Can the Church be Saved?
I’m really tired of being asked that question….along with these other questions: What is the future of the Church? What do we need to do to FIX the church? How can we get people to come to our church?
I’m also tired of the EXPERT coming to tell us what to do. If we just did this, we’d all be fine. If we read this book, follow this program, or do this in our community….then the church will be saved.
Lord, have mercy!
First, as my good friend John said, “The Church doesn’t need to be fixed!” The institution needs some work, but the Church, well, that belongs to Jesus. The Church of Jesus Christ has been around for a while now and I trust that our Lord will continue the will of the Father concerning all of creation. In other words, I do not believe it is up to ME to “fix” the Church.
Denominations and institutional systems however, are another matter. We are in the midst of a huge cultural shift in Western civilization. I’m not talking about the kinds of worship music we sing or a small group model of “doing” church. I’m talking about the bigger picture of rising population, depleting resources, and social divisions. Humanity simply cannot continue with business as usual and not understand the signs of shift right in front of them and neither can the Church.
I do not have the answers! So if you are reading this and thought that you’d find answers, perhaps you should look elsewhere. I do however, have some suggestions for my own denomination – United Methodists.
- More Cooperative Ministries. Traditionally, Methodists have been a connectional group of people. We are taught from an early age that we are connected to other Methodists around the globe –all working together to continue ushering the Kingdom of God into the world. But we haven’t acted like it in a while.
I come from the South where there is a Methodist Church on every corner. They would tell me stories of how and when they split over something-or-another and they were still split! Even though they were neighbors and family, they attended two different United Methodist churches within 2 miles of one another. The culture had changed around them many times, and yet they were still “doing” church the same ways.
I have served now in the Northwest for a few years. Churches here are closing their doors faster than building new congregations of the faithful. Until recently, the West had the highest number of “nones” (those professing no religious affiliation). They lost that status to the Northeast but only by a small margin. Those in the Pacific Northwest are seeing the effects of “doing church like it was 1950” as aging congregations are shrinking quicker than they are growing.
What if the few larger churches that we have in the Northwest would stop downsizing, but instead start hiring more pastors and laity for service? What if they then worked with these smaller congregations to birth new ideas while sharing staff? Pastors may not be assigned just ONE congregation, but several, as they worked cooperatively with one another in small communities of faithful United Methodists who can no longer afford full time staff. The model that has been used is when a church can no longer afford full time pastoral staff, they are then yoked with another part-time church. That’s not what I’m talking about. The “circuit-rider” mentality once worked, but I propose it needs to be re-imagined.
- Re-imagine the Apportionment system. Anytime there is systemic change needed, one needs to ask, “What is it that we need to let go of in order to move forward?” I think we are struggling to let go of many things but one of those is the apportionment system. For you who are not UM’s, this is a system of gathering funds from local congregations that go to the General Church and are spent on many great and worthy causes. These funds do much good in our world and show our connectedness on a global scale. The funds also pay our Bishops and staff so that our conferences can run smoothly and have the pastoral leadership that we need. Can we afford to let go of some things in order to move into the future?
What if we apportioned each church 10% of their budget each year. I know that my church has about a $90,000 budget yearly, without adding in our apportioned funds. Thus our apportioned figures would be approximately $9,000 a year under a re-imagined system. That seems fair and comes from a biblical understanding of tithe – giving 10% of the first fruits. What would have to be let go of? Could we move forward with the deficit that these cuts might cause in the General Church budgets? Would worldwide ministry continue to be done?
As my small church pinches pennies and seeks to serve the least, the last, and the lost, we urge our leaders to ask these hard questions and to begin to re-imagine the systems in place that are hindering the work of small churches within their communities.
- Re-imagine ministry in all aspects of church life. My Bishop once told us clergy to go into the world without fear; dreaming and visioning for the future; boldly trying new things and letting go of systemic strong-holds. What exactly does this look like? In my small community of 5000 souls, it looks way different than in the next city of 30,000.
The “being in mission to” and “we welcome you” language has to change. We need more relationship building! We need collaboration! We need to truly know our neighbors and journey with them in life – whether they come to us or not. Churches (the space we gather) should be comparable to infusion centers where we are infused with God’s love, Christ’s grace, and the strength of the Holy Spirit to go OUT from the walls into our neighborhoods (thanks Pat for that metaphor).
Churches today don’t like to talk about blood. But I remember the old hymn, “There is Power in the Blood” and am reminded that while the blood theology may make some uncomfortable, once you get rid of the blood you have gotten rid of Jesus (thanks Leonard Sweet). Without blood loss, there would have been no death and then no resurrection. If we are truly resurrection people, then we cannot forget the blood that was lost so that humanity could move forward in loving radically and fearlessly as we follow the risen Christ into our world.
What would it look like if gathering spaces were flexible infusion centers? What does it look like for us to stop worrying about welcoming others and ask them to welcome us instead? What would it look like to have those infusion centers sustained, not only by the offering plate passed around, but by collaboration with small neighborhood businesses? What would it look like if we used the church building (the infusion center) as an ecumenical gathering space with cost sharing in place?
It is past time that we start to re-imagine the way things have always been done. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, set out to re-imagine the Anglican Church and look what happened! It isn’t the systems that are in place that will keep the church going, but it is the ability to creatively follow Jesus into an ever-changing world. We are all called. The ministry is before us. Will you re-imagine with me?