The overwhelming consensus about the United Methodist Church right now seems to be that we are “dying.” Thus, we speak of “death tsunamis,” and “declining memberships.” Charts show us plummeting downward, as if to indicate a plunge toward the grave.
This line of thought drives me crazy for a couple of reasons.
First, the concept of dying does not necessarily carry negative implications. Jesus made this very clear in John 12, when he said, “Hey, a grain of wheat is worthless unless it is buried in the ground. Only then can it come back to life in a significant way.” If “the church” is dying, that might be a good thing. Because then it might come back to life in a fresher, more vibrant form. In fact, particular forms and expressions of Christianity and church are constantly dying and being reborn. There is nothing bad about this.
But on the other hand, the idea that the church, in the sense of “the body of Christ,” or the community of God’s people on earth, will ever die is a preposterous one. In Matthew 16, Jesus himself said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. The church, or the people of God, is the one thing that we can be assured will last as long as the earth. In other words, God will never leave the world without an embodiment or incarnation of God’s own purpose and will.
Of course, I am perfectly aware that the reason we use the language of death and dying for our institution is because we are trying to shake ourselves into an awareness of a need for change. To say “the church is dying” is to attempt to wake us up, to provoke a response.
I would suggest that one great way to do this is to change the narrative. Let’s look at our story, our plot line, differently. This reframing exercise might help us put our own particular expression of church in a different light.
We Methodists have a standard narrative, and it goes something like this:
John Wesley shook up the dead 18th-century Church of England with an evangelical message, revivalist fervor, and an emphasis on good works. Instead of reforming the national church, the movement spawned a brand new church, which then spread to America, where it captured the heart and soul of the nation for almost two hundred years, and became the prototypical Main Street church, existing as a cohesive force for families, communities, and the country. But eventually, liberalism and secularism gutted the soul of Methodism, and the church began to lose influence, members, and money.
That’s where we are now, according to this narrative – we are “dying.” According to this story line, our “problem” is that we are “in decline” and any good “solution” would involve reversing this situation and returning the Methodist church to a position of power, influence, and respect in our cities.
That particular narrative has some lasting power. I’ve used it before myself. And there is some truth to it.
But is there a different narrative? Is there a way to tell our story that frames our situation differently? And more importantly, does it tell us that there is a different “problem”?
How does this narrative sound?
The Protestant Reformation (and Enlightenment) which swept the Western world in the 16th century was a necessary reaction to the corruption and excess of the Catholic Church. It triggered a series of mini-reformations, such as the Anabaptist rediscovery of Christian nonviolence, the Pentecostal rediscovery of the Holy Spirit, and the Wesleyan rediscovery of the power of covenant discipleship. However, all of these reformations were accomplished within the overarching sphere of Christendom. These movements happened within Western nation-states that were officially and uniformly Christian. We have entered a post-Enlightenment, postmodern, and post-Christian era, and the last vestiges of Christendom are fading (regardless of the hopes of the religious right in America). Every expression of “church” in the Western world is facing this change. We may be the majority religion in America still, but we are a democratic, secular society.
If we use this as our primary narrative about what is happening to “us,” then the “problem” is something larger than our own denomination. We’re talking about a cultural shift, a tide that is overtaking us. This narrative threatens to swamp us with overwhelming force, and our “solution” may be one of two things: one, to simply continue doing what we’re doing because we can’t think of a reasonable way forward, or two, to hunker down into an antagonistic relationship with the culture, and lash out at those who are not Christian.
Let me suggest one more narrative, one which I think sounds more promising and hopeful:
God loves this world, and is constantly working to bring blessing, favor, and dignity to the peoples of the world. God accomplishes this in a multitude of ways – through prophets, scripture, music and art, and religious movements, just to name a few. Before Jesus, God especially worked in and through a unique race of people, a family called Israel. Since the life and times of Jesus, God has especially worked in and through a unique people called “Christian” or “church.” In different times and different places, the church has been given different gifts, perspectives and insights, which have helped bring blessings to particular peoples and nations. But lately, it appears as if God is working in wider, more expansive ways than the church had ever imagined. Increasingly, the people of God are recognizing that we need the different gifts that particular churches have – we Methodists need the insights of Catholics, Anabaptists, and Pentecostals, just to name a few, and they need ours. And we are beginning to recognize the work of God outside the traditional bounds of church, whether in other religious traditions or non-religious streams of thought.
If this narrative is true, and I think it is, then what is the “problem”? The problem is that we as the people of God are not in tune with what God is doing in the world. The tragedy is that so many of our churches are not bringing blessing, favor and dignity to people in our communities. That’s what God wants to do, but we don’t seem to be interested in doing that. Instead, we are mostly concerned about keeping our doors open.
The solution is clear then. We must try to figure out where God is moving … and rush to catch up. If the old form of “church” dies behind us, then it’s OK. Because there will always be a people of God, and there will always be a God sending, loving, and blessing.
That’s the only story worth telling.