. . . posts on faith and life
I recently came across an interesting article on Christianpost.com 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.