Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Watching a Denomination Die

While a grand old institution slowly crumbles, the people who have invested their lives in it look for every glimmer of hope, every shred of evidence to sustain the belief that, really, “we’re doing fine.” Even when we acknowledge trouble, we have an odd way of tipping our hats to it while bolstering – in a form of whistling past the graveyard – our shaky feelings with positive-sounding language about hope and change.

I’ve been a United Methodist all my life. Being a preacher’s kid warped me, but not for the usual reasons; you know, the glass house, the resentments about “being watched,” being moved or just being different because of parents’ profession. I love The United Methodist Church. Pardon the gender specific reference: she has been like my mother.

I entered United Methodist ministry in 1984, the same year Bishop Richard Wilke’s book, And Are We Yet Alive? was published. That book was an eye-opener for many, but the press of institutional survival squashed its impact. We have been in critical institutional decline for 25 years! We go through periodic frenzies of corporate self-examination that turn out to be little more than posturing and hand-wringing. The more things change…

The Church needs leaders. We have some. We need more. I am speaking to my ilk: we pastors have to be more than goodhearted people who work hard and love our flocks. We have to lead. We have to teach! It takes transparency of faith and character. It takes courage. It takes perseverance. We had better figure out how to do our jobs – or we had better quit. It is far too holy a calling to occupy the place without doing the work. God is asking us, “Where is the fruit?” (And I don’t mean just numbers although I’m also not trying to avoid them!)

In “The Wisdom of God’s Counsels,” John Wesley’s lament over the decline of the Methodist movement (mainly because of love of wealth) carries on for several pages. After painting so bleak a picture he then asks, “But have all that have sunk under manifold temptations, so fallen that they can rise no more? Hath the Lord cast them all off for ever, and will he be no more entreated? Is his promise come utterly to an end for evermore? God forbid that we should affirm this! Surely He is able to heal all their backslidings: For with God no word is impossible.”

God can create something from nothing and bring the dead to life. This great truth we all know. God isn’t the problem. Our unwillingness to risk real repentance, our unwillingness to take up our cross daily and follow – that’s the problem.

Some reader(s) perhaps will take offense at my words, because she/he/they can think of the exceptions to my “negative” perspective. We have developed quite a perverse penchant for denying a generalization by finding a handful of exceptions. This defense is exactly part of the problem. We gag at a gnat and swallow camel. God is not fooled…or mocked.

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March 27, 2009 - Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. I’ve been praying and agonizing for the future of United Methodism for almost thirty years now (I started young). The particulars of my prayers change from time to time. Back in my college days, my prayers were for the denomination as a whole. Since I’ve been leading congregations, my deepest prayers have been for a move of God in the local church (which would then leak out and upward).

    Just yesterday I had one of my men finally build up the courage to tell me he wasn’t a believer. He’s read the books, heard the sermons, served in all levels of church leadership, and even been to Emmaus. He just doesn’t get it. I know there are others like him that still sit in the pew – hoping against hope that someday they’ll “get it.” I’ve given up any Weberian dreams of being able to make things happen for these folks. Just doing church on autopilot isn’t going to do it. So my praying has fresh urgency.

    I also continue to pray for our institutions of higher learning. I see so little light out there: though I was happy to learn of what is happening there last year. I pray for your work there also, knowing that maybe, through stubborn, spirit-filled love and repetition, some students will become followers of Jesus and maybe be the catalysts of the next revival.

    Comment by Richard H | April 3, 2009 | Reply

  2. Thanks, Richard. This morning I read Wesley’s sermon, “On Schism.” It’s both sobering and bracing to read. Regarding college students, I find much reason to hope. I wish our denominational vision focused on them more.

    Comment by steverankin | April 3, 2009 | Reply

  3. Have you been following any of the posts John Stackhouse and Scot McKnight (and friends) have been doing on campus ministry?

    Comment by Richard H | April 3, 2009 | Reply

    • I haven’t. Thanks for the heads up. I’ll take a look.

      Comment by steverankin | April 3, 2009 | Reply


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