Forget the pandemic for a moment and set aside you anxiety about gas bills. In five to ten years these struggles will no longer demand our attention, but this reality will:
- Less people than ever in our society will be a part of a church.
- Less young people than ever in our nation’s history will be a part of a congregation, enter a church building, or open a Bible.
- Christians, if current trends continue, will be a minority population in our society by 2070.
We do not get to choose the time in which we live, but we do get to choose how we live in our time. If the Church is to be reimagined in this era, we must realise that a vision of the church precedes a vision for the church. Rather than consider the form or structure of a denomination, we are wise to recall the function of the church. We can begin by considering some of the hallmarks of the first disciples who followed risen Jesus Christ.
The first disciples placed their trust in the power of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the crescendo of proclamation in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. The first Christians understood that if Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected to new life, he really was the Messiah, Saviour, and Lord. They followed His way with this level of conviction in the resurrection.
Their actions were consistent with the kingdom of God Jesus said was breaking into the world. The experience of the resurrection changed them. Their ministry and behaviour was always in keeping with the kingdom of God present in their lives individually and as the church.
The disciples whole life was first and foremost a spiritual life. Their life in Christ was not limited to one day of the week or a set of activities that made them feel good in the rest of their lives. The Holy Spirit led them to honour God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Their love of neighbour and self flowed out of their ongoing experience of God’s guidance from the time they awoke to the moment they entrusted God with their nightly rest.
The disciples had a deep concern for those who did not know Jesus. Throw them in jail because they talked about Jesus, and they converted the guard. Tell them if they talk about Jesus again bad things will happen, and they said “…we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) Evangelism, the ability to talk to others about Jesus, was not a program or spiritual gift. It was what they did because Jesus had changed their lives and they knew He could change others’ lives as well.
The first Christians healed the sick, made sure people had food, lived in communities where everyone had enough, and attended to those on the margin. They did what they sometimes did not want to do. This included outreach to the Gentile population, after the Holy Spirit told them that God now called such people “clean,” a rather significant and historic revision to Judaic law and tradition. Whether through acts of compassion or calls for justice, the early church offered God’s love, compassion, and power to those who were lonely, suffering, or in need. They loved people, even the ones who threw rocks at them.
As Christianity declines in the United Kingdom, other theologies and ideologies will fill the void. The Methodists in the UK will become more like the Methodist Church on the continent of Africa, where Christians are distinct because they are in the religious minority. Being distinct is the opportunity before us. We already live in a time when the wisdom of Christ stands in remarkable contrast to the foolishness of the flawed ways our cultures tell people they will find security and happiness. The teaching of Christ and the foundational beliefs of our church make more sense now than ever because of the failure of leaders in society to offer people much other than division, dissension, and fear. A resurrected Methodist Church must offer people a unique, Christ-ordered way of life that is resurrecting to those its hopes to reach and an alternative community within the larger society, just as John Wesley envisioned.
Those first disciples discovered that resurrection was a new state of existence. It was not about working harder to be a little less dead, it was a complete new life. For our church to have new life, we will have to rethink how we form people in the Christian life. Accountable discipleship, once a hallmark of Methodism, must emerge afresh in this time. The more spiritual encouragement and functional accountability people experience, the more progress they make in their sanctification. Our task is to help people live distinctively Christian lives that are attractive to others because of the integrity and love they demonstrate. Prior to Constantine, the early church did this slowly. They were not interested in quick, emotional conversions. People had to commit to the completion of the catechesis. They learned and lived the way of Christ before they were made members of the church.
There is no structural change that will bring the Methodist Church greater vitality. We can only find it as we seek the power of God and resurrect the function of church, live the resurrection way deeply, and offer Christ and his love and wisdom to the world.
Grace and peace,