Conflict in the United Methodist Church last week reminds us that all over the Western world, denominations that were once dynamic movements are in decline. Some have been on the slide for generations.
Demographic trends, secularism, prosperity, cultural shifts — they all play their part. Yet the answer is to blame external factors. The issue is much closer to home.
The great mistake that movements make is to lose touch with who they are.
Every living thing needs to adapt to its environment or it will die. As it does so, it continually refers back to its unique identity. It changes and it stays the same.
How do the United Methodists do that? It’s as simple as asking what did John Wesley do? What did Francis Asbury do? What does that look like today?
Know who you are. That’s the conservative side of renewal. Express that Identity in a fresh and innovative way. That’s the radical side of renewal.
Think about the movement pioneer who inspired Wesley and Asbury. What was his Identity? Between his life as Jesus of Nazareth, and the launch of his missionary movement, stand two events — Jesus’ baptism and wilderness testing. They reveal and test the Identity of Jesus and by implication, the movement he will found. Three essentials stand out:
1. He obeys his Father’s living Word.
When the Father speaks to the Son, he echoes the words of Scripture. When Jesus confronts Satan, his only weapon is to quote the written Word of God — “It is written!”
2. He is dependent on the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit comes upon him at his baptism, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, the Spirit returns him to Galilee in power to launch the movement.
3. Jesus is faithful to his Mission.
He will give his life as a ransom for many and starts a movement that will go to the ends of the earth multiplying disciples and churches.
These are the three essentials that drive the rise and fall of movements. A church that is willing to obey God’s Word, depend on his Spirit and pursue multiplying disciples and churches throughout the world will be renewed. It must, because God is faithful and he is our only hope.
Recently I compared the demise of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) with the continued vitality of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Demographics play their part, but in the end, movements make their history depending on their core identity. The PCUSA has chosen decline and decay, the Southern Baptists have chosen differently. Here are five elements I can observe (from a distance) that characterize the SBC:
1. The authority of Scripture
If there’s one thing that distinguishes Southern Baptists from the Protestant mainline, it’s their belief in the authority of the Bible. Now belief must be backed up by obedience, but there is no hope for a movement that won't come under the authority of Scripture.
Movements are born and renewed by the Word and Spirit.
2. The primary missionary task
At the heart of the SBC's mission is the spread of the gospel, the making of disciples, and the multiplication of churches. This is the reason for their existence. They may not always live up to it, but the Great Commission is central to their identity.
3. The independence of the local church
The SBC is a Convention of independent churches, not a centrally governed denomination. Every movement institutionalizes. But it’s a lot harder to institutionalize if the local church owns the property, governs and finances itself, and has the authority and responsibility to plant new churches and send out missionaries. Centralize those activities and your future is bureaucracy and decline.
4. The priesthood of every believer
A professional clergy class is the end of any dynamic movement. The Southern Baptists have a long history of empowering ordinary people to share the gospel, make disciples and plant churches. Their explosive growth on the US frontier was achieved long before they built their first seminary. Again, they may not always live up to the ideal, but it’s who they are and a key to their future.
5. Descendants that can't be counted
Historian, Philip Jenkins wrote an article on how Baptists are being left behind other Protestant traditions in the explosive growth of the church in the developing world. He's wrong.
What he doesn’t know is SBC missionaries don’t plant SBC churches, they plant churches. Those churches will share the same convictions outlined above. But they are indigenous churches. The churches don’t belong to the SBC. Now they are becoming partners in fulfilling the Great Commission.
For a generation, SBC missionaries have been at the forefront of pioneering church planting movements around the world. Now many former SBC missionaries are leading the way in a host of other mission agencies that are catalysts for indigenous church planting movements.
The SBC has children and grandchildren all over the world, we just can't name or count them.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has released a new hymn for its 223rd General Assembly meeting in St Louis, Missouri this week (June 16-23). The hymn is entitled “Draw the Welcome Circle Wider.” But statistics released ahead of the gathering reveal a denomination struggling to retain it’s aging, mostly white (91%), membership.
In 2017 the PCUSA lost 67,714 members and a net 147 congregations.
2017 was not an aberration, but a continuation of long-term decline that dates back to the 1960s and shows no sign of change.
Issues to be discussed at the Assembly include:
- Seeking God’s Peace Through Nuclear Disarmament
- A call to the denomination to divest from investing in the fossil-fuel industry
- The creation of an Advocacy Committee for LGBTQ+ Concerns
- A number of anti-Israeli measures
In Dallas last week the Southern Baptists held their annual Convention amidst some controversy and some signs of decline. Membership was down for the 11th year in a row. Baptisms were down.
