Posts Tagged ‘decline of mainline Protestantism’

In the tall shadow of the megachurch

May 7, 2012

As many of you know, I pastor a contemporary service in a large (for Methodists, anyway) traditional First Methodist church. The church is successful, in part, because it offers excellent traditional worship in an area surrounded by highly contemporary megachurches or megachurch wannabes. Our church is distinctive. Even the First Baptist church next door offers mostly contemporary worship.

For better or worse, the kind of worship we offer in Vinebranch will be compared, not to other Methodist churches nearby, but to places like Northpoint Community Church a few miles away. Honestly: We’ve asked some of our church’s young married couples, who mostly have never set foot in Vinebranch, why they don’t give us a try. They’ve told us: “If we wanted contemporary worship, we’d go to Northpoint.”

In a way, it seems so unfair! We don’t have their budget, their staff, their coffee, their volunteer manpower, and at least some of their cool technology. Besides, as United Methodists, we have some different theological imperatives and a very different church structure.

Eh… What are you gonna do?

While I only grudgingly accept the comparison to our megachurch counterparts, I still think our worship compares favorably. I’m proud of the work that we’re doing—not satisfied that we’re doing all we can, but still proud.

All that to say, I read with interest this piece by Roger Olson on the megachurch phenomenon. You might be interested in it, too. Dr. Olson, as always, lends a nice historical perspective to the subject. He doesn’t see megachurches as anything new. But he raises good questions.

I do wonder about two things. First, can a church larger than a few hundred people really function as a New Testament ecclesia? It seems to me that church discipline was a necessary part of New Testament church life. How does a megachurch do church discipline? Yes, the standard answer to all such questions is life groups or what used to be called “cell churches.” But if the cell or group functions as the real church in the New Testament sense, why have the large church? The standard answer is that the large church, gathering only on Sundays, can accomplish more good for the kingdom of God than little churches meeting in homes. In that case, then, megachurches are simply replacing denominations. Then the question becomes how well can a person really worship God in a crowd of several thousand? Do these mass worship services tend to become spectator events?

As Olson suggests, megachurches might be replacing denominations—but, I would hasten to add, with an important difference rooted in technology. Northpoint has a network of satellite campuses to which pastor Andy Stanley is beamed each Sunday. (From what I understand, Stanley appears very lifelike on a high-definition screen.) If this model grows, will Northpoint and its fellow megachurches become like McDonald’s? No matter which campus you attend, you’ll be served the exact same thing. Is this a good thing?

I’m not sure that it’s a good thing for us pastors who are not Andy Stanley! But I’ll keep plugging away and being faithful to the Lord. As I said in a recent staff devotional, Jesus didn’t call me to be Andy Stanley. He called me to be Brent White. And that’s good enough.

I’m weary of liberation theology and its many clichés

May 4, 2012

I went to a mainline Protestant seminary at which liberation theology was prominently featured in a number of classes, in a number of different ways. I agree that the message of liberation is at the heart of the gospel, as Jesus says in his first sermon in Luke 4. But I am way too evangelical to divorce “liberation” from its foundation in the atoning work of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection.

What is humanity’s primary problem? That they are oppressed, marginalized, victims of something called “empire”? (Or, conversely, the ones oppressing, marginalizing, and building empires.) Give me a break! Humanity’s problem—our problem, my problem—is that we’re sinners in desperate need of God’s forgiveness and grace.

If it were possible to balance the scales of justice in this world to some heretofore unseen degree of fairness and equality, we would all still need Jesus!

Moreover, isn’t it good news that the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed can still experience the liberating power of the gospel even as they remain in their poverty, on the margins, and in the midst of oppression? Our resurrection hope is both this-worldly and, yes, other-worldly. There’s no getting around it. Call it pie-in-the-sky. Call it the “opiate of the masses.” But that’s just the way it is, and the way it must be—because true justice can never be fully realized in this life. And even if it could, people would still die.

O.K., enough of my soapbox. What prompted my latest outburst on the subject was this hackneyed commentary from the hopelessly mainline Feasting on the Word on John 14:8-17 (25-27). (I’m reading photocopied pages, but this is, I think, Year A. Pentecost Sunday. Page 24.)

The community intended by the text will not be satisfied with bowling leagues, sewing circles, and yoga classes, or even with therapy sessions or Bible study classes, but will be led to do “works” similar to those of Jesus: befriending the outcasts, healing the sick, speaking up for the marginalized, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and speaking truth to and about the empire.

And, oh yeah… doing the work of evangelism so that even the outcasts, marginalized, homeless, and hungry might also be saved. Why is there never a word about that?

