Relevance. It’s a word you seem to hear more and more in church circles and leadership training seminars. The mainline church has been in decline for over 50 years and, many argue this can at least be partially attributed to the fact that, by and large, the Church can’t seem to remain relevant in an ever-changing world. If we can’t speak the language of a changing world, there’s no way we can ever hope to have a viable presence in said world.
It’s no secret that one of the biggest signs of this lack of relevance shows up in the lack of persons between ages of 25-35 on Sunday mornings. I’ve heard many make passionate and well-founded arguments that “you have to understand young people if you want them to come to church.” “This generation will take or leave the church.” “They aren’t like their parents or grandparents.”
Now besides the fact that such statements are vastly over-simplified and do not reflect any sort of consensus among younger adults (or their parents and grandparents for that matter), there is something to be said for the fact that a gulf between the church and society in America at large that is becoming more and more evident with every study of worship attendance and membership that comes out.
As a member of this elusive demographic, I would like to explore this idea of relevance in the hopes that I might at least spark a hearty discussion in the process.
Generation of Target Consumers
Somewhere around the mid-1970s or so a revolution in advertising happened. You see, ads are always run at particular times of day on particular channels during particular shows in order to target particular people. Around the early to mid 70s toy companies decided to shake things up by advertising straight to children. Whereas they always centered ads around parents and tried to attract parents into buying particular toys, these companies took to Saturday morning television (prime-time for kids) and centered their ads right at kids so they could then beg their parents for whatever the latest and greatest toy was that morning.
What does this mean for the church’s quest for relevance?
For starters, if you’re centering this quest for relevance around that elusive 25-35 year old demographic, you need to understand that we’re the first generation ever that will be advertised to from the cradle to the grave. Therefore, any quest for relevance that is anchored in advertising will very easily become white noise to a young adult. The church doesn’t need to try to be “hip” or “cool” in order to attract young adults. Frankly, the church isn’t very good at that stuff.
Secondly, the style of worship your church offers has much less of an “attractional” element than you might think. So many churches think, “if we just offered that rock band style of music young folks will knock our doors down.” That isn’t true. Very rarely do young post-grads ever search out the nearest church with the biggest rock concert to offer on a Sunday morning. Young adults will, however, ask a trusted friend or a co-worker about the church they attend. And this church could come in any shape, size or style–just so long as someone they know and trust is there to welcome them.
Relevance or Authenticity?
You see, if the church really wants to speak to younger adults, rather than striving to be “relevant” why don’t we just be authentic. Honesty goes a lot further than folks give it credit. If you don’t believe me just look at a big chunk of Ron Paul’s supporters–younger adults longing for a politician who will be honest and not speak from talking points. And the church ought to try that for once–speaking from the heart instead of a script of doctrinal talking points.
If you want your church to be relevant, then it won’t happen with slick ads or flashing lights and loud music. It won’t happen only in the form of a preacher who wears t-shirts and blue jeans and who sits on a stool to preach on Sunday mornings. It won’t be a part of any sort of manufactured and packaged effort that hopes to make your church somehow “attractional.” You don’t boast about “being real” either–you just are real and don’t make a big deal about it.
If you really want to be relevant or real for younger adults, then why don’t you do some truth telling about yourself and the world we live in? The world is a complicated and messy place and, frankly, it can be hard to stomach simplistic theology that tries to make God and the meaning of life into a 2+2=4 formula.
Why don’t you ask us what our passions are? Why don’t you sit down and listen to our dreams? Our fears? Rather than imposing some set of assumed “needs” you see younger adults having, why don’t you just ask? Remember that when, as a church, you attempt to “meet the needs” of younger adults without listening and learning you often just project your own needs upon folks you don’t even know. Just know that when you do listen and learn and love you have to be ready for some truth-telling in return. If the offer of Christ is to come in the form of love, then it can’t have an agenda. These young adults may not come to your church right away. They may drift in and out depending on where life is taking them–and that’s okay.
