Duke Divinity Call & Response Blog

Read. Discuss. Imagine.

 
  • Print
May 26, 2010

Jenny Williams: God will never abandon the church

I once heard Tony Campolo say, er, yell, that God will never abandon the church. Of course he’s right. The church universal is the bride of Christ, bound to him in mystical union. God will never leave us.

But what path are denominations on? Like you, I’m no fortune teller, but I can share with you some of my observations. First, I see vitality among young Christians. They want to be deeply committed to Christ and the church and give their WHOLE lives to God. The traditional structure of mainline churches on the whole doesn’t seem to be offering opportunities for them to do that. Some find total commitment through participation in house churches or intentional Christian communities -- both of which are unfortunately foreign to the current mainline. Perhaps with some creative thinking relationships could be forged between these forms of discipleship and the mainline church, but I don’t see this happening.

One of the reasons denominations die is that we pastors are expected to spend a disproportionate amount of our time serving as chaplains. The membership of my own denomination is aging. I spend significantly more time with very elderly people than I do with anyone under 50. I am not intending to disparage these saints of the church or say that vitality only exists in young people. That the pastor is the one who is expected to visit is one example of the problem we have gotten ourselves into. Baptism, not ordination, is the authorization for ministry.

We are recovering from decades of passivity in the church. We forgot somehow that being a good Christian was more than showing up at church on Sunday and belonging to the right civic organizations. We forgot that we need to develop Christians -- to make disciples out of the people who were already in the building! Given this forgetfulness, how is it realistic to expect these same pew-sitters (and their progeny) to go into the world to make disciples? Jesus tells us the disciples to witness to what they have seen. In general, what these folks have seen is what people wore to church on Sunday, not the power of the resurrected Christ. No wonder we’re dying.

So really it doesn’t matter to me if mainline denominations continue to exist in their present form. Their present form seems destined for death.

Since you probably don’t know me, let me make some disclaimers about that statement. I love the United Methodist tradition. I was born to very committed UM parents and grandparents. I was baptized into the UMC when I was 5 weeks old. I was the perfect picture of an “active” UM youth: confirmed at age 12, went to all the Conference youth events, went on to graduate from a United Methodist seminary. I serve now in UM churches. I can never envision myself abandoning my Wesleyan theological heritage. I love being part of a connectional church.

Having given you my Pauline curriculum vitae, let me say this: being part of the UMC is not what is ultimately important to me. I want to be part of Christ’s body, the church, which proclaims Jesus and him crucified. This is the church that reared me. I want to give back to that church joyfully, and plan to do all I can to help her to be faithful. But I don’t care if she continues to exist in her present form.

I worry about those who are spurred to the activity of disciple-making by the fear of denominational death. It seems they have missed one of the fundamental meanings of the good news: death is not the end. God brings new life out of death. If our church is so afraid of denominational death that we spend our energies strategizing to avoid it, then we have compromised our witness to the power and sovereignty of God, and we should indeed (and for the sake of Christ) die.

My denomination may get too bureaucratically heavy, toppling over to her death. But God will never abandon the church. He just might resurrect her. She’ll take a new form -- recognizable but different. Bearing the wounds and scars of death, but still showing the grace of God.

Jenny Williams is pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Kingwood, West Virginia.

18 Comments

The question in reverse?

Perhaps the more important question to consider is: "Has the Church become something that has already abandoned God?"

Well Craige

We got biblical stuff on that, the whole tradition in both testaments about Israel being unfaithful and yet God remaining faithful--Hosea most prominently, then Romans as Paul's great effort to show God's continuing faithfulness to his promises no matter whether Israel is faithful back.

Well Jason

God's ability to be faithful to His Covenant is not in question nor is it in doubt. Our ability to maintain our faithfulness to God's Commandments as a people or as a religious institution is not so obvious.

If we assume that no matter how unGodly our religious institution becomes God will be stuck with it anyway then we may assume too much. Matthew 23 provides a good summary of the contempt that Jesus had for some of the clergy of his own religion. (Mt. 23 is not a statement against the Jewish religion. It is a condemnation of the attitude that was being shown by some of the people who held religious authority.)

