Several of the conversations happening around the United Methodist Church seem to imply that the denomination itself won’t last into the second half of the twenty-first century. While non-denominational churches shoot up and mushroom out in pockets of suburbia, the established church (not just the UMC) watches as members leave (or die), coffers empty, and overall lethargy settles in. It’s not the way of every UMC certainly, but there’s a trend here that is unsettling.
And then one has to ask, is that such a bad thing? (Bear with me for a moment: I’m not arguing for giving up on the denomination, or church in general.)
What if we live in a post-church era? Some have said we live in a post-Christian America, where the world has passed us by and Christianity no longer has a valid hold. I beg to differ. But I think it’s possible that the church as an organization, as an institutional bully pulpit that politicks and lobbies, may need to be discarded.
Too often, I hear parishioners (usually older ones) discuss how the Christian America they knew and loved has died and been replaced by a reprehensible America that doesn’t value God or country anymore. (Without getting sidetracked, was Thomas Jefferson’s excerpted Theist Bible really Christian? Were the morals of Woodstock really ‘good’ and today’s teenage/college exploration really ‘bad?’) I think that ultimately the world has changed (even for the better) and that the church has failed to keep up.
I think instead of praying for a “holy hedge of protection” (thank you, Tim Hawkins) around the church, we need to be disassembling the way we’ve been doing it for the last century and take those stones to help rebuild the public square. I think instead of worrying about what’s been lost, we need to recognize that there’s still a hope we have in the future that God has promised. Some call this time “pre-Christian,” but I call it “pre-kingdom.”
If we really believe that in Lent, we look to refine and refresh who we are as Christians, then I believe we need to set aside our differences on doctrine and polity and focus in on the purpose of the church: to be the body of Christ. Jesus preached abundantly about the kingdom of God and what it would be like and how it was coming. It is a “present and future reality” that is not yet come to fruition and we live in that not yet.
Are we trying to batten down the hatches to save this or that denomination or are we building an ark (more on that later) where we want to provide refuge, respite, and healing for those who seek something good, something better? This kingdom of God has been promised and it’s coming, whether we’re ready or not.
Psalm 118:22 says that “the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” What if our dead and dying stones of the church, rejected for a time, could become the building blocks in the new kingdom?
Even the rocks cry out with hope.