What’s Wrong With Us?

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.

36 replies

  1. I know this isn’t worth much, but I have followed your career since you wrote FaithQuest (which, by the way, was the first resource I got excited about in over 25 years of ministry) and I heard you do a presentation called, “Where In the World Is the Church?” (which was one of the most powerful and visionary presentations I have ever seen). Then came “Beyond Money,” “Vital Signs,” and “Bursting the Bubble,” and I thought, “My Lord, The United Methodist Church has a bona fide prophet!” Then, I heard that you had been let go from the Board of Discipleship and I knew it must be a mistake, since in any reasonable world you would have been running it. I have been a Methodist since 1958, and in all that time I have never seen a worse decision than your termination. Your blog is an almost daily reminder that our denomination does not have a vision for the future, otherwise you would be a key player in all of the current conversation about our future. You offer more vision, more spiritual focus, more common sense than anyone else I know of. The United Methodist Church may not realize what a treasure they have in you, but we NEED what you have to offer; we need to hear what you have to say. Please keep doing what you’re doing, even if the leaders of our “institutional preservation” don’t appreciate it.

    • Thank you. I am humbled and pleased. It is so nice to know that some of what I have done is valued and worthwhile. My former bosses definitely didn’t value what I did, and there are many today who might disagree that what I am doing is worthwhile, but I am delighted to know theirs is not the last word. Again, thank you.

  2. You have my attention. I would ask what do we do, but I think the answer is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ”.

  3. Amen, Dan. You’re right on target! Thanks for your comments. I especially agree with the need to get outside the church walls and go to people instead of expecting them to come to us.

    There is still a lot right with us, if we will focus on that and move on toward the future.

    Hope you & Barbara are well.

    • I’m reminded of geocaching, in which the seekers use a GPS and a location description to find a hidden box. What if God has given us a message, but hid it among the “unchurched”? Well, hid it from us anyway. The “unchurched” might be well aware of it.

  4. The question is, who gets to decide what are the “pieces and parts that no longer function well.” The so-called “Call to action” certainly seems to want to do that, by making the Bishops the final decision makers (CF the Roman Catholic Church, the governors of Wisconsin, Tenessee, etc). In fact, one critic has called “the call to action” as a call to the wholesale take over of The United Methodist Church. Those who raie these issues are told that we should leran to “trust” more.

  5. I’d like to hear more about “this spiritual enlightenment paradigm” that is moving us away from church as we’ve known it. I think most of us know already where we’ve been and that it’s not working for us today. So, is defining our present spirituality the key to our future as a church?

  6. Reading Alan Hirsch book: The Forgotten Ways. What they did in Melbourne Australia at what is now Red Church makes me think of the Wesleyan movement in its society/class meeting days. It what works for making disciples. I think it give flesh to much of what you are saying.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s