If you want to speak to the issue young adults face, be relevant if you will, then try being bold about who you are as a church. Talk about issues that matter beyond the walls of your church and leave room for questioning. Let us bring our black, hispanic or even gay friends to church because, after all, many of us simply see them as friends who don’t need a special pass to be allowed into worship. Talk about relationships in ways that aren’t trite and simplistic. Our lives are complicated and we need help navigating the rough waters of relationships without having a judgmental wave try to knock us off course. In all of this, don’t try to be everything to everyone and just try being authentically who you are.
When you do worship, dare to sing big beautiful songs about God and the world and not the pithy little anthems that only tells the story of my faith or my salvation. There’s a big world out there and we need the language of faith that recognizes we aren’t actually the center of that world. These songs can be sung with both pipe organs and electric guitars. Heck, many of us might even like it if you occasionally mixed a good banjo in with your guitars. And when you finish singing these big beautiful songs, dare to send us out into the world like we might actually be able to make a difference. God’s grace is big and mysterious but we need to know that it’s with us nonetheless, even when we don’t totally understand it. Oh and please, please, please do the sacraments often. Don’t rid the church space of mystery and iconography. I’ll let you in on a little secret–mystery is actually one of the biggest reasons many younger adults attend church (even if it is sporadically).
As a wise frog once taught us, “it’s not easy being green”–but it is beautiful. Rather than wasting a lot of time and energy trying to be relevant, why not just dare to be the church. And know that you’ll have to ease some of us along and teach us a new language. But if you’re faithful to that language, not sacrificing it for the sake of “relevance” or growth, you might be surprised who shows us ready to hear an actual word from the Lord on a Sunday. They might even decide to put that word into action the other six days of the week as well. If you don’t believe me, just go down to your local coffee shop or happy hour bar and just ask a young adult yourself. Tell the truth, be authentic, and don’t worry if it makes you look a little green. “Authentically green” is a good color for the church.
This was in one of the devotional resources I use reguarly. It’s worth sharing…
“Created in God’s own image–with the capacity to love–we seek to love God with our whole being and love our neighbors as ourselves. Faith is the means to this loving end. In other words, built upon a firm foundation of trust in Christ, our lives move toward the goal of love–the fullest possible love of God and the fullest possible love of all people and things in God. What an audacious vision, to be immersed and lost in God’s love! The Wesleys described this goal as perfect love or Christian perfection…and is this not the one burning desire of the heart–to be filled, immersed, and lost in this love?”
“Gracious Lord, you fully know and fully love all you have created: grant me power to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, that I might be immersed and lost in your love. Amen.”
[writted by Dr. Paul Wesley Chilcote in A Life-Shaping Prayer p. 31-32]
A lot of ink is in the process of being spilled over what ails the United Methodist Church. Everyone seems to have their own take on what our shortcomings are and what could ultimately save us. With General Conference coming in 6 short months I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface of ideas to save our denomination. It is in the spirit of offering ideas that I would like to explore an avenue that could inspire us to think anew, or at least differently, about who we are and what we’re about as The United Methodist Church.
Russ Richey explains in his book, Doctrine In Experience, that from the outset, Methodists saw their purpose as one of Providence. With Methodism’s timing in America, at the beginning of a new nation, Richey notes:
“Methodists conflated the kingdom of God with the nation, construed denominational purposes in terms of those of a Christian America, and in making the church subservient to Christian nationalism, intimately tied the former’s health to the later’s” (p. 21)
Now this problem isn’t exclusive to the UMC by any stretch. Protestantism in America as a whole fell victim to tying its mission too closely with the utopian notion that somehow America would, unlike its European older siblings, form itself into the perfect mix of Nation/Church. The past 200+ years have illustrated the slow demise of this mission. One of the major problems churches all over the country now face is a lack of vision and mission. I would argue that much of this is due to the fact that our earlier purpose was faulty at best. When the promises of democracy and liberty as the ultimate form of being the church failed and the realities of pluralism in a global society revealed the fault-line in the vision of a so-called “Christian America,” The United Methodist Church (along with all other mainline denominations) suffered a blow to its structure that we’re now all trying to assess and hopefully heal.
