Wesleyan Wisdom: Born again churches and the disconnect with culture

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

“Born Again Churches” the title read, in a secular Scottish magazine. It reported about a precipitous free-fall in the Church of Scotland attendance which reflects a seismic cultural shift.  Attendance is declining about 17,000 per year in the country historically known for its great preachers, such as Peter Marshall.

The magazine writer put it this way:

“These are not good times for organized religion anywhere in Europe, but in few places has the decline been more precipitate than Scotland.  In the 2010 census, more people registered as “no religion” than registered as members of the mother church of Presbyterianism.  Barely one Scot in ten goes to church and most of those are older adults. Projections are that by 2022, that will be one in twenty.  On the Royal Mile in Edinburgh from Holyrood Palace up to Edinburgh Castle, there are many churches, including St. Giles where John Knox preached in founding the Church of Scotland.  Nearby is a former kirk  with a 241 foot spire, a architectural  masterpiece that is still called “Highland Church of Tolbooth St. John’s” in the tourist brochures.  In reality it is now “The Hub”  where a bawdy jazz singer performed recently in the former chancel.  “Tron Kirk,” built in 1637 is now the tourist information office. The capacious Victorian campus church of Edinburgh University, that has 30,000 students, is now  the “Bedlam Theatre Company.”  A former  huge Pentecostal Church is now  Frankenstein’s,” described as “a raucous theme bar serving noxious frothing liquors of alarming hue and potency.”

The Scottish Civic Trust list 300 churches “at risk and admits they cannot save them as religious shrines.  Many Scottish towns have a former village kirk with a fallen roof and tall weeds, abandoned to the elements and vandals.   Every church furnishing from altarware to kitchenware is marketed on the internet.

So why the term “born again churches”?  If you are thinking of Nicodemus and Jesus, erase the screen. All realtors have a marketing entitled “101 Uses for a Redundant Church.” The most popular “re-use” is a bar/restaurant, but some are antique shops; indeed some are  homes!

As I read the fate of the country that was once more religious than any other, shivers went down my spine.   Could this one day be “our story” as United Methodists? Don’t call me Amos or John the Baptist!   I still believe that if we could get our message straight and connect with God’s children who seek meaning in life and are looking for the right thing in the wrong places, we could be the “comeback kid” of the mainline churches in the 21st century.  I applaud the handful of mega-churches we have that are growing. But Len Sweet’s book is still basically true of  us in every hamlet and city of America, that in Dr. Sweet’s words, we have a disconnect with contemporary culture.  His title is, The Greatest Story Never Told.” 

 IN 2004, wise and ageing pundit Lyle Schaller wrote, The Ice Cube Is Melting.  Many have always considered Schaller to be a prophet of doom. Maybe it is because he has crunched his numbers and makes projections and  predictions based on real statistics, not on the “field of dreams” wishful thinking.

  •  Think about how many congregations in the 1960’s and ‘70’s opened pre-school and after school and all-day child care ministries.  At that time, the assumption was that children from unchurched homes who came to a United Methodist Church during the week would return for Sunday School.  Wrong.
  • Then the trend was to build “Family Life Centers.”  I begged churches to use the term “Christian Life Center” so singles and single parents could identify with the name, but few did.  No matter.  The reality is that these were gymnasiums with kitchens! They were hard to heat and cool, called for more custodial staff, and called for program staff.  Did the millions of dollars spent largely by older adults result in young adults coming to church on Sunday?  Rarely.  Magnanimous effort; disappointing results.
  • Then came the demand for contemporary worship so that we could “attract the young generation.” I may be wrong, but my own research has revealed that this not to larger congregations, but rather divided ones.   I never thought that worship would be a divisive factor in United Methodism. I mean, we survived the 1935 Methodist Hymnal for twenty-nine years and it had summarily eliminated 95% of the gospel hymns loved by t he overwhelming majority of churches! Truly, that hymnal was the death knell  of our being known as “singing Methodists,” but denominational loyalty kept folks coming!

Were these “bad” investments of money and time?  No, but they were more institutionalized  than individualized.   Wesley might have used language with which we feel uncomfortable but in frustration, he once lambasted his traveling preachers by saying, “Souls!  Your ministry is to save souls.” Similarly, we can learn much through the former Salvation Army’s motto, which was “We salvage wrecked lives.”

