By Mike Lowry, Bishop of the Central Texas Conference
The harsh reality is that we are in a post-Christendom age. No longer does the Christian faith, and more specifically the United Methodist Church, assume a leading societal position.
During my first year or so as a bishop, when I would mention that we were in a post-Christian era, clergy would tend to sigh and say, “look we already know this, that’s obvious.” To which I would respond (then and now!) “But I don’t see you changing your behavior. Most of you are operating as if we are still living in a time of Christendom” (i.e. a time of dominant cultural Christianity and influence). When I would make similar observations in a group laity, it almost inevitably sparked passionate discussions about whether this was an accurate or true statement. It would quickly be followed by comments related to the various issues of what we have come to call the “culture wars.”
While there can be no doubt that we are still grappling with various issues of the “culture wars,” I think it is safe today to say that with most of high society, the culture wars are over. In much of American society, traditional cultural Christianity (which is very different from and should not be confused with deep discipled orthodox Christianity!) has largely been defeated. Put bluntly, the cultural wars are largely over, and cultural Christianity lost.
Regardless of where you see yourself and your church on the conservative to liberal (or if you prefer traditional to progressive) spectrum, none of this should be news to us. The challenge of faithfulness is what do we do about this new day and culture in which we find ourselves?
Charles Taylor’s encyclopedic A Secular Age chronicles our movement from a time in history where belief in God was a given that could be assumed to an age where the notion of a transcendent God is one option among many. Closer to earth, in the central part of the State of Texas (the geographical area of the conference I serve), those in regular worship on an average Sunday in the United Methodist Church make up approximately 1.1 percent of the population.
Furthermore, in the eight states of the South Central Jurisdiction of the UM Church, this percentage is roughly average. For a wider view, consider the Washington Post headline: “Church membership in the U.S. has fallen below the majority for the first time in nearly a century.” According to the story, “The proportion of Americans who consider themselves members of a church, synagogue or mosque has dropped below 50 percent … It is the first time that has happened since Gallup first asked the question in 1937, when church membership was 73 percent.”
Gil Rendle, the recently retired Senior Consultant for the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF), has commented about our society that “we are in a moment of seismic shift.” He calls this an anxious time because we need to move ahead without really knowing where we are going. The good folks at TMF talk in terms of “following the North Star of purpose.”
The issue for us is who or what defines and shapes our purpose. For the faithful church of Jesus Christ, the North Star of purpose is driven by the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. For Christians I submit that our purpose should not be driven by our emotions, our preferences, or especially whatever is considered culturally popular (regardless of whether it is progressive or traditional). We will not navigate ourselves out of the morass we are in by the politics of either the left or the right.
“We are, in many ways, a civilization adrift on the stormy seas of relativism and existentialism,” writes Louis Markos in On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis. “The first ‘ism’ has robbed us of any transcendent standard against which we can measure our thoughts, our words, and our deeds; the second has emptied our lives of any higher meaning, purpose, or direction. Our compass is broken and the stars obliterated, and we are left with nothing to navigate by but a vague faith in the modern triad of progress, consumerism, and egalitarianism. They are not enough.”
There is a deep hunger in our times which is at once both counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. Mother Teresa’s comment to a reporter after delivering lectures in America remains strikingly accurate: “I’ve never seen a people so hungry.” Signs of spiritual starvation are all around and yes, even in our churches. We need more than good advice. We need good news! We desperately need the gospel of Jesus Christ!
The truly great news is that this is precisely what God in Christ through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit offers us. We must go back, way back to our future.
Back to Our Future. In the 1989 film Back to the Future II, there is a pivotal scene in which Doc Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd) arrives in his DeLorean time machine to take Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Jennifer (Claudia Wells) back to the future. Reluctant to head off on another adventure through time, Marty asks about the urgency. Doc Brown replies: “It’s your kids, Marty. Something’s got to be done about your kids!”
