I am a pastor in a denomination much like yours.
I am a part of a denomination that is in decline. We've lost 1.2 million members since our inception in 1987. Your denomination may be on a steeper or a more gradual decline, but your denomination, like mine is declining.
I am part of a denomination that knows it is declining despite strong revenues. Unfortunately, these two things are incompatible in the long run, and we know this.
I am part of a denomination that has continuously beat the drum, "We must change or die." We've made lots of changes. We are still dying.
I am part of a denomination that leans toward the left. You might be a part of a denomination that leans toward the right. It makes no difference; the decline is there for both of us.
Recently, my denomination's largest seminary was hit by major cut-backs. The financial winds finally caught up with the precipitous decline in membership, and now a new course is being set. Of course, major change brings about anxiety. Anxiety leads to questioning and requests for action. The students at Luther Seminary, put together a list of 9.5 Theses--a take off of Martin Luther's 95 Theses--in response to the changes at the seminary. They are found in the link above, but I will reprint them below. I believe these "theses" offer a window into what ails my denomination and yours. Please look them over carefully.
1. We want open disclosures and open imagination about the path forward.
2. We want injustice named and truth told so that confession and accountability ground this community.
3. We want stated and communally agreed upon theological values to guide the process.
4. We want to help inform the decisions, not be informed of them.
5. We want to be recognized as the church leaders we already are. We want to contribute to the process and learn form it as active participants.
6. We want to acknowledge that God is the owner, we are the stewards, and we are God’s hands and feet to the world. As partner[s] with God, we need to be in constant communication (prayer).
7. We know each decision made about faculty and programming will have far-reaching effects. We want to know how these effects are being taken into consideration.
8. We want to trust those making decisions at Luther. Being a part of the decision-making process would allow us to rebuild trust in leaders and process[es].
9. We want to be a learning community that is centered around God and open to God’s agency in the world. To begin to think about what a seminary is or could be is also a way into listening to faculty, student, and staff voices.
9.5 We think Luther Seminary is similar to a church that needs redevelopment. If we were a church, how would we approach redevelopment? How might that change the way in which we are approaching these matters?
Now, before you become obsessed with the content of these "Theses", stop a moment and really look at them. Call them out for what they really are. These are not items for debate as Martin Luther's 95 Theses were intended. Call them a list of demands. Only one of these particular statements does not include the words "we want."
Think about that statement as you ponder the goings on of your denomination. Ponder how it enters into the conversation about your particular congregation and what goes on in its day to day life. Is this the statement of those who follow Jesus Christ?
"Not my will, but thine be done." "Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
It is God's will we are called to seek and strive after in the midst of our dealings with the world and with one another. Read just a few of the beginnings of Martin Luther's 95 Theses. Do you see a single instance where Luther offers a demand with these items? Luther is concerned with God's Will and how God's Word is being proclaimed -- or in the Reformation's case, being used to abuse and control. The ultimate goal is bringing God's Word into the world more fully.
I do not dispute that many within your denomination or mine wish to do this. We want God's love to be shown, but our want flows because it is God's want and not necessarily our own. Generally, the sinful side of human nature represses this desire and makes us curve inward toward ourselves. Oftentimes, when we say "we want" it is not necessarily driven by the Spirit of God, but is driven more by our own agendas and our own desires. Because we say "we want" and do not ask, "What do You want?" we find ourselves focusing on surviving instead of obedience--loving obedience to the One who dared to die that we might have life.
What is God's will for our denominations? What is He leading us toward? What things are we called to do and who are we called to be? Rooted and grounded in the historic, orthodox faith and in the revelation of God given in His Holy Word, what should our public and private focus entail?
Of all the things found in Scripture, I have found the following to be most helpful in discerning those things:
18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ --Matthew 28:18-20
34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ --John 13: 34-35
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ --Mark 9:33-37
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these. --Mark 12:28-31
Yes, there are probably many more that could be added to this short list, and many of you may actually engage in multiplication. Yet, I believe if we center the discernment process on Jesus and the call to become more and more like Him, we will indeed be heading down the path of discerning God's will for our churches.
This letter might seem over simplistic in both its description of the problem and its suggested cure. But I submit that while its description is perhaps simplistic, the cure is difficult--not in articulating but in actually carrying out.
Yet, it is the path I strive to walk upon. It is a constant battle between what I want and what I believe God is calling me toward. I pray that I surrender to His hand, and it is my hope that our denominations will as well.
In His Name,
The Country Preacher