The church is dying . . . and here’s why

By Don Underwood, Special Contributor…

If you love the church as I do, this will not be good news. Nevertheless, the church as we know it today is dying. It is a slow death, perhaps imperceptible to most, but it is a reality that cannot be denied.

Don Underwood

I am not talking simply about my denomination, United Methodism. The fact is that most expressions of the Christian church in America are in decline to one degree or another.

These are the words used by a huge percentage of people to describe the church in America today: narrow-minded, judgmental, doctrinaire, mean-spirited, political, irrelevant. This may not describe your church, but it describes how many people perceive the church in general, and more people are choosing every day to abstain from church attendance.

Here are what appear to me to be some really good reasons to not attend church:

1) The message seems to be more about politics, ideology or the culture wars than about the Good News of Jesus.

2) You are told that there is only one way to interpret Holy Scripture and that you are not permitted to question certain theological assumptions.

3) You are provided with the latest verdict about who is saved and who is not.

4) You get the impression that you are not allowed to embrace both your faith and a modern scientific perspective.

5) The church feels more like a social club than a faith community.

6) The worship service and sermons are boring, irrelevant or both.

It occurs to me that the time has come to liberate Jesus and his Good News from the greedy clutches of the church. When Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee to recruit his first disciples, he was creating a movement, not a church. He didn’t quiz the disciples about theology or doctrine; he didn’t demand a particular ideological or political perspective. Nor did he require them to fully understand who he was or his mission on earth. He simply invited them to a life-changing journey that would be centered in their relationship with God. When you read about the disciples in the Bible it is clear that they were, from beginning to end, works in progress.

Here is a thought experiment for you to try. If you were to bump into Jesus on your daily walk through your neighborhood or at the mall, what do you think he would say and what would he invite you to do? Do you think he would condemn you or encourage you to condemn others? Do you think he would engage you in conversation about the latest political drama in America? Or would he simply invite you, as he did Peter and John and the others, to follow him? That is, to take a journey with him even though you don’t have all the answers.

Ultimately, of course, we don’t need to liberate Jesus because it is Jesus who liberates us. And we don’t have to worry about saving the church. The challenge, in our time and place, is to simply follow him.

Everything else falls into place.

The Rev. Underwood is longtime pastor of Christ UMC in Plano, Texas.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
kevin@circuitwritermedia.com
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Join the conversation....

  1. Rev. Underwood does a good job of identifying the sins of many modern churches. To the extent that the church is a creation of only of man, it is dying and deserves to die. However, none of my Bible translations quote Jesus as saying, in Matthew 16:18, “On this rock, I will build my movement and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That scripture refers to the creation of a church – not a movement. Further, I note that the apostles, who knew Jesus much better than most of us today, started churches, not movements. Unless Rev. Underwood has had some special revelation not contained in scripture or afforded the apostles, it is hard to understand the basis for his assertion that “When Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee to recruit his first disciples, he was creating a movement, not a church.” I know of no way to “liberate Jesus and his Good News from the greedy clutches of the church.” Without the church there are no sacraments. So, those “liberated” Christians cannot fulfill the Great Commission in Matthew 28 and baptize. And, of course, they cannot share the Lord’s Supper as Christ commanded (Luke 22:19). Sadly, Rev. Underwood joins a long string of modern lone ranger Christians who believe that they can be disciples and make disciples without the church. Such people can and do interpret the scriptures in the one way that they feel is appropriate without the benefit of the scholarship and Holy Spirit inspired insights of others in a fellowship. They can and od determine for themselves, based upon feeling of their hearts (Jeremiah 17:9) untempered by the wisdom of others, what political party Jesus would belong to and who is condemned to hell. All of the sins that Rev. Underwood points out in the church are amplified in the lives of lone ranger Christian. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the modern church is the worst possible place to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, except for all of the others. If Rev. Underwood cannot understand this, perhaps he should take his own advice and liberate himself from the “greedy clutches of the church” rather than continuing to take a salary and benefits from it.

