the renewal of the church

To begin at the end: the renewal of the church will be a gift of God, and the work of the Holy Spirit. But let's think our way to that conclusion. The good news is that almost no one is complacent or happy with the state of the Christian church in the United States (and my own particular tribe is the United Methodist expression).

Evangelicals are sensing that the attractional church is a dead end; having gained the world, they have at times lost their own souls. Seeker sensitive worship met needs but did not form disciples of Jesus. The cult of celebrity fed the egos of megachurch pastors, who succumbed to the temptations of the world's kingdoms. The next generation interprets doctrinal orthodoxy as selective judgmentalism, especially about matters related to human sexuality.                                 

The mainline church is being sustained by the greatest generation and their gifts, some of which are now endowed in larger parishes and in denominational institutions. Boomers traded self-denial for self-fulfillment, and found their way into non-institutional forms of transcendence (spiritual, but not religious). Boomers were shaped for the most part by a culture of entertainment, sports and leisure; at times the church adapted to all of this (incorporating these pursuits into its programming), and at other times the church threw rocks at the culture, imagining itself to be a righteous remnant above all of that. But again, the church simply seemed to be whining, claiming a privilege that it no longer held, reinforcing a high culture that was superior to the more popular culture of the masses, who no longer perceived us to be the mainline to any particular destination.                                       

And so the long decline continues, and calls for renewal become more urgent. The financial crisis accelerated the need for denominational redefinition: less infrastructure was needed, and so seminaries and resourcing agencies and mission sending agencies and publishing houses have been or will be in the process of merging, disappearing or reimagining their futures. At the local level, fewer vital churches exist to fund this infrastructure, and these congregations are increasingly focused on their own communities and/or designing a unique engagement with the larger world. At the same time, the majority of local churches (the average being less than one hundred in worship) must expend all of their resources on the maintenance of aging facilities and funding the (often inadequate) salaries and benefits of clergy. In both cases, fewer resources are flowing to denominations. Call it congregationalism, but it is the future, and it mirrors the flattening of institutional life across a variety of disciplines, from business to health care to education.  

My own tradition (United Methodism) is trying to make sense of all of this. The Bishops, with the encouragement of the Connectional Table in a "Call to Action", are naming the problems, and finding the solution in vital congregations. They have chosen, it seems, to place their focus not on the disease but rather on the signs of life, and have committed themselves to aligning systems that will support congregational vitality. That this coincides with the financial necessity of dismantling certain structures is providential, for they are finding allies in many other corridors of the church (studies of clergy pensiosn and ordained ministry, respectively, to name two examples). The pushback is coming from the institutions that are in need of strong denominational support---our more at-risk theological schools, boards and agencies and initiatives. It does not help that the trust level is so low and the leadership so divided; this is the blessing and curse of pluralism and diversity, however the reader understands that. We are, for the most part, unable to communicate with each other, and for a denomination that spends a great deal of time talking about inclusiveness, many do not sense that they are included in the diagnosis of the problem or the identification of the solution.                                                                                                                           

It helps to step back from all of this, for a moment. I confess that this is easier said than done, for if we lead the church or care about its future we are shaped but a few default assumptions that are strong and persistent, namely the crisis of the church in its human expression, the mission of the church as a human agenda, and the need for a strategic intervention...and who better to do that The new creation must finally be the work of God, in which we are surely partners, or even co-creators. And yet the disturbing reality is that God is allowing the evangelical and mainline churches to experience numerical decline, at precisely the time in history when we have the greatest access to professional expertise in areas of family systems, managerial consulting, sociological analysis...and I could go on.                                 

Those of us who care about the renewal of the church are swimming against the stream of a number of powerful currents. We can, and very likely must redesign our systems and structures, but this will leave us with the same challenges at the local level. We can point to the great man or woman as a leader who defies our usual experience, but this will lead in the end to the cult of celebrity, and we have been there before. We will need to give a clearer rationale for God's mission that is beyond the local church, remembering that the local church may be in Monrovia or Montgomery, Duluth or Dallas. In these contexts we will encounter an astonishing increase in basic human needs, at the very time when our government seems unable or unwilling (choose your poitical preference here) to respond.                                                                           

The very difficult and necessary work of the United Methodist General Conference in 2012 may leave us with a structure more aligned with the church as it exists at the beginning of the 21st century, but it cannot attend to the life of the spirit that is finally our reason for being. This life of the spirit is finally our greatest asset: it includes a robust definition of the grace of God, as a lifelong process that is present in the church but also, in a preparatory way, in the world, and an expansive understanding of holiness that is personal as well as social.                                                                           

Increasingly, renewal is a word we use as a substitute for a word that suggests something more forboding, namely survival. I wonder: Will the world need the United Methodist Church in 2050 and beyond? I anticipate that my own daughters will not yet be retired from the workforce by then, so this is more than a theoretical question to me. I am immersed in the structures and institutions of our denomination, so my first instinct is not to discard them. However, I must say that my answer to the question is a "conditional" yes. If we can rediscover the grace of God----in some sense this may require a purging that prepares us for the gift, and this in fact may be where we find ourselves---we can be a conduit for persons who come to the church, searching for Jesus, and do not find him. We can help them to become his disciples. If we can make a commitment to holiness in its most comprehensive sense----an inner life of humility (which may mean laying aside our agendas and listening for the voice of God in new and fresh ways), an outer life of witness (which in a postmodern world must communicate the integrity and coherence of what we say and what we do)---if we can make these commitments, we will be used by God to transform the world.                                                

None of this reflection discounts the need for organizational self-reflection or denominational restructuring. It simply insists that beyond these tasks lies the essential work, which makes renewal possible. It is to pray "Come, Holy Spirit". And it is to know that, beyond our best efforts, the outcome will finally be within the providence of God.                                                                                               

After all, as we once said in the liturgy, "the church is of God, and will be preserved until the end of time. "