Is Saving the Church Saving the World?

Cross at Lake Junaluska, NCEconomist Don House believes if enough local congregations spend enough money on the right things it will put The United Methodist Church on a growth trajectory. It’s a novel approach to the challenges faced by religion in the 21st Century.

House says the church has 15 years to turn around or it’s kaput. His analysis is based on the U.S., not Africa and Asia. The church’s presence in Europe is tiny. For years the U.S. church has carried the financial load.

Urgency for Change

Whether a denomination with the institutional ballast of this church can turn around that quickly is a big question. But the urgency is underscored by recent surveys in the U.S. that show an increase of “nones,” (people who don’t identify with any religion), the “spiritual but not religious,” and growing secularism.

Combine this with decline in mass membership organizations, civic clubs and voter participation and it’s clear we are losing faith in the institutions that once were the glue that bound the society together.

Many thoughtful leaders say the world is at an “inflection point” in history. Something significant is happening but we can’t foretell its outcome.

New forms of human organizations and religious communities will arise. And if sociologist Thorsten Veblen was correct, by the time we create something suited for today, it will be outdated by tomorrow.

Culture, social connections and technology, will have moved on, he says. The challenge is across the culture, and it’s deeper than how groups are organized, or even what they do.

Status Quo is Unsustainable

The dilemma facing the Boy Scouts of America is instructive. The counsel President Robert Gates gave the Scouts is similar to House’s comments to the church. Maintaining the status quo is unsustainable.

And these things–social interactions, economic pressures, and technological changes–all influence religious values and beliefs. Equally important, they affect how the faith community is perceived.

So far the conversation about the House proposal, as it has been reported, hasn’t focused much on these challenges. It’s been presented as a spending plan and less as a theological document.

Plans for a more engaged ministry are being formulated. They include addressing poverty in 30,000 schools and reaching 1 million children with life-saving health interventions (not a real stretch but a good idea), creating a culture of call, and training in discipleship.

Will this be enough? I don’t know. I hope so.

But as it stands right now it isn’t awe-inspiring and it doesn’t sound like the transformation of the world that is called for in the second half of the United Methodist mission statement–to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Faith Gives Meaning

Religious faith is the means through which we define meaning and purpose in life. It connects us to our Creator and to each other.

It helps us to act responsibly toward others and experience dignity ourselves. It demands justice.

It’s what guides us to treat the Creation with respect and leads us to understand the sacred in our midst and to reach for transcendant values that cannot be captured in mathematical formulas nor scientific propositions.

In this transcendant reach we find a vision for life that takes us beyond our limits, our fears, and the finite frustrations that confound us.

The Great Challenge

And in this lies the great challenge to the church, to give us a vision of life that is brighter and more hopeful than the conflict-riddled, hungry, hand-to-mouth survival, job-loss threatening, gritty world that all but the privileged few live in.

It’s not the challenge to save itself. It’s the challenge to present the biblical vision that life is sacred, filled with meaning, and to be lived purposefully.

This challenge involves communicating with people who are oblivious to, perhaps even unbelieving of, their sacred worth.

It involves addressing the fear that rapid changes are passing us by, making us irrelevant, robbing us of purpose.

We are challenged to address a lifestyle that traps us in a consumptive quest for meaning that fills recycle bins but not the soul.

Christians are challenged to translate the teachings of Jesus in the sermon on the mount into a compelling and inviting narrative for lost souls in the 21st Century, for in this lies saving grace.

A formula for spending might be a good starting place, but it’s far from the full effort necessary to address the challenge. Christians must tell us where they see God at work in this mess and how we fit into God’s future. And invite us into it.

They must offer us reason to believe and something to believe in.

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