A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sometimes Death Is the Only Way Forward

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24)

When the Lord heard your words, he was wrathful and swore: "Not one of these—not one of this evil generation—shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors, except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his descendants I will give the land on which he set foot, because of his complete fidelity to the Lord" (Deuteronomy 1:34-36).

Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, "It is written, 'My house shall be a house of prayer'; but you have made it a den of robbers." Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard (Luke 19:41-44).
I have been thinking much over the past couple of days about the video I posted on Lovett Weem's presentation of the coming "death tsunami" in United Methodism. (If you haven't yet watched it, I encourage you to do so before you continue reading.) What I am about to write likely applies to Mainline Protestantism in general, but since my context for the past twenty-seven years has been as a United Methodist pastor, my reflections in this post are written with my denomination in mind.

When I started in pastoral ministry, in what seems like a long time ago, I and my fellow wet-behind-the-ears colleagues were told that as a denomination we were in decline and that things had to change, but we were trained not to institute change too quickly because the folks in the pews needed to be brought along slowly. They needed to be persuaded and they needed to own the change that was so necessary. So we young pastors did what we were told. We made an attempt to make the changes necessary in the church to, at the very least, slow down the rate of decline. The results of that strategy yielded very little. Our congregations continued in decline and do so now even more rapidly in this new year of 2012. That strategy was not successful because we effectively allowed those in the church who wanted no change to remain in charge and call the shots. We tried to work with "the old guard" and bring them along, but knowing that they could outlast any pastoral appointment, they continued in their old ways. (By the way, "old" here does not necessarily refer to age. There are plenty of younger members of the old guard as well.) The few visionaries in our churches who were ready to move forward in new ways of mission in making disciples of Jesus Christ became so discouraged that the old guard was left in charge thwarting their endeavors, they moved on to other places where they could do serious kingdom work (more often than not in a church that was not United Methodist).

But we continued with this strategy, leaving those in charge whose views of the church were less purpose driven and much more preference driven. I suppose we continued this strategy because most pastors are people pleasers who want to make everybody happy, and since we are about reconciliation we needed to try to bring everyone along. Of course, that is not what happened because the old guard wasn't interested in reconciliation and being brought along; all they wanted was to have their way and continue to play at church the way they had done so since the days before they could remember. After all, at some point 1957 may return, and we United Methodists needed to be ready. Albert Einstein said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting to get a different result. If Einstein was right, we United Methodists are crazy all the way around. The old guard is crazy to think that if they just do what they continue to do, at some point the people will come stampeding through the door. Those who hoped they could change the old guard were crazy to continue to work slowly with them even though there was no evidence that any old guard in any old church had ever changed.

So, now it is 2012, and the numbers don't lie. Our decline as a denomination is almost in a free fall. We are an elderly congregation. The problem, of course, is not that we have elderly people in our churches. Our mature members make a valuable contribution to the mission of the church of Jesus Christ. The problem is that we have failed to bring in the younger generations and the death tsunami is now heading toward us and it is picking up speed. Some estimate that of the 35,000 or so United Methodist congregations currently active in the United States, only 5000 of them will have their doors open in twenty years. And in spite of this crisis situation we are still being told that change has to come slowly; that we have to work with people because if we upset them they might leave. The problem is that people have been leaving the church for many years now. People always leave the church-- they die, they move, they simply go elsewhere. The problem is we are not making disciples of Jesus Christ in order to replace them. A church that is more worried about keeping people from leaving than interested in whom they will attract is a church in decline. A church that is more interested in keeping parishioners than making disciples is a church that is in survival mode.

Jesus tells us in John's Gospel that fruit cannot be borne unless something dies. I have wondered out loud on this blog suggesting that perhaps United Methodism is currently experiencing exile-- an exile of its own doing-- and that is why we are in decline; and we cannot return from exile becoming a vital denomination once again until we experience the full effect of our wilderness wanderings. Perhaps we cannot move forward as a denomination until the death tsunami has passed.

