Tuesday, May 26, 2015

God's Plan and the Decline of the Church

Does God have a plan for us today? And exactly how detailed does that plan get? Did God plan for me to eat cantaloupe this morning for breakfast? Or was it enough that I ate a healthy breakfast? Or that I simply had something to eat at all? Or maybe God’s plan is more of a “big picture” kind of plan that is not so much involved with day-to-day logistics?

Speaking of plans, a recent study released by the Pew Research Center paints a gloomy picture of the future of the church. Numerical decline is happening in every denomination across the board, and dire predictions are being heard from church leaders about the future viability of the church.

So, does God have a plan here? Is the decline of the church opposed to God’s plan and therefore we should strive against it and work to reverse it? Or is the decline of the church actually a part of God’s plan and something new is now happening all around us, something we should not oppose but rather support and encourage?

It reminds me of Ezekiel 37, where God shows the prophet the valley filled with dry bones and asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” God actually interprets the vision for Ezekiel, telling him that “these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” In other words, they just got their Pew Research Center Report.

The modern church has kind of felt like a valley of dry bones ever since we started obsessing over our declining numbers. All dried up. Hopeless. Isolated. Irrelevant. Dead.

What’s the plan here, God?

Prophesy to the bones! Tell them to listen up! God is going to open up our graves! Do you believe it? Prophesy to the breath! God is going to breathe life into the deadest and driest of us once again, and we will live! THAT’S the plan here!

Doesn’t make a bit of sense, does it? Well neither does resurrection. And that plan seems to be working out pretty well.

Jeremiah 29:11 is an intriguing Bible verse - “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” So maybe that’s a good starting point. Whatever God’s plan looks like, it is not going to cause harm; God’s plan is for the “welfare” of God’s people.

And wouldn’t you know, the Hebrew word that is translated here as “welfare” is actually shalom, a word that connotes completeness, safety, health, and peace.

Yes, God has a plan for us, and we call that plan “shalom.” God’s plan is life. God’s plan is resurrection. God’s plan opens up graves, rattles dry bones, stretches sinew and skin over newly assembled skeletons, and breathes new life into dead, dry structures.

I am confident in the future that God has in store for the church. It is going to be amazing, unlike anything we’ve ever encountered before. It is going to be joyous and gracious and just. Love will abound and we will be at peace. It will be shalom.

And here’s the thing … there’s no reason we can’t go ahead and start doing all that stuff right now. You know, joy and grace and justice and love. And shalom. Lots and lots of shalom.

The bones are already rattling. I think I even feel a breeze…

Monday, May 18, 2015

Take a Breath, Church

You rarely think about breathing until you are finding it difficult. As when you have just run up three flights of stairs or been swimming underwater for several seconds. And if it gets really bad, then breathing is ALL you can think about. You gasp until your body has enough oxygen to function normally again, and little by little your breathing slows and deepens, at which point you promptly stop thinking about it again.

Yet we are always breathing. While we live, we breathe. We are never doing nothing. We breathe. The oxygen infuses our blood. Our heart carries it through our body. Life is motion. Life is breath.

For the church, the Holy Spirit is breath. There are times that we take the Spirit for granted, as we do with our breathing, rarely thinking about the Spirit ... until we struggle. Until a poor decision gets us in trouble. Until a loved one dies too soon. If it gets really bad, then we gasp for the Spirit with huge hiccups of prayer and grief and unanswerable questions of “why.” And little by little, as time goes by, our spiritual breathing eventually slows and deepens, normalizing into a new version of our inevitable new life.

We are always in the presence of the Holy Spirit. While we are the church, the Holy Spirit is with us. God is never absent from us. We pray. Love infuses our lives. Our service carries it through the body. God is Spirit.

My prayer for the church is that we would be continually mindful of the presence of the Spirit among us. Just as breathing deeply calms the mind and body, may our deep prayers serve to calm the church and focus us on God’s presence, power, and peace.

That will require us to practice intentional awareness, to develop our ability to perceive the Spirit. Of course, there are times it is the mighty wind of Pentecost Sunday, and it blows our hats off. But much of the time it is just the tiniest puff of breeze, which we may very well miss if we’re not careful.

We are always going. Always striving. Always arguing. Always making noise. Always ...

Always out of breath.

And so, stop. Sit still. And take a breath, church.



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

So, The Church Is a Mess...

There’s a new study out that reinforces a trend that has been on church leaders’ minds for years. It is a Pew Research Center report, and it verifies that the number of Americans who identify as “Christian” has dropped while the number of Americans who identify as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular” has grown.

To be sure, over 70% of the population still says it is Christian, so we could still override a veto. But the trend is quite clearly a decline, and it has been for years.

Now, different church leaders will react to the trend in different ways, obviously. Lament, panic, resignation. But I’ll tell you what I think about it – I think it’s a good thing.

I have spoken to quite a few people who have left the church for one reason or another. As I’ve heard their stories, I have noticed a common theme: The church they left is not the church of my experience.

They are leaving a version of Christianity to which I have never ascribed. They are leaving a narrow and rigid form of church that bears little resemblance to the community of Jesus as I understand it. In other words, what they are leaving is an expression of the church that frankly I would leave, too, if I was a part of it.

And nine times out of ten, among the doctrines of the church they leave is included some variation of this idea: “There is only one way to be the church – our way.” And so when confronted with a church that they find void of meaning AND the idea that this is the only version of church there is, the only option is to leave.

The thing is, that’s NOT the only option.

