I have been inundated lately with perspectives on the coming splitting of the United Methodist Church. It has always been my belief that organizations that are large tents tend to grow and those that are small tents, defined tents tend to wither and die. It is not that people love God less. They don’t. It is not that people are not joiners. Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram all have significant Christian communities on the platforms that dwarf any congregations size in the denomination. People want to be part of a community. But they don’t want to be dictated to. They don’t want to have their lives prescribed to by others. If they choose a discipline they want to dictate the terms that this occurs under. And here lies the issue with the Church as it currently exists. We operate under a Discipline and we have rules to enforce said discipline. There is a book and the book dictates the rules. And for 46 years these rules have been in place. But in those same years, the US has changed radically to the point that the current system isn’t effective anymore. The major sports leagues have been in a separate effort to change their rules and experiences to bring in new people. The entertainment industry has had to create new channels to rebuild audiences lost to the internet. And business has had to completely rebuild itself to remain relevant.
We all know this system needs a radical change to the tune of what Wesley implemented when he came here as a priest. I don’t think either the Progressive nor the Renewal wings of our party get how much things need to be rethought to meet the needs of Americans today who are wholesale choosing God but rejecting the church. People need to experience God and God wants to be with us. But this approach of living in small tents and throwing rocks from the pulpit just chases people out of the congregations and into cafes, bars, online forums, and other places to meet those needs.
The worst kind of Christian is one who only seeks to save themselves. We are called to spread Christ to everyone in any means necessary. We have seen what happens in other denominations that have gone through this. Neither group goes on a massive growth spurt. In fact, at best renewal communities are holding steady or simply shrinking slower than their more progressive counterparts. There has been zero proof that splitting has created the level of growth needed to reverse the steady decline of the institutional church in America.
I used to find it awesome that within my home church we had conservatives and progressives all in ministry together. When the church finally died as many do I assumed that folks would gravitate to like-minded groups. What happened was that maybe 20–30 are still in the church. That doesn’t mean that we stopped being together! We still have picnics, facebook groups and other things that continue the community that was destroyed. Many just don’t go to church anymore. And this coming split will do the exact same thing just on a massive scale. People won’t choose the Church, they will choose their beds, couches, and restaurants being together with their old friends in communion and in prayer. But…we will be “right” in our empty pews.