Are we too comfortable talking about our own demise? Do some of us come perilously close to celebrating it?
I’ve been wrestling with this since a friend sent me a link to a blog post urging Methodists to shift from telling stories of the death of United Methodism to “writing the story about the future of the church.”
I appreciate the article because it did not suggest that decline is not a real and serious problem in contemporary United Methodism (a kind of head in the sand approach, which I have seen). But even more than that, I appreciated the article because of its encouragement to shift from a funeral dirge to anticipating signs of hope for the future.
We need to be honest and realistic about the challenges we face, while putting our best effort and energy into a positive and hopeful vision for the future for the Wesleyan/Methodist family. United Methodism, in particular, is a church that has been in dramatic decline for years, even decades. The strains of decline are seen from the most visible expressions of our collective life together (publishing, denominational colleges and seminaries, boards and agencies) all the way to the local church, where disheartening numbers of local churches are closing their doors for the final time each year.
Is there really room for hope?
I believe that there is. But, it is not hope for a quick fix, or even a turnaround that comes from an intense exertion of our collective will and effort. We’ve tried that already. It hasn’t worked. And we are not currently of one will, so we aren’t really pulling in the same direction.
Let me put it strongly: We have no good reason to hope in ourselves. We have been in decline despite our good intentions. We have been in decline despite having leaders who have communicated a compelling vision. In short, many United Methodists have been trying really hard for a really long time. And, yet, we are in decline.
But there is hope. There is hope because Jesus has been raised from the dead. There is hope because the church is God’s Plan A. And there is no Plan B. God will not let the church fail. Of course, it is possible that The UMC, or any other Methodist/Wesleyan denomination could fail. But the church will not cease to exist. Regardless of what happens in one denomination, the future of Christianity itself is not at stake.
Fundamentally, our hope is in the Lord. Our tendency to despair often reveals that we have put our hope in ourselves and not in the Triune God. I have hope that the current realities of Methodism in America will help American Methodists become better Christians. Since at least the Civil War, we have been pretty confident in ourselves, in our own abilities. We have often become agnostic in our lives together, acting as if the future were fundamentally dependent not on God, but on ourselves. I have hope that the Holy Spirit will enable Methodism to repent of its self-sufficiency and acknowledge our need for God.
In Scripture and in countless testimonies, desperation often brings people to a new and deeper experience of God. Could it be that God, in God’s mercy, may be allowing us to become more desperate so that we might more fully experience God in our churches? Renewal, after all, does not typically come to the self-satisfied.
I also have hope that our collective language will become more robustly and explicitly theological. I hope that we will grow in our ability to speak of God, to receive the deep and tested faith of the church, and to embrace the way of life that comes from the riches of Christian doctrine.
Put differently, I don’t have much hope that unity of practice will come without a renewed unity of belief. There are pockets of Methodism that seem to uncritically reject the role of doctrine in Christian life. And yet, these well-meaning people not only appear to overlook the beliefs (doctrines) that lead them to reject doctrine, they also tend to be unable to offer anything more than good intentions as a way to get to unified practice without unity of belief.
To be clear, I believe it is a misunderstanding of the role of doctrine to see it as primarily restricting. Doctrine is only restrictive in the sense that an expert guide is when she helps you safely explore a wondrous land that you yourself have never visited. A guide who helps you experience a breathtaking view of a beautiful canyon will ensure that you don’t approach it via an unstable cliff. The goal of a guide, as with doctrine, is to enable you to have the freedom to safely explore what you do not yet know yourself. In this context, freedom is actually enhanced by boundaries or guidance outside of your own resources. In this way, Christian doctrine facilitates getting to know God and growing in deeper knowledge and intimacy with God by pointing to God and by providing protection from worshipping what is not God.
The article I mentioned at the beginning of this post is right. We need to start telling the story of the future of the church. I believe I am starting to be able to perceive the outlines of a story of renewal and recommitment by the people called Methodists.
Our story can be one of experiencing God’s transforming presence in our lives as we recognize the depths of our need for Christ, and Jesus’s ability and willingness to meet that great need. We can move forward with confidence, knowing that the Lord will sustain the church one way or another. And as we move into the future, we will be sustained and guided from perilous missteps if we immerse ourselves in the deep wisdom of our tradition. And as we seek to follow Christ and become mature in our faith, we can invite others to come with us on this great adventure.
Wesleyans have a great story to share with one another and with the world. I am anxious to see how God will use us to draw those created in the divine image more fully into the love that is already perfected within God’s life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.