The act of Jesus cleansing the Temple was as much a statement for Jesus' time as it is a warning for all time. God does not tolerate those who abuse their religious authority.

Turning a blind eye to the institutional abuses that are continuing to come into the light does not mean that God has not already seen their existence. It may be best if the Church did not put the patience of God to the test anymore than it already has. Taking God for granted rarely, if ever, seems to be a good idea.

agreed entirely

it seemd biblical both to say God won't be mocked and can't be presumed upon; and that God's patience far exceeds our imaginations. We leaders certainly have a bevy of texts to make us tremble.

Hope in the Gospel of Grace

Fortunately the Gospel message of Jesus is the eternal promise of God's Grace for those who are humble enough to acknowledge that God's Grace is the only hope we have.

Jesus lived according to the directive of Micah 6:8. As long as we can remember to do the same, surely God will never be far away.

I think it's the "as long as"

that the Augustinian in me, at least, has reservations about. A covenant conditional on our moral resources would be a brittle thing indeed.

Grace exceeds our understanding

As you said in your earlier comment, God's patience (Grace) far exceeds our imaginations.

Consider the words of Jesus in Mt. 6:14f. Is Jesus not describing what appears to be a "conditional Covenant"? Yet if our sinful nature did not constantly prevent us from keeping the Covenant that we have been instructed to keep, God would not have sent the Message of His Grace through the teachings of Jesus.

If God is taken for granted as a result of our attitude of "religious self-righteousness" then we have transformed His Grace into our self serving brand of "cheap grace".

The directive of Micah 6:8 is a reminder that if we are to claim to represent the name of Jesus in the world then we should walk in The Way that Jesus walked. Thats all.

Church Priorities

Thank you for the reminder that organizational survival is not the priority of the church. It seems like we are spending way too much time and money in the Methodist denomination on feeding the bureaucracy. I think that we need a "sunset rule" at every level of the church organization. All programs, divisions, cost centers, etc. automatically ceases to exist at the end of four years unless specifically renewed by a majority of the members. Perhaps this would remind us that our resources need a God directed purpose and not an organizational directed purpose.

"God will never leave the

"God will never leave the church." No kidding. This is certainly a warm and fuzzy statement. Like Little Orphan Annie belting out "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow!"

The issue is has the church left God? That is the better question. When the bulk of our work and resources goes into maintaining a liberal, out of touch institution, I have to wonder.....

Ridiculous

There are arguments in favor of the church that run to the mindless and can be compared to a silly musical. Rev. Williams' textured and nuanced theological argument is not among them. Her claim, Old Time Methodist, is in fact that the UMC may not have a future but the church of Jesus Christ does. Hard to get more old time than that.

Sure, but churches can give

Sure, but churches can give up on God by not reaching out to new demographics, spending more time on pet issues than living out the Gospel, and wasting money on old, worn out institutions.

Jesus never used the word church

Jesus never used the word church
he said his assenbly
get a concordence
Jesus THE ONLY SON OF GOD
NEVER USED THE WORD CHRISTIAN,GRACE,SAVIOR

NOT ONE TIME

I appreciate your thoughts.

I appreciate your thoughts. If I can be bold enough to offer my opinion as someone who is not a member of the Methodist church--I have spent the past two years taking a spiritual direction course with a wonderful group of United Methodists, so it is familiar territory--I would have to agree that the mainline churches today are completely missing the mark. Young people like myself, who want nothing more than to commit their lives to the church are being turned away for reasons that in my experience border on the ridiculous. I was recently put on hold in my process toward ordination in the Episcopal church because I have "too much" student loan debt. Having spoken to a number of people, I have found that my debt load is fairly light compared to many who have become priests and we have no other debt to deal with. My husband, who is also in ministry but not seeking ordination, and I have struggled deeply with an institution that would put this type of a financial standard ahead of a life-long calling that is obvious and from the heart. The church in general, I feel--and this is probably an unfair generalization--has abandoned the work of Christ in the world for the very power structures that Jesus fought against in his ministry. I too feel that participation in house churches or intentional Christian community is the way that the church will survive and deliver the gospel to this hurting, fallen world. I am reluctant to follow the leading of my Methodist friends into another church that is caught up in power structures and largely missing the core of the gospel (another unfair generalization I'm sure). Denominations and the institution of the church have injured me to the point that presently, I would rather shake the dust off my feet and find a new way to be with and serve God and my neighbor. I'm really not sure what is the way forward right now for me and my family, or for the church as a whole, but I know that while God does not abandon us, he grieves when hurting people are not cared for and loved by those of us who are called to be his hands and feet in the world.

