I will say it again: our future does not lie in our past. Trying to “become” what we once were is like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube (a lot more trouble than it is worth). Why can’t we be the church we were in the 50s or 70s? Well, a lot of reasons. We are no longer a big duck in a small pond — there are hundreds of alternative “churches” we weren’t in competition with back then. We have a much greater social conscience than we did in the 50s — look at our Social Principles. We are no longer defined by missional service and evangelism — we’ve gotten complacent in our old age. We were assimilated into the “Church Growth” collective mindset of the late 20th century and have never recovered. Our culture and Western world has evolved and isn’t looking for the same things from us. We stopped having as many kids, so our Sunday schools dwindled (still the best way to have a booming Sunday school — grow your own! Just add water…). Competition for time, energy, and entertainment value has shifted. Sunday school or soccer? Tae Kwon Do or choir? American Idol or Church Council?
New days call for new wineskins. I look at the churches that are thriving. They aren’t wasting time trying to talk people into wanting to come to church — they are doing life-transforming ministry and faith-transforming service and people who want to make a difference are turning out. United Methodism needs to get the “mega-church” gleam out of its eyes and focus in on the most fertile niche market available — small, intimate, active and engaged cadres of highly motivated people. Big church markets are saturated. Where there is real life and energy is in small clusters of Christians not much concerned with numbers or the institution who are living their discipleship in spite of “the church” rather than because of it.
I was talking to a young couple who have a group of Christian friends. Nine people. Nine people who pray together and meet a couple of times a week. Nine middle-class people… who ponied up a total of $45,000 to go to Haiti to volunteer two weeks of their lives to serve those in need. I sit with church groups every week who gripe and moan about their financial plight who have no interest in doing anything for anyone else, but they want to keep their own building open with the lights and heat on. Such a church will have no appeal to a young group of Christians seeking to heal others in the name of Jesus the Christ.
We have effectively coated the gospel with layer after layer of church goop until it is all but unrecognizable. We talk endlessly about the ministry we aren’t doing, instead of marshalling our forces to do something worthwhile with what we have. We spend millions of apportioned funds on market research and advertising while the world goes to hell in the proverbial handbasket. Shame on us. We can do so much better. Perhaps the time has come to… I don’t know… “rethink” something.