Life After Death, Take Two: Moving Beyond Renewal

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

I am going to re-write my last blog and try to approach this theme in a fresh way. It is clear that mainline Protestantism is in serious trouble. David Olson’s book, The American Church in Crisis is just the latest of a series of books which have documented this decline.

All of the mainline churches contain dedicated men and women who love the Lord and who have invested decades in bringing renewal. There are thousands of orthodox lay persons who have remained faithful to the gospel and loyal to their church, even when their own pastor may not have been loyal to historic Christian faith. There are hundreds of pastors who have remained faithful to the gospel and who have fought valiantly for renewal even when they felt the denominational leaders were leading the wrong direction. The United Methodist Church is typical of a mainline denomination in crisis. The UMC has been in decline every year since the 1968 merger. The Houston or Memphis declaration did not usher in renewal. For decades, Good News has published hundreds of articles detailing every aspect of a church in crisis. The alarm bells have been rung for almost half a century. Nothing has changed the overall trajectory of decline. Let’s face it: renewal has not worked. Our crisis is as deep today as it is has ever been.

The point is this: Despite great commitment to renewal, the church has continued to decline and millions of members have left the church, or the faith, or both. I am now at the place where I believe that we must ask God for something “beyond renewal.” We need something more transformative than the renewal of the existing structures. We need something which is beyond any legislative solution at a General Conference or a line or two of the Discipline. We need something more profound than just the proverbial “re-arranging chairs on the Titanic.”

The current mainline church is built and organized around a 19th and 20th century model which is bureaucratic, program oriented, and still trying to gain the approval of the wider culture. In short, it is a “Christendom” model. In my view, it is ludicrous for conservative Christians to reduce “renewal” to a “win” on the issue of homosexuality. Even if that issue were to evaporate tomorrow, it would not fundamentally change the crisis we are in. We need big, fundamental, radical changes in the church, not minor tweaking.

We need to dismantle the entire bureaucratic structure and unleash a leaner, flatter movement. We need to focus on growing people, not just growing churches. This means a deep commitment to catechesis and biblical faithfulness. We need a radical commitment to the poor and disenfranchised in our society. We need a recovery of New Testament supernaturalism. We need a return to the great truths of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to completely re-birth the Wesleyan movement in North America. Whether it is a separate movement or we are given a new name within the United Methodist Church, we must be set free to do serious evangelism, church planting, re-missionizing and catechesis. I remain convinced that we can renew the Wesleyan movement in North America in 25 years if we are just given the opportunity to do so. Even our best pastors can quickly be lost in the ecclesiastical fog. Unless the current structures die like a phoenix, no new movement can rise from the ashes. We have to be willing to accept the death of certain things we cherish in order to unleash the new movement which awaits us. It will be a church for post-Christendom. It will be a church for the 21st century.


  • This is true. So many structures, that while well intended, take so much time away from the real work of the Gospel. Thank God, Jesus continues to change lives through the work of His people in local churches.

  • Lead the way, Dr. Tennant. I retired at age 51 after 24 years of active ministry. I could no longer support the dysfunctional system we have established. I became convinced that our structure, which is based on the United States government, is inherently incompatible with scripture. It relies on the development of party spirit, argument, and divisiveness to make decisions rather than true holy conferencing.

    My hope is that the American church can embrace something very new, Spirit led. Perhaps General Conference could vote to allow the United Methodist Church as we know it to die, so that a new world-wide Wesleyan movement may be born. I would not mourn the death of the United Methodist Church, if we can move ahead as a world-wide WESLEYAN communion.

    Lead the way, and I’ll rejoice.

  • Rod Janssen says:

    It is so true that there can be a great division within Methodist congregations. I have personally seen this with more vitality and caring in a congregation of less than 100 versus one with 800. We must all, like Jesus says, have faith as a little child does.

