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.
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.