Before the Last Amen: A vision for congregational renewal

United Methodism is dead! Scream persistent headlines about the demise of the denomination. We have seen countless reports and charts that show membership decline and ascending expenses. We have heard choirs of voices that say we must change, realign, innovate or else we will perish. We have pondered on logical and radical ideas proposed to curb this dire and seemingly imminent problem. While the conversation on this topic is necessary for the future of our denomination, long-term national plans are of little comfort to congregations whose present reality is bleak. Attempts to make changes to the worship style, music, and preaching, that has inspired the lives of very faithful individuals, in some cases for over 40 years, may not result in greater congregational vitality, but will likely accelerate the decline and closure. It is important to keep in mind that many of those congregations face great difficulties adapting to the cultural and social changes that have happened outside their doors. Should we accept the loss that comes from decline and closure? No! We should frame our renewal conversation in a way that validates the decades of work and contributions aging and soon to close congregations have made to the denomination, their respective communities and kingdom of God.

I propose we consider a model for church renewal that seeks to establish a new and independent Fellowship within an existing church. While the Church-Within-a-Church model is not new, is an opportunity to maximize the resources of congregations that have faced decades of declining membership and attendance, minimize the cost of a new church start, and eliminate the loss of a viable United Methodist ministry area.

This new Fellowship would focus on becoming a missional outreach and discipleship post. A community that is intentional about its primary mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. A community that preaches the transformative Gospel of Jesus Christ as a way of living and not as a set of rules.[1] A community that practices hospitality in a holistic way, welcoming all that seek a place to call home and those who need a temporary place of rest in their faith journey.[2] A community that seeks to bring spiritual, mental, physical, and relational healing and wholeness to the world.[3] A community that is intentional in creating space and opportunities for spiritual growth through theological reflection and by offering opportunities where questions, doubts and fears can be addressed.[4]

The work of this community must begin with the acknowledgement that evangelism is not a singular event but a continual, multifaceted, expression of our love for God and neighbor.[5] This love moves us beyond ourselves and challenges us to take to heart Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 28:19-20a (NRSV), “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” If we are to be faithful to this commandment, I believe, we must understand that there is an inextricable connection between discipleship and relationships. We live in culture where an increasing number of individuals are seeking spirituality, but sadly distancing themselves from the church.[6] If we are to reach out to those whom we call lost (de-churched, unchurched, etc.), we must first engage them and seek to understand who they are on a personal level. We must also recognize that God’s prevenient grace is already working in the lives of those whom we seek to engage. Therefore, our role is to be co-laborers with Christ and walk together with our brothers and sisters in this journey of life, helping them to experience the transformative love of God through a relationship with Christ and others. While this task is a job of every Christian, many of us have not been exposed to a culture of hospitality, which enables us to move beyond our inhibitions, fears, concerns and traditions to display authentic love for our neighbors regardless of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, social status or political affiliation. If we are to succeed, we must seek or we must have a first hand experience of the great love of Christ that moves us beyond our fears of the other.

The journey of discipleship that we envision for this Fellowship is one based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-39 (NRSV), “He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Bill Hull brilliantly explains the journey of discipleship by stating “Discipleship isn’t a program or an event; it’s a way of life. It’s not for a limited time, but for our whole life. Discipleship isn’t for beginners alone; it’s for all believers for every day of their life. Discipleship isn’t just one of the things the church does; it is what the church does.”[7] Therefore, this journey of discipleship must be grounded by a set of core values that will allow for this community to grow in healthy and sustainable ways. Bishop Robert Schnase’s Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations offers a solid foundation for this work to begin.

