Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Hope Blossoms: Pondering the Future of the Church

In the third movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, “The Return of the King,” the white tree of Gondor[1] sits in a fountain outside the palace. This tree has lain barren for centuries awaiting the return of the true king of Gondor. When the movie begins the tree is barren, but when Aragorn (the true King) arrives in Gondor, we see a brief scene where the long-dead tree now has a single white blossom—signifying hope. At the end of the movie, at Aragorn’s coronation, the same tree is now covered with an over-abundance of white blossoms, a veritable shower of joy for the true King’s return and the beginning of a new era of peace.

Since 1968, the United Methodist Church, of which I am a member, has been declining. That means that I’ve never really known a time when my denomination’s “tree” was in full bloom.

Like the people of Gondor who waited for so many years for their king to come, after 41+ years, I sometimes wonder: Can Methodism’s tree live again? I want to believe that, one day, against all odds, our “tree” will bloom again, and we will see revival. But year after year, I peer out into the “courtyard”, and see little or no new growth on our tree. In fact, if anything, each year, a few more blossoms fall off. Our attendance continues to decline, our congregations get a little greyer (as we struggle to attract youth and young adults), and it gets harder and harder to find enough resources (be it people, money, time, or energy) to do effective ministry in our communities and our world.

There are wonderful exceptions to the rule to be sure, but in general, a state of spiritual malaise seems to have settled over the people called Methodists[2]. We are a denomination in decline, and far too often, we act the part.

The Prophet Ezekiel once faced a similar question concerning the fate of Israel. He was standing looking over a grim site at the time—a valley full of the dry bones of his fallen countrymen—and he heard God ask: “Mortal, can these bones live again?” God wasn’t necessarily talking about these dead bodies so much as he was about the spiritual malaise of the people of Judah. Ezekiel’s reply was brutally honest: “God only you know.” (Ezekiel 37:1-14) Maybe it should be translated: God I hope so!

Ezekiel cared deeply for the people of Judah. He wanted to see his people strong again. But, honestly, he wasn’t sure if it was too late for them to turn back to God. Had they let themselves decline for so long that there was no hope for them to return? He simply didn’t know if their “tree” had any life left in it or not.

Church leaders surely relate to the Prophet’s angst here. We too hope our “dry bones” can live again; we hope that, despite outward appearances, our “tree” is still alive—merely lying dormant awaiting the spark of hope ignited by the coming King. We so much want to claim that future with hope (Jeremiah 29:11), abundant life (John 10:10), and goodness (Romans 8:28) that Scripture claims are possible for those who follow God.

But if we’re honest, we’re not sure what the future holds for us? We want to believe the best but struggle with unbelief (Mark 9:24). After all, how can we have realistic hope for the future when all we’ve ever known is decline?! After one is part of a declining church long enough it impacts how we think, even how we live.

Even the most spiritually zealous people among us are not completely immune to the spiritual malaise I spoke of earlier. It is contagious—it “infects” you if you are exposed for too long.

Many of our churches seem to have adopted a sort of “bunker mentality” to survive. We hunker down in our churches hoping to ride out another winter of discontent far from certain that we will ever see another spring of hope. We don’t share our resources with the world around us because we’re afraid that if we share with them, at some point, we might not have enough for ourselves.

While we can certainly survive for a time in our “bunker”, we will never thrive living that way. We will continue to decline, contract, shrivel, and ultimately—we will die. Surely God’s heart breaks as he watches the Body of Christ wither. This cannot possibly be the life God intends for us, his beloved People…

The upcoming season of Lent is a time for self-reflection, a time to ask: How has our current approach to life been working out? What changes do we need to make to grow closer to God? We can also extend that to our “life together” as the People of God, the Body of Christ—the Church. We can—and we must—ask ourselves: How has our current approach to doing church working? What changes do we need to make as a community? That’s a very difficult question to tackle, but if we are to be faithful to our call to be the Church today’s world, we must continue to wrestle with it until we get some satisfactory answers!

Lent not only calls us to ask hard questions, it also demands honest answers. We can never hope to change if we’re not willing to humbly admit our present reality. And the evidence (I believe) is clear: Our present approach to church is, by and large, not working. We need to consider a different way.

Considering a “different way” doesn’t mean we have to give up on God’s Church or the Kingdom of God. No, but it may mean we have to give up on Church as We Know It—or, to say it another way, “the way we’ve always done it.”

And, yes, in some cases we will need to reckon with a painful reality: Some churches have declined so much that they cannot “live again” in their present configuration. I honestly believe the faithful choice in those cases would be to direct the church's remaining life essence into the birth of something new.

In pursuing this vision of a “different way” to do Church, we would cling to a promise that the Prophet Isaiah once made to the people of Israel: A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
 and a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Isaiah 11:1). This is a risky approach; not everyone will like it. People get attached to the way things have always been; change frightens us and we lash out at the change agents. (They did it to Isaiah and the other Prophets in the Bible!)

Friends, just as it did for the original recipients of Isaiah’s message, on the surface of things having this kind of hope for the future of the Church seems utterly foolish. We haven’t seen many “shoots” recently, much less any “blooms”. Nothing but lifeless “stumps” as far as the eye can see. We wonder: Can hope possibly blossom here?!

But as people of faith we trust that even though our eyes can’t see it yet, the King is indeed on the move, hope is rallying, and things are happening behind the scenes, under the surface. Preparations are being made for new life that will emerge come spring. God will be faithful to God’s promise—hope will soon bloom!

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;

In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!

In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,

Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Hymn of Promise, verse 1

[1] Photo Credit: Photo of a tree resembling the mythical White Tree of Gondor taken at Aleppo Citadel in Syria— www.trekearth.com/gallery/Middle_East/Syria/North/Halab/Aleppo/photo1180665.htm.

[2] The experience I describe is certainly not unique to the United Methodist Church. The statistics show and personal experience confirms that most “mainline” denominations are experiencing similar decline and uncertainty over what the future holds for them.

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