The Day After Yesterday

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.

18 replies

  1. Dan, in your research have you seen any large organization, church or other, which has “re-formed” itself without going into collapse? I am interested in learning from such an example.

      • Kay, not much to share. The for-profit organizations made dramatic shifts in products or services offered because their corporate culture indicated an enjoyment in doing so. For non-profits other than churches, no examples found yet. Starting place recommended for churches is a book by Albert Nolan titled Jesus Before Christianity with further recommendation to follow through time the thread of response to poor and oppressed as part of the Christian movement.

  2. your point is well taken inre “keeping our own lights and heat on”. Still, my lightly attended 125 yr. old church keeps the lights and heat on for a large campus “Young Life” ministry, none who attend or belong to the church, a free neighborhood Tae Kwon Do, again unaffiliated w/ the church, using the building gratis, several AA groups all of which pay only token amounts, Audubon, rose and camellia societies, we hold health fairs, neighborhood watch groups…all of which reach probably 1000 people a month that are not a part of the membership. None of this outreach counts toward apportionments, generates any growth, or is even noted except by the recipients.
    They will miss us when we are gone.

    • eva — they will find another landlord……..believe me……there’s a glut of empty commercial real estate in every market………IF that’s the role you see your church assets playing. What outreach is the church community involved and passionate about? What are the good things the community is involved in? What are your strengths?
      I raise these questions with all due respect and intend no offense…….but, to be proactive and form a plan for outreach, service, etc., may be a way to get rolling again.

      • We receive only token if any compensation for sharing our facilities with the community for all the above worthy wholesome users, and hope they understand we do this in Christ’s name. I guess what I am really trying to say is we keep our light on not just for ourselves at all, but our community involvement doesn’t impress our district supe, our Bishop or our denomination. But if we don’t pay in full the apportionments it’s only a matter of time until we are closed. Our part time “retired” appointed Pastor is a plain indication of our prospects.
        The Methodist bureaucracy is death to the small church of today.

      • Dear eva, in some settings your situation would provide an opportunity for you to establish a non-profit organization eligible for funding your community involvement, an eligibility perhaps not shared by church organizations. It could allow for payment of rent for use of the building(s) to the UMC which could equal or exceed what is paid in apportionments. This might mean that the UMC sign would need to be removed from the building and/or creative ways sought to continue to relate to the UMC or at least enjoy the structure that the UMC institution gives, to borrow from Pastor John Meunier. The funding eligibility or lack of it was part of the UMC Shalom Zone Initiative, as I recall. Saludos de Matamoros,larry

  3. Dan,

    I find myself a bit troubled by this line:

    “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.”

    My concern comes from two different direction.

    On the one hand, I think you are right that there is real life and energy among such groups. I don’t dispute this as a claim of fact.

    But if this is a recommendation, I may be a bit hesitant to bite.

    Here, perhaps, I stand with Charles Wesley (finally) and with John and Charles Wesley (at least until 1784) in their often republished “Reasons Against a Separation”

    I’m not sure I’m standing here against what you’ve actually said. You did not say that such persons simply “ditch” the institutional church. But you did say “not much concerned with… the institution” and “living their lives of discipleship in spite of ‘the church.'”

    If by “the church” you mean congregations and the other supporting structures that go with them (diocese, conference, synod, whatever), it seems to me that Charles (for sure) and John (earlier at least) consistently commended a both-and approach that appreciated the capacities of BOTH the congregational side and the “society” or “lived community” side of church. In other words– they defined the fullness of church as consisting in both of these and more– not in any one to the exclusion or diminution of the other.

    I don’t hear you commending exclusion.

    Am I hearing you commending diminution?

    Trying to understand your point…

    • Just an observation, not a recommendation. What can we learn from the phenomenon where small groups of Christians are finding vital Christianity apart from organized religion? What are we missing? What are they finding? I don’t believe fringe groups and mainline organizations need be mutually exclusive, but most of the reasons given — i.e., the church has lost focus, the church is more interested in its own survival than the gospel of Jesus Christ, the church wants to talk about the faith rather than live it — have some merit worth exploring.

  4. I again just want to say keep up the fine wordsmithing. I like the “edge” and of course, as a BOOMER love the questioning and “poking”.
    Your ability to see the elephant in the living room that appears to be invisible to many, many persons that should have better eyesight is refreshing.

  5. The institution exists for the 7 million United Methodists who need structures to give shape and form to their religious life.

    The 700,000 to 800,000 (aren’t those your figures, Dan?) who have the Spirit urging them on to passionate discipleship might move in and out of the structures, but do not depend on them. They create new ones as the need arises.

    Does that sound correct?

  6. Sort of piggybacking off of Todd Anderson’s first comment and various comments by Dan…

    We recognize that there are, shall we say, “living the faith-challenged” among our millions in membership. I see this in local church settings. I’m sure every pastor has. They are the people who usually don’t show up every Sunday, ignore Bible studies, sporadically attend fellowships and drive driven pastors crazy because they defy the Wesleyan code of accountability. OK, I get that, and it drives me crazy too.

    But…these “challenged” folks are often the people that fund our budget, contribute to special needs, and provide other resources without hesitation. So maybe we can think of them as funding vital ministry. They enable people like pastors, youth workers, educators, and others to live ministry out in the mission fields. They allow us to spend time doing and being the church outside of the church.

    I think about this in my setting. I’m willing to bet that my church is viewed as one of “low potential.” But there are still untapped areas where I (and the others who want to) can reach out to those who haven’t been reached. The few that do are funded by the many that don’t.

    The potential for this in any church setting (that doesn’t have budget issues) appears to be big and exciting. Maybe this is the shining moment for tiny, overlooked churches that have modest budgets (keep the lights on), no debt, no staff and still manage to pay a pastor enough to eke out a living. I hear from my colleagues in big churches frequently comment about the angst of budget shortfalls, staff trimmings, and lots of head scratching over how to maintain giant buildings.

    Again, could it be that we have the model backwards? In our screwed up economy, should our conferences be taking a look at overlooked small churches that don’t have money, staff or building problems? What do y’all think? Is this too pie-in-the-sky?

    • Good Points………espec, “could it be…….we have the model backwards”….like the old saying the tail wagging the dog?

      The deeper I study and contemplate this I think our CofE ancestors — and those in community today — have it right — Large Cathedral church (fabric/grounds) in “strategic” locations, small Parish church fabric/grounds) in the villages. Central Heat? A/C?? umh…..not so much.

      The “church” needs to not be in the real estate business — and what I keep hearing is a struggle to “keep heat and lights on”………sucking limited financial resources for facility operating and maintenance costs rather than mission.

      Now — don’t smack me on the knuckles about the need for facilities — my issue is the “dead heat” many are on to build bigger, better, “mega” facilities. A small, say 50-80 seat Chapel type facility serves a great majority of the congregations in the UMC…….debt free, lower maintenance/operating. Or, what about “house churches” ?? Those 9 couples meeting, praying, studying, and raising $45K for direct, hands on mission work speak to this smaller, more connected group. Hey, do I “smell” a WESLEYAN COVENANT GROUP concept in any of this ?

      heh heh heh

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