By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The mission of the Christian church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. That evangelical mission should be distinguished from converting people to the Christian religion. Discipleship is about following the teachings of Jesus, while orthodox Christianity emphasizes belief in mystical and exclusivist church doctrines and creeds that were not taught by Jesus.
The church in its myriad manifestations claims over 70% of Americans, but it has failed in its mission to promote discipleship. That became evident in 2016 when Christians elected Donald Trump as president. He is a man who represents the antithesis of Christian morality.
The church has put its popularity as a social institution ahead of discipleship. That misplaced priority has undermined the credibility of the church and led to its decline. Jesus taught that the way to God’s kingdom was narrow and that few would find it (Matthew 7:13,14). But in its zeal to gain converts the church subordinated the relevant teachings of Jesus to mystical and exclusivist church beliefs that were more congenial to a popular religion. It was a costly mistake.
But all is not lost. There is a Wesleyan alternative for today’s irrelevant church. John Wesley (1703-1791) was a progressive Anglican priest who encouraged his Methodists to “think and let think” and to interpret scripture based on tradition, experience and reason. He formed his followers into small groups called classes that met weekly to explore the meaning of discipleship and practice it. In so doing, his Methodists put heart into a stiff and formal Anglican Church.
Times have changed in the last 300 years, but some things remain the same. Wesley’s Anglican Church was a part of an English monarchy dominated by wealthy aristocrats who exploited the poor. The Constitution separates the U.S. government from the church, but the church has been complicit in giving Donald Trump and his Wall Street aristocracy political powers that have exploited the middle class and contributed to the demise of democracy.
Ironically, Wesley was skeptical of democracy. He and Edmund Burke warned Americans that in a democracy they would “forge their own shackles.” Given the evolution of American democracy, they may well have been right. The vast majority of voters claim to be Christians, but most promote politics that contradict the teachings of Jesus. To prevent the further demise of democracy in America, Christians must apply discipleship to their politics.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) is Wesley’s progeny. It is racially united in its structure, but has segregated congregations. While black UM churches address political issues from the pulpit, white UM churches avoid mixing religion and politics. Partisan politics are defined by race, with black Methodists supporting Democrats while most white Methodists support Republicans. Like other protestant denominations in America, the UMC is in decline.
The decline of mainline Protestant churches is due to their moral irrelevance. They have failed to apply discipleship to social and political issues and instead emphasized exclusivist church doctrines that do more to divide religions than to reconcile them. The result has been an increasing number of “nones” who are leaving the church, or never joining it.
America needs a revival—perhaps even a revolution—in its religion and politics. The UMC has been as unwilling as the Anglican church of Wesley’s day to address contentious political issues. For the church to be relevant in today’s democracy it must promote the moral teachings of Jesus as a standard of political legitimacy for people of all races and religions.
The greatest commandment to love God and neighbor was at the heart of Wesley’s Methodist movement, and it is also a common word of faith of Jews, Christians and Muslims today. It emphasizes discipleship in promoting a politics of reconciliation; and since the church has failed to promote that mission of faith and politics, a Wesleyan alternative is needed.
The concept of a house church is a modern adaptation of Wesley’s class. It doesn’t need church facilities or a full-time pastor, and it could revolutionize the nature of the church and its clergy. If traditional churches that employ full-time pastors continue to decline, those in the clergy will likely have to charge a fee for their services, much like lawyers and doctors.
The decline of the church in Europe and America will likely continue, but people of faith can find alternatives in small groups that are relevant to their needs of faith and politics. The house church is older than Christianity itself, when people of the way met in their homes on their journey of faith. It is an ancient prototype of the church that can restore its relevance.
Notes and commentary on related topics:
On white evangelical Christians who voted for Trump and continue to support him, see http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/26/among-white-evangelicals-regular-churchgoers-are-the-most-supportive-of-trump/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=e8cb0f5465-.
On Americans becoming less religious, see
On organized religion being replaced by disorganized religion, see https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrisladd/2017/03/30/organized-religion-is-being-replaced-by-disorganized-religion/#63f0dfc4489c.
Ross Douthat has urged progressive believers to “ignore the minor problem of actual belief” and go back to church to save the mainline denominations. See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/15/opinion/sunday/save-the-mainline.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0.
Jonathan Malesic has questioned Douthat’s advice and emphasized the importance of belief. See http://religiondispatches.org/douthats-wager-go-to-church-even-if-you-dont-believe/.
On the evangelical roots of our post truth society, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/opinion/sunday/the-evangelical-roots-of-our-post-truth-society.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0.
For a survival guide for our post Christian nation, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-survival-guide-for-our-post-christian-nation/2017/03/24/74b5ae7e-10c3-11e7-9b0d-d27c98455440_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinionsA&wpmm=1.
Bishop John Hopkins cited three diverse commentators--Roger Starr, George Will, and Fred Barnes--who agreed that John Wesley’s Revival had saved 18th century England from civil chaos, and that such a spiritual revival is needed in the U.S. today. (Hopkins comments at a Connectional Table meeting at Fort Worth, TX, on Oct 23, 2006)
On the relevance of Wesley’s principles to modern religion, legitimacy and politics, see Lovett H. Weems, Jr., John Wesley’s Message Today (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1982). On think and let think (p. 8), on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (pp. 11-13), on classes (pp. 48-52), and on social holiness, or faith and politics (pp. 62-72).
On the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (the interpretation of scripture based on tradition, experience and reason), see Our Theological Task in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church , pages 78-91, at https://www.cokesbury.com/forms/DynamicContent.aspx?id=87&pageid=920.
On various forms of gatherings for progressive Christians that go beyond traditional church services, see https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/gatherings-a-manifesto/.
On the concept of the house church, see Philip and Phoebe Anderson, The House Church (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1975).
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/01/the-greatest-commandment-common-word-of.html.
On the future of religion: in decline and growing, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/06/the-future-of-religion-in-decline-and.html.
On the evolution of faith, religion and spirituality, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/02/the-evolution-of-faith-religion-and.html.
On religion, race and the deterioration of democracy in America, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/03/religion-race-and-deterioration-of.html.
On religion, democracy, diversity and demagoguery, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/03/religion-democracy-diversity-and.html.
On irreconcilable differences and the demise of democracy, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/11/irreconcilable-differences-and-demise.html.
On discipleship in democracy as a test of faith, legitimacy and politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/12/discipleship-in-democracy-test-of-faith.html.
On saving America from the church, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/01/saving-america-from-church.html.
On the mega-merger of Wall Street, politics and religion, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/02/the-mega-merger-of-wall-street-politics.html.
On the need for a revolution in religion and politics, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/02/the-need-for-revolution-in-religion-and.html.