So what has Providence looked like throughout American Methodist history?
For starters, the historical questions that have been asked of Methodist preachers at ordination over the many, many decades can offer a glimpse into our earliest views of providence. The 3rd question, What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists?, became nuanced very early. Over the years this answer has offered a statement of Methodist purpose through the wording: to reform the Continent, and spread scriptural Holiness over these lands. And thus our purpose from the beginning was tied to the development and evolution of the nation.
Methodist historian, Abel Stevens, drew the providential connection of church and nation firmly. In his book, Compendius History, Stevens sketched Methodist system as one mirroring that of a machine. It was no mistake that he sought to link the physical work of James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, with the moral work of John Wesley. Stevens firmly believed that the mechanistic design of the Methodist system was a perfect fit for a nation encountering the evolution into the Industrial Age.
Matthew Simpson, the Methodist pastor/historian famous for being a close confidant of Abraham Lincoln, extended this vision of a conjoint mission between the Methodist Church and America. For Simpson, it was through the experience of the Civil War that the Methodist Episcopal Church found itself wedded to the nation. If the American Revolution offered the roots of our “revolutionary spirit,” Simpson saw the Civil War as the fundamental act whereby the American Methodist Church separated itself as a church unto itself. Therefore he told the amazing stories of American church growth. He reveled in the success of the institution that displayed superior organization and efficiency. But when it came to providence, Richey notes that Simpson let the nation be the beacon of light:
“Such claims had led [Simpson's] predecessors almost inevitably and immediately to invocation of providence. Simpson made much less of providence than they. When he did speak of it, the nation rather than the church came into focus” (p. 31)
In linking the mission of the church to that of the nation, Methodism essentially practiced a form of Christian Triumphalism. And now, in a post-Christian nation/world, we’re left to fight the temptation to fall into a new sense of triumphalism. Many are both very critical and very supportive of the Call to Action statement offered by the Council of Bishops. It’s a major structural change that seeks to address the excess and inefficiency identified as a primary source of our “lack of vitality.” But just as the Methodist church has done before, it adopts major practices from the American culture to find a source of providence. The structural changes promise a priority on the building of congregations. We’re no longer to be a connectional church as much as we’re called to be a collection of churches. But the problem is, as far as I can tell, we still don’t address our lack of vision and self-awareness. “Making disciples for the transformation of the world” easily gets linked to church growth when we fail to recognize the measures of what disciples look like and how they are formed by the grander vision of what the church is called to be (found in paragraph 201 of our Discipline but often overlooked in favor of the “bumper-sticker” approach mission statement). All we seem to be left with is the natural inclination that a bigger church will be a better church and we need to get bigger in order to get better.
I’m a self-avowed critic of the Call to Action not because I don’t like accountability, and not even because I don’t think statistical reporting is a good thing. I think there’s some merit in how the Call to Action addresses both the need for accountability and the need for diagnostics as a church failing to live up to God’s call. My concern is in the end-game. What do we believe God is calling, nay demanding, of us as a 21st Century Christian denomination? What do we think will actually come of building more churches? And if providence is at the heart of the Methodist mission, then what does that look like?
Whatever we think will come of this, we should be wary that we don’t fall into the trap of creating yet another manifestation of Methodist mission shaped by American ideals. That experiment didn’t work the first time. So we need to spend some time thinking and praying about not only where to go, but who we actually are. If we’re going to spread scriptural holiness by forming disciples in the practices of holy living, we can’t domesticate this mission into any sort of vision of Christian America or franchised brand of the Methodist system.
One of the practices I’ve come to enjoy is finding prayers of saints, theologians, and even the most ordinary Christians. I’ve begun a collection of prayer books ranging from the daily offices to simple books written by various authors. I hope to make it a weekly post to share a prayer that I find.
Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of prayer. What an extraordinary thing that we can pray to you, unburden ourselves before you, place our cares, woes and joys before you. I confess I find praying an awkward business. I keep thinking, “Who am I to pray?” But I know that to be false humility, hiding my prideful desire to be my own creator. So we pray a prayer of joy in prayer, asking that we become your prayers for one another. Amen.
[Written by Stanley Hauerwas in his book, Prayers Plainly Spoken, p. 23]
Leadership seems to be one of the new buzz words around the church these days. No matter where I go or what meeting I’m attending, inevitably someone will bring up the issue of leadership. Part of the reason could have a little something to do with the fact that no matter what situation it’s brought up in, it’s also followed by reasons why we need to improve leadership in the church. This recurring topic has led me to ask a question: What does leadership in the Wesleyan tradition look like?
As much as we become enamored with various models of leadership, I would like to advocate that whatever means we use to inform our leadership, we don’t neglect the richness of our Methodist tradition in the process. It’s my belief that our United Methodist Discipline serves as more than merely a book of church law. It can and does offer a perspective into a distinct Wesleyan form of leadership–one that has shape and distinct voice on how one is to lead within the Body of Christ. And this form centers around the various meanings of the Methodist word discipline.
I begin with a list from Russ Richey’s book, Marks of Methodism, which is volume 5 in the series, United Methodism and American Culture. Richey notes 9 different ways we understand the term discipline in the Methodist tradition:
In all of this, one can see that discipline is a book, an exercise of ecclesiastical judgment, a way of living, a set of practices, loving mutuality in oversight, a recognized accountability, the state of being faithful to the gospel, the good order of the church, and the polity or governance of the church.
So what does this say about leadership in the Methodist tradition?
For starters I think our view of discipline offers a temperance of any new, hip model of leadership we might want to adopt. There is a great deal we can learn from business and the corporate world. Corporate leadership models can inform the way we operate efficiently in an ever-changing world. I’m a big advocate of learning from “secular” leadership models. But we have to be careful that in our pursuits of efficiency, we don’t surrender our distinct identity as leaders of a Wesleyan church movement.
Over the last 25 years or so we’ve inched ever-so-subtly into a world that prioritizes functionality over structures that discipline. Rather than discipline that governs we prefer disciple-making and from functional order as our identity we prefer a more fluid form of organization that is contextually informed. None of this is wrong, per se, but we at least have to be honest about what these trends and priorities mean for the church.
For example, we can’t merely see “disciple-making” as the primary aim of the church if we neglect the paragraphs that follow in our Discipline outlining the definition of the local church (paragraph 201) where it’s described what a disciple looks like and how disciples are to live into the character of the church. As leaders we have to recognize that our Discipline outlines specific Wesleyan values in forming disciples. And this orders the way we faithfully seek to help congregations in the journey of disciple-formation. If we neglect these structural points in favor of the more simple approach of merely, “making disciples for the transformation of the world,” we inevitably equate disciple-making with recruitment.
Secondly, we should view our discipline (both the book and the order of life) as an expression of what it means to be the church. In other words, moving too far away from our distinct heritage of leadership will eventually lead us to operate in a way that is not Methodist. Shane Hipps makes this point when he argues that eventually “the medium becomes the message.” He notes this reality in the world of technology but it’s true in organization as well. If we communicate a way of being that is not Methodist for too long, even for the sake of so-called efficiency, eventually we won’t be Methodist.
Finally, we have to see our discipline not only as a way of ordering the church, but also as a means of ordering our leadership. We don’t merely need to exhort discipleship, we have to embody it. We can’t just pull the Discipline out to check the rules on how to order committees if we don’t pull it out to inform us on how to uphold Wesley’s “General Rules” as a means of Christian living. It will take some creative reading because much of the richness of our Discipline has been lost under ambiguous categories that seem to regard the richness of a Wesleyan theological perspective as just quaintly historical.
As a young clergy person I’m excited to see how leadership takes new shape and form in a new century. I’m especially excited to continue growing and learning as a leader. I just hope that in this process, we can take this old book off the shelf, dust it off, and discover the richness of what a Wesleyan leader actually looks like.