  • Radical Hospitality: We welcoming all people in love so that they may have new life through the transforming power of the love of Jesus Christ.[8]
  • Passionate Worship:  We gather to experience the transforming presence of God through the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. We seek to have manifested in our community spiritual, mental, physical, and relational healing and wholeness.[9]
  • Intentional Faith Development: We gather beyond our weekly worship to study the Bible, to engage in theological reflection, to support each other in prayer, and to develop friendship bonds through ongoing conversation.[10]
  • Risk-Taking Mission & Service: We seek opportunities to attend the needs of our community and to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the world.[11]
  • Extravagant Generosity: We give unselfishly and joyously. We give, even sacrificially, from our love for God and our love for our neighbor.[12]

Understanding that no plan is perfect and no single solution can solve the woes of our denominational system, I believe this vision offers hope to local congregations that were once vibrant, but today face closure. Before the last amen is sung and the doors are closed forever we must continue to move forward with strategies that open ways to a more fruitful future.


Bibliography

Bass, Diana Butler. Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith, Reprint ed. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

McLaren, Brian D. Finding Our Way Again: the Return of the Ancient Practices (ancient Practices Series). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Jones, Scott J. The Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor: a Theology of Witness and Discipleship. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Sweet, Leonard. Viral: How Social Networking Is Poised to Ignite Revival. Colorado Springs, Colorado: WaterBrook Press, 2012.

Hull, Bill. The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ. Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2006.

Powe, F. Douglas, and Jr. New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012.

Schnase, Robert. Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.


[1] Brian D. McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: the Return of the Ancient Practices (ancient Practices Series) (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 3-6.

[2] Scott J. Jones, The Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor: a Theology of Witness and Discipleship, Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2003, 61-63.

[3] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith, Reprint ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 103-114.

[4] Ibid., 185-199.

[5] Jones, The Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor: a Theology of Witness and Discipleship, 114-18.

[6] “‘Nones’ On the Rise – Religion and the Unaffiliated,” Pew Research: Religion & Public Life Project, November 6, 2013, accessed November 6, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise-religion/.

[7] Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), 24.

[8] Robert Schnase, “Radical Hospitality,” Five Practices, http://fivepractices.org/radical-hospitality/ (accessed December 14, 2012).

[9] Schnase, “Passionate Worship,” Five Practices, http://fivepractices.org/passionate-worship/ (accessed December 14, 2012).

[10] Schnase, “Intentional Faith Development,” Five Practices, http://fivepractices.org/intentional-faith-development/ (accessed December 14, 2012).

[11] Schnase, “Risk-Taking Mission & Service,” Five Practices, http://fivepractices.org/risk-taking-mission-service/ (accessed December 14, 2012).

[12] Schnase, “Extravagant Generosity,” Five Practices, http://fivepractices.org/extravagant-generosity/ (accessed December 14, 2012).

live better, help often and wonder more.

“So many people come to church with a genuine desire to hear what we have to say, yet they are always going back home with the uncomfortable feeling that we are making it too difficult for them to come to Jesus.”
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

A classmate of mine called my attention to an interesting phenomenon happening across the US and the globe. Congregations are springing up to help individuals “live better, help often, wonder more”. The Associated Press published an article about this phenomenon titled “Atheist ‘mega-churches’ take root across US, world.” That is right, Atheist congregations. Intrigued by the concept I went to the website and after reading about their beliefs and strategies I had to ask myself, what can the Christian church learn from this? Here we have a self-professed godless organization that is seeking to inspire, assist, and connect individuals. They aim to create a community of like minded individuals that offer support so each can live their lives to the fullest. Their Sunday gatherings are a “100% celebration of life… a house of love and compassion, where, no matter what your situation, you are welcomed, accepted and loved.”

Some may see this as a challenge to the church, but I see this as an opportunity to reflect on who we are as Christians and what it is we offer to those who seek something more to life. We must begin to reflect about the mission of the church, not from an institutional perspective, but from a personal one. After all institutions cannot affect change, that is something only individuals can do. Theologian Tim Keller once wrote: “While the mission of the institutional church is to preach the Word and produce disciples, the church must disciple Christians in such a way that they live justly and integrate their faith with their work. So the church doesn’t directly change culture, but it disciples and supports people who do.”

How are we offering hope to this hurting world?