems that such biases become more manifest. It takes a willingness by the Bishop and the local church leadership to appoint someone transformative–a willingness that is not always present.

We can do better…eventually.

For female clergy, Dr. Oliveto recommends being part of a program by GBHEM that connects female clergy of larger pastorates with other female clergy in the church. By starting these mutual conversations and support, they are able to encourage one another and learn from each other. Click here for more information.

For the Church, I believe we can make two tweaks to our connectional system that will lead to a more equitable system:

  1. Church planting: Many of the largest UMC’s were relatively recent church plants and the senior pastor is the founding pastor. In many churches and conferences, women are not a high percentage of the church planters, and are rarely given a prime opportunity with lots of potential. Even if that is not the case in many areas these days, it has been in the past, and we see it in our list. For new church start planning teams to put intentional work into identifying and training women to lead these opportunities will slowly turn the numbers on their heads. Having women as planters but not giving them the same resources and opportunities as men does not count.
  2. Making Management not the Goal: The UMC does have a significant percentage of female Bishops: 15 out of 60 worldwide active Bishops (25%) are female. I don’t know of a single Annual Conference without some female DSes–even my small conference has 50% women. Do the best women clergy become District Superintendents and Bishops instead of large church pastors? Do we trust them more with being managers more than leaders of our biggest pulpits? I hope our Bishops consider training women to take the pulpits of our largest churches when transition comes naturally or is needed rather than pushing them to become Bishops instead.

Let us be clear: Giving intentional discernment, training, and equitable resources to women is not preference, gender bias, or straight-white-male-hating. It is about making the church a better place for all to have the best opportunities and removing the roadblocks to allow the Holy Spirit to nudge into place who the Spirit wants.


The reality is that the UMC still has more women clergy than the largest megachurches and the largest denominations (Catholic, Southern Baptists) in the world.

We are the leading edge for women in ministry.

We just need to lead better. 



Obligatory disclaimer:

“The statistical data included herein were provided at no charge by the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church (GCFA) and may be obtained directly from GCFA, PO Box 340020, Nashville, TN 37203-0029. This data is proprietary and is owned by GCFA and may not be used in any commercial or exploitative way, to make a financial profit, or in a manner that defames the United Methodist denomination or its agencies or organizations. GCFA does not endorse any particular use of the data or accept responsibility for its interpretation or analysis by another.”

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Dec 08 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Which Nation really rules the United Methodist Church?

Original post at

The following is an entry in the Big Data and the UMC series: how data can help disrupt false narratives in the Church.

We’ve heard over and over that “The Southern USA rules the United Methodist Church.” When we use the boundaries set by the United Methodist Church, this might be the case. But when we apply different models that better account for cultural context, we get a very different story as to what is the dominant cultural force in the United Methodist Church.

The Model: American Nations

The picture above depicts Colin Woodard’s 2011 book American Nations, a history of 11 rival regional cultures that eventually became the United States of America. We know the Yankees and the Deep South, but what about Tidewater and New Netherland? Woodard draws out the cultural similarities of these regions as well as what differentiated them during colonial times. You can read some primers/reviews of Woodard’s book here, here, here, and here, as well as more maps using this lens here and here.

I find Woodard’s book and sketch to be pretty accurate. Having grown up & served churches in Greater Appalachia, studied in Yankeedom, and now live in the Left Coast, I’ve had both an insiders and an outsiders’ view to these regions, and I find Woodard’s rough sketches to be pretty accurate, as well as helpful to me as a minister to these regions. Many folks critique the book by pointing to the high level of mobility these days (my own story above being an example) and thus how the people who reside in these regions were not necessarily from there. But by and large, I find value in the model overall.

 The Model and the UMC

The originating culture of the United Methodist Church came about alongside the birth of the United States of America. You can see the mutual impact in our history (we were born during the Revolution, split during the civil war, and did our last major unification after WW2), our structure (three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial), and our regions (our jurisdictions are in place so Northern bishops can’t serve in the South). It would then make sense to apply this model of American development to the UMC as it came about around the same time all these originating cultures existed.

While the United Methodist Church is now a worldwide church, with many nations large and small, we will use the term “nation” in Woodard’s vernacular as referring to the founding nations of America

Let’s now apply this model of eleven cultures to the United Methodist Church (actually ten, as one culture is just in Canada). When we take the Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church in 2013 (the last year we have the data), here’s what it looks like:


59 Annual Conferences in 5 regions (though some have merged since 2013). But if we overlay the Woodard book, look at what we get (click to enlarge).


This is a bit confusing, but it’s the best combination of two maps I could find that more or less lined up (everyone makes America taller or wider in ways that don’t cause East and West Coasts to line up, so this is the best I could do).

Some curiosities:

  • Illinois is the most perfectly segmented by Nation in the United Methodist Church. The Northern Illinois conference (Chicago) is perfectly The Midlands, whereas Illinois/Great Rivers is perfectly Greater Appalachia.
  • California is also segmented by nation with the dividing line between California-Pacific and California-Nevada conferences being exactly where Woodard puts the dividing line between El Norte (San Diego area) and The Left Coast (which is essentially Los Angeles to Seattle).
  • Yes, the Texas Conference is very different from the rest of Texas because it is almost 100% Deep South, whereas the rest of Texas is mostly Greater Appalachia with a bit of El Norte.
  • Great Plains (the merger of Kansas West, East, and Nebraska) is the most diverse, drawing about equal proportions from three nations: The Midlands, Greater Appalachia, and the Far West.