Protestantism then and now

October 24, 2011

"My conscience is captive to the Word of God"

If your eyes haven’t glazed over by reading this post’s headline, you might be interested in Notre Dame professor (and evangelical Protestant) Mark Noll’s post about the upcoming (in 2017) 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. We in America hear all the time about the decline of either Protestantism or Christianity in general. (If not for Latin American immigration, the Catholic Church in the U.S. would also be in steep decline.)

Please note, however, that this decline is a phenomenon of Western industrialized countries of Europe and North America. In world terms, Protestant forms of Christianity are growing rapidly.

A century ago, roughly three-fifths of the world’s identifiable Protestants lived in Europe, with another third in the United States. Today, almost three-fourths of identifiable Protestants live outside of Europe and the United States. More Anglicans go to church regularly in each of Nigeria and Uganda than in Britain and America (as Episcopalians) combined. Ethiopia, Tanzania and Madagascar all have Lutheran denominations as large as the biggest Lutheran denominations in the United States. There are far more identifiable Pentecostals in Brazil than in the United States. Among the countries with the most rapid recent Protestant expansion have been Armenia, Cambodia, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Nepal and — most significantly—China. As observant students have noticed, the recent expansion of non-western Protestant churches has been driven much less by missionaries from Europe and America than by local believers establishing local movements in response to local needs.

What about those of us in the West? I’m reminded of something that Henri Nouwen wrote many years ago: He foresaw a day when a great reversal would take place, and the global South would convert the global North.

Maybe it’s already happening.

After all, even our hopelessly mainline United Methodist Church is experiencing rapid growth from the parts of our church that are in Africa, Asia, and South America. Representatives from these parts of the world have an increasingly louder voice at our church’s quadrennial General Conference. May they teach us how to be Christians (and Methodists) again!

I’ve written a little about Protestantism here, here, and here.

Faithfulness to our calling

October 28, 2010

I’m at Simpsonwood Retreat Center this week for a conference on “church planting” and church revitalization. So far, I’ve learned a few interesting things, including how to access a free online resource that offers exhaustive demographic information on local populations for all churches within the North Georgia Conference. A friend of mine led a discussion about her experience starting an innovative storefront church in an affluent Atlanta area that offers high-church liturgy mixed with a jazz brunch. Her words inspired me to reflect more seriously on what successful evangelism looks like in our culture.

What bothers me, however, is the continued emphasis on having a “vision” for one’s church, and implementing the vision through various leadership principles that have been lifted from any number of corporate best-sellers and then “christianized.” Even if the principles themselves are good (and many are, if a little common-sensical), they feel kind of shallow. It doesn’t help that the conference’s theme verse (Proverbs 29:18, from the KJV: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”) is better translated, “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV).

I can only imagine how different the conference would seem if they substituted the word “prophecy” for “vision” in all of these talks. You might think we’d become Pentecostals!

If you want to get theological, a conference like this is in danger of a kind of Pelagianism that overemphasizes what we pastors need to do in order to be successful—never mind that we’re only successful as the Holy Spirit does through us and our congregations. (We could actually stand to be a little more charismatic in that regard… I don’t think anyone here has mentioned the Holy Spirit all week.) Instead of focusing almost exclusively on what we pastors must do, why not also focus on what we pastors must be?

I know enough about what’s in my own heart to imagine that most of my fellow clergy struggle with some of the basics. Here are some of them: Being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Praying and developing habits of disciplined Christian living. Loving the people Jesus has put under our care. Being responsive to the Holy Spirit. Being faithful to our calling. Being humble enough to know that we don’t have all the answers. Being free from anxiety. Not taking ourselves too seriously.

When I shared some of these thoughts with a conference speaker, he said, “I assume I’m talking to a group of clergy who already get that. Are you saying I should have offered an altar call?”

He was joking. I think.

The point is, I’m all for disciple-making. I feel convicted that I have more work to do in the area of evangelism and in leading my congregation in that area. But disciple-making is a two-way street. Even as we make disciples, let’s not forget that we ourselves must continually be made into disciples. Unless we’ve already “gone onto perfection” (and I don’t know anyone who has), we’re all works in progress.

I don’t know how many clergy are in the North Georgia Conference. Many hundreds, at least. Can you imagine all of those women and men on their knees every morning in prayer, reading scripture, seeking God’s guidance and direction, trying their best to discern God’s will and be obedient to Jesus?

I bet that would make as positive an impact for the kingdom as any 22-step plan!

Regardless, we need to trust in the Lord, knowing that, ultimately, the only true measure of success is Christ saying to us on the Last Day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”