Millennials, Mainline, and Methodists: The Cure for What Ails Us

I’m tired. I’m tired of the posts and ads and quick fixes. I’m tired of the head-scratching and magic bullet appeals for how to “reach” millennials. I’m tired of marketing tricks and demographic reports that promise to hold the key to attracting customers. In conversations about the problems with the church, with mainline decline, with the “nones,” etc., in our culture today, I hear recommendations for everything from increasing parking to Instagram to inclusivism, and many sure-fire fixes in between. What I hear woefully little of is the need to make disciples…real disciples.

Churches and leaders feel the need to add descriptors to the word disciples: dynamic disciples, fully-committed disciples, faithful disciples, disciple-making disciples, and on and on. This need for qualifiers indicates to me that we have a weak and desperately underdeveloped understanding of what a disciple even is.  And, thus, we don’t see the value and necessity for disciple-making as the cure for what ails us.

We Methodists, especially, have lost much of the holiness emphasis and “striving toward perfection [complete love for God]” that was our chief characteristic in healthier days (some deny that we were healthier, but this mostly smacks of sour grapes to me). We as a denomination are mired in a social gospel that seeks to liberate others from poverty and oppression while leaving their souls captive to sin and death. Understand, I’m a child of hippies who was raised going to No Nukes rallies and who has an “activist” personality type. I’m certainly not averse to social causes and I’m sensitive to the bankruptcy of the alternative, preaching a disembodied gospel that ignores the need for physical care and liberation.

But after more than a hundred years of increasing emphasis on the social, we are more lost and fractured than ever. Most telling, as a pastor I am hard-pressed to find an average Methodist layperson who understands, at least enough to articulate, the first thing about true gospel grace. Grace for us today translates to “live and let live.” This is not the grace of Christ’s kingdom call. We retreat from sanctification as some dusty piece of our history when we were superstitious enough to believe in things like “Christian perfection”—ha! How silly and naïve we were! Talk of sanctification today is equated with do’s and don’ts on the right and, again, social programs on the left (which is largely another form of do’s and don’ts).

What we need—I believe more than anything—are individual Christians, small groups, and entire churches relentlessly dedicated to loving God with all of their heart, all of their mind, all of their strength, and all of their soul. Full stop. We are quick to jump to the next part: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I think the first part seems so abstract and unattainable that we have morphed it into the second one. We say that we love God by loving our neighbor. But, while there is significant truth in this, Jesus made a clear distinction. And the Old Testament roots of these two ideas—loving God and loving neighbor—while intertwined in the lives of the faithful are, nevertheless, distinct (Dt. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18).

So, I propose that we spend more effort learning, teaching, practicing, holding accountable the complete loving of God—discipleship in the way of Jesus. We go on loving our neighbors, of course. We spend ourselves tirelessly in efforts to liberate others from captivity and injustice and all manner of poverty and hellish living death. But rather than our focus being on tricks to getting more people in our churches—newer music, more entertaining worship, more “relevant” preaching, bigger parking lots—and rather than our focus being on more social programs (which, honestly, many pastors and church leaders do in large part to attract more numbers since “millennials are interested in social justice”), instead we begin to learn and live the loving of God with our entire heart (will), mind (thoughts and feelings), strength (bodily behavior), and soul (integrating aliveness).

This seems to fly in the face of current “wisdom,” apparently becoming more inwardly-focused while our neighbors so desperately need us. But right there is the deep, corrupt root of the issue: our neighbors don’t need us; they need God. Jesus, of course, knew this. This is why he didn’t say, “Love God by loving your neighbor.” He could have, but he didn’t. He said the first and greatest commandment is to awaken to and recognize the oneness of God, and to become one and whole in loving him completely. Only then will we be on the path to offer saving love—real, redemptive love—to our neighbors, to help liberate them from sin and death, as well as from the oppressive external circumstances in which they might find themselves. This is the mission of Jesus…and of his church.