Since the 1980’s, a passion of mine has been “church growth”? Sadly, that passion carries a lot of heartbreak because I am a United Methodist and our stats are moving in the wrong direction.  Local churches that are growing are a scarcity; decline is epidemic.   Schaller has some staggering numbers we must face.  In 1904 the predecessor denominations of the UMC has 57,087 congregations—one for every 1475 residents of the United States and its continental territories. In the next century over 23,000 new churches were “planted,” in mill towns, suburbs, and rural communities. However, by 2003, we had only 35,000 still open and functioning—one for every 8,275 residents of the United States.

I visit and consult with lots of churches. Far too often the story is that most congregation members are retired, and that a huge share of the budget is supported by these older adults. I do a “walk-through” of the grounds and buildings and look at columns, boxing, gables, and window casings that have peeling paint. The HVAC systems are aging. There is scaling paint, dirty walls,  and abandoned rooms full of junk. We count the parlors and staff offices that were once Sunday School rooms.  Then we wonder about the future: can repairs be made; can retrofitting be afforded; and can we provide for a staff or pastor?

Then I ask the local team to take me through the community.  One church, now closed, told me there were no “prospects” for membership or attendance.  And yet, there was a mobile home park adjoining the church cemetery (which had lots of signs which prohibited bikes, skate boards, roller blades in the parking lot).  As we rode through the horseshoe “street” of the park and I counted 39 children outside their mobile homes.

This is one example of the disconnect between the church and the community. Many of these children would climb into a smiling, caring lay person’s back seat on the way to Sunday School and worship. Like the man throwing back starfish from the beach at dawn; we might not save many, but for everyone we do salvage, “It will make a difference to that one.”  And to us!!!!!

A second piece of my consultations are “one on one” thirty minute chats with a broad range of members.  I must say that the most commonly reported shortcoming and disappointment is the lack of pastoral visitation. We pastors all take the vow that John Wesley required of his traveling preachers: “Will you visit from house to house?” Answer: “I will.” Somewhere in our “system” the prevailing paradigm of parish ministry has eliminated visiting in homes.  I am old and have served churches in lots of different social settings with different family life styles, gated communities, high rise apartments, and mansions on estates.   If we ask them when it would be convenient for us to visit them on their turf, in their home setting, they almost never say “never.”  We cannot just drop in, and appointments might take weeks to synchronize.  The reason “visiting house to house” is in our ordination vow is that Wesley discovered in Savannah that when he visited in a home, many people came to church the next Sunday!!  I have discovered the same—and from 2009-2012, attendance increased in a rural church on a “road to nowhere” from 60 to over 100. Our membership grew from 99 to 149. Worship and program ministries will keep people in church by filling their spiritual needs, but only meeting families in their homes or individuals in restaurants and offices and tractor sheds will bring people to finish their homework with God.

Can we come back?  Lyle Schaller walks through all signs of decline and decay in United Methodism. Then he says, “This observer is convinced that answer is not preordained.”  He insists that there are “oceans of untapped creativity, challenging ideas, and relevant experiences in the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of congregational leaders.”  He challenges us to create the new rather than patching up the old.

 In the words of the nursery rhyme, “What must we do? What must we do?”  The parody of a famous hymn is “Sit down ye saints of God; there’s nothing you can do. For God will bring the kingdom in; He has no need of you.” Kennon Calahan wrote in 1993, “the day of the local church is over; the day of the mission station has come.” The next chapter begins, “the day of the local pastor is over; the day of the missionary pastor has come.” Try fleshing that out at your next leadership retreat.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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An observation: going to my father’s UMC Church there’s a handful of people in the pews and I’m the only one around without grey hair, while going to my mother’s LDS Church it’s somewhat raucous with little kids running up and down the isles while I have to sit in the very back because there’s no room to sit even when I show up on time. I believe the difference is that the LDS Church really focuses on youth programs, which is obviously where the future is.

Charles Kayser

Consider a small group program to make disciplers of members. Set a progression of study through these sources in the order listed:
Learn the bible in 24 Hours by Dr. Chuck Missler
The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee
The Blood of the Cross by Andrew Murray
The Holiest of All by Andrew Murray
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit by Derek Prince

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