jonathan stone's blog

. . . posts on faith and life

the church faces death

I recently came across an interesting article on that was entitled No Future for Methodists Unless Change Occurs. In light of this blog the article obviously grabbed my attention. This forecast is not unprecedented for mainline Protestant churches. I read an interesting book about it in my doctoral studies at Drew. In fact, the UMC has been decreasing in number for four decades, according to the article. But the recent Pew study seems to have reignited many of these observations.

The article quotes one Methodist leader as saying, “For whatever reason, a sizable population raised in the Methodist tradition is no longer Methodist. Maybe we haven’t done a good job of showing what is unique and special and important about being a United Methodist.” Another one quipped, “It’s not that we’re not making the efforts or spending the money to reach younger and more diverse people.” He goes on to state that, “God apparently doesn’t like static environments. I think we have to realize that the fate of God’s future for humanity is not limited to the success of the institutional church. Even if the church dies, God doesn’t die.”

This article brought back to me the question of why. Why has the mainline Protestant church been in such decline? Answers have been offered, but none fully satisfy the question. I have wondered about a dynamic that I do not hear cited very often as a possible cause of decline: division. During the last 20 years, when decline was at its peak, many of the mainline churches were steeped in issues that found ministers split right down the middle. The issue that caught the most headlines was how to approach the issue of homosexuality, especially the ordination of homosexuals. Once the church divided into “two parties” there seemed to be nothing anyone could do, even big names and brilliant minds. For example, Stanley Hauerwas has stated that when he tried to help the UMC to make at least one small step forward in this discussion he was rejected and found suspicious by both parties because he refused to pick a side. Simultaneously the exact same division was taking place in the Presbyterian (PCUSA) and Episcopal churches as well.

I do not believe that this debate, which visibly split the mainline churches was actually the root cause of the decline, but more like the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was the full blossoming of division that had fostered for years. Division is a cancer in the body of Christ. In fact, a simple definition of cancer is improper cell division. Division is repulsive to all, it transcends more commonly cited gaps. Take generation gaps for example. The so-called Builder generation values institutions. But Boomers value causes. X-ers and Millennials value relationships. These various core values sometimes put members of different generations at odds with each other, and quite commonly create misunderstandings that grow out of miscommunication. However, no one honestly wants division. After all, division is just as detrimental to an institution as it is to a cause as it is to a relationship. Once the conflict came to a point that seemed intractable most people were repulsed by the situation, no matter what generation they belonged to and no matter which side of the issue they defended. And so some have simply given up.

Evangelicals have been largely unaffected by this particular debate. And while the mainline churches were experiencing rapid decline in the late 20th century many evangelical churches were experiencing rapid growth. Evangelicals (and yes I’m including Pentecostals here) often touted these numbers with pride and celebrated the rise of the so-called Mega Churches in our own movements. I consider this to be tragic and sad. Not just because it revealed our own spiritual pride, but because it revealed our own ignorance of the cancer that was creeping in on us. We should have known better. We diagnosed the cell division in the mainline church as cancer and never realized that the rapid cell growth we were experiencing indicated that the tumor was actually developing in our part of the body. It’s like we stood there with huge tumors on our body and laughed at the lab results being given to our brothers and sisters. Jesus has a word for us: remove the plank from your own eye you hypocrites (Matt 7:3-5).

We are now suffering from our own cancer. We are obsessed with our own size, driven by an insatiable appetite to bulk up. Bigger is better. Give us more. Let us have it. It is ours. We will take it. I’m not talking about spiritual advance. I’m talking about numbers–more people, more money. We cannot get enough. Sadly, we are unaware of how grotesque our physique has become. We continue to pump in more spiritual juice in order to pump out more juicy statistics. A growing church may be healthy. Or it may just be a growth, a malignant tumor. Meanwhile, unaware of the meaning of our growth, we continue to ingest deadly carcinogens, mistaking them for spiritual fruit, while laughing at those poor dying fools down the street. That is where we are and here is the truth: only God can save us.

5 comments on “the church faces death

  1. Johnny Taylor
    March 18, 2008

    What a vivid way to think about our widely celebrated best efforts to evangelize our home. And by “our” I mean the American Church. It reminds me of Rev. 3:17-19:

    “Because you say, “I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing,” but do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, take my advice and buy gold from me refined by fire so you can become rich! Buy from me white clothing so you can be clothed and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed, and buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see! All those I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent!

    It seems we have a tendency to mock others nakedness in order to keep the attention away from our own.

  2. travis johnson
    March 18, 2008


    Perhaps, in many cases, including our own we’ve lost the right by degrees to be called the Church. On how many projects at the expense of the mission of Jesus can we focus until we cease being the Church of Jesus Christ?

    And, while centralized institutions bug the heck out of me, a centralized organization obsessing over the heartbeat of Jesus is a good thing. Anything that replaces the mission of Jesus with some other noble or misguided effort ceases being the church and begins being a good social group.

    I’m concerned that while we haven’t tried taken the route of the Methodists or the Epicopalians, we are trapped in the same way with Great Commission assets being controlled by a centralized organization that may or may not spend them in Great Commission pursuit.

    More likely than not, we are invested in self preservation instead of an aggressive Gospel offensive.

  3. Jonathan Stone
    March 19, 2008

    Johnny, do you remember that Joyner vision about the guys on the beach that were all juiced up on ‘roids? They were carrying these little surf boards. And it was quite obvious that they would never actually be able to surf on them. In fact, they would probably sink like a rock in the water they were so overbuilt. I think that is another helpful picture here. We have bulked up on a lot of stuff that actually has no benefit for us in carrying out our mission.

    Travis, I agree, and have enjoyed hearing the emphasis you have been putting on getting back to a clear, aggressive focus on the mission. God is a martial God, which does not sound very appealing in our current global context of war and terror. But there are significant differences between human armies and the army of God. God’s army destroys strongholds and saves people. It redeems and it restores. It gladly loses its life for the sake of others. Very little in the current American church resembles those characteristics. But that will change.

  4. One Crying Out For Something New
    March 19, 2008

    Dude, you have got some awesome stuff to say. I was actually thinking how true it is because esp in some churches and denominations. I was actually reaised in the Methodist church and have been watching as it has been dying for years and the people in the church actually don’t want help.

  5. Jonathan Stone
    March 19, 2008

    Thanks Beth! Great to hear from you, and I’m glad to hear “an insider’s perspective” to the UMC. Also, you may be the youngest person to comment so far on here. Congratulations! So far the discussion has been lively and relevant for ministers. But I hope that eventually I can expand the discussion to include younger persons and members/attendees. In order to do that I might have to add some other format, as this type of “viral” blog (as Travis Johnson calls a blog dedicated to “ideas”) is not that attractive to our younger folk. Maybe I need a Facebook & MySpace. Anyway, if you, being a little bit younger than me, have any ideas about that I would value your insight.

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This entry was posted on March 17, 2008 by in crisis, faith, intergenerational, issues, sustainability, trends.
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