  • April says:

    We do live in a post-Christiandom world and it does calls for a post-Christiandom church. Our structure needs to be bottom up, led by the Spirit of God rather than human thought, control and influence (society at large calling all the shots), and a lot less layers for us to equip the people of God to be the church Christ called them to be in this date and time.
    I don’t know what that looks like but I know it involves refusing to be side-tracked and delayed for 40+ years about a topic clearly outlined by Christ and in the Scriptures. We have been dupped easily because our primary concern about being respected by culture. Christ let nothing distract Him from the mission and purpose that was before Him. We are called to do the same. We have one purpose. We have one mission. Let’s get to it. Single-minded, whole hearted. All momentum moving forward.
    (By the way, there are people at every church ready to be true disciples that grow, go, and invite! Make the opportunity in whatever context you are serving right now for them to do just that.)

  • Buddy says:

    Now retired, I knew years ago that our denomination was dying, if not already dead. I created the Good News group in South Georgia and prayed for revival in our conference.

    In my churches, I focused my ministry on individual discipleship and small groups and people grew and matured in their faith. In addition, my churches grew… all of them doubled their congregations and two went on to triple their congregations.

    I knew the churches would wither and die with the denomination, but the people would continue to grow… some as a remnant in a dying church and others in some other denomination.

    Whether the denomination dies or repents and comes back to life; the church is alive!!!

  • mary Fisher says:

    “Hospitality as Holiness”. Duke Professor Luke Bretherton spells it out. Asbury’s own Professor Christine Pohl wrote one of the foundational works but the church doesn’t seem to get it. Just before returning to Australia after teaching at Asbury I was asked to Pastor a church in Washington DC. I stayed in two elders’ homes and ended up declining the invitation. WHY? They couldn’t tell me about their Neighbours. The church was in annAfrican American area – the congregation of about several thousand had one African American couple…ONE. As I met the Elders I told them I would cancel church worship on a regular basis and require members to have Sunday morning neighborhood brunch. The judgment of the temple is prefaced by the fig tree being cursed. In judging the temple Jesus quotes from Jeremiah 7 and Isaiah 56. What is that all about? Their worship used the Court of the Gentiles for their worship while not understanding their calling of Exodus 19:1-6.
    The Sovereign Lord of history has brought the world, particularly the Muslim world, to our front door. Perhaps one day the Professors, clergy and laity will have the sense to ask “What is God doing?” and invite the alien into our homes in radical hospitality until that day I think our institutional worship sites will be increasingly irrelevant in the narrative of what God is doing.

  • Mark says:

    I would also love to see the rebirth of the Wesleyan movement, but under Wesley’s leadership the Methodists were emphatically NOT a church, much less a denomination. The modalities of the Wesleyan revival cost nothing. Pennies were collected for the relief of the poor. There were no salaries. Its spiritual heart was the radical accountability and confessional intimacy of the class meeting. Where people are able to safely speak the truth about their soul and their sin in the presence of unconditional love, the Holy Spirit does wonderful healing and restoring work. Where this does not happen, no amount of catechesis will bring renewal or rebirth.

  • Mary Page says:

    Oh we are having discussion now. I hear the problems. What are the solutions? What is the path? What is the heart of the matter to be a Methodist Christian? Is it in our building or is it in our laity when they leave the building and do application of the gospel in their daily lives? How do we feed that and make that grow more? I saw church in the mall and a cafe church. I think we have new circuit riders modernized 🙂 instead of using horses are using businesses with a biblical scripture theme to open discussions. At some point we have to gather in larger numbers so what is that gong to look like in 100 years? I do not think he church building is going away. I do think it is going to be open 24/7 with a host of community social justice programs housed there that equip and send out. I was talking with a Hispanic Lay Leader and what she said for her people’s needs is small groups housed in the church, trained and fed scripturally then sent out for specific purposes of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, supporting families or education and informing. Then invited in to specific programs housed in churches. Sunday finance was talking about knocking on doors and telling people personally about the wonderful programs available to help make people’s live fulfilling and Christ based whether an urban professional, homeless people or families. Maybe the Lifeline at our church that serves the homeless is just the beginning of how we well transform and serve all the other groups. Personal interaction with a face fulfilling a need just because we care. Like Methodist Laity has been doing all along under the pastor’s nose. The ultimate rebellion don’t you think? 🙂

  • Mary Page says:

    Formally organize this in our churches. Where are these offices and where are the lay leaders who run it. This is what laity is doing all the time. What if this becomes the transformation?

