Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?
What few church leaders seem to understand is how the negative bantering back and forth has contributed virtually nothing towards the church’s health. My attempts to sound more dire and apocalyptic than you don’t revive a thing. Besides, we’ve all seen the statistics: steep declines in membership and money, aging buildings and church members, ineffective programs and initiatives, an irrelevant vestige of religion from a bygone era, yada, yada, yada, etc, etc, etc… While we must confront the truth head on, break the denial, and accept that Church in the 21st Century takes on a shape markedly different than before, we’re still left asking, “Now what?”. Suddenly the room grows eerily silent. We then realize that those who complain but offer nothing substantive to mediate the problem are the problem.
So, beginning from my little island in the blogosphere, I’d like to offer a new set of questions for the mainline church which I will address over time. (I’m doing so as loudly as I can to anyone who will listen!) My bishop once wisely said that we don’t arrive at the truth by offering answers but by asking good questions. In other words, the mainline church finds itself retreading the same debates over its decline because it begins the conversation with inadequate questions. Let’s take a look at some of those questions and then reword them to be more authentic, biblical, and Christ-like.
Question #1: How can we get our churches growing again?
There are two major faults with this question. First, the question preoccupies the mainline church with institutional survival. Let’s face it, the mainline church, especially my own United Methodist tribe, loves to crunch numbers. We count numbers like worship attendance, the number of new members, numbers of people in classes and activities, how much money is brought in and spent, and on and on.We love it when the numbers project upward because that means the institution is thriving. We worry when the numbers spiral downward because that means the institution is in jeopardy. But there’s a major problem with this kind of focus: individual souls are just another number which props up the legitimacy of the institution. At the end of the day, what the institution values most is its own viability, not the viability of each person the blood of God was spilled to save.
The second fault is in the word “again.” That presupposes that the same construction and configuration of church we’ve inherited will be an effective means for today and the future. It is not. Pioneering books like George Barna’s Revolution warn us that congregational styles of church may have a limited shelf life, and that we need to rethink what Church is, how it gathers, how it disciples people into the likeness of Jesus, and how it spreads the good news of Jesus to the world. So can we see growth, absolutely! But… not by pouring new wine into old wineskins.
Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?
Notice that the emphasis is no longer on us or on our survival, but on the survival of a lost world. It heals us from our addiction to numbers and moves the growth from institutional growth to kingdom growth, the latter encompassing every local church, every denomination, and indeed our whole world. It mobilizes us outward, looking towards the reign of God and the healing of our world by the blood of Jesus, one person, one family, one community at a time.
Please note that I’m not trying to dismantle or disregard the mainline church. I love my heritage as a United Methodist, and in fact, the kind of thinking that I’m suggesting is more in keeping with John Wesley’s vision than the dead form of religion he feared we would fall into and have indeed become. If there is any hope for United Methodism, we must once again rekindle our love for Jesus Christ, his gospel, and people who have yet to be born again into a new life with Christ and his Church.
Along these lines, I believe the answers to this question make themselves clearly apparent when we simply shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus and the world he died to save. When we do that, we find ourselves simplifying how we carry on as a Church– our worship, study, and engagements with the world around us. We find ourselves gathering together in the outside world where people normally live, work, and play. We realize that we captivate people not with pizazz but with authenticity. We move from being clever, cute, and flashy to being transparent, honest and profound. We see that the world has already heard about God so many times before. They’re not standing around waiting for us to say it again, this time with PowerPoint and a band. If they gives us a chance at all, it will happen when they see us doing what we say we believe and then speaking a message that points straight to Jesus.
To be continued…