I became a student pastor in 1968, the first year of the United Methodist Church following the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethern. Ever since then our Church has declined in membership and influence in society. Except for our membership outside the United States, the membership of our Church continues to decline.
What is true of us is also true of the other so-called mainline Protestant churches, such as the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Even the Catholic Church would have declined in recent decades except for the Hispanic migration to America. Until recently the Baptist, evangelical, and Pentecostal churches have been spared this trend, but there are indications that the forces that have affected the mainline churches are beginning to affect those churches that had been stable or growing.
What is going on? Usually we turn to sociological studies to analyze the decline of the churches. There are many factiors that contribute to the decline, including demographic changes, reduction of the birth rate, and various cultural shifts, including new mental habits conditioned by a secular philosophy of life. The churches' responses to these factors usually include organizational reform, liturgical experimentation, and new efforts at evangelization such as starting new congregations.
What if we began to think about the decline of the churches in theological terms rather than in sociological terms? The Christian perspective on history is governed by the concept of divine Providence. Within a world of freedom, Providence is at work. Christians cannot leave God out of our discernment of the changes occuring in history. Yet rarely do we hear much talk about what God is doing in the midst of the churches' decline.
No human can comprehend the Providence of God in history. Usually we can look back and discern to some extent God's action in retrospect. Yet Christians do have some resource for tracing Providence at work in the midst of events. That resource is the story of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. What we learn is a story of Providence executing judgment and promise.
If we were to discern divine Providence in the decline of the churches we have to be willing to submit ourelves to God's judgment. God's judgment is not a moralistic condemnation, but a divine No to what is contrary to God's purposes in history. God does not advance God's purposes without working against opposition to, distortion of, or failure to obey God's will.
We have to be willing to subject mainline Protestantism to the scrutiny of divine judgment. Has its theology been adequate to express the fullness of divine revelation? Has its churches been too ingrown and complacent? Is there the fire of personal experience of God's truth and love revealed in Jesus Christ and ignited by the Holy Spirit? Has there been a commitment to the transformation of society? We know the answer. Why then should we be surprised if God must re-arrange the Christian map by breaking up the old to make room for the new?
We also need to discern the promise of God's action in our midst. Wherever there is the willingness to repent before the judgment of Providence, there is the promise of new life.
The hope of Christianity, and of the remnant of the mainline Protestant churches, lies in participating in what new thing God is doing. To put it simply, God is working to make the institutional churches conform to God's own purpose for the church of Jesus Christ. The renewal of the churches will come by being the church. This will not happen by organizational planning, although obviously such is necessary, unless something more foundational is happening. It will happen through repentance and the obedience of faith in God's purposes for the church to be the body of Jesus Christ that witnesses to the coming reign of God.
There is a lot of anxiety in the churches today. Some relish this anxiety because they hope it will awaken us. We are told we must now name reality. Yet the church is foolish to live by anxiety. Usually anxiety about church decline turns us toward saving the institution rather than toward serving Christ and his mission. Anxiety-mongering may be well-intended, but is self-defeating. Faith is what is needed, the kind of faith that is centered in Christ who gives us the power to repent and to find joy and peace in doing his will. What we must name is the name of Christ himself.
No one wants to be a part of declining church. Some dream of being a part of a church that never has serious challenges or problems, but then they are merely dreamers. But who would not want to be a part of a church that is being renewed--not on the basis of self-serving insitutional techniques, but on the basis of faith in Christ?
This is the challenge of our own Church. Do I expect we shall continue to see decline? Yes. There is no reason yet to think that the judgment of Providence is finished with us. Do I think we can hope, and even expect, to see renewal? Yes. The work of Providence is to restore God's purpose for the church and the world, and the Spirit of God is at work in many hearts, congregations, and communities.
What we should pray and work for in our Church by cooperation with divine Providence is that day when what is coming up surpasses what is going down--when the whole Church consists of new and renewed congregations of people who are alive in Christ and who are living the adventure of being the church of Jesus Christ.