The sentiment around the church today is a longing for some sort of renewal or, to put it in more churchy terms, a revival. As a Southerner born and raised just due east of the buckle of the Bible Belt, revival is a term I’m familiar with. I can remember my home church hosting revivals when I was a kid. It was a time where we had worship beginning on Sunday evenings (because back then we all came back to church on Sunday evenings anyways) and we met for 2-3 evenings in a row. We often brought in guest preachers and maybe even enjoyed some special music as part of our time together. But make no mistake, the purpose of a revival was to spark a sense of renewed fervor and vitality in the spiritual lives of all in attendance.
I’ve recently heard that word, “revival,” repeated again and again at Methodist gatherings and meetings. And it made me wonder: What does the revival (or renewal) we long for in The United Methodist Church look like?
At the heart of revival, of course, is change. The hopes of a revival is to provide space for a spiritual change to occur in someone’s life. But if being Christian teaches us anything, it’s that change must be BOTH internal AND external. In other words, if change is to take hold in our lives, then nothing remains the same.
So if we believe this applies to individuals, and that such a change is essential to live a faithful life, doesn’t it also apply to our churches and systems of being church? In other words, when we pray for revival in the church, do we take to heart the need for change to take hold in EVERY aspect of our lives together, including the very ways we go about being church?
When we pray for revival or renewal in the church, are we willing to hear God’s voice calling us to change, even if it means radically changing the ways we organize, build and use buildings, and relate to each other and the world around us? Organizational management and change consultant, Margaret Wheatley, reminds us, “Change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart. Yet if this period of dissolution is used to create new meaning, then chaos ends and new order emerges.” If you’re an active leader in the church, I think you’d probably agree we’re experiencing a “dark night” as membership and attendance continues to decline. And we can mourn the loss of “the good ‘ol days” when people just magically showed up at our churches and everyone organized their lives around a Sunday that included worship and three meetings, bible studies, or circle gatherings throughout the week or we can offer ourselves to the change God is calling us to even if that means relinquishing those idols of how we’ve been church for so long now.
What sort of change is God calling your church or district or annual conference to embark on? How are you being called to do things differently for the sake of God’s mission? Margaret Wheatley offers us more wisdom: “In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.”
Maybe God is calling us yet again to articulate a common vision. If you’re a United Methodist, then you’re probably already shouting at your computer screen, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!” Yeah, but how? The creation of a mission statement does not ensure that mission happens, even if people memorize the phrasing. The how question is the true kicker for churches and our denomination – How will we go about being a faithful church to the mission of connecting people to the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that lives are changed on an ongoing and continual basis? And maybe the how question also leads us to an important distinction – Are we about the business of living into God’s mission or are we about the business of building and playing church?
A couple things should jump out:
First, in order to go about this mission in a 21st Century world we can NOT use 19th or 20th Century methods. For example, building buildings as a sign of success is something the church has done for centuries. And now as we experience a season of decline, we’re saddled with the burdens of buildings that are way too big and way too expensive to keep up. If a 21st Century world is more migratory less tied to buildings, then why do we insist on continuing to build buildings or do everything in our power to fill the ones we have?
Secondly, the very nature of mission insists that we move – move out of our buildings, move out of our aging ways of doing things, move out of our comfort zones. If mission calls us to move out, why do we spend so much time and energy trying to get people to come in to where we already are? The act of counting weekly attendance and membership might have something to say about the affect worship has on the life of a local church, but it says very little about what people do after they leave the worship service. Why not spend more time connecting with the community around us instead of just supplanting and sequestering people off into our buildings. God is doing amazing things outside of our churches and we really ought to take notice.
I guess maybe I’m trying to ask this: If we pray for the revival of the church, are we praying for a season of change in EVERY sense of the word, or are we just praying for things to go back to the way they once were when we had more butts in seats, dollars in the bank, and people who centered their lives on the well being preserving our buildings and programs?
Needless to say, that’s a question that I hope will continue to haunt us at every turn.