Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Future of the Church of the Brethren

Yesterday I had lunch with a Church of the Brethren (COB) friend and we were talking about how long it would take for our denomination to die. This person suggested that within 15 years everything the COB now owns or runs will be in the hands of Mennonites. I had to admit that I had never considered this possibility. I countered that I think within 10 years the conservative faction will have withdrawn from the COB and merged with their more natural religious soul-mates, the Brethren Church. We will see if either of us is right.

What seems clear to me, though, is that our present path as a denomination is in a death spiral. Our institutional center is re-organizing, again. The deck chairs will be shuffled once more. Although it is financially untenable to maintain two denominational headquarters, in IL and MD, leaders were unable to pull the plug on either one.

Although our annual meeting, Annual Conference, has been paired from a week to a few days, it is still a money-loser. It would make more sense to have our national gathering every other year. On the other hand our annual meeting may be the only thing still holding us together.

We have two factions in the church, liberal and conservative, who are equally stubborn in their unwillingness to compromise on core issues. I am part of the liberal faction. We have a weak institutional center that is scared to death of picking sides. Some are genuinely conflicted. Some have their hearts in one place but their wallets in another.

Meanwhile we bleed members and churches. Our churches, declining in number though they are, can't find pastors from within the COB fold. So they go outside and find pastors with no interest in the COB. They've got their Bible and their paycheck, and that is all that matters. So inevitably these churches drift away from the denomination.

Denominations are dying everywhere. What is happening to the COB is not unique. But because we are smaller to begin with we are more at risk of making a quick exit.

I have no interest in reviving a dying denomination. I do, however, have an interest in participating in a movement that is progressive and based on the very best of COB values. Little by little I am seeing more and more of my progressive COB brothers and sisters coming to this same place. The time has come to stop putting energy into breathing life into a dying institution or gatherings where we bring members of the two stubborn factions together to talk things over.

I have no ill feelings toward those conservatives. I respect them for their strong beliefs and disagree with them on every one. I have no interest in trying to get them to change their minds, and I don't want to use the precious amount of time I have in my life listening to them tell me why I am going to hell. We will see who is right soon enough.

In the meantime. it is time to begin thinking about what a new structure will look like. Perhaps the place to begin is with a district made up of progressive churches and individuals that crosses geographical boundaries. Perhaps the time has come to begin channel outreach monies into this kind of structure. Our fall gathering of COB progressives in Indiana may be a good first step.

I don't know what it will look like yet, but what I do know is that within 10 years the COB will no longer exist in its current form. It is time to begin planning now for a different future.

1 comment:

ProgressiveChurchlady said...

Please let me know of what help I can be. Are you writing a newsletter article about the conference in Indianapolis this November so we can get a large group from LiberalChurch to go to it? We need to start planning now!