Since its birth at Pentecost, the church of Jesus Christ has been entrusted with the task of going into the world to make disciples, teaching people to observe Christ’s basic commands to love God and others. That is the enduring mission of every church, including Hyde Park.

Over time, churches have needed to fulfill that mission against a landscape of changes in the culture. Congregations have needed to adapt their methods to communicate the message of Jesus Christ in compelling ways, consonant with the language and perspective of the people in the community. We can look at the rise of Christendom under Constantine in the 4th century, the dawn of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the spread of Christianity in colonial and frontier America in the 18th century, and the rapid industrialization and population growth in this country in the 19th century as significant examples.

For the latter half of the 19th century, Christianity flourished in this country as the “religion of the culture,” in the words of former Florida bishop Timothy Whitaker. “The church functioned as the spiritual and moral center of the society, and that close relation of the church and the society enabled the church to promote the best ideals and values of the culture.” [1] As a result, churches grew in number and influence, based on the understanding that participation in American culture included participation in organized religion. Biblical and theological literacy was widespread, as was the authoritative voice of the church to speak on matters of morals, ethics, and values.

In the 1980s, American Christianity capitalized on its privileged status as “religion of the culture” in the rise of mega-churches. These churches grew dramatically in membership and worship attendance, built on church growth formulas intent on drawing unchurched people to church campuses with high-quality programs and ministries. Many significant churches, including Hyde Park United Methodist, grew because of visionary leadership, faithful commitment and generosity of people forged in a paradigm of Christianity as the religion of the culture; we are indebted to them.

A TIME OF PROFOUND CHANGE

We are in a time of profound change in the relationship between culture and organized religion. Again, in the words of Bishop Whitaker: “We are living in one of the greatest changes in the history of the church and the history of the west. The church is being disestablished as the religion of the culture. As is often said, we live in a “post-Christendom” world … Today the church is undergoing a cultural disestablishment that is more significant than official secularization.”

We can no longer assume that participation in church life or the practice of personal spiritual disciplines is an assumed aspect of cultural life. Biblical literacy, and even basic fluency in the language of the Christian faith, is no longer a presumptive part of a person’s cultural formation. Many people no longer turn to the church to be an authoritative voice on matters of morality and ethical living.

This is not to say that being the “religion of the culture” was altogether good for either Christianity or the culture. Nor is it the case that we should attempt to “go back to the good ol’ days” when such congruity was a reality. Indeed, history shows that the fusion of organized religion with cultural power has often had destructive effects.

Scandals involving churches have been widespread over the past forty years, as has the perception of the church as being too judgmental, apathetic toward matters of equality and justice, and caring only about money and institutional growth. As such, many recent surveys reveal that the fastest growing sector of religious people are the “nones and dones.” Those who have no religious affiliation, or those of prior religious affiliation who have walked away from the church. [2] A recent study by the National Survey of Youth and Religion concluded that youth and young adults, sometimes characterized as “spiritual, but not religious,” can be more appropriately described as “affiliated with religion, but not committed,” an orientation that they adopted from observing it from their parents and other adults. [3]

The problem the church faces, then, is not merely “attracting more young people,” or “becoming relevant with the culture,” or even “building it so they will come.” These are all formulas that may have worked in the past, when Christianity was religion of the culture. But as Tod Bolsinger has said in his book “Canoeing the Mountains,” the church is well-equipped to minister to a world that no longer exists.

And Alan Hirsch, noted futurist and church leadership expert, offers this statistical diagnosis of the American Church. Even if every church in the country were to reach maximum effectiveness in its current practices and configurations, at best it would only be able to attract 40% of the people in the culture. 60% of the people have little to no interest in churches today. And that number is growing every year.

This is the great challenge of Hyde Park United Methodist. We are blessed with a congregation of faithful, generous people who care deeply about the advancement of God’s mission. We stand on the foundations laid by visionary leaders who built systems of excellence, faithfulness, and joy for the accomplishment of the church’s mission. And we are blessed with an abundance of resources, including facilities, staff, financial resources, and laity to make things happen.

But it is not only possible – it is probable – that we are currently equipped to minister to a world that is rapidly diminishing, replaced by a culture in which a growing number of people have little interest in organized religion.

However, the greatest gift this church has from God may contain the secret to our surviving and thriving in a time of such profound change. It is found in the core of who we are: our mission, vision, and values.

MAKING GOD’S LOVE REAL

The Methodist movement was born in a time of profound cultural and religious coalescence. To be a citizen of England was to be a member of the Church of England. Yet, for the reformer John Wesley, mere cultural association with the church was not enough. To be a follower of Jesus meant the love of God was “shed abroad” in one’s heart, exhibited through a wholly committed love of God and a grace-filled love of others. Wesley practiced a centered, both/and, “via media” approach to fusing together oppositional qualities, to create a way of living into the center of the Christian faith.

Living out of that Wesleyan heritage is a key to reaching out to the nones and dones, and the 60% of people disconnected and disinterested in the gospels. When we offer religion at its best, we help others overcome the problems they have experienced with religion at its worst.

We believe both in growing “deeper” in our personal commitment to Christ and growing “wider” in our connection to everyone in love.

We believe both in an openness to a diversity of people (“warm-hearted”) and an openness to a diversity of perspectives (“open-minded”)

We believe both in the use of both our heart and our mind in our experience of the Christian faith.

We believe that God loves us enough to meet us where we are (“prevenient Grace”) and loves us too much to leave us there (“sanctifying grace”)

We believe that our mission of Making God’s Love Real fulfills Wesley’s vision of what it means to be an “altogether Christian,” which is having the “love of God shed abroad in our hearts.” To make God’s love real, then, is to follow Jesus by fully loving God and loving all.

Ultimately, the task of the church today is not to cater to culture, or to assume privileged status as the religion of the culture. It is to create a distinct community of love as a witness to the culture, that fully embodies the message of the gospel. It is to create connections between people that deepen their love of God and widen their love to all people. It is be united in all that we have in common, and to express charitable generosity in what makes us different. And it is to be adaptive in our means to make God’s love real to the world.

– The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor
Hyde Park United Methodist

© 2018 Hyde Park United Methodist Church

[1] From a lecture entitled “The Future Mission and Identity of the Church,” given at Virginia Wesleyan College on March 28-29, 2016.

[2] https://www.biblicalleadership.com/blogs/six-insights-about-nones-and-dones/

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Almost-Christian-Teenagers-Telling-American/dp/0195314840

[4] https://www.christianpost.com/news/alan-hirschchurch-model-reaching-only-40-percent-of-americans-47500/

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