But Southern Baptist were still baptized a quarter of a million people in 2017. The number of SBC churches grew for the 19th year. More important than the membership, weekly attendance grew from 5.20 million to 5.32 million in 2017. Congregations gave over $1 billion to missions.
Compared to the PCUSA the Southern Baptists are doing ok. The question is Why?
The number of Anglicans in Britain has collapsed by 50 per cent in less than twenty years according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey.
Only 3% of adults under 24 describe themselves as Anglican.
More than half, 53 per cent, of the British public describe themselves as having no religion, the highest level ever.
This trend will continue. The Anglican church in Britain is in serious decline.
From a movements perspective, a religious organization has to align itself with three essential movement characteristics — obedience to the living Word, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit and Jesus' prime directive to make disciples of the nations. To neglect any element is to court decline and eventual decay.
This is not a counsel of despair. The Word, the Spirit, and the mission are also the way back to life for any declining movement.
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody
Bob Dylan, Gotta Serve Somebody
I was saddened to hear recently of Eugene Peterson’s on again, off again support for same-sex marriage.
He’s written some great books on spiritual formation. I particularly recall his reflections on Jonah: Under an Unpredictable Plant.
His writings are a great help in learning obedience to God's word. He wrote as a man under God's word. That's where he should have remained.
For thousands of years, the Jewish-Christian scriptures have clearly spoken on the nature of marriage. Jesus made it clear he stood in that tradition (Matt 19). One man, one woman for the whole of life, forsaking all others.
No Christian scholar has questioned that teaching, until recently. The cultural wind has changed and now influential leaders are taking advantage of it. Or at least remaining silent for fear of alienating the people who attend their churches and conferences, buy their books and read their blogs.
Jesus warned (Matt 24) that in the time before his return false prophets and false messiahs would emerge and attempt to deceive God’s people. The love of many will grow cold. Despite this falling away, the gospel will be preached throughout the world. God will triumph.
Paul warned the Ephesian elders that after he left, "savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock" (Acts 20: 29). We’re at war. Expect incoming missiles, expect casualties. Why then did Paul leave? What resources did the Ephesians have to remain true to what they had received? Just two—Paul committed them to the Word and the Holy Spirit.
Ask yourself, whose word is supreme? Ours or God’s? Progressive or liberal Christianity places human experience, culture and rationality above Scripture. Start there and anything goes.
The incarnate Son of God submitted his life and ministry to the living Word of God, we must do the same. Place culture above the Word and you’ll live a peaceful life, accepted by those around you as enlightened. The pressure to conform is enormous. You won't be a target if you remain silent or even better, bow the knee and sacrifice to the Emperor. Get your certificate of approval.
In 250, the Emperor Decius ordered everyone in the Empire to sacrifice to the Roman gods and to the well-being of the Emperor. The sacrifices were to be performed before a magistrate and a certificate issued confirming the act. The religious motivation was minimal. The Emperor wanted to know that his subjects were loyal to the state. Yet Christians died rather than bow to the demands of a pagan culture.
A disciple is someone who is learning to obey what Jesus commanded (Matt 28). No matter what the price. In the end, we all have to choose. Has God spoken? Do we place our lives under the authority of his Word? Do we follow the example of Jesus who went the Cross rather than disobey the Father?
Satan offered Jesus the world if he would bow. Jesus chose instead "It is written!." He preferred the Cross to expediency.
Last year underdogs Portugal stunned the world when it triumphed over hosts France in the Euro 2016 football final.
All over Portugal fans celebrated the unlikely victory which was secured in extra time. Just 25 minutes into the game their their captain, and three times world player of the year, Christiano Ronaldo was stretchered off in tears.
While Portugal basks in its sporting success, all is not well spiritually. Evangelicals make us less than one half of one percent of the Portuguese population.
Highlights from a new report:
- There are about 47,000 evangelical believers In Portugal, just 0.4% of the population. The average size of an evangelical church is 49 people.
- On average each church baptises five people per year. New churches account for 40% of baptisms.
- Between 2000—2016 the number of evangelical churches fell by 666 (1,630 to 964) despite the planting of 322 new churches.
- Almost seven in ten evangelical Christians live in three cities: Lisbon (15,300 church members), Porto (6,400) and Setúbal (4,200).
- Most churches do not have any involvement in cross-cultural missions.
It would be interesting to know what role Brazilians and other Portuguese-speaking immigrants, have in the volatility in the number of churches. I'd also like to know which existing churches are reaching new people and planting churches. There have to be exceptions to the trend.
Meanwhile, Portugal at 0.4% evangelical believers is more of a mission field that China.