Top Five Tuesday — Top Five Things Methodists Can Learn From Independent Churches

It’s no secret that in the last part of the 20th Century and the first part of the 21st, independent and non-denominational churches have come to dominate the American church landscape.

Most the country’s major-mega-churches, such as Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia and Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago, are free of any denominational ties.

Closer to home and smaller in scale than those two, Steele Creek Church of Charlotte is a vibrant, Spirit-filled, multi-cultural, and non-denominational church in our own community. 

So given the rapid rise of churches without denominational moorings, what can we in the United Methodist family learn from our unaffiliated neighbors and friends?

1.  It’s OK To Call God “Father.”  In most United Methodist seminaries and in virtually all of its literature, it is verbotten to call God “Father” or to use “He,” “Him,” or “His,” in talking about God.  It’s actually quite funny to see the linguistic hoops through which people will jump in the name of  “inclusive language”:  “for God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Child . . . ”  Even at my alma mater, the otherwise conservative Asbury Seminary, you can occasionally hear leaders say things like “And even God Godself …” instead of “And even God Himself.” 

So I’ll always remember attending some interdenominational events in the mid-90’s where the masculine pronoun was used to talk about God and where leaders prayed to Him as Father and thinking, “this is so refreshing!  People aren’t dancing around words but actually referring to God the way Jesus did.”  It may not get easily published in United Methodism, but it sure is biblical.

2.  Sermon Series Work Better Than The Lectionary.  Most of us in Methodism were trained to use the Lectionary in preaching.  The Lectionary is a multi-denominational effort that provides churches with three Scripture readings each Sunday — Old Testament, Gospel, and New Testament.  While laudable in that a year’s worth of lectionary reading exposes people to the full array of Scripture, it nevertheless doesn’t connect with the way people think.  People like to make mental connections and they like to have an idea of what’s coming next — that’s why television dramas usually give you “scenes from next week” to whet your appetite.  That’s what we hope happens with Royal Pains, Lowlife, and Gospel, for example — and the independent churches have taught us how to do it.

3.  Conservative Theology + Liberal Worship Style = Life; Liberal Theology + Conservative Worship Style = Death.  Here’s the paradox:  churches with the most innovative worship styles (like Northpoint and Willow Creek) have the least innovative theology.  They still preach ancient truths such as the authority of Scripture, the reality of heaven and hell, and the uniqueness of Jesus.  How they communicate the message always changes; the content of that message never does. 

In sad contrast, many United Methodist churches have an ever-changing gospel — one that mirrors current sociological trends ranging from global warming to gay marriage — communicated in never-changing methods.  Three hymns, one creed, one Lord’s Prayer, robes, anthems, and a pipe organ.  With few exceptions, that combination is a recipe for ecclesiastical death.

4.  Long Pastoral Tenures Contribute To Congregational Stability And Health.  During my last semester in seminary, one of our teachers told us, “Don’t ever think about your next appointment.  Instead, make the church where you are into your next appointment.”  Wise advice indeed.  Our non-denominational friends are not saddled with the itinerant system and frequent pastoral moves and have leadership consistency as a result.  It’s interesting: of the four highest attended Methodist churches in our Western North Carolina Conference, my thirteen years is actually the shortest tenure among them!

5.  “We’ve always done it that way” Is More Of A Reason To Stop A Ministry Than To Continue It.  At both the national and congregational levels, Methodism holds onto ministry models designed for a world that no longer exists — a world of “circles,” fund raisers, and altar guilds.  As one church sign recently proclaimed in advertising its fall bazaar: “Changing the world, one pumpkin roll at a time.”  The church can change the world — but by proclaiming the Kingdom and its king, not by competing with local bakeries for the pumpkin roll business.