I started to write this column several times but shyed away from it. I am always reticent to share my own feelings too much. It's not about me, I tell myself. However, as a pastor in the church, what I think and feel does matter. So here goes...
Several years ago, I was sitting at the Pastor's Convocation at Duke. For many years, I went every year. Regretfully, I have not been back in a while. This particular year the speaker at this gathering was a guy named Rob Bell. Some of you may have heard of him. He was at one time the pastor of a huge church, and he travelled around the country to speak like a rock star. Over the years, he gathered quite a following of young people.
Duke usually likes to be on the cutting edge of change, particularly in the church. So, here was Rob Bell to talk to us about church and the world as he saw it. I have to admit that he is a very good speaker, relying of course on powerpoint and pictures on a screen to speak to us.
The thing that still sticks with me is the first thing he said. He said: "What must it be like to be a pastor in a church that is dying, fading away." This was a while ago, but I still feel the impact of that question. I especially feel the weight of it. I know it's not just about me, but I feel guilty that our church, the United Methodist Church is in this position. And, whether they will admit it or not, the whole Christian Church in the western world is in trouble. Sure, there are some successes out there; new Messiahs arise by the dozens. Mega Church is heralded as the wave of the future, though many prognosticators say that even the large Mega Churches are on the wane, as they draw off members from other more traditional churches. But, on the whole, the western church is in trouble. Some even go so far as to say that Christianity is in trouble.
The fastest growing churches are located in Africa, and now China is beginning to grow some in Christian faith. But, in America, we are praying and searching for ways to listen to where the Holy Spirit is leading us. Even Christians, who are among the most faithful members of the church do not attend worship or study or anything as much as they used to.
In a recent meeting at my church, we went around the circle bemoaning the fact that church attendance is down everywhere. Some said: "When I was a child here, this place was full of people." Well, yes, that was fifty years ago. All churches were filled with people. After some more whining and complaining, I said: "Wait a minute! Go around this room. None of you go to church like you used to." They all had to agree. Talk to any Christian in the Western world and they will tell you that everyone who studies these things says that Christian faith is in trouble- not growing.
So, the question that we ask mostly is: what can we do about it? For much of the church, the blame is laid on the the clergy. We aren't doing things like we used to do them; or, we aren't working hard enough.
And yet, if you asked the average pastor about their work load, you would find that they are usually exhausted and afraid to take a day off. A friend of mine, a pastor in another denomination, went on vacation and came back to find that he had been voted out as pastor. Thankfully, that's not a worry for United Methodists, not usually. Still the stress of working with people alone is enough to break anyone over time. Add to that worries about money and facilities and programs and all the rest and you got the picture.
Now, I would be the first to say that I love what I do. I am doing it still because Jesus came along the shore and said: "Follow me". I went and I've never been sorry. So, I refuse to despair over the mission of Jesus Christ and his church. It's his church after all.
I will over the next few weeks address some of the issues that some see that the modern church faces as we move forward in our faith.
I hope that you will read these articles and join in prayer around the issues raised.