    To me this is what it means to be a Methodist Christian

    Social Principles
    Natural World, Nuturing Community, Social Community, Economic Community, Political Community, World Community

    Revolve church structure around that

    Human issues of the contemporary world…instructive and persuasive… best of the prophetic spirit

    Social Creed last line

    We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s WORD in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to MANIFEST the life of the gospel in the WORLD. Lifeline, Habitat for Humanity, UMARMY etc. How do we do that inside our churches infrastructure? Manifest that and you have your church for the next 500 years:)

  • Scott A says:

    I appreciate very much your warning that a “win” on the issue of homosexuality is not renewal. If we think it is, we will not move forward. However, many of us believe we are in a real battle over the leading moral issue of our day…an issue we did not choose, but one being thrust upon us! Those of us who have decided to confront it in the local church have the scars to prove it. It is hard to imagine that renewal is possible without a “win” in that particular arena. Of course, even that battle is over the integrity and authority of Scripture, nothing less. So…perhaps if the church could “crumble and split,” renewal would grow from the rubble! I’ve often wondered, when we clergy talk in hushed tones about the “battle over billions of dollars worth of property” that would ensue with a church split…would not having buildings really hurt us? It might demand that we head back out into the streets.

  • Mary Page says:

    Moral battle? God does that. He does not need our help. What He told us to do is evangelize, invite and spread the Gospel? How about this 10 percent moral battle just because we are ornery humans and must rebel and 90 percent evangelize. 🙂

  • Judy Eurey says:

    What do you mean by a “leaner, flatter” movement? I agree with you, but frankly I have heard this clarion call for change….radical change… for years and years and years, but no one seems to be able to provide details, a plan or leadership. So nothing will change and the church will continue to decline. I am not hopeless, however, because I am continually amazed by God’s power to create life out of death. Rarely does a new creation look like the one that dies.
    (Just my two cents.) And another question, do people actually blame the decline on the homosexuality issue?

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Dr. Tennent, you are a trumpeter. God bless you. But I still wonder (as some others do) why you stop short of being specific. Tom Lambrecht is also a trumpeter, but he too stops short. I like your hint (if it is) that United Methodism must be allowed to die, and something fresh and alive rise up. But you can’t get away with just a wink and a nod. Take up your staff and LEAD US OUT.

  • Kevin Cook says:

    Dr. Tennent – this is exactly what I want to do when I graduate; so what are the first steps?

  • Bob Burnley says:

    I would like to a make a few suggestions. If somehow we changed back one rule the church made in 1889 that made it so you did not have to attend the weekly Methodist class society meeting to retain your membership in the church, then everyone would have to meet in small groups an practice confession, repentance, and accountability on a weekly basis. This would go a long way toward sanctification of the membership. The possibilities of newly sanctified congregations are limitless! In the meantime, for now there are many fine international interdenominational ministries that function like the prevenient grace Methodist class society, one being, “Alpha”. For the more intensive sanctifying grace ministy after having received justifying grace Wesley offered the Methodist band society, today we have another international interdenominational ministry called “Celebrate Recovery general issue step study”. What’s missing today is an equilivant to Wesley’s Select Society meeting, where the Methodist “pressed onto perfection”, with perfecting grace, for those who had been entirely sanctified in the band society meetings. Also, today we are missing an equilivant to the “love feasts”, where the perfecting grace testimonies were given and people who had justifying grace experiences in the Methodist class societies could find Methodist band societies to join.