As we prayerfully seek where God is leading us, the people called Methodist, in a new era it’s important to become fluent in how we have historically articulated who we are. In exploring our past we can come to understand our present and then, and only then, discern a path for the future.
In his book, Doctrine in Experience, Russ Richey argues that Methodists “spoke to the nation with not one but four voices, four languages” (p.4). He names these historical voices as follows:
3)Episcopal or Anglican
It is my argument that while these are our historical voices, we should separate the “popular” language of our day from the “evangelical” language, thereby creating 5 voices by which we understand who we are as Methodists.
Richey argues that the evangelical language, the language of the sermon, love feast, prayer and camp meeting, were the popular languages of the early days of Methodism in America. The country was in its infant stages and we were looking for both a spiritual foundation to ground us, as well as an emotional fervor to reflect and propel the frontier spirit we longed to embody. Methodism offered just such a foundation and spark, found in the dual emphasis on conversion in campmeeting and revival worship as well as discipleship in class meetings. This evangelical language charted the course of Christian life because it employed words that all could understand resonate with.
While this was the everyday language of the 18th and early 19th Century, one could argue that such evangelical language now comes with the baggage of suspicion. Over the years too many of us have seen such language employed to judge other unfairly, to uphold persecution and oppression, and to demonize that which “good religious folk” don’t understand or agree with. But nonetheless, we as Methodists still understand ourselves with evangelical language–albeit more tame and cloaked in expression. We still preach and teach on concepts like conversion and sanctification through the Holy Spirit. Now there’s also a pretty good argument that we could find ways to employ this type of language in more productive and non-judgmental ways. But that’s a frontier yet to be conquered.
While evangelical, religious language was the popular language of the days of early Methodism, we now have alternative language to employ. Over the 20th Century religious organizations collectively sought to use the language of the wider society in an effort to convey its relevance in a world changing faster than anyone could imagine. The language of psychology and medicine has become popular language in religious circles. For example, whereas sin was spoken of in evangelical terms of a need for conversion in the early days, it’s now more widely spoken of in terms of an “illness” or “condition” from which we all suffer. Conversion, then, could be viewed as a remedy for this illness, a prescription if you will. But there’s also the belief that conditions are better thought of as that we “manage” and not what we overcome. The burden of sin is viewed with many more complexities than it was in the early days of the Methodist movement.
Another popular language employed by religious organizations came about in the later part of the 20th Century–namely, the language of business. The fact that I so easily refer to denominations or churches as “organizations” speaks to the way the language of business has become so prevalent in our religious conversations. As buildings grew we had more of a need to accumulate sources of revenue (i.e. new members). Families can be referred to as “giving units” when we talk about the overall health of our churches. Efficiency has quickly become one of the highest ideals of the ministry of the church. And the Methodist church has seen a sharp rise in our drive to create so-called “mega churches” (FYI: “Mega Church” is the only church descriptor that speaks solely of membership size which is yet another sign of how easy it’s become to use business language). All of this (plus more) speaks to the Methodist affinity in employing the popular language of business in religious/organizational understanding.
In the early days of the Methodist movement we sought to employ distinct Wesleyan language in forming our doctrine. In 1798 John Dickens saw to it that American Methodists had a Pocket Hymn Book, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament and his Sermons. Dickens also saw that Wesley’s Large Minutes, the forerunner to our Book of Discipline, was published and made available to American Methodists. All of these served to instill a distinctively Wesleyan voice in how we articulated our theology and ministry. It should be noted that Wesley himself never intended that these works create a self-sufficient religious identity. Instead they were to be used in conjunction with the biblical text and Book of Common Prayer.