There is a diverse spectrum of churches, of denominations, of congregations within denominations, of people within congregations. There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to God, and so there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to church, either.

Sure, it can be a confusing mess to sort through, trying to find a group of people to call your church. But the messiness is real. It’s the realest thing ever. It is truth. It’s people being people. It’s a beautiful mess. And sorting through the mess is most definitely worth the effort.

A significant problem is that we have spent too much time and energy insisting that church isn’t messy, that it shouldn’t be a struggle, that church is a neat and tidy proposition. The norms we project are actually false fronts, hiding turbulence and anger and doubt and fear. What a mess.

What a gorgeous, holy mess.

And so I do not lament that people are leaving. I’m not going to wring my hands and worry about the demise of the church. In fact, I celebrate the opportunity that arises. I am eager and excited to witness what the Holy Spirit is doing among the people who have left the church, what new expressions of faith are emerging, and what “church” is going to look like as we experience this messy, turbulent time together.

There are nicer things to call this mess, actually. Gil Rendle calls the present moment “our particular exodus,” a healthy journey through the wilderness to a new ecclesial identity. Phyllis Tickle says it is a “Great Emergence” similar to other historical “great” moments, like the protestant reformation, the east/west schism, and the monastic movement.

The only reason to lament people “leaving” the church is if your ecclesiology is so narrowly defined that it only contains your own personal understanding of what the “church” is. How dare we try to place such limits on what the Holy Spirit may be capable of accomplishing outside of the boundaries of what we think of as the church!

Instead, we who are the church should be celebrating the great work that God is doing in the world today, and asking how we might join in to help out! There's no need for us to be jealous of what God is accomplishing outside of the sphere of our understanding. The church is a mess, and I for one like it that way!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Christian Discipleship as Amoeba Tag

Do you remember playing “tag” as a kid? One person started out as the one who was “IT” and then ran around the playground trying to touch another kid, who then became “IT” and it was their turn (NO TAG-BACKS!).

A variation of the game is called “Amoeba Tag.” In this version, two people are “IT” and they join hands. Each person they tag joins on to the “Amoeba” by linking hands with the end person. When there is an even number of people linked together, the “Amoeba” can split in two if it wants. And you keep tagging people until everyone is tagged.

When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24), he was basically tagging them. He might as well have said to them, “Now, you’re ‘IT!’”

Christian discipleship is more like “Amoeba Tag” than traditional tag. We reach out to others not to relinquish evangelistic responsibility to them, but rather to join together with them in the task of sharing the good news. Linked together as the church, we work together in a coordinated effort to reach out to others.

There’s another aspect of the game that the church might think about embracing: It’s supposed to be fun! This isn’t a competition. This isn’t a military campaign. This isn’t a numbers-driven business venture. This is the church!

The church is a joyous community of grace and love, so filled with the power of the Holy Spirit that it overflows in everything we say and do. If we can’t have a bit of fun while we’re sharing this good news, then how good can the news really be?

So let’s play tag, church. We are “IT,” so let’s join hands and run around the field laughing our butts off and reaching out to the other kids running around all over the place. Let’s have some fun!

Saturday, May 09, 2015

A Denomination-Wide Sabbatical

I have an idea for the future of the United Methodist Church. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that my idea is exactly what our denomination needs right now.

I think we need a sabbatical. All of us. A denomination-wide sabbatical.

One year should be enough time. We need a one year sabbatical to do nothing but worship and pray, reconnect with God, refocus our energy and renew our souls.

In that year, we do nothing else. No Bible studies. No mission trips. No church plants. No leadership training. No marriage license signing. No board meetings. No capital campaigns. No new member classes. No political advocacy. No evangelism programs. No fellowship events. No appointment changes. Nothing.

Rather, every resource, every dollar, every pastor, every staff member, every denominational board and agency, every United Methodist in every congregation around the world focused for an entire year on two things: worship and prayer. And literally stop doing anything else.

Let’s see, General Conference is in May of 2016. So, maybe they could designate 2018 as a year of sabbatical for the United Methodist denomination, which would give everybody plenty of time to prepare. (As with any significant time off, you need to plan ahead to make sure the processes and procedures are in place to get you through the time in a healthy way.)

Imagine the power of all 12 million of us on sabbatical at once. Imagine how radically counter-cultural that would be.

We would say no to the frenetic pace of the world. We would say no to imposing market-driven value on people. We would say no to the debilitating metric of unimpeded growth. We would say no to our over-scheduled, hyper-active calendars. We would say no to the relentless demand for instant results. We would say no to slick programs and perfect curricula and trendy books and hip lingo.

We would say yes to the living presence of God.


There are a few “plans” floating around out there about the future of the United Methodist denomination. Many of these “plans” are variations on a theme titled, “What the United Methodist Church Should Do About Homosexuality.” The run up to every General Conference features a quadrennial flurry of latest, greatest ideas. And this time around is no different.

However, my plan is unique among them. See, all the other plans have something in common: they all advocate doing things. To my knowledge, mine is the only plan that advocates actually stopping doing things. On purpose.

Sigh. I know, I know. It’s not going to happen, is it? But wouldn’t it be nice? Just to take a break, catch our breath, and remember why we do what we do?

Maybe stop nitpicking each other for a year? Maybe stop bickering? Maybe stop trying to one-up each other? Just pray and worship. That’s it.

And then, when the year is done, we get back to it. But we come with a new perspective, refreshed and focused. A little less grumpy. A little more gracious. And a little more ready to be the church that God wants us to be.