Evaluating the Nations of the UMC

To answer the question of “who rules the UMC?” we will evaluate the United Methodist Church’s power structure based on two criteria:

  1. Worship attendance
  2. Church membership

Both of the above are considered ways to evaluate vitality: the most vital churches are the ones with a healthy balance of people in the pews, names on the rosters, and dollars in the plates (we’re saving the finances for a future post). While these are false proxies as they do not accurately evaluate who is most vital or the best disciple, I will use them for their ease of comparison.

To apply this model, I divided the Conferences into the Nations (See the list – pdf) and then added up the population or attendance in each from the 2013 UMC Data (see end of post). One acknowledged variable is that our Annual Conferences do not always fall neatly over Woodard’s lines (though they often do!). In those cases, I’ve made an executive criteria: if most of the conference is in one region, I put it in one. If it falls into two pretty evenly, I gave half its value to each. I don’t know them all so it may be one nation within an Annual Conference has higher attendance/membership than the other, but outside of going county-by-county, this rough sketch is the best we’re gonna get at the moment.

Worship Attendance & Membership

Using the list alongside the 2013 data of membership and attendance, here’s how the Nations compare with regard to worship attendance at the end of 2013:

Nation Attendance Percentage
Greater Appalachia 1,030,222.50 35.42
Deep South 663,646.50 22.82
The Midlands 423,144.00 14.55
Yankeedom 249,193.00 8.57
Tidewater 162,685.50 5.59
Far West 161,197.00 5.54
New Netherland 75,816.00 2.61
El Norte 88,939.50 3.06
Left Coast 33,130.50 1.14
New France 20,377.50 0.7
TOTAL 2,908,352.00

Here’s how the Nations compare with regard to church membership at the end of 2013:

American Nation UM Membership Percentage
Greater Appalachia 2,656,707.00 36.39
Deep South 1,633,505.00 22.38
The Midlands 1,054,293.50 14.44
Yankeedom 614,256.00 8.41
Tidewater 475,794.50 6.52
Far West 331,476.00 4.54
New Netherland 207,492.50 2.84
El Norte 191,222.50 2.62
Left Coast 74,880.50 1.03
New France 60,125.50 0.82
Total 7,299,753

Summary: Barring other (significant) factors for the purposes of comparison, the cultural conditions of Greater Appalachia currently result in the greatest compatibility with the United Methodist Church’s mission and ministry. Greater Appalachia serves as the linchpin for two cultures that are highly different: the Midlands and the Deep South. By pairing cultural values with either of them, they reach 51% of the membership. Greater Appalachia is the strongest cultural force in the United Methodist Church, with a land mass that spans the midwest, to the plains of Oklahoma, to Texas, and the northern parts of what is considered to be “the South.”


There are serious problems with evaluating power based on attendance and membership. Regarding attendance, in my culture of the None Zone, many of my most dedicated members attend bible studies, outreach events, and volunteer opportunities 2-3 times a week, but are only in worship 1-2 times a month. Why are they only counted in one aspect? Regarding membership, Hispanic and Asian communities can have roadblocks to church membership as some are undocumented and may worship regularly but do not want to be “listed” in an official capacity. So at best, these are false proxies that are problematic for the biggest mission areas of the church (minority populations and the secular West) but they benefit the one area where there’s the most power (Greater Appalachia), so changing our evaluative process is an uphill slog.


I have a lot to draw from this map, but I wanted to gauge people’s perceptions of it first. One of the things we are proud of here at Hacking Christianity is our willingness to delve deep into data and draw some helpful narratives out of it. In our quest to be the Nate Silver of the UMC, we believe there are some conclusions that can be drawn from data and hopefully this was helpful for you.

Thoughts? Please comment and share!


Disclaimer: “The statistical data included herein were provided at no charge by the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church (GCFA) and may be obtained directly from GCFA, PO Box 340020, Nashville, TN 37203-0029. This data is proprietary and is owned by GCFA and may not be used in any commercial or exploitative way, to make a financial profit, or in a manner that defames the United Methodist denomination or its agencies or organizations. GCFA does not endorse any particular use of the data or accept responsibility for its interpretation or analysis by another.”

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Dec 05 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Blessed with discomfort, anger, tears, and foolishness

Original post at

One of my Boston University classmates posted a prayer from a mutual beloved professor’s handout. It’s recorded online as a “Franciscan Blessing” but I don’t know its true origins.

In a time where young black men are being killed by people trusted with authority, where rights are taken away from protected groups, where injustice and perversion of justice reigns unchecked, I felt it was an appropriate prayer for the activists, the armchairs, and the accused today.


May God bless you with the discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears so shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, and starvation, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

And, the Blessing of God Almighty, the [Creator], the [Redeemer], and the [Sustainer] be among you and remain with you always. Amen.


Amen indeed. Now, to live it out.

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