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.