6-Rebirth

The United Methodist Church: Is there Hope for Declining Denominations?

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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.

128-From denomination to movement: Dave Ferguson talks to Daniel Norburg

Dave Ferguson talks to Daniel Norburg (EFK Sweden) about leading a denomination towards multiplying disciples and churches.

Thanks to Exponential Europe for making the interview available.

126-From church to movement @ Exponential

apologies to alan hirsch

apologies to alan hirsch

Ray Vaughn, Troy Cooper, Ron Surgeon, and Steve Wright share what they are learning about the transiton from church to movement.

Photo: The five of us at Exponential 2016. Steve Wright wasn’t there for the photo so I popped his head on the body of Alan Hirsch.

Subscribe to the Exponential podcast for more great content.

A change of strategy — from failing institution to committed minority

Greg sheridan 

Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor of the Australian newspaper, and a Catholic, has some advice for Christian churches.

Face reality — you are now in the minority. 

In Western Europe, on the east and west coasts of the US, and in Australia, the new religion of aggressive secularism is on the rise, more self-confident and fundamentalist than ever.

Widespread, prolonged affluence has been more effective than oppression ever was in killing religious belief and practice.

You’ve been fighting a losing battle for 120 years.

Across the past 120 years, the Christian churches in Europe and Australia have lost every significant, long-term battle about social norms and legal measures to underpin them.

In these 120 years no victory was ever more than a temporary slowdown in secularism. While there seemed to be many tactical wins, the war was lost. In each case, the church misunderstood the extent and nature of its support and the long-term threat it faced.

The battles were lost because of a losing strategy.

They remind me of South Vietnam’s government in 1974. It over-estimated its strength and tried to hang on to all of its territory, including the long narrow neck of its north. It did not retreat to its formidable heartland in the south, which would have been vastly more defensible. Had it done so, it might have survived. Instead, the next year, the armoured divisions of North Vietnam invaded and Saigon lost everything.

Historic churches are most in danger.

The established churches are gentle institutions in a long, gentle decline. The Anglican Church in England shows the way. It has hung on to its status as the established church. Its bishops still sit in the House of Lords. It owns some of the most splendid buildings in Europe and is associated with the most prestigious institutions of its nation. It would say that it is involved in a respectful dialogue with contemporary society. Yet barely 700,000 English Anglicans, a trace over 1 per cent of the population, go to church on Sundays. It is dying

Christian churches must become a self-confident committed minorities.

The Christian churches now need to reconceive of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority (of practising Christians). They should conduct themselves as a self-confident minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.

Here’s an example. . .

Recently Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner was willing to hear a complaint against the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart for circulating a pamphlet which upheld the view that marriage is between a man and a woman. The complaint was eventually dropped. But what should the Catholic church do if the complaint had gone ahead?

If the churches saw themselves as a strong minority with clear values under attack they might respond differently.

A robust archbishop leading a self-confident community that believed in its future might respond to the attack on Don’t Mess with Marriage by finding the most public square available in Hobart and reading the document out in full, then instructing all the priests in his diocese to read it from the pulpit on Sunday.

Would the commission prosecute them all?

We can no longer regard ourselves as a powerful institution of society. We must rediscover who we are as a confident, committed minority. That’s what movements do.

Newbigin's shift — from a traditional to a movements paradigm

 
Lesslie Newbigin

Lesslie Newbigin

I was compelled to ask myself whether it is really true that the Church’s obedience to the Great Commission is intended to be contingent upon the accident of a budgetary surplus.
— Lesslie Newbigin

Lesslie Newbigin was one of the great missionary statesmen of the 20th Century. He spent much of his life in India. He began with a tradition paradigm of ministry that relied on foreign workers, funding and supervision. He soon discovered its limitations.

I have lived and worked as a missionary within the structure typical of modern missions, responsible for the conduct of institutions, for the supervision of Indian workers, for the employment and control of teachers and others in charge of congregations. I have seen this system come to a practical standstill: funds were not available to increase the number of salaried workers. ... Only if some fresh resources came from ‘home’ could the mission become a mission again. As it was, it was plain that any talk of ‘winning India for Christ’ was not serious. I was compelled to ask myself whether it is really true that the Church’s obedience to the Great Commission is intended to be contingent upon the accident of a budgetary surplus.

Rather than fix what was broken, Newbigin became a careful observer of what God was doing on the fringes.

The answer came through various experiences. Firstly, through seeing how ordinary lads from village congregations ... could themselves become active witnesses and evangelists among their comrades. Secondly, through learning to call on the services of all kinds of lay men and women as volunteer pastors and evangelists for the village congregations left without the guidance of a full-time worker. And thirdly, most decisively, through the experience of a small group-movement in a very backward area where the Gospel had only recently been preached for the first time. ...

Here’s what happened next…

the churches began to multiply themselves by a kind of spontaneous growth which was not dependent upon increasing outside resources. In an area almost entirely pagan, the number of Christian congregations rose from thirteen to fifty-five in twelve years. ... In the midst of a movement of this kind, one could speak seriously about winning India for Christ.

Lesslie Newbigin, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission (London: Paternoster Press, 1998), 74-77.