We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, August 9, 2013

Turning the Church Around - Without the Spirit?

In my last posting, "Turning the Church Around - Really?", I introduced a recent Methodist proposal aimed at turning around Methodist decline.  The proposal is entitled, "A Strategic Plan for Growth in the United Methodist Church"  and was authored by Dr. Ronald R. House, an economist who serves as a consultant with the United Methodist Church's South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee.  In this posting, I would like to follow up with another issue that this proposal could also do well to take into consideration, realizing that it may well be that its proponents are already aware of it.

At the heart of the matter, it has become increasingly clear that mainline decline has been as much about the Holy Spirit as anything else.  Mainline churches were able to chug along for many decades as social clubs—akin to other service organizations—drawing on a superficial "do good - God is love" theology and a meager spirituality.  In the head winds of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, that sort of chugging along still works in some places some of the time, especially if a church has a charismatic-type pastor.  But, on the whole people are less-and-less willing to commit themselves to religious institutions that takes more out of them in time demands than they give back in spiritual growth.  What the statistics of decline that Dr. House's paper so aptly marshal point to is a failure in the spiritual life of churches.  The central challenge of our time is spiritual renewal, which his paper does not address at all.  The benchmarks it sets are fiscal ones.  The focus is on institutional concerns, especially the fear that the United Methodist Church (UMC) will fall apart as a religious organization before mid-century.  The mentality reflected in the paper is a fix-it one that tends to look at symptoms and superficial solutions rather than at root causes.

Now, admittedly, in the 998 churches that are expected to take part in the paper's Benchmark Project, the additional funding they are to collect could be used for spiritual renewal programs.  The paper, however, does not mention that possibility or recommend it.  It leaves to the churches and their pastors to decide where the additional funding is to be used, although apparently one important possibility is for additional staff.  There is, House observes, a statistical correlation between adding staff and increases in worship attendance.  But what it sounds like is that the Benchmark Project's goal is actually to restore churches to their former condition of the 1950s when statistical growth was a reality for most churches.

One has to ask, even if the Benchmark Project reverses UMC decline by 2021 as proposed, what kind of churches will it have?  Will they be churches experiencing spiritual renewal, which grow the lives of their members as much as they grow their budget?  Or will they be the spiritually shallow churches of the post-World War II boom years?  And if there is not a deeper experience with the Spirit, would the UMC be able to sustain its projected turnaround for any length of time?  The answer almost certainly is, "no".