  • As someone born in 1968, I have only ever known a “UNITED METHODIST CHURCH.” And I am an ATS graduate. But let me see if I understand correctly. Ever since the anti-LGBT language was introduced into the BoD, the language has been increasingly become more restrictive and anti-LGBT. In 1988, the General Conference successfully removed pluralism as an official tenent of our faith, declared scripture to be primary, and re-wrote the theological task section of the BoD (which made it more in line with evangelical thought.) During the past few decades, the Walk to Emmaus has been viewed as wildly successful and we have them due in no small part to the effort of Maxie Dunnam. The Disciple Bible study is also viewed as wildly successful. We have recovered Wesley’s 3 simple rules. More books have been written on John Wesley and Wesleyan theology in the past few decades than any one can keep up with! I know for a fact that we Asburians like to brag that our seminary graduates each year more UMs who go on to be clergy than all the 13 official UM seminaries combined! In the past 40 years, we have seen the emergence of Good News, the Confessing Movement, the Mission Society, Bristol House Books, Renew, the IRD and UMAction, Transforming congregations AND Lifewatch. All of that, but we are in the place we are as a denomination. No, if the evangelicals are able to “solve” the “homosexual problem” it will NOT solve the problems of the UMC. It is quite interesting to me that same gender marriages will cause all this talk of schism while the abortion issue, while causing a stir, has never (that I am aware of) caused the church to talk about schism. If we want the LGBT community to know that we love them, we better do a better job of talking and demonstrating it. As Jeremy Smith at Hacking Christianity is fond of saying, if we have a church split the evangelical side will still be producing LGBT children. Everyone is still going to have a parent, a child, an aunt or cousin or co-worker or fellow choir member or football team member who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It does appear that Dr. Tennent may be calling in fact for a church split. The Protestant Reformation resulted in many good things, but if there is thing we can be sure of, it resulted in church split after church split after church split. Is the fact that a few UM churches openly accept and affirm LGBT persons really keeping other churches from growing? Is the fact that Bishop Talbert officiated at a wedding (and I refuse to put wedding in quotes!) stopping the church from growing? If the LGBT community is to blame, then by all means, let’s split and let us indeed see where the churches are in 20, 40, 60 years. Maybe, just maybe, there are outside factors that are not a part of our church bubble that also are contributing to the decline of the church.

    Dr. Tennent, are you calling for a church split?

    • Mark says:

      It is so difficult to discern the difference between what God is doing what is just happening. I’d love to see some criteria, because I agree with the concept. But just reflect on your own life. What events were God’s “doing”, what were His redeeming of our misdoings, what if any were simply neutral? There seems to be great hope that if we will just stop and pray and corporately discern we will be able to tell where God is at work and get in sync. I’d love to think so. But there are no serious movements across the spectrum who do not feel deeply that they have already done this, and it is the others who are out of sync. One broad consideration is that God is on the side of the humble and the truthful and the repentant. That certainly does not solve all the problems, but it could help orient us.

  • Let us also not forget the numerous declarations (that Dr. Tennent references) and with the advent of the internet, we have more resources and avenues than ever before at our disposal to (a) inform people of church business, raise support, and work for change AND (b) to spread the gospel message. I agree with Mary Fisher that we indeed need to ask “what is God doing?” and I fear that far too often we simply miss the boat.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    There is a great deal of muddle around the question of separation because too many (of us) want to hold on to our “souvenirs from hell,” as C. S. Lewis called them. We clutch at our denominational or ideological commitments as though they will save us. This is idolatrous. We need to come clean, to relinquish, and to renounce what will not save us. Equivocating on biblical anthropology to bolster our flimsy status as an “affirming” church will not save us or the world for which Jesus died. We need to preach that Jesus died for sinners, not that he affirms some new status quo that turns Scripture on its head.