"The truth is I feel tremendous pressure to save the United Methodist Church."
So says Rev. Eric Van Meter, director of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State in a column for the UM Reporter. And so say we all. It is a pressure from within, driven by our love for the church and our deep desire for the church to flourish. It is a pressure that he says many young adults feel, and I count myself as one of those many. So I really resonate with what Eric is saying, and commend his column to you to read in full.
I have written before about the ministry of young adults; I have led a couple of workshops; it is one of my favorite topics. Among other things, my underlying feeling is that young adults are being objectified by the church as "savior" figures, rather than being valued intrinsically.
It seems sometimes as if young adults are valued as long as they can be useful in reanimating the dying denomination, and by "reanimating the dying denomination" I mean acting like younger versions of the people currently populating the pews. But not if they're just being themselves.
The problem, as Eric sees it, is when the church does things that "give church insiders something to rally around, [but have] little impact on most folks who populate Sunday morning worship or Wednesday night council meetings." And a lot of that complicated (and expensive) navel gazing has exactly the opposite effect that was intended. Let me explain.
Trendy programs and slick websites sometimes give the impression of trying too hard, especially when the true life experience of the church just doesn't jive with what is being presented. Or as Shane Raynor puts it (as only Shane can), "Let's face it...some of our churches stink. Why should we spend money advertising them?"
I might not want to say it exactly that way, but I fully agree with the sentiment. When a young adult (or any adult, just about) looks for a church, they go online. Based on what they find there, they'll attend a worship service or two or three. But if they do not experience a connection, something that resonates with what they have seen in the ad, they'll head somewhere else in a hurry.
As I see it, the way to "save the denomination" is to stop trying to save the denomination and focus on the church's identity as the body of Christ in the world today. The early church grew amazingly quickly, and it did so with an anti-publicity campaign that actually kept everything secretive and subversive, meeting at night and communicating with codes. They basically just cared for one another, ate meals together, and talked about Jesus. What would be the 21st century equivalent?
I love church, and I would like to see the United Methodist denomination flourish by being the body of Christ in a distinctively Methodist way. And I think that if we do, we will grow. Eric Van Meter asks, "Does wanting to save my church mean that I should fight to keep her young, or let her die and trust in the hope of resurrection?" I think that is a false choice; there is another way to think about it.
I think that wanting to save my church means that you have to abandon all thoughts of saving your church, and simply be the church as best you can. God will save the church if God will. In the meantime, we just live faithfully.