I used to tape a quote of the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter to my pulpit so I could see it every time I rose to preach: “I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” Somewhere along the way I stopped doing so but the words that signal the importance of Christian preaching stay with me. This is even more true as we approach the cross of Good Friday and peer into the fog shrouded mists of Easter Sunday.
More recently Phillip Jenkins’ fascinating book The Lost History of Christianity opens with the disturbing comment:
“Religions die. . . . It is not difficult to find countries or even continents, once viewed as natural homelands of a particular faith, where that creed is now extinct, and such disasters are not confined to primal or “primitive” beliefs. The systems that we think of as great world religions are as vulnerable to destruction as was the faith of the Aztecs or Mayans in their particular gods.
Christianity, too, has on several occasions been destroyed in regions where it once flourished. In most cases, the elimination has been so thorough as to obliterate any memory that Christens were ever there, so that today any Christian presence whatever in these parts is regarded as a kind of invasive species derived from the West” (Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pp. 1-2).
It is no secret that mainline Protestantism in North America has been slowly dying for well over half a century. Scholars talk about this broad societal trend in terms of the “death of Christendom.” Christine Chakoian in Cryptomnesia reflects on this widespread change commenting: “In the last fifty years, every major mainline Protestant denomination has seen a steady decline in membership” (Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p. 11). United Methodism reached its peak in the mid-1960s and has been steadily declining throughout my ministry (roughly 42 years). I recently finished listening to a book Robert P. Jones entitled The End of White Christian America. The title is deeply instructive of the wider demographic shift taking place both ethnically and within various Christian religious groups. Closer to home, youth soccer games are scheduled for Easter morning this year in Mansfield, Texas.
And yet, all around us creative new expressions of faith communities abound. First UMC Fort Worth is engaged in a creative new worship expression called “The Gathering.” Harvest UMC in Fort Worth is a creative new multi-ethnic expression of the Christian faith. LifeChurch UMC in Waco is a transformational outreach of the Christian witness sponsored by First UMC Waco under the leadership of Pastor Gabe Dominguez. The Wesley Foundation at Tarleton State University has over 50 students gathering for worship regularly. Rural Nolanville UMC has a “bus stop” ministry that is reaching a new generation. The Oaks (CTC’s newest congregation) had 5 baptisms (including 1 adult baptism) on Palm Sunday! Works of missonal outreach in love, justice and mercy exist in abundance in virtually very church. And the list could go on and on!
Rev. Cecil Williams’ famous turn phrase sticks in my mind. “It’s a Friday world, but Sunday’s coming!” Beyond the cross a beam of light lances out on an empty tomb. Far from dying, new forms and expressions of Christian faithfulness and new faith communities are being born all over the Central Texas Conference and across the United States.
Dr. Tim Tennent, President of Asbury School of Theology, commented in his opening Convocation address in 2016: “Despite the popular narrative that “no-one-goes-to-church-anymore,” the number one corporate activity of Americans in any given week remains church attendance. Between 25% and 37% of Americans attend church regularly. The NFL, in contrast, which has passed baseball as the most popular sport, still only draws 17% of Americans to an event. With apologies to Ellen Marmon, church attendance even outranks NASCAR! The point is, we still have an enormous privilege which we collectively assert in the life of our nation. This privilege is also present for our brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and Oceania.” (Tim Tennent, “My 2016 Opening Convocation Address: Homiletical Theology,” Asbury Theological Seminary, September 13, 2016)
God is at work to birth the Lord’s new church! We are a resurrection people who dare to look at the cross and see through it to a greater work of the Lord unfolding all around us!
Click on the image below to view and/or download Bishop Lowry’s 2017 Easter Message.