While we have continued to work with the old guard hoping for something different to happen, in the Bible we see that God actually gets fed up with the old guard and shuts them down. In the wilderness of Sinai there were plenty of self-appointed members of the "Back to Egypt Committee" who had decided that the bondage of slavery was not as bad as the challenge of moving through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. And while God was patient with them, his willingness to deal with these folks had a limit. At some point, he decides the people of Israel cannot move forward as long as the old guard, who refuses to be faithful, is running the show. There will be no moving forward until the death tsunami comes upon them in the wilderness. This is harsh, to be sure, but if God will only tolerate the nonsense for so long, why do we continue to think we should?

After Jesus enters Jerusalem one last time before his death, he walks into the Temple, that area so sacred to devout Jews, and he trashes the place in a symbolic act meant to communicate that God was fed up. God was fed up with those who had turned the Temple worship into an exclusive country club instead of a place where all could come to worship. Jesus was not upset that they were selling sacrifices, which was a legitimate practice. He was angry that they had set up shop in the court of the Gentiles preventing Gentiles from worshiping as well. And now Jesus was announcing that God had reached the limits of his patience. Those who had been entrusted by God will be trusted no longer. The old guard will be replaced.

I do believe that the future of United Methodism is indeed bright. Our Wesleyan heritage is a missional one. But I simply cannot avoid the conclusion that we will be unable to move into that future, into that vital life giving future, without death. That while the coming death tsunami is tragic, it is necessary for the church to move forward once again in making disciples of Jesus Christ for transformation of the world.

I do think we have UM churches that are up to the challenge. I believe strongly that the church I currently serve is up to the challenge; but nevertheless, we must go through the full measure of our exile.

Sometimes death is the only way forward... and sometimes you have to turn over some tables.


Jody said...

Allan, like you I weep at the deaths that must occur but I also confirm what you are hearing. 15 years ago I experienced a vision for the first time in my life. I went to my pastor with it. I saw HUGE pine trees and they were being chopped down with HUGE ax. Underneath all these HUGE trees were hundreds, thousands of small saplings. "I must cut down those who keep the Light from shining so others may grow." My pastor and I both wept because we knew we were being told what was coming.

PamBG said...

Once there is no social approbation to be gained by being a member of a church


Once it becomes a social and business liablity to be a Christian

then the church will be left with faithful Christians

Which is why I don't worry about the numbers game

Sure, if we preach "God is on our side and hates those people over there" we can attract people into our congregations

But that's not what Jesus preached

You know, we have the same problem in the UK and the churches continue to dwindle

But most of the people who are left think that God loves the world instead of hates certain people

And most people who are left think that God can actually make a difference in the lives of people

I think Jody is on to something

That's why I don't worry about numbers any more than I worry that sitting and listening to a lonely person as a Chaplain "isn't really doing anything"

Allan R. Bevere said...

Sure, if we preach "God is on our side and hates those people over there" we can attract people into our congregations.

Pam, I think that is one thing that is pushing people away from our congregations-- or more nuanced-- God wants to help those people over there and therefore we will help them, as long as they don't come into our lives and actually come to worship with us.

PamBG said...

Yes, it's a two-edged sword, isn't it?

We want "people like us" (I actually once worked with someone who used that phrase non-ironically) to come into the church and "people not like us" to stay out.

My point was that I often hear the argument that this or that church is booming because they preach the true gospel, when in fact they are preaching that God hates the prostitutes and sinners. Of course that would attract a certain kind of person.

I think we're saying the same thing.

larry said...

I once had a senior pastor tell me that sometimes all an individual congregation needed to usher in a time of great growth were some "strategic funerals," his humorous way of saying certain people just needed to die off before the congregation could move ahead because they were such an obstacle to growth. If only funerals could be be planned strategically . . . I don't know that there's a connection, but your post reminded me of his little joke from many years ago.