We have to start somewhere

A report came out this week that stirred a lot of conversation. It’s a Gallup study related to church membership in the United States. For decades, church membership has declined. Last year, according to the report, 47% of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. This is the first time that figure has been below fifty percent.

If you haven’t read these reports before, this might come as a shock. It sounds like the sky is falling. So, let me offer you a word of assurance: God’s church will never die. There is always a movement of the Spirit.

One of the joys I have is to read testimonies from church leaders in other nations. Churches in other parts of the world are reawakening to the Spirit’s power. More and more people are coming to know Christ as Lord.

There are a lot of things we can say about our decline. That’s part of what our daily devotional addresses. I’m convinced our decline is the fruit of consumerism and poor discipleship. Those two things have manifested themselves in ways that have wounded the biblical sense of Christian community and what it means to walk as Jesus walked.

I’ve read about church decline almost ever since I first joined a church. Early on I learned that my church, The United Methodist Church, has declined in membership every year since its creation in 1968. This is nothing new.

When I reflect on our situation, I like to think of the word crucible. A crucible is “a situation of severe trial…leading to the creation of something new.” And maybe I’m a cup half-full kind of person, but when I hear that church membership is less than 50%, I hear ministry opportunity. There is a ripe mission field.

So what do we do?

Over the years, I’ve listened to ministry experts who have enlightened us to the “one thing” to do to grow our churches. Every expert has their own one thing. There are a lot of experts, which means there are a lot of one things. Who knows, you may think there’s one thing your church needs to do to change the tide of decline.

There is no one thing, but we have to start somewhere.

People have told me to consider being a church planter, someone who starts churches. So far I have decided that isn’t my calling. While I am intrigued by the idea and haven’t written it off completely, my sense is I belong in churches that need to learn to develop a divine imagination. I would love to be a part of a new thing God is doing in a new congregation. But there’s a blessing in watching a new thing happen in an already-established church.

Again, there is no one thing to do to reverse decline. Just because you sing a different type of song in worship doesn’t mean everyone will flock to your church. Update your church’s website and get on social media and people will still ignore you.

But I know that I know that I know, the best place to start is in prayer together. When the disciples faced threats in Acts 4, they responded in corporate prayer. As they prayed, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and a boldness to speak the word of God overcame them.

As we pray, God will show us what to do next. So, let’s not decide what one thing we need to do now if we haven’t prayed together. Let’s pray for a divine imagination to see what God wants us to do and in what ways we can speak the word of God with boldness to more than 50% of the U.S. population.

Stay blessed…john

Responding to resurrection

During the season of Lent, our church hosted a Bible study written by pastor Adam Hamilton. I joked before that I was a little salty with Pastor Adam because he wrote the book before I did.

It was a study on five essential practices of the Christian life: worship & prayer, study, service, giving and sharing faith. In The United Methodist Church, when someone joins a local church, our membership vows include a commitment to each of those practices.

Another word for them is disciplines. But we don’t like that word. Not even spiritual disciplines. We have learned, though, that the more we practice such disciplines, the more our walk with God matures.

So, spiritual disciplines are always on my mind.

I’m always trying to figure out how to get the church more involved with them. For a while, I have considered my own book project that centers on our United Methodist membership vows. Since Pastor Adam beat me to it, maybe a daily devotional will do.

When we talk about spiritual disciplines or essential practices, it’s important to recognize them as a response to the grace of God. Because we know something about God, we respond. In that light, we don’t pray, for example, to get God to do something we want. We don’t go to church to make sure the Lord knows we’re still alive.

We’ve experienced the grace of God and we want to know Christ as Lord. That doesn’t happen by accident. So, prayer, worship, study, service, giving and even sharing faith become indispensable forms of knowing God more.

You can see all five of our vows lived out in a small passage from Acts 2. First, remember that chapter begins with the Holy Spirit’s anointing over the disciples. Divided tongues appeared over each of them and they began to speak in the languages of the gathered crowds of people in the temple. Right after that, Peter gave his first sermon and thousands of people believed in Jesus.

Here’s the line that gets me. It’s verse 42. As a result of what they had seen and what they heard from Peter, the people, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

My first reaction to that verse is to bless God. My second is to ask a couple of questions. How would you rate the church’s devotion today to such things? What about your devotion? What about your church’s devotion to do these things together?

When I talk about these things, people often affirm to me that they, for example, pray every day. That’s great. Keep doing that. But are we devoted to praying together?

Because that’s the key to what happened in Acts 2. The people shared their faith together. The apostles’ teaching relates to study. The breaking of bread and the prayers is worship and prayer. What kind of service did they offer one another if Luke says they all had “the goodwill of all the people”? They gave all their possessions to ensure they could take care of one another. And their community grew because people learned what was happening there.

See?

Our five commitments are there. They always have been.

This is the week after Easter. We’ve just experienced the glory of the resurrection. This feels like the perfect moment to respond to the power of God with a devotion to knowing God more. Is that something you are ready to do?

Stay blessed…john

Pre-resurrection questions

What we talk about as the church matters. The conversations we engage in with one another make a difference in what kind of witness we will be to the world.

I’ve heard many preachers joke from time to time about something being as hard as choosing the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. You’ve heard them say it, too, I bet. As silly as it sounds, it speaks to a reality of a lot of churches. It’s only said as a half-joke.

Real church people have fought over that very conversation. Some left their church. Others resented their Christian friends as a result of the wrong color.

Read Church history and you’ll see there has always been division. I have Catholic colleagues who find it strange that Protestant Christians make such a big deal about the Reformation. We’re happy that the Church split, they wonder.

So many times, though, the divisions we read about began as theological confrontations. That doesn’t always make the disunion any better. And while I can’t recall a time any theological discussion riled me up, I can understand how important these issues can be to some people.

But the color of the carpet?

What about the bulletin format?

Remember the worship wars of the last couple of decades? I sure hope we feel stupid about that. Lord, grant us to learn that some conversations belong on the pre-Resurrection side of Easter and that some conversations need to happen, and give us the wisdom to know the difference.

The Marys and Salome woke up very early on the first day of the week to prepare the body of Jesus. It was only a few days ago they watched him die. Mark tells us their story. He says they were discussing something important to them. They wondered who would move the large rock that blockaded them from their work. The glory of Easter is that once they arrived at the tomb, they didn’t need to worry about the rock any longer.

Their question becomes the talk of the past because it doesn’t matter anymore. Knowing what happened inside the tomb, worrying about the rock is pointless.

The color of the church carpet needs to stay on the other side of resurrection. Do we need to make a decision about it? Sure. But we needn’t make it a kingdom issue. And, yes, we need the wisdom to know which questions and conversations should stay on the other side of resurrection and which warrant our attention here and now.

Perhaps the best way to make that decision is to ask, what difference does this make in the kingdom of God and to our purpose of sharing the resurrection story of Jesus?

Stay blessed…john