Renewal: A New Thing of God in an Age of Decline

                                                                                                                        wellsprings_spinningthesacred

Wendy J. Deichmann, Upper New York Annual Conference, Elder
President of United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio, USA

United Methodists in the United States are tired of Church decline. We have begun our fifth decade of an historic slide toward extinction. This is not an exaggeration; it is the biggest elephant in the United Methodist room, and many of us would prefer not to talk about it. Inquiring minds may wonder, where is God, and what is God doing in the midst of this discouraging movement in a direction we really do not want to go?

The theme of this issue of Wellsprings suggests an alternative possibility, poignantly expressed in Isaiah 43:19a: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (NRSV). While it may be difficult for those whose entire experience of United Methodism is characterized by decline to imagine anything else is possible, now is the most important time not only to imagine, but to claim and celebrate the “new thing” God is already doing among us. Biblical narratives, ages-old Christian beliefs, church history, and good, contemporary theology all support the idea that it is exactly in times of trouble and distress that God is already working to offer hope and redemption! This article will identifyrenewal as a “new thing” God is doing in our midst. Because renewal is a work of God’s grace for God’s people, I will suggest that there is much the leadership of the Church can do to help end the decline and bring renewal in its stead.

Why would an article in Wellsprings address a topic that is relevant to everyone, not exclusively ordained women? Women have been among the most important leaders in movements for reform in the past, and we may expect this pattern to continue. Furthermore, women have always been a majority in the Church. This means we are complicit with its current trend of decline and are excellent candidates to help turn it around. With so many women in leadership positions, an important opportunity is before us.

My perspective as a United Methodist elder and seminary president will focus on four ways women and men can, not only observe, but also participate in the God-given opportunity for renewing the Church. These include (1) working from a fresh, biblical, practical theology of renewal; (2) embracing new means of communications and social networking; (3) building new international relationships; and (4) generating a revival of prayer and living faith in Christ for the purpose of renewal.

1. A fresh, biblical, practical theology of renewal

In every generation, living faith in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit assures the believer that God is still God and that God has not left us alone in our troubled Church or world. This is the message of the Incarnation and the dominant narrative of our Scriptures. Each generation must do its own practical theological work in order to grasp the meaning and potential of this message of hope. This does not mean we should throw out the doctrines handed down to us from previous generations or discard all the theology already in existence. Rather, the goal of our theological task is to update our understanding, interpretation, and application of the gospel in the current context. “Our summons is to understand and receive the gospel promises in our troubled and uncertain times” (Book of Discipline, 2008,  104).

Many fine theologians are already doing this work with an emphasis on renewal, and there will be more to come. Dr. Jason Vickers at United, Dr. Elaine Heath at Perkins, and Dr. Laceye Warner at Duke are prominent United Methodists among them. It will be important to pay more attention to these and other faithful, gifted thinkers, and to use their work as a resource.

Renewal of the Church is only a pipe dream unless living faith in Christ occupies the center of our lives and purpose. Without such faith there is no Church at all, only an illusion.

We should also remember that not all theology is formal. The United Methodist Church has many pockets of vibrant life and ministry. The Church is alive and growing by leaps and bounds in some places, including numerous individual congregations in the United States, such as Christ UMC in Cape Coral, Florida; and Ginghamsburg UMC in Tipp City, Ohio. Spectacular growth is taking place in parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. What are the theology and praxis at work where the Church is vital and growing, and how can this be instructive to a declining Church and declining congregations? Believers in spiritually vitalized communities attribute their vitality to the Spirit of God—alive and well—still available to bless and provide hope and new life to all the people and the Church in all contexts. Why not us?

2. New means of communications and social networking

Christians in each era have relied on all available means of communications and social networking to proclaim the Gospel and to fulfill needs for ministry. Whether we consider the spoken word, pen and parchment, print, radio, television, the Internet, or something else, it can and has been used to convey salvation in Jesus Christ, and to assist spiritual growth.

In the twenty-first century it is possible to communicate with every part of the globe, and to form and nurture communities regardless of distance. The opportunities to use new forms of technology and multimedia methods to enhance and multiply occasions for evangelism, worship, education, pastoral care, support groups, and other ministries are increasing faster than our awareness of them. Countless numbers of Christians, but especially young people, are increasingly taking advantage of these opportunities for every ministry imaginable.

The Church has a chance, now, to let the younger generations lead in using these means for ministry and renewal. For renewal of the Church to succeed in our midst, however, we will have to overcome the tendency of declining institutions defensively to resist new methods and younger leadership in favor of perpetuating the comfort of the status quo. Thoroughgoing renewal now will require that we not merely dabble, but instead, urgently maximize use of all available and appropriate methods for communicating and social networking for the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.

Young people must lead this effort; they are the natives and expert users of technology, multimedia ministries, and social networking. Led by the Spirit, the faithful young people of the Church will follow Jesus by all means at their disposal with or without The United Methodist Church or the cooperation of the preceding generation. When will we take advantage of this opportunity to work with our young people? How will we demonstrate that renewal of the Church for the mission of Jesus Christ in the world matters enough to change us?

3. New, international relationships

Just as our theology for renewal must take into account the vitality and growth of The United Methodist Church in international contexts, so must our relationships. The founders of United Methodism’s predecessor bodies came from Europe to North America, and since then, the denomination itself has expanded to every continent. Technology and improved travel options have made possible greatly enhanced connections and relationships across the denomination in all parts of the world.

The declining United Methodist Church in North America has much to learn from the thriving, growing United Methodist Church in Africa and other places. The Church in Africa has something to learn from American Christianity, too, and such learning can only be accomplished, in both directions, through intentional, respectful interrelationship that aims at mutual blessing and benefit. It can only help us to learn about each other’s successes and mistakes, and to stretch ourselves to understand and experience the different contexts and values that make us unique, yet united in faith and mission. How will it renew us to pray and act as if we are truly part of the body of Christ in the world?

4. A revival of prayer and living faith for the purpose of renewal

From the saints in our Scriptures and our spiritual ancestors since, we may learn the wisdom to begin every effort for renewal, individually and corporately, with prayer. If we believe that God answers prayer, we may expect to be led forward by the Spirit of God in a dynamic relationship with God characterized by piety and discipleship. We should not expect the favorable results of the piety and discipleship of our spiritual forebears without employing similar, sincere spiritual practices.

All the means of grace in the world will not avail us or the Church one bit, John Wesley would caution, without a heart that is converted to living faith in Christ. This is our spiritual center, an anchor for all the work of the Spirit that may follow in our lives and ministries. Renewal of the Church is only a pipe dream unless living faith in Christ occupies the center of our lives and purpose. Without such faith there is no Church at all, only an illusion. With such faith—that is, childlike trust in God—everything is possible, including renewal.

Renewal involves choices. The Spirit of God is always working to bring about a “new thing,” but we do have free will. It is our choice whether we will participate, or not. Is the faithful and hopeful choice not obvious? Why would we miss the opportunity to claim and participate in the “new thing” God is already doing among us?

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