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John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

March 21, 2017

Many ways to lose the way

There are so many ways for an individual church, or a church movement, to lose its way. Having spent some considerable time among the evangelicals after growing up among mainline Methodists, I know this is the case.

As an observer, it seems those from the evangelical world lose their faith when they can no longer square what is being dogmatically taught and asked of them with reality. A harsh theology based on articles of faith from previous centuries to which one must assent; all of which must be upheld to avoid the collapse of the whole thing. An insistence that these precepts are the core of Christianity and that other branches of the faith have betrayed the truth. A thick layer of fear for one’s salvation and the salvation of others, mixes with the wretched urgency to do, work, serve in the church—and that whatever is done, it is never enough. The co-option of this portion of the church by the American political right wing, starting in the 1970s, so that positions taken increasingly have drifted from what Jesus teaches a life following him is all about.

When what one sees in real life does not gibe with this tightly integrated program and its many rules and fences, doubt can fester, and one may eventually walk away. But what one actually walks away from is this conception and presentation of the faith. Too often, ex-evangelicals believe the whole faith is to be tossed, when in fact a different perspective may be what is needed. It is difficult, however, for many teetering evangelicals to explore other manifestations of Christianity, when it has been ingrained in them that they are heretical.

As a child of the mainline, I find it interesting that there is an assumption among evangelicals that the reason the mainline has been in decline for decades is that its theology has strayed from the truth. This fits in with the evangelical narrative. But I do not believe mainline theology is deficient, nor is it the reason for mainline decline.

I have many quarrels with the United Methodist church, having been on sabbatical from it since 2000. But absolutely none of my quarrels has anything to do with the denomination’s theology. In fact, I have always thought Wesley’s theology of grace was a pretty good way to organize understanding of the message of Scripture and Christ’s work. It is kind, it is forgiving, it is generous. The main way it tends to go awry is in its methodical application—good for organized, stick-to-it types like me, but somewhat guilt inducing for those without a strong work ethic.

Our problem as mainliners was more that the initial model in America was to expand along with the frontier, building small churches in every new community. Good at the time, but leaving us with a legacy of many little congregations that functioned more as social meeting places for small towns than as outposts of people with living connections to Jesus. For many people, one belonged to, say, the local volunteer fire department or Lions Club, plus a local congregation—and the level of loyalty and reasons for belonging to all of these were about the same.

At the same time, our structure and bureaucracy were a mess both at the institutional and local levels. Saddled with way too many board and committee slots to fill, many local churches put people in positions of power who had no business being there. The regional administrative bodies, looking after way too many tiny outposts, devoted little attention to any but the largest ones. Problems festered for generations in many churches. Regional and national bodies rightly embraced and pushed for social changes, but did not understand or have the resources to educate their many little congregations on why such changes were God-honoring.

In recent decades, as small towns in the heartland dry up, and people have less and less of a need for local social gathering places, the local business clubs, fire departments, and yes, churches, find fewer and fewer takers.

These are some of the problems of the mainline. They trace back to the origins of the expansion of the country. They are congregation-size issues. They are bureaucracy issues. They are people not understanding the implications of their faith issues. What they are not are “bad theology” issues.

The church is in trouble in this country. The remedies are unique to the situation each variety of the faith finds itself in today. Yet one thing applies to all. From whatever hole the church finds herself in, she needs to look up, as best she can, and find Jesus and what he is saying to her now. Then she needs to have the courage to follow.

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
—John 12:26