If not for our sake, then at least for the next generation, let us stop this insidious dance with slow decline in the United Methodist Church. We need to go back to the heart of the gospel in its full dimension – both spiritual and social. Make no mistake. To do so will cut uncomfortably across the scarred wasteland of our cultural wars tearing at every single one of us. It will call us back to our primary allegiance to Christ above and beyond political party, financial gain, racial identity, and even nationality.
The cross is not a symbol of execution, but a sign of victory. The grave is not a grief-filled prison, but an empty tomb of triumph. The birth of the church in worship at Pentecost is not a gathering of polite gentle religion, but an assembly of the troops under the leadership of the Risen Lord through the Spirit’s power and presence, saturated in praise to the glory of God.
We need not fear. We have lived through the crisis of decline and massive cultural change before. Just think of the earliest Christians. They were a tiny, persecuted minority which offered a social witness radically different from any of the competing political or social platforms of their day. They understood themselves to be in, but not of, the world. Thus in 2 Peter, what scholars think might have been a baptismal address, we read: “Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
A conviction of being in but not of the world was at the very heart of the Methodist movement. In his book John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity, Methodist scholar Geordan Hammond concludes that Wesley “continued to believe that primitive Christianity provided a normative model to be restored. Wesley had no doubt that the doctrine, discipline, and practice of the primitive church was embodied by the Methodist movement.”
A crisis is an accelerator. In the slamming impact of COVID-19 and the wrenching internal church doctrinal dispute over human sexuality, we as a church are being given by God an opportunity to re-embrace our purpose and commission. I contend simply that we must go back to the earliest Christian movement in the Roman Empire over the first three centuries and to the early Wesleyan (or Methodist) revival of 18th century England for guidance.
The death of nominal Christianity or cultural Christendom is a good thing. Ironically, or more accurately providentially, the Christian church grows when persecuted and withers when awash in prosperity. Individually and collectively we are being forced, by the movement of the Holy Spirit, to confront whether we are really Christ followers or not. Put theologically and biblically, is Jesus Lord of your life and your church’s collective life or not?
Forward to a New Spring. How then do we move forward in faithfulness and fruitfulness? As stated earlier, the North Star of purpose is driven by the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It is given to us by the risen Lord for the sake of this disease stricken world. In his book The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch puts it this way: “The desperate, prayer-soaked human clinging to Jesus, the reliance on his Spirit, and the distillation of the gospel message into the simple, uncluttered message of Jesus as Lord and Savior is what catalyzed the missional potencies inherent in the people of God.”
Let me offer three key markers we might employ as elements for moving forward to a new spring from the earliest Christians in the Roman empire: (1) Clear in Christological identity: Jesus is Lord!, (2) Sacrificial in service, and (3) Wise in witness.
The Apostle Paul put it this way in the opening chapter of his letter to the beloved Philippians: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well – since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:27-30).
Did you read that? “The privilege” of suffering for Him!
An additional key marker of faithfulness was assumed by the earliest Christians and put firmly in place by the leaders of the Methodist revival. Both embraced the use of small groups for discipleship formation. The first small group was made up of 12 disciples who became the apostles, the sent ones. In the Gospel of Mark we read, “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7). Those called Methodist under first Wesley and then Asbury’s tutelage in America were required to be a part of a “Class Meeting” for their own spiritual growth and discipleship training.
Moving forward to a new spring necessitates a biblical and theological recovery of the gospel. Both the earliest Christian witness and the Methodist revival focused on what God was doing in and through us, not what we humans are working at. Their focus was on God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! I am tired of a spiritually atrophied Unitarian United Methodism which acts as if the Holy Spirit is not real. I have had it with a vague deistic theology which condescends to Jesus as an interesting teacher but denies his kingship. The Lord is calling us back to the center of the Christian faith in the great doctrines of the incarnation, sin, salvation, and sanctification in both their personal and social dimensions. Wesley’s dying breath was anchored on the incarnation: “The best of all is that God is with us.”
Ask yourself, when was the last time you heard (or preached!) a sermon on salvation? When was the last time you were challenged to explicitly turn your life over to Christ – the Lord/leader of your life – over, above, and beyond your own transitory preferences?
