Recalculating

I have a special relationship with my GPS.  It’s a Garmin and her name is Greta.  Like most couples, we have moments when we don’t see eye to eye.  Greta wants me to go one way, and I choose to go another.  Every time I disregard Greta’s sage advice, she hits me with a petulant “recalculating.”  This is a term that, prior to the GPS-age, comes up rarely in normal conversation.  Yet, it is a perceptive concept, aptly applicable to our recent church history.  Ours is a story of repeatedly veering off course, demanding the constant need for “recalculating.”  I am making some assumptions here: the United Methodist Church (and its antecedents) has as its basic goals:

  • to bring as many people to faith in Jesus Christ as possible,
  • to live as faithful disciples in the world
  • to do God’s will
  • for the transformation of the world

These goals have stayed basically the same, though our language changes from time to time.

In the 1950s, the church was suburbanized along with most of our culture.  The model of large urban churches from bygone days became the hope and dream of pastors moving to the ‘burbs.  Monolithic footprint churches spread across the land, and in the immediate post-WWII days, they boomed all-too-briefly.  We like to think these churches were the “norm” against which to judge all subsequent “growth,” ignoring that the glory days of “big church” lasted less than a couple decades.  By the 1960s, the majority of big churches were already in decline.  Conservative, evangelical, independent, materialistic, consumeristic churches did flourish for a couple more decades, but the net gains were actually quite small, and the majority of people who have left “organized religion” did so because of bad experiences with big churches.

Recalculating

Disillusioned cadres of spiritual seekers looked for and created alternatives.  The Jesus Movement, the para-church movement (Young Life, Intervarsity, Campus Crusade for Christ, etc.), the earliest “emergent church” exodus — these and other slivers drifted away as a way to say that there needed to be something more than what mainline churches could provide.  Social and political activism motivated new forms (Sojourners,etc.) and challenged the mainline.  The church’s response was to try to assimilate the para-church, adopting an amoeba-like Blobbish-gluttony mentality to faith.  If you can’t join ’em, eat ’em — a mentality that exists to this day (look at what we have done to the “emerging” church, making it all but meaningless by making it mainline.

Recalculating

The mega-mall, mega-mart, mega-church selling-the-spiritual-soul approach to church growth boomed in the 1980s and 1990s, but — whoops — more people left the church than came in.  All of our pathetic copy-catting of the few aberrant success stories didn’t get us anything close to the results we said we wanted.  Our claim to want to make disciples has yet to yield any consistent, clear metrics by which to evaluate spiritual growth.  So we count attendance.  We claim to want to transform the world, but into what isn’t clear, so we track dollars.  We claim to want to create vital Christian community, but our leaders spend more time talking about what we have lost and what we used to be (or might be someday in the future) and what we don’t have, instead of casting a vision for what God is calling and gifting us to be.

Recalculating

We open the door a crack to Rethink Church, but every truly radical idea is shot down.  Deep change is something we say we want, but the only change we entertain is incremental and easily undone if we don’t care for the results.  As a denomination, we live in fear of a future that is going to happen to us, abdicating almost all responsibility for creating the future in which we choose to live.  We are obsessively-compulsively fixated on what the church needs, not on what the world needs from the church.  (Haiti excluded, but this is the exception that proves the rule.  Haiti has needed us for decades and it takes a tragedy to get us to pay attention..)

Recalculating

A growing segment of the American population is refusing to label themselves as anything — though they believe in God and they follow Jesus Christ.  They pray daily, study scripture, form tight-knit small communities, do work projects together, and worship without aid or assistance of priest or pastor.  These people love God, are faithful in their spiritual disciplines, witness to the power and presence of Christ in their lives, AND made a conscious decision not to connect to an institutional church.  One woman puts it this way, “My faith is too important to me to waste time with people whose most important life issues are keeping kids out of the parlor and making sure no one removes the American flag from the sanctuary.”

