What makes the church grow?

By James V. Heidinger II

Dr. James V. Heidinger II

Dr. James V. Heidinger II

Not long ago, my Sunday school class discussed the letter from the United Methodist bishops in Africa calling on all of their episcopal colleagues to fulfill “their shepherding responsibility” regarding the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. The November 3 statement from the African bishops also addressed the matters of church unity and terrorism (see Good News, January/February, 2016).

The following week, a class member with a Roman Catholic background brought me an article by Bishop Robert Barron, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Barron’s article dovetailed in a remarkable way with the message from our African bishops.

Prior to becoming a bishop, Barron was the president of Mundelein Seminary in Illinois and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, a website that reaches millions of people. His pioneering work in evangelizing through the new media led Francis Cardinal George to describe him as “one of the Church’s best messengers.”

In his article, “What Makes the Church Grow?,” Barron responds to an editorial that appeared on the Catholic Church’s website in Germany about Pope Francis’s apostolic visit to Africa and the rapid pace of Christianity’s growth there.

Barron noted that the German editorial was “breathtaking in its arrogance and cultural condescension.” Why so? Barron characterized the editorial’s explanation for the African Church’s vigorous growth this way: “Well, the level of education in Africa is so low that the people accept easy answers to complex questions. His assessment of the explosion in vocations [men entering the priesthood] across Africa? Well, the poor things don’t have many other avenues of social advancement; so they naturally gravitate toward the priesthood.”

What troubled Bishop Barron was that this condescending analysis came not from a secularist or professionally anti-religious source, but from the editor of the official webpage of the Catholic Church in Germany. It was not an accident, Barron added, that the article appeared in the wake of Pope Francis proclaiming that the “once vibrant German Catholic Church is in severe crisis: its people leaving in droves, doctrine and moral teaching regularly ignored, vocations disappearing, etc.”

Bishop Robert Barron

Bishop Robert Barron

Barron points out that while Catholicism is “withering on the vine in Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, and Austria, …. the center of gravity for Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular has shifted dramatically to the south, especially to the African continent.” Barron points out that in 1900, there were about 9 million Christians in all of Africa, but today there are upwards of 500 million, accounting for roughly 45 percent of the total population.

“I would argue that the German editor has misdiagnosed the situation rather dramatically,” Barron writes. “The church is growing in Africa, not because the people are poorly educated, but because the version of Christianity on offer there is robustly supernatural. As Philip Jenkins and others have shown, African Christianity puts a powerful stress on the miraculous, on eternal life, on the active providence of God, on healing grace, and on the divinity of Jesus.”

The bishop is aware that some would consider this approach as naïve. But if so, Barron continues, “then every Biblical author, every doctor of the church, and every major theologian until the 19th century was naïve. The reason a supernaturally oriented Christianity grows is that it is congruent with the purposes of the Holy Spirit, and also that it presents something that the world cannot.”

Barron is insightful in noting that a commitment to social justice, service of the poor, and environmentalism is obviously praiseworthy, but adds that “such a commitment could be made by decent atheists, agnostics, or secularists.” Such a commitment may follow from supernatural sensibilities, but “it is not, in itself, distinctively Christian. Accordingly, when Christianity collapses into purely this-worldly preoccupations — as it has in much of Europe — it rapidly dries up.”

Barron concludes his article with this summary, and we should note its very timeliness for a struggling United Methodism: “I would contend that vocations are thriving in Africa, not because African young men have so few professional options, but precisely because the African theology of the priesthood is unapologetically supernatural. If the priest is basically social worker, psychologist, and activist for justice, as he is, too often, in the European context, he loses any distinctive profile; but if he is mystic, soul doctor, healer, and steward of the mysteries of God, then he will present a compelling and attractive profile indeed.”

What Barron writes about the African Church is true. United Methodists in the United States shouldn’t be surprised that our bishops in Africa would release an urgent statement appealing to all of their episcopal colleagues to have an “unreserved commitment to the Holy Bible as the primary authority for faith and practice in the church” and to reaffirm that “sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant bond of a faithful monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and not within same-sex unions or polygamy.” They go on to remind us all that “The Christian marriage covenant is holy, sacred, and consecrated by God and is expressed in shared fidelity between one man and one woman for life.”

Yes, it sounds pretty naïve. It is also Scriptural.

James V. Heidinger II is the editor emeritus of Good News. For more than 30 years, he has taught a Sunday school class at First United Methodist Church in Lexington, Kentucky.  

Comments

  1. Jesus said “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all peoples to Myself. The Church is about proclaiming the Good News that Jesus Christ, died for our sins and transgressions, was buried and was resurrected. Therefore, Churches must be in ministry that remains true to this Gospel and relevant to where people are located. These ministries must be one’s that nourish the soul, if they are to grow. Prayer is the key to heaven, but Faith unlocks the door. Without faith (believing), it is impossible to please God. God has done all the work for our Salvation and offers us a Gift. Many people stay in the Land of Unaccepted Acceptance and don’t realize they are already forgiven and could have the Abundant Life.

  2. As a Filipino UMC’er, I feel this kind of condescension from some of the “enlightened” Methodists on the internet. It seems that only Catholics and Charismatics should believe in modern mysticism. But we Methodists, it is beneath us to still believe in a supernatural world and in a supernatural Bible. Sometimes, when I read progressive Methodist blogs, I just shake my head.

    Just because I believe in some supernatural things, doesn’t mean everything must be explained supernaturally. When I turn on the lights, I am confident that it is the interaction of physical phenomena that turns on the lightbulb. But when I see miraculous coincidences, while it can be explained physically as a proximate cause, we also believe that the ultimate cause must be the providential will of our Creator.

  3. Licensed Local Pastor says

    Wow all those books on church growth, and the answer the whole time was this, “The church is growing in Africa, not because the people are poorly educated, but because the version of Christianity on offer there is robustly supernatural. As Philip Jenkins and others have shown, African Christianity puts a powerful stress on the miraculous, on eternal life, on the active providence of God, on healing grace, and on the divinity of Jesus…. Accordingly, when Christianity collapses into purely this-worldly preoccupations — as it has in much of Europe — it rapidly dries up.”

    This is a wake up call for all Bishop’s, Ordained Elder’s and Licensed Local pastors in the United Methodist Church. God help us!!!

  4. >Barron is insightful in noting that a commitment to social justice, service of the poor, and environmentalism is obviously praiseworthy, but adds that “such a commitment could be made by decent atheists, agnostics, or secularists.”

    Yes. My now former church (UMC) was all about social justice, environmental stewardship, the inevitable Costa Rica trip, etc., but not much about Christ. The pastor gave me little reason to attend, so I’ve found an Anglican congregation that seems to take Christ seriously. If anybody wants to understand why the main-line Protestant churches in the US are shriveling up, this would be a good place to start. If I’m looking for Christ, and you don’t tell me about Christ, I’m going somewhere else,

  5. Michael Brunk says

    “Church Growth” in the U.S. has come to mean how well we can ape the American business model. Success is articulated in spread sheets and market strategies. And fidelity to the sacred doesn’t seem to matter as long as we produce the desired appearance of affluence. However, what we see in Africa is something profoundly different. There, church growth is measured in FAITHFULNESS – to God (as supernatural), to Jesus (as divine), to the Holy Spirit (as the quickening rush of holy power in the church). The idea that God will bless us if we are FAITHFUL (to God) is completely absent in American “church growth” models. “Progressive” visions of the church are the polar opposites of FAITHFULNESS to God. They serve another god: indulgence.

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