By Sky McCracken
First United Methodist Church
I grew up watching Gunsmoke, Sanford and Son, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Johnny Quest on television… before they were reruns. Now, television has changed. Major league baseball has changed. College basketball has changed. Music has changed. Network and cable news has changed. Everything has changed. I look in the mirror and I realize that I am changing, too. Change is inevitable. It is also said that growth is optional. If those two things are true, we are in trouble.
To be clear, God is unchanging. God’s truth is unwavering. Unfortunately, the wisdom of humankind is – at best – foolishness to God: no matter how much we pray, no matter how much we read the scriptures, we’ll never quite comprehend what God tries to convey to us. We can be arrogant. Prideful. Easily deceived. Stubborn. Smug. Rarely do we capitulate and say to God, “Not my will, but thine.”
Gil Rendle, an acquaintance of mine and United Methodist church consultant, modified an old phrase from American founding father John Adams, saying, “Facts are inconvenient things.” The only folks who dislike hearing about church trends more than church members are leaders and preachers who are set in their ways, and we do so to our own detriment. While we like to lament about all of the church’s problems being the fault of society or our buy-in to the culture, the reality is that we haven’t done a very good job of being generative in our discipleship or disciple-making for a very long time. Why the did the American church boom for years and years? For the same reason the American population boomed: we were fruitful and multiplied. We made disciples and church members the old-fashioned way – we birthed them.
Based on data compiled by Lifeway Research and the Pew Research Center last year, only 63% of Americans identify as Christian, as opposed to 78% in 2007. That has been matched by a rise in the religiously unaffiliated, which has almost doubled since 2007—from 16% to 29%. Only 47% – less than half – are part of a church. Religious membership was stable throughout the 20th century but fell from 70% of Americans in 2000 to 47%.
I had Gil Rendle speak at my last pastoral assignment 10 years ago. He was pointing out these and other trends, and quoted his Southern Baptist counterpart Thom Rainer: “Churches rarely change until the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of change.” Rainer added, “The alternative to this biblically mandated transformation is to pick a rut and make it deeper.”
I speak from what I know best: the church as an institution. But I think these observations apply to American politics, institutions, and individuals as well. We’re in a rut. I sometimes worry that our fear of change paralyzes us into impotence and irrelevance, which is bad given that all of life and creation is in constant flux and change.
Through Jesus, Peter, Andrew, James, and John changed from being ordinary fishermen to becoming disciples. Matthew changed from being a tax collector – hated and despised – to becoming a disciple. Paul changed from being a Christian persecutor to becoming the best known missionary in Christianity.
What is God asking us to change from, and to become?
Sky McCracken is the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Downtown Jackson.