A man who I consider to be a mentor once talked about how he and his wife were trying to raise their “kids in such a way that they have as little as possible to unlearn later on in life.” His comment really resonated with me, especially as my wife and I are now discussing how we hope to raise our young children and the values we want to impart.
These are wise words that extend far beyond child-rearing, however. More frequently, I’ve been thinking about what he said with respect to Christians in America – particularly United Methodist Christians, of which I am one. My sermon research the past several weeks has revealed to me ways in which our culture is shaping us in ways we don’t even realize. According to one statistical resource, the average American sees over 5,000 advertisements every day. At first glance this number seems hyperbolic, but then I get to thinking more about how many ads I see on TV, while driving across town, and – especially – how many I see on the internet. It’s no wonder that, when surveyed, over 54% of Americans list “shopping” as one of their favorite pastimes. In our consumer-centric culture, these same Americans carry an average balance on their credit cards of over$7,500.
We are being taught to want and to need and to find our identity in our possessions.
Talk about needing to unlearn some things.
These same Americans then give less than $1,000 a year to churches. Breaking that down a bit further equates to the average american given less than $20 a week to a local church. The average Starbucks drink costs around $4.
Talk about needing to learn some new things. That’s at least one reason why be an active participant in a local church is so important. If we aren’t involved, if we don’t show up, if we don’t make weekly worship a priority, then we are letting culture shape us without the alternative narrative Jesus Christ offers. But that’s another sermon and post in itself.
For today, I am thinking more about what United Methodists need to unlearn and learn. The trends speak for themselves: the United Methodist denomination is “in crisis.” Attendance in America has declined steadily for the past 50 years and, from 2009-2014, baptisms dropped nearly 19%. In my Indiana Conference alone, only 24% of UMC churches have seen numerical growth the past five years. These trends should speak loud and clear to life-long UMCers: we need to unlearn some things. The way we’ve been “doing church” has not been faithful to our mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Poke any United Methodist with a pulse and they’ll give you a fist-full of reasons for why we’ve been declining and what needs to change. I’d encourage you to reflect and share your thoughts in the comments, but for now I’ll just offer this:
Christians need to unlearn thinking that “the church” is somewhere to go, and they need to learn that “the church” is who they are.
Christians need to unlearn that the church’s mission is to make us happy, and we need to learn how to, once again, be forces for good in our communities.
What do these mean? Firstly, it means that we need a more mature Christian imagination that allows for us to see how God might use us in our current locations and with our current passions and interests. How can you leverage your career, your hobbies, and your neighborhood to bless your world? What does a Christian scientist look like? What does a Christian accountant look like? What does a Christian entrepreneur look like? Learning a grandeur Christian imagination is one big step in helping us be the church where we live, work, and play. Secondly, it means that Christians need to recapture the heart of who God calls us to be: God’s blessing for the world. The past century of our American context has taught us how to forget this, it’s time that we relearn it. What is your local church doing for its neighborhood and community? Where is it’s budget being spent? And how about you? What are you doing for your community? Where are you volunteering and serving? What needs are you helping to alleviate all because you are a follower of Jesus? And how about your budget? Do you tithe to your local church or are you an “average American” who gives less than $20 a week to your local church? #GutCheckTime C’mon now; you can’t complain about “the church” if you are part of the problem.
Life teaches us a lot – some good, some not so. For Christians, especially United Methodist ones, it’s time to look in the mirror and see what we need to unlearn and what we need to learn to become more faithful followers of Jesus Christ.