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)

Monday, February 06, 2012

Theological Reflections on the Decline of United Methodism

I am a big fan of Bishop Timothy Whitaker of the Florida Conference of the UMC. He is a theologian; and not all bishops can be classified as such. I must confess that I find myself frustrated that too often we UMs analyze our issues, not through the theological lens of Scripture, tradition, and scholarship, but rather through sociological and demographic analysis. Let me be clear: we need such latter analysis. I often appeal to it. But I stumble over how little theological reflection is often employed as we look to understanding our present situation in the United Methodist Church.

Enter Bishop Whitaker with a fine article entitled, "Divine Providence and the Decline of Churches." The good bishop writes of our decline,
What is going on? Usually we turn to sociological studies to analyze the decline of the churches. There are many factors that contribute to the decline, including demographic changes, reduction of the birth rate, and various cultural shifts, including new mental habits conditioned by a secular philosophy of life. The churches' responses to these factors usually include organizational reform, liturgical experimentation, and new efforts at evangelization such as starting new congregations.

What if we began to think about the decline of the churches in theological terms rather than in sociological terms? The Christian perspective on history is governed by the concept of divine Providence. Within a world of freedom, Providence is at work. Christians cannot leave God out of our discernment of the changes occurring in history. Yet rarely do we hear much talk about what God is doing in the midst of the churches' decline.

No human can comprehend the Providence of God in history. Usually we can look back and discern to some extent God's action in retrospect. Yet Christians do have some resource for tracing Providence at work in the midst of events. That resource is the story of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. What we learn is a story of Providence executing judgment and promise.

If we were to discern divine Providence in the decline of the churches we have to be willing to submit ourselves to God's judgment. God's judgment is not a moralistic condemnation, but a divine No to what is contrary to God's purposes in history. God does not advance God's purposes without working against opposition to, distortion of, or failure to obey God's will.

We have to be willing to subject mainline Protestantism to the scrutiny of divine judgment. Has its theology been adequate to express the fullness of divine revelation? Has its churches been too ingrown and complacent? Is there the fire of personal experience of God's truth and love revealed in Jesus Christ and ignited by the Holy Spirit? Has there been a commitment to the transformation of society? We know the answer. Why then should we be surprised if God must re-arrange the Christian map by breaking up the old to make room for the new?
Spot on, if you ask me. You can read Bishop Whitaker's entire post on this matter, here.

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