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.
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.
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.
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..)
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.”
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?