Saturday, December 14, 2013

Church Decline, the Holy Spirit, and Theological Education

Young people will not save the church.

Bible study will not save the church.

Leadership will not save the church.

Being missional will not save the church.

Being more conservative, progressive, or evangelical will not save the church.

Worship we call “contemporary” will not save the church, nor will worship we style as “traditional.”

Nothing we can do, in and of ourselves, will save the church.

Of course, the Church (capital “C”) doesn’t need saving. The Church exists forever within the life of God, as we read in Ephesians 2:17-22:

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

We don’t need to save something that is eternal, and the Church is eternal. So, now that we have that out of the way….

The UMC is in a state of numeric decline in North America. The UMC is not the Church. It is a group of churches (lowercase “c”), and its future is not secure. There is, moreover, only one authentic solution to the decline of the United Methodist Church in North America: the person, power, and work of the Holy Spirit. There might be programs of some kind or another that will cause us to increase in numbers temporarily, but unless our life together is animated by the person, power, and work of the Holy Spirit, we’re done for. It is by God’s presence in the Church that we become real evangelists, reaching out to young, old, and all in between. It is by God’s presence that the Scriptures come alive for us and lead us more fully into salvation. It is only by God’s presence that the right kind of leaders emerge, leaders who are animated not by their interests, but by the holy volitions of God. Our mission, our worship (however it looks), and all else we do must be led by the person, power, and work of the Holy Spirit. Along these lines, I recommend reading Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal, by my friend and colleague Jason Vickers.

Therefore, within the UMC, our primary task should be to pray, asking the Holy Spirit to be powerfully and abundantly present in our midst. We should ask God to make us ever more faithful hearers, proclaimers, and doers of the Gospel. We should ask that God would give us a spirit of humility and selflessness, and that we would come to recognize our radical dependence upon God for all things.

As a seminary dean, these thoughts inevitably lead me to think about the matter of theological education. If we are utterly dependent upon the power and presence of God for our life in the Church, what should we be training our ministers to do in seminaries? It follows that the primary task of a seminary should be to teach ministers about the various means handed on to us by the Church of knowing God. The study of Scripture, whatever else it is, should be a means of knowing God more fully. The same could be said of courses on worship, sacraments, and pastoral care. Theology courses should be intellectual and prayerful engagement with God’s self-revelation as disclosed in Christ, Scripture, and tradition. In other words, seminary education should lead pastors more fully into the life of God so that they, in turn, may invite and guide others into the life of God.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people jokingly call seminary “cemetery.” In fact, I once heard a speaker accidentally do this and she never realized her error. (Yes, I face-palmed.) A seminary, though, should be a place we associate with spiritual life, not spiritual death. It should represent education whereby our future ministers are drawn ever more deeply into the faith that God has given us through the Church. Seminary education should be a means through which people encounter the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit, after all, there is life, the one true life that lasts forever.


  1. Thank you. Good word David. My observation and experience have been that Seminaries, denominations, churches, groups, and individuals that craft and incorporate intentional and practical theologies of the Holy Spirit, that is theologies that are Christologically and scripturally sound, consonant with historic Christianity, and that shape and drive the practice of liturgy, the sacraments, discipleship, and mission experience the vitality of the Holy Spirit over against those that do not. Theological intentionality seems to be key.

  2. I like the phrase "theological intentionality," Pete. And as you indicated, the type of theology about which we are intentional matters a great deal.

  3. Well, getting the theology is important, but, to take a lesson from Wesley and the Pentecostal/Charismatic Renewal, it's really more about theologically rich and prayerful practice. Perhaps, most about prayer. For those who are continuing to know the blessings of a vital practical pneumatology, less emphasis is put on doctrinal ruminations and more on practices that foster, welcome, and express a vibrant Spirit empowered Christianity. It's not more lessons on the Spirit that are needed, but more worship, prayer, discipleship, evangelism, and social engagement animated by the Spirit. The UMC needs to become more pentecostal (lower case intended) and forget the idea that this spirituality belongs to some others, recognizing it's in their own DNA.

    1. James, I can go with you on importance of practice. Worship, prayer, discipleship, evangelism... these are all crucial. I don't want to lost track, though, of the "head knowledge" that is part of the traditional theological disciplines. There is within Christianity a great and life-giving tradition of theological reflection that can enrich our practice as Christians.