I once heard Tony Campolo say, er, yell, that God will never abandon the church. Of course he’s right. The church universal is the bride of Christ, bound to him in mystical union. God will never leave us.
But what path are denominations on? Like you, I’m no fortune teller, but I can share with you some of my observations. First, I see vitality among young Christians. They want to be deeply committed to Christ and the church and give their WHOLE lives to God. The traditional structure of mainline churches on the whole doesn’t seem to be offering opportunities for them to do that. Some find total commitment through participation in house churches or intentional Christian communities -- both of which are unfortunately foreign to the current mainline. Perhaps with some creative thinking relationships could be forged between these forms of discipleship and the mainline church, but I don’t see this happening.
One of the reasons denominations die is that we pastors are expected to spend a disproportionate amount of our time serving as chaplains. The membership of my own denomination is aging. I spend significantly more time with very elderly people than I do with anyone under 50. I am not intending to disparage these saints of the church or say that vitality only exists in young people. That the pastor is the one who is expected to visit is one example of the problem we have gotten ourselves into. Baptism, not ordination, is the authorization for ministry.
We are recovering from decades of passivity in the church. We forgot somehow that being a good Christian was more than showing up at church on Sunday and belonging to the right civic organizations. We forgot that we need to develop Christians -- to make disciples out of the people who were already in the building! Given this forgetfulness, how is it realistic to expect these same pew-sitters (and their progeny) to go into the world to make disciples? Jesus tells us the disciples to witness to what they have seen. In general, what these folks have seen is what people wore to church on Sunday, not the power of the resurrected Christ. No wonder we’re dying.
So really it doesn’t matter to me if mainline denominations continue to exist in their present form. Their present form seems destined for death.
Since you probably don’t know me, let me make some disclaimers about that statement. I love the United Methodist tradition. I was born to very committed UM parents and grandparents. I was baptized into the UMC when I was 5 weeks old. I was the perfect picture of an “active” UM youth: confirmed at age 12, went to all the Conference youth events, went on to graduate from a United Methodist seminary. I serve now in UM churches. I can never envision myself abandoning my Wesleyan theological heritage. I love being part of a connectional church.
Having given you my Pauline curriculum vitae, let me say this: being part of the UMC is not what is ultimately important to me. I want to be part of Christ’s body, the church, which proclaims Jesus and him crucified. This is the church that reared me. I want to give back to that church joyfully, and plan to do all I can to help her to be faithful. But I don’t care if she continues to exist in her present form.
I worry about those who are spurred to the activity of disciple-making by the fear of denominational death. It seems they have missed one of the fundamental meanings of the good news: death is not the end. God brings new life out of death. If our church is so afraid of denominational death that we spend our energies strategizing to avoid it, then we have compromised our witness to the power and sovereignty of God, and we should indeed (and for the sake of Christ) die.
My denomination may get too bureaucratically heavy, toppling over to her death. But God will never abandon the church. He just might resurrect her. She’ll take a new form -- recognizable but different. Bearing the wounds and scars of death, but still showing the grace of God.
Jenny Williams is pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Kingwood, West Virginia.