The answer to the question, “what’s wrong with us?” is that we are fixated on the question “what’s wrong with us?” Doom, gloom, decline, conflict, controversy, division, discord — all addressed with a cheery irrational rah-rah attitude. National events that bludgeon participants with “Death Tsunami’s” and calls to action that lament our imminent demise are not going to motivate us to true systemic change. Scare us? Depress us? Horrify and mortify us? Certainly, as does every other abdication of leadership. Were ministry primarily about problem-solving this might actually work, however, we are not merely managing a mess, but are charged with creating a future. Focusing on what we aren’t, what we lack, what we’ve lost, and all the ways we are not what we once were is no way to envision new possibilities and potential. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out. What we were in 1968 is not going to help us figure out who God wants us to be in 2018. Our focus needs to be on who we are, what we have, and how we can most effectively live into the future. We need vision, not vapid angst.
We used to have 12 million plus United Methodists (once we merged two declining denominations to make a new declining denomination). So what? Now we have 7.5 million. Do we strategize ways to mobilize a spiritual community of 7 1/2 million to transform the world? We do not. We gripe and moan about the 5 million we lost and we dump resources into trying to capture a million more — with some silly delusion that the next million will be qualitatively superior to those we lost and those we’re left with. Hey, if we don’t know what to do with the 7.5 million we’ve got, what makes us think we’re going to do so much better with the next million — or the next ten, for that matter. Hundreds of books, DVDs, seminars, webinars, articles, etc., are aimed at helping us attract new “members” — all grounded in a fear-based message that “if we don’t get new people, we won’t survive.” This survivalist message is “bad news” not “good news.” We sold out our “gospel” to “drosspel.” (Dross – waste matter, refuse…). Where is our faith?
The Institutional Preservation Paradigm is impressive. The momentum of 100+ years of growth, conquest, competition, acquisition and dominance exerts a terrible inertia. We know how to exploit the system we have. Real change would be costly — both personally and collectively. We want things to get better, but not at our expense. So we talk. We rant. We rally. We put ads on TV. We “brand.” We form teams and task forces. We do anything and everything but change. The buildings we have were essentially designed, constructed and equipped for a church that no longer exists. They now serve as beloved millstones around our necks, dragging us down and draining valuable resources that could be used for actual ministry and mission. Professionalized staff ministry absolves laity of the need to step up and BE the church. Interest payments on loans for bigger buildings is fast becoming the big-ticket item on many budgets — when the churches we already have are too big for the remnant congregations that occupy them. Many of our conferences have more retired clergy than active clergy. Our system is no longer tenable, but that’s okay — we’ll set up another committee, team or task force to study this 50-year-old problem again at the next General Conference.
Here’s an idea: let’s rethink our church. No, let’s remake our church. Let’s quit trying to make it something it used to be but isn’t anymore, and let’s make something… BETTER. Let’s deconstruct some of the pieces and parts that no longer function well, and use those resources to… oh… I don’t know… maybe, make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world… Let’s quit rehashing old, tired church growth concepts and instead of thinking about how to get people to come to us, we mobilize to be the body of Christ in the world. Let’s quit “updating” what we already know (do no harm, do all the good you can, attend to the ordinances of God — which is a much more compelling vision than ‘staying in love with God…’ didn’t get improved by its most recent “trotting out;” nor did our disciplinary primary task — reach out and receive people in the name of Christ, help people build relationship with God, nurture and strengthen them in their discipleship and stewardship, and send them forth equipped to live transformed and transforming lives — receive any substantive boost from radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, extravagant generosity, and risk-taking mission and service. All different language for the same old story. The problem isn’t the story, it’s the way it gets used. If we commit to our primary task/mission/5 Practices to do God’s will, we’re in great shape. It is when we do them merely to preserve the institution that we get in trouble. When it is all about us, it ceases to be about God. One cannot serve two masters…
There is a growing movement away from “church” as we have known it to true Christian community not tied to location, denomination, or institution. In this spiritual enlightenment paradigm, old rules not only don’t apply, but they alienate, divide and disillusion. Creating something that changes lives, that inspires, that elevates, and generates beauty and hope — this is what more and more people seek. Can’t we offer this? Can’t we work together to make such a vision a reality? I don’t think it will happen through petitions and votes, through debate and Discipline, through committee meetings and Robert’s Rules. If we want a future, then let’s create it — but let’s create the future we believe God wants us to have, not merely some shadow of our bygone glory.