Lambrecht: We have seen the future

Tom Lambrecht, vice president of the United Methodist renewal group Good News, argues that the places where United Methodism is dying the fastest are precisely those places at the forefront in disobedience to church discipline and doctrine regarding sex. This, he writes, gives us a glimpse of the future that progressives would create for the denomination.

Since the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Annual Conference appears to be at the forefront of advocating new moral teachings by the church, according to the hypothesis that this represents the Methodism of the future, the conference should be showing remarkable growth and vitality.  Instead, we see a stunning drop in membership and worship attendance.

In 2003, the PNW reported 60,495 members.  Ten years later in 2013, they report 46,209, a decrease of over 23%.  The membership loss in 2013 was 2,465 alone, nearly double the yearly average over the last ten years.  So the membership loss is getting worse, not better, even in light of the church’s permissive stance regarding sexuality.

Worship attendance was even worse.  In 2003, the PNW reported 26,421 in average worship attendance.  Now that number is 18,505, a decline of 30%.  In 2013 alone, worship attendance declined 1,663, an 8.2% drop!  The decrease in worship attendance in 2013 alone was more than double the average annual decrease over the last ten years, so again, the loss is getting worse.

This kind of argument, of course, does not address the justice arguments made by United Methodists in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the connection. Also, I think a fair reading of the progressive argument is that the denomination is doomed to lose younger generations if it maintains its historic doctrine, so it would be interesting to see if there is any evidence to support that claim. Eroding membership in progressive conferences and jurisdictions may be older generations, which while nothing to cheer does not directly address what I take to be the progressive argument.

Nonetheless, the numbers Lambrecht reports are sobering and certainly give us cause to wonder about the best road forward for a denomination that strives to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

O Captain! My Wesley!

On the list of movies guaranteed to make me cry, Dead Poets Society is firmly entrenched. It is right up there with the “Wanna have a catch” scene in Field of Dreams.

The scene below is not the one that makes me cry, but it is one that makes the creative writing oriented English major in me leap for joy.*

As a result of my love of DPS, it caught my attention when Stanley Hauerwas attacked the film in his book After Christendom. Indeed, he attacks one of the lines in the scene above: You must learn to think for yourselves.

I cannot think of a more conformist and suicidal message in modernity than that we should encourage student to make up their own minds. That is simply to ensure that they will be conformist consumers in a capitalist economy by assuming now that ideas are but another product that you get to choose on the basis of your arbitrary likes and dislikes. To encourage students to think for themselves is therefore a sure way to avoid any meaningful disagreement.

Hauerwas argues — or is it asserts? — that Christianity is not something you choose to be a part of, but a set of practices and skills you acquire in apprenticeship to existing masters of the art and craft of Christianity. In doing so, we develop the virtues that make it possible to have an intelligible conversation about morality as defined by the practice of Christianity. But you do not become a master at any craft by starting out thinking for yourself. You start out learning how to think — and act — as the master teachers do.

For my part, I know that I have been on a journey for several years now to understand Christianity as practiced by John Wesley. It would probably be better and easier to learn the craft from someone living today. For the time being, though, Wesley has been one of my primary teachers.

As I write this, I am reminded of an essay or talk William J. Abraham gave in which he argued that Wesley should not be viewed as a theologian but as a saint of the church — a man who shows us what it means to be a master Christian.

In the end, I’m not sure what to make of Hauerwas’ attack on a beloved movie, but I find and have long found the argument persuasive that being a Christian is less about beliefs than it is about a form of life.


*Although I loved the film when it came out, an English professor earlier this year attacked it strongly — echoing some of Hauerwas’ complaints — as a distorted view of the humanities.

Hauerwas: Care vs. discipline

The church seems caught in an irresolvable tension today. Insofar as we are able to maintain any presence in modern society we do so by being communities of care. Pastors become primarily people who care. In attempt in such a context for the church to be a disciplined and disciplining community seems antithetical to being a community of care. As a result the care the church gives, while often quite impressive and compassionate, lacks the rationale to build the church as a community capable of standing against the powers we confront.

– Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom

My problem with pluralism

On Friday, I attended afternoon prayers at the local Islamic Center with my colleagues from CPE. After the prayers were over, one of the Muslim gentlemen came over to our group and started to evangelize us with stories about how the Quran explains that Jesus did not die on the cross.

I appreciated his efforts, even if they were a bit of an embarrassment to our host. Our host tried to get us away from our evangelizer and apologized for his brother in the faith’s tactics. As it turns out, many advocates of interfaith pluralism find evangelism awkward and uncouth.

This is a big part of why I find pluralism so difficult to embrace.

I find it difficult because I live in a culture that wants to put claims on people that are inconsistent with the gospel. And here, when I speak of the culture contrary to the gospel, I do not mean people like my Muslim evangelizer. I mean majority American culture.

Pluralism is the watchword of that culture. It says what we believe about God does not really matter, so long as we keep it to ourselves. As long as what we believe stays locked up inside our own heads and behind our church doors, everything is fine. The culture wants us buying Big Macs and paying our taxes on time. Religion gets in the way of that, and so our culture tries to keep religion a private matter, something best not shared or discussed in mixed company. Our culture uses the word “preach” as a pejorative term. “Don’t preach at me.”

Preaching itself is a struggle against the notion that every American has a God-given right to decide for himself or herself what the truth is and to live the life that they think best suits them. Opening up a Bible and saying the God revealed in its pages is the one who should determine who we are and how we live crashes head long into much of the value system promoted in American culture.

This message goes under the cover of saying Christians should not try to convert Jews or Muslims, but there is no reason at all why the logic of the message is limited to fellow monotheists. Americans have a lot of beliefs and practices that run counter to the gospel.

If we think it is wrong to try to evangelize Jews or Muslims or Hindus, then why should we consider it okay to evangelize pagans or materialists or those who are vaguely spiritual but not religious?

In other words, I have a hard time with pluralism precisely because I believe the people in the churches I serve need Jesus Christ. If I thought they could be just as well off with any set of beliefs that they happened to find suitable for themselves, then I would not bother to preach. But if I am convinced that preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel is good for the people who show up in the pews where I serve, then I should think it is good for people who worship other gods as well.

Or that is how it seems to me.

Power in prayer

A reader posted this comment and question on a previous post. I thought it was interesting enough to put it out here to see if any of my readers wanted to share their stories:

There’s a great story by the priest who does the Alpha series. Early in his ministry a parishioner asked him to pray for healing of a serious illness. He was very uncomfortable doing this but did anyway, not really expecting anything to change, perhaps the person would “feel better” but nothing more. He was hesitant to inquire at any time over the next few weeks about the condition not expecting to hear any good news and not sure what he would say at that point. Interestingly, the question of the parishoner’s illness did come up as a side issue some months later and the response was something like, “Oh, that problem went away right after you prayed over me”. The priest was shocked and chagrined at the same time and learned first-hand about the power of prayer.

At least this is the story as I remember it. I wonder if readers of this blog have had similar experiences.