It could be argued that as we grew as an institution, our distinct Wesleyan language became more focussed on organizational needs and less on our theological self-understanding. In a later piece I want to argue that our organizational structure is, in fact, an expression of our distinct theological identity that too often gets overlooked. Nonetheless we have to remember that when we discuss conflicts on issues such as equality, sacramental order and authority, and yes, even organizational make-up we have a distinct Wesleyan voice on these matters. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel as much as we might just need to re-examine how the wheel was constructed in the first place.
As step-children of the Anglican Church it should come as no surprise that we employ a good bit of Anglican language in our understanding of how we organize the church. The titles of bishop, elder, and deacon are distinctly Episcopal in their heritage. And yet we use them to understand the roles of governance in the church. We speak with a particular Anglican tongue when we articulate the way we celebrate sacraments, identify core doctrines, order our governance, and even ordain our ministers.
republican (Note: “r” and NOT R)
As a product/shaper of early American life, the Methodist church employs a distinct republican language. If you don’t believe me, just look at how much of our structure is based off of an democratic model. We have 3 branches of authority: Judicial Council (judicial branch), General Conference (legislative branch), and Council of Bishops (executive branch). The American expansion across the continent led Methodists to rally around the first mission statement to “spread scriptural holiness across the continent.” It was the joining of national and religious language that strengthened the two All of this offered Methodism a powerful narrative through which is understood itself in the context of a growing young nation.
Today we see this understanding lived out in the presence of the Methodist voice on various social issues. Many argue that Wesley’s quote of “no holiness but social holiness” stands as the Methodist justification for political/social justice efforts. Often one will hear Methodist ministers encourage members from the pulpit to vote while not swaying into partisan politics (some do better than others, mind you). The Methodist emphasis on “holiness of heart and life” continues to find its expression in a life actively engaged both in the church and in the political world.
These are 5 of the major languages of Methodist self-understanding. It may seem like a trite exercise but I think it’s vitally important to become fluent in a language, or languages, in order to employ them to shape a culture. We can’t influence change in the church unless we know the language of the culture. These 5 languages serve to shape who we’ve and who we are today. There are good points and shortcomings to the use of each of these. So maybe the key is to discern how they can affect who we are to be as a 21st Century church. One could only hope…
Which language(s) informs your understanding of Methodist theology? Which one(s) are most in need of correction?
Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going?
All of these are questions we’re asking within the United Methodist Church. Many have come up with solutions or directions to address these questions. The jury is still out on whether or not they’ll sufficiently address the pertinent questions of our sect of the Church. But we ask and offer answers nonetheless.
I’m currently reading some wonderful works by Dr. Russ Richey entitled: Doctrine in Experience and Marks of Methodism. Supplementing my research is a variety of articles and other works on Methodist history and polity.
I’ve come to an early conclusion that, as Methodists, we’re not a lot of things. We’re not denomination built on confessions and intellectual assent to various doctrines (although many would argue that fact). We’re also not a denomination built on the rigidity of religion as a means to shelter one’s self from the cold of the secular world (although some might even argue that fact). But we are a denomination built on the simple and demanding call to faith as the pursuit of holiness of both heart and life. And besides that, we have a history and a structure that, when viewed with the lenses of grace and truth, supports this pursuit. It’s a faulty argument to separate our history and structure from our theological demands–they’re inseparable. Methodist history and polity are, when joined with our distinct Wesleyan theology, the corporate embodiment of this great pursuit of holiness of heart and life.
The design of this series is to ask these questions of who and what we are in light of who and what we’ve been. I’ll be exploring this relationship of our history and polity as they might pertain to our contemporary identity. In other words, if we’re trying to figure out who we’re called to be in a new day and age, it’s probably a good thing to explore who we’ve been in previous ages.
And who knows but maybe, just maybe, our past can actually come to life and speak through the voices of saints who’ve gone before us and paved the way of Methodism over the last 250+ years. In joining our voices with those of our past saints, maybe we can catch a glimpse of a harmonious union of past and present–Lord knows, our future sure depends on it.
In what ways does our Methodist tradition and history inform the way(s) you understand your faith as a United Methodist?
Next Post: Who Were We: The 4 Languages of Methodist Self-Understanding