Recalculating

Here’s an idea… what if we took a year off to pray, read the scriptures together, and contemplate on what God’s will might be?  What if we put God first for a year?  What if we spent less time worrying about what we don’t have, and asked what God might like us to do with what we actually have?  What if we locked our sanctuary doors one Sunday each month, with the intention that we might spend that time visiting the homebound, feeding the hungry, reading to the blind, comforting the sick, holding Bible study in a prison or nursing home? What if we held people accountable to the promises they make to God and the community of faith when they join?  Why don’t we worry less about who “joins” and instead focus on who needs to be loved?  Why don’t we have a fire-sale on old, unmanageable church properties and find new ways to worship and work together in the facilities that don’t drain all our precious resources?  Why don’t we standardize pay (while we eliminate guaranteed appointments) so that we can place appropriate leadership and experience where it is needed most?  Why don’t we trust lay leadership grounded in God-given gifts instead of preferencing a professionalized clergy, which is costing us more than we can afford in the current system?

Why don’t we commit to a path toward a Promised Land instead of constantly… recalculating?

6 replies

  1. Hi Dan,
    Great post…as usual. Your question -“Why don’t we worry less about who “joins” and instead focus on who needs to be loved?”- is one that Sara Miles takes up in her new book, Jesus Freak. She writes,

    Jesus calls his disciples, giving us authority to heal and sending us out. He doesn’t show us how to reliably cure a molar pregnancy. He doesn’t show us how to make a blind man see, dry every tear, or even drive out all kinds of demons. But he shows us how to enter into a way of life in which the broken and sick pieces are held in love, and given meaning. In which strangers literally touch each other, and doing so make a community spacious enough for everyone. In which the deepest desires of our hearts draw us to health. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says: your faith will make you well.
    (p.105)

    It is a captivating read and an inspiring picture of a church that doesn’t “try to keep the weirdos out.”

  2. Dan,
    We don’t do those things because “we” would lose control. We would no longer be in charge. We could no longer take credit for “all the good work WE do.”

    In short, we are not able to do those things because,at best, we do not trust; at worst, we are lying to ourselves about what we want.

  3. Dear Dan,

    Your last paraghraph expresses the attitude of our early church father Francis Asbury. Read carefully his complete Journal and Letters and you will note he expresses many of your thoughts and warns against many of the institutional and self centered pitfalls we now face. I am refreshed to read your Blog! Thank you, God…the Church is not dead yet.

    PRAYER: May God give us the trust and faith to stay His “calculated course” and not that of our own. Forgive us Lord, as we are but stupid to forget You lead our paths for Your Namesake. Going forward, help us with wisdom to understand Your necessity to have us wander in the wilderness or to quickly “re-calculate,” if necessary, before we miss Your Promised Land and drive off a cliff into a cavern of eternal separation from You. Thank you for asking us to do no small thing for You. Make us Your Mighty MethOd-ists! We wish to lay crowns at Your feet. In Jesus name, Amen.

    G = God’s
    P = Paths to
    S = Service

  4. You make a fundamental error in your analysis: no one really wants to change anything. The system we have serves the people who wield all the power. To be more fair, to be more just, to care more, to give more, to get outside our comfort zones, to re think anything, to be open to anyone not exactly like us? You are calling us to be better people than we are. It breaks my heart to say it, but The United Methodist Church is one of the “powers and principalities” Paul warns of. I have sat through thousands of hours of meetings of our boards and agencies, have been to four General Conferences, have taught at two seminaries — we have no leaders, just managers doing everything in their power to maintain the status quo and make sure they have a pension when they retire.

    • Wow! And people say I am cynical… I hope you’re not right. I hope we still have the capacity to “repent” and change. There are many things wrong, but are any beyond the redemptive power of Jesus Christ? Yes, there are many who do not want to change, but there are others who desparately want something better than what we have. I’m not sure we have “no” leaders. We have many who have abdicated their leadership because they don’t know what to do, but I think this may be more ignorance than malice. There are some deeply spiritual, deeply committed, deeply grace-filled people in leadership in this church. I have hope that they may emerge from the herd and lead us to a Promised Land. That’s the vision I will support and pursue anyway…

  5. The biggest problem with ReThink Church is that it is another example of the mote and the log. Instead of the general agencies rethinking what they actually need to do and devolve functions back to the annual conferences (aka the “basic unit”) of the UMC, the local churches are told that the people in them need to be replaced with younger “seekers.”

    It would make more sense to work to help the people in the pews to be better disciples with nurture, outreach and witness.

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