The Prime Cause of Mainline Church Decline May not Be Exactly What You Think
by Michael L. McKee
Everyone knows what the problem is, right? I mean, everyone knows the reasons/cause behind the precipitous decline that we have seen in the Mainline Protestant Church, right?
- In the 1990’s we said: “We have the dome lights on instead of the headlights.” ~ Len Sweet.
- In the 2000’s we said: “We have clubs not churches because churches make disciples.” ~ Scott Jones.
- In the 2010’s we say: “The most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus. [and yet] Any change necessary to become a Great Commission church is met with anger and resistance.” ~ Thom Rainer
For almost 40 years, and in a hundred ways to Sunday, we’ve described the lack of recruitment as the prime cause for the decline of mainline Protestant churches. However, if our descriptions accurately and fully described the problem, then the solution could surely be found in the latest book on ministry, the latest evangelism conference, the latest list of best practices, the latest initiative from the council of bishops, or the latest ‘new and improved’ approach on offer by your annual conference. If you have been around long enough you’ve likely seen these initiatives something like Bill Murry’s experience in “Groundhog Day,”—that is, continually reiterating/repeating and yet changing nothing—and you may realize the recruitment problem is only the symptom of a deeper issue. But what is that?
Having experienced it himself within his beloved Church of England, John Wesley anticipated the difficulty and made it quite plain in a now famous quote from near the end of his life. It expressed his ‘fear’ for the future of Methodism. Mr. Wesley wrote: “But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” Friar Richard Rohr has helpfully designated this powerless form of faith: “second-hand religion.”
‘Second-hand’ or ‘hearsay’ religion is pretty much just what it sounds, religion driven only by external authorities. “Scripture says…,” “Tradition says…,””The church says…,” “My parents said…,” “The teacher said…,” “The preacher said…,” some external source says and second-hand religion affirms and invests its trust in that external authority. Religion in its ‘law,’ ‘code,’ and ‘priestly,’ forms are best suited to this externally driven, totally passive approach to spiritual engagement. Some of the contemporary vernacular describes this as ‘Therapeutic Moralistic Deism’—a religion of feel-good rules imposed by a far-off god.
Simply, what’s been lost is our rich legacy of Wesleyan mysticism, that is, a fitting focus and close attention to our actual experiences of/with the Divine. Scripture, tradition, and reason only gain power when they are used to help disciples identify and express their experiences of/with God. How do we experience God’s presence in our daily lives: how do we experience God’s Love, God’s Grace, God’s transformative power in the midst of everyday living? That essential, on-going conversation is rarely, if ever, being engaged and shared in mainline Protestant churches. Beyond “Oh, yes, I experienced Jesus and accepted him as my savior 37 years ago one summer at church camp,” we are by and large completely inept at narrating any experience of God, let alone our everyday, ordinary-life experiences with God.
I have the privilege of meeting weekly with a group of seasoned church folk for a Bible study—4-5 ladies with probably over 350 years logged as active church members. In my efforts to address our inability to narrate our God-experiences I set the expectation that each week when we begin I’d be asking everyone to share a God-experience from the previous week if they’d like. They are trying, but struggling. I asked, “Ya’ll have been engaged with church for many years, do you recall in your memory an earlier time when we practiced the presence of God and being able to share those experiences?” The question was met by a resounding chorus of “No.”
Frankly, from where the average person in the pew presently is with regard to sharing God-experiences, the very notion of making disciples of Jesus Christ is seriously off-putting if not flat out threatening—remember Thom Rainer’s words above. How can any UMC member be asked or expected to become a recruiter when they are completely unable to narrate any personal experience of God in their lives? How can anyone share the good news of God’s transformative power if they have never actually engaged and experienced it for themselves?
Nope. No ‘bishop’s initiative,’ ‘best practice network,’ ‘vitality training,’ ‘ministry book or conference,’ or any other aspirational effort will do anything to reverse the decline until and unless we address the missing-in-action dimension of our faith journey: experience, and our ability to narrate it.
I’d argue that only a wholesale move to reclaim the spirit of Wesleyan mysticism—or some way to share narrations of our own experiences of God—will have any chance of turning around the perilous decline in the UMC specifically, and mainline Protestant Christianity in general. If we are unable to create environments where first-hand religion is celebrated, promoted, practiced, and shared with unconnected-others, then the UMC and mainline Protestantism will most likely continue its precipitous decline unto death.
I’d argue we are presently being called by the Holy Spirit, and with Christ, to unify creation and to reverse Plato’s dichotomizing of reality, to very intentionally teach the Immanent as well as the Transcendent nature of God. We narrate that as Incarnation.
What have I missed? What do you think?