    • pastor.markmoore@gma says:

      Let me say a word about Pastor Underwood's commentary, and in regard to John's comment above. First, I know Don Underwood as I am a colleague in the North Texas Conference where he also serves. Don has always been a very committed to the local church and the larger connection of The United Methodist Church. He is no rogue individualist who has no regard for the institutional life of the church. In fact, he has given more blood, sweat and tears to the care of the institution than almost any other member of our Annual Conference. Don is not trying to write a commentary on ecclesiology here, and I think he would likely agree with much of what you say. What he is attempting to say is that the institutional church at this point in time lacks credibility, passion, creativity, and courage, therefore the institution as we currently know it is dying. In making this claim he does encourage people to recognize that there was the core Gospel message and a gathering of followers functioning within the Jewish communnity before this new thing called the instititutional church ever constituted itself..it was a movement within the Jewish community and as a movement had the critical elements mentioned above. Don, it seems to me, is just asking people to remember the reason an institution came into being in the first place. It would have been better, in my opinion, for you to respond to the objective truth of his claim; that the institutional church in the West is dying and speak to the issue of how the institution and those within it should respond given the institution's demise in its current form. A lecture on orthodox ecclesiology is unrelated to the general thrust of Don's remarks, and your snarky comment about his remuneration is rude and classless (two common attitudes that have helped place the institutional church where it is today…in full retreat in the eyes of the general public).

  2. mlkrieg@gmail.com says:

    I have read this list before. In modern times (since the late 1960's) and in times more than 100 years ago, and, actually, throughout history. The church domination of American society reached its peak in the 1950s. So, we are just going back to previous years. The Baptist church I attend really does not meet much of the 6 listed, but we still cannot rebuild the size of the congregation to what it was in the Fifties and Sixties. We accept just about everyone: mixed race, intellectually challenged, old, young. We have contemporary music and "old" music. I think many of us are just too lazy to bother and use all of the items you list as an excuse not to attend. When the economy is decent, the wars are kept small and do not require any personal sacrifice (except for those few serving in a war zone) people can stay home and not worry about saving themselves or others. Too bad our Lord did not give us all a quota. Well, actually, I'm thankful He did not. Some churches do very well and I do not know why.

  3. mlkrieg@gmail.com says:

    I forgot to add a link: http://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/2010/03

    One quote:
    Such waves of enthusiasm (“Awakenings”) in some places and at some times rallied some people to faith, but the clergy generally despaired of the heathens who had settled the new continent. One minister trying to save souls in the American heartland in the early 1800s wrote that “. . . there are American families in this part of the country who never saw a bible, nor heard of Jesus Christ . . . the whole country, from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, is as the valley of the shadow of death.”

    To me, Christmas time and Easter do not leave many people unaware of Christ. That should continue to be our first goal: make sure that people know about Jesus and what he can mean to their lives. I feel bad that we cannot get them into church, but a large portion of people now work on Sunday.

    Maybe we should all pool some money and put some ads on TV during NFL games: God created you, knows you, and loves you or similar. Just pay to have it run on the ticker tape when the show the scores.

    I really like your closing paragraphs. Thank.

  4. kennersingle says:

    The problem with this story is that liberal churches are dying at the fastest rate of all. Truth is, as science explains the world around us, people have less and less need for ancient myths

  5. While there is some validity in the author's criticisms, I find their being grouped together too simplistic. Not to be overly picky but I do not recognize "the church" described here. I know of very few congregations that would fit the categories described here. Rather, there are in many congregations evidences of some of these tendencies. The "Church" is not dying. The organizational/structural/and functional characteristics of most churches will need to change. Denominations may dwindle. Some Congregations will fold. But God can and will reformulate the model to carry the Christian Faith forward.

  6. I belive this Pastor commits are taken and are very correct in everyway. I used to me a member of The United Methodist Church but I found it to be more of a social club of insiders,that seem more concern with their personal wealth,and standing in the church than they were saving souls. For the last 40 years the Methodist Church spent countly time and money on the issues of abortion rights, womens equality,gays equality,and the list gos on and on. Members finally got feed up with a church that was under the control of the far left. John Wesleys Message of salvation,love,and social responsiblity Some how got put aside for the message of politacal corrrectness,afirmative action. The church has seen fit to support Government leader that liberal,rich,and socialistic. I left the Methodist church last week to join a large Southern Baptist Church that still stand for traditional values,and personal resposibity. I can hear the Death Raddles of the Methodist Church,and I find it very sad. Calvertr

  7. texasdav says:

    The United Methodist, and frankly several other denominations, because they have walked away from the Word of God. Its become the Happy Face church, more focused on therapy and a mutating social justice than salvation. It is sad to look back on the fire brand evangelical history of the Methodist church, in contract to the all-accepting feel good mush it represents today.

Your thoughts?

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 

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