The deterioration of mainstream denominations has been a topic of discussion for many years. Everyone knows there is a problem, everyone has been encouraged to stay at the table, to be an agent for change and I bought in to that. But, it was devastating to read in one of the December Issues of the United Methodist Reporter that in 1932 the Methodist denomination recognized the crux of the problem was that the denomination looked to it’s Agency Staff instead of Christ as the head of the church. Unfortunately, very little has changed.
In the UMC the pastor is charged with discerning the will of God for ministries and programs, and then working to get his folks on board. This modus operandi usurps the lordship of Christ in the body of Christ and places an unsupportable burden on the shoulders of the clergy. It encourages individuals and churches to allow the work of the denomination to become a substitute for their personal involvement in God’s work. I believe the institutional church, clergy and members alike are suffering from the long-term consequences of that disconnect which has fostered an intrinsic humanistic mindset throughout the church.
The article stated that the problem identified in 1932 was the denominations’ proclivity to lean on the Agency Staff and hierarchy to decide ministry goals, instead of leaning on the Lord Jesus Christ. This operational method now permeates every aspect of church government from Agency Staff to Congregational committees. Theological intellection has redefined faith as good works rendering the Methodist Church a powerful philanthropic organization, but not a house of faith. A house of faith relies on the person of Jesus Christ to determine its’ mission and provision. In the United Methodist Church there is only one mission – to make disciples for Christ. Each church is called to accomplish this mission in a unique way, with ministries corresponding to its’ Spiritual gifts as a church. This should not be left up to church leaders, the congregation or clergy either. Every church has a God given set of it’s own tools to define and accomplish the mission to which they are called.
Only one person should make the decision of what any particular church will do– our lord and savior Jesus Christ and He gives us the answer by the tools he gives us through our members. No one is added to the Body by chance. We are supposed to go to Christ – we are supposed to watch what is going on around us – who He sends to us – what they are doing or want to do – and then use His tools by joining HIM in HIS work. When we see Him working, our only choice in the matter is whether or not we will follow His lead and not count the cost. Each individual has that choice to make – each church has that choice to make.
In the study Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby, states that “Koinonia (the experience of God’s presence) is impossible if a church is made up of individuals who are unwilling to submit to the lordship of Christ in the body of Christ. The same impossibility exists in a larger body of fellowship, such as an association or denomination,…” The culture of the UM organization from top to bottom actually discourages meaningful Koinonia within the church.
In 1978 the UMC Board of Discipleship began a spiritual renewal program called the Walk to Emmaus. It was intended to strengthen the local church through the development of Christian disciples and leaders. It has been enormously successful in helping individuals radically transform their lives and work environments into more Christ centered experiences. However, many Emmaus pilgrims are met with resistance and suspicion upon return to their local congregations. I have come to realize that most UM clergy really don’t want leaders. UM clergy are primarily interested in folks that they can plug into the prescribed programs and ministries of the institutional church. In many cases pastors and other “non-Emmaus” members of the congregation are actually intimidated by the passion for ministry frequently exhibited by members returning from an Emmaus Walk. Many pastors misinterpret this passion as a challenge to their authority which coupled with pressure from members afraid to explore opportunities for a deeper spiritual experience, pull back from full support of the new “leaders and disciples” that Christ sent to them to strengthen their churches. This pull back results in disunity, and frequently causes the pastor to deny the discipleship of the very people Christ sent into his church to bring change. These frustrated people often find it necessary to go outside of the institutional church in order to be obedient to Christ’s call to discipleship.
The above example illustrates a microcosm of the problem endemic throughout the UMC as identified in 1932. Clergy still cling to old ways where ministry flows from the hierarchy to the their congregants and community. Instead of from Christ through the instrument of His choice.
In Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby said that the only question a pastor should ask his congregation to vote on is solely whether they sense God is leading them to a particular ministry. He says that if they vote no, that church needs to pull back from moving ahead, because the congregants aren’t spiritually mature enough for the job. I am not sure that is true, but even if it is, I believe it could only pertain to churches truly dedicated to finding, regaining or renewing their spirituality and Christ Centeredness. Not to a church made up of individuals who are unwilling to acknowledge or submit to the lordship of Christ in the body of Christ.
When to move on is an age-old problem. Jesus, after making every effort to “bring along” his fellow Jews, broke with the synagogue, his church of the day, and moved on to fertile ground leaving His fellow Jews to move at their own pace. At no time did he coddle, cajole, or force His Word on anyone. Neither did the disciples, they did as instructed in Luke 9:5 “If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off of your feet when you leave…” Martin Luther faced the same dilemma. Calvin, John Wesley and many others found the same truth found in Luke 4:24 applied to them as well. “…no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” A truth is a truth, Truth is the Word of our lord Jesus Christ. Each of the men mentioned above found it impossible to institute meaningful change in a firmly entrenched organization. Christ’s spirit grieves for those that reject His challenge, but He did not let anyone or anything stop or immobilize Him from doing His Fathers work, and neither must we.
I do not believe the hierarchy of the UMC or any other mainstream denomination has the will to change. I believe we are on the cusp of a great spiritual revival. I had hoped that the UMC was up to the task of not only providing, but then accepting passionate spiritual leaders. Unfortunately, I now believe that history will repeat itself and the UMC and other mainstream denominations will continue their slow fade into irrelevancy.
The mainstream denominations have worn out the “stay at the table” mantra that they have been chanting for the last 78 years, by ignoring the need, indeed the hope, of its’ members for a life transforming personal experience at the table of Jesus Christ. An experience promised to free them for joyful obedience to HIM.