Alan Hirsch’s book, Reframation, highlights three aspects of salvation in today’s culture – salvation related to (1) guilt, or (2) shame, or (3) liberation. All three are historically a part of the Christian doctrine of atonement or soteriology (the “way” of salvation). Furthermore, the early Christian Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explicitly refused to limit salvation to simply one element or aspect of life (i.e., sin as related only to guilt), but lifted as the center of orthodoxy the greater understanding of core Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the incarnation, sin, salvation, and the church. It is past time we go back to teaching the essentials of our faith.
Firm core/Flexible strategies. A crucial way to think and pray about our future in a new spring is to guard the core while being flexible in strategy. For years we have done just the opposite. We’ve been loose and even indifferent to the core while being rigid in strategy. The early church, as well as the early Methodists, did just the opposite. They held firmly to the doctrinal core of the Christian faith and were wide open on strategy. Wesley was so flexible on strategy that he went so far as to embrace field preaching, which he considered “vile” (his word, not mine).
For congregations and conferences in the United Methodist Church, guarding the core and being flexible in strategy will involve an openness in organizational structure, creative worship styles, and deployment of clergy (to mention just a few areas) while assiduously rebuilding the doctrinal core of the Church.
A necessity in moving forward in a new spring is the recovery of a working discipline in our life together. This is an uncomfortable subject in today’s rabidly individualistic culture, but I invite us to look back to our future. Indeed, I would go so far as to assert that we must recover a sense of communal discipline, or we shall surely perish.
I have on my desk a “class meeting ticket” which used to be a basic part of being a Methodist. To recover who we truly are – those who are methodical and disciplined in their faith walk – will mean that our church “membership” will be less than our average worship attendance. The earliest Christians held the concept of church discipline so deeply that they debated the issue of readmittance to worship of those who had proved apostate or unfaithful.
Grace must abound, but it cannot be cheap. Currently, I fear that we have strayed into a culture of “cheap grace.” Pouring out his life as a martyr in resistance to Hitler and the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s profound insight should resonate with the core of our being and the practical essence of how we go about being “church” together. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession,” he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Let all that you do be done in love. Now, I come at last to that element of which I am reluctant to speak. I have come to believe that if we are to find a way forward, as the Holy Spirit is leading us, the United Methodist Church must engage in some form of denominational separation.
In 1786, John Wesley famously said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
Painfully, this is too often largely the truth in United Methodism today. Our internal church struggle, which I take to be doctrinally important and serious, is damaging the witness of us all. We need to set each other free. It is time we move forward to a new spring through a grace-filled separation which would allow for shared ecumenical ministry and the possibility of a coming back together in the future.
A litigious fight over property and position benefits no one and damages the advancement of the kingdom of God towards which, I trust, we all work and pray. I believe the best way to accomplish this is through the so-called “Protocol” which will be voted upon at General Conference in 2022.
To those of you who insist on some version of unity at all costs, I remind you that we came into being by separating from the Church of England after the Revolutionary War in 1784. I would further ask, based on a historically irrefutable reading of church history, that if you really believe in unity at all costs, then why are you not already a member of either the Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic branches of the Church universal?
Do you recall the word of the Lord as it comes to us from the Prophet Isaiah? “But now thus says the Lord… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine… I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:1, 19).
Presiding at what I believe will be my last Annual Conference, I think this is where we find ourselves no matter in which camp we place ourselves. We are wandering in the wilderness as a church, and we know what deserts are like. May the words of the Apostle Paul to the contentious, troubled church at Corinth provide guidance to us all: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14).
Mike Lowry is the Bishop of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. This is a revised version of an Episcopal address delivered to the conference on June 21, 2021. Upon his retirement, Lowry will join United Theological Seminary as the school’s first Bishop-in-Residence. Bishop Lowry, the longest-tenured leader of the Fort Worth episcopal area, has served the Central Texas Conference since 2008.