Dangerous

It's a bit dangerous to speak for God - don't you think?

The golden rule of the Divine is and has always been that God can do whatever God wants to do. I think there are a few lessons in ye old Bible about what happens to folks when they try to limit, control, or press God.

This reeks of the trite phrases and shaky confidence most groups of faith speak of when their denomination is in decline...and becoming more boring by the second.

Why don't you just post this on one of those large black and white interstate billboards and sign it -God! People are driving quickly and easily by the UMC. This doesn't really help.

It seems that Ms. Williams is

It seems that Ms. Williams is overlooking what really may be hurting the UMC. God will never abandon the Church. If the UMC denomination is feeling abandoned, I don't think it is because of pastors being stretched too thin. It is probably because there is not much of the Church left in the denomination. A denomination of believers is a denomination that will not feel abandoned or be abandoned. If the UMC dies, then it is because there are not enough believers who want to be associated with the denomination. The UMC just needs to look at the Israel of the bible if it wants to see what is happening to itself right now. If you don't want to be abandoned, you need to bring in people who love God.

Williams gets very close

Williams is hitting very close to a truth that we don't really hear enough of in ANY Christian church, particularly Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, namely...

We aren't done in our journey when we join Christ's family. That is truly only the beginning. Think of how Peter learned THAT. John Wesley learned it, but it took awhile, as it does with all of us raised in the church.

The church is not just a "hospital for sinners." It's an elementary school for children in the faith. When we grasp the joy and the true position we're in as, really, NEW disciples, our church can come to life again.

Read Robert Capon's wonderful "Parables" books, especially Parables of Judgment. He notes that every single time Jesus is confronted with a dead person in the scriptures, it is the dead person's immediate reaction to rise up and come to life! The widow of Nain's son, Jairus's daughter, Lazarus...

As Capon puts it, "It's because Jesus already IS the resurrection and the life, even before he's crucified that this is the natural reaction of the dead when he walks in the room."

Capon says that this, therefore, is all we have to do, individually, and perhaps in this discussion: just admit we're dead. Jesus can work with that.

"Jesus didn't come to make the good people a little bit better," says Capon. "Jesus came to bring the dead to life." That's what Wesley experienced, and THAT is the kind of believers God raised up through Wesley: scripturally sensitive, unafraid of good evangelism, and socially aware and active. If we can get that back together and earnestly seek His will, not just our own, I think we can be a blessing to others again in a powerful way.

"God will never abandon the

"God will never abandon the church"
Is just pointing out that GOD will never leave us,even we are a sinner
God is willing to offer his life for us.
So in return of his kindness, we must worship him.

Response

Jumping off the last comment, true--God will never leave us, but the the "us" does not refer just to a bunch of "me's" but rather to this mysterious, called-out people who are a new creation *together*--the body of Christ.

And to June 12's "Guest", note that I said *one* of the reasons that the UMC may be dying is the chaplaincy model of ministry. There could be (and I think there are) any number of reasons that the UMC and other mainlines are dying. Short-term tenures for pastors is one. Misunderstanding of the authority granted to the baptized is another, as I noted above. The paradigm of pastor as CEO is another. (Thankfully that's becoming passe.) There are more.

And to those who think Campolo's statement is trite, I think it is a witness of the power of God. God has a history of holding up God's end of the covenant which God makes with God's people. To me, this is hopeful. Israel clearly screwed up their end of the covenant repeatedly. And God responded, through the prophets and eventually a big ol' Time Out called exile. I think God's covenant is not with any particular denomination. As we know, denominations represent fracture in Christ's body. So if a wholesale denominational Time Out is coming, it just might serve to reunite us--not only with each other, but to God's purposes of being Christ's body in and for the world.

Post new comment

Comment Policy

* required field