“We can either have a hard decade or a bad century.” New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman used these stark words to describe the challenge now facing the United States. Perhaps a similar dilemma faces mainline denominations with many of them facing major decisions at denominational assemblies.
We know that with or without reform, the coming years will be hard for mainline churches. What we do not know is if we will choose to have a hard decade or a bad century.
A recent Religion News Service article by Daniel Burke captures the tension these denominational leaders face: They must try to satisfy those clergy and laity still remaining after 45 years of unabated decline while at the same time trying to relocate to a different and smaller structure to fit the size these once large denominations have become. The article’s title, “Mainline Protestants seek internal reforms, stir anger,” paints the picture.
Burke describes how the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and United Methodist Church have changes underway or proposed for consideration that try to downsize the denominational structures, focus more on congregational ministry than denominational ministry, permit more flexibility for congregations and less regulation by headquarters, reduce denominational budgets, and meet in assemblies less often.
One cannot underestimate the economic motivations for such reforms. Congregations are feeling financial strains after both the worship attendance decline and economic reversals of the last decade. While it is tempting to downplay such concerns with talk of a “scarcity theology,” the reality is that when legitimate concerns are devalued in this way, people become more protective.
Last spring in a presentation to United Methodist leaders, I called for a resetting of the financial baseline and a refocusing on reaching more people, younger people, and more diverse people. I have been surprised and encouraged by the response beyond the initial group, as the presentation has now been viewed on video by over 4,000 people. That tells us that there is tremendous positive energy in churches today, but without good faith efforts by denominational leaders to respond to radically different circumstances, the good will of members will be sorely tested.
“Norms outlive the people who develop them,” says Gil Rendle in his superb book on mainline church renewal. John Wesley spoke of this phenomenon as the forms of religion remaining but no longer carrying the power of God. We know that with or without reform, the coming years will be hard for mainline churches. What we do not know is if we will choose to have a hard decade or a bad century.
You can order Gil Rendle’s book Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches from Amazon or Cokesbury. Lovett Weems’ book Focus: The Real Challenges That Face the United Methodist Church is available from Amazon or Cokesbury.