“I was ordained in 1969,” recalled renowned, author, theologian and educator Will Willimon, “and the next day the United Methodist Church’s membership decreased.”
The line prompted laughter from those assembled at an Aug. 2 luncheon, part of the bi-annual Big Tent event sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation. Willimon’s address was titled “The Current State of ‘Mainline’ Churches in the Context of American Culture.”
The retired United Methodist bishop and author of some 60 books, currently back teaching at Duke University, did not disappoint.
In a relaxed, breezy style that did not breeze over his sometimes-difficult topic, Willimon touched upon the key issue common to both his denomination and the PC(USA.), among others.
“Dealing with depressed people is not that much fun. We’re depressed over the loss of our monopoly,” he said. “It used to be that we told people ‘worship when we said, how we said where we said.’”
But Willimon says that model, which worked during the 15 or so years after World War II, started coming apart in the 1960s.
He blames his generation.
“We had a negativity about institutions,” Willimon said, adding that his generation discovered “Americans are believers but not joiners.”
Another pitfall, he said, was “limiting ministry” and congregational leadership to “one generation.”
Willimon admitted that, while member-loss occurred when congregations drew lines in the sand over issues such as sexual orientation and political hot potatoes, member drain also came in the wake of what he terms “a surrendering of conviction in a particular theological vision.”
But he sees the opportunity to get a foothold on a brighter future in the missteps of the past.
“In a time of incredible adaptation and innovation,” says Willimon, “we’re being required to re-invent.”
Recalling great inventors of the past who succeeded after numerous trials and errors, he asked, “When was the last time you failed in church?”
Willimon urged his listeners to not fear adding seats to the table of welcome, to try something new and different and maybe not fully defined on the front end.
“Jesus was nonchalant about organization but was relentless abut mission,” he said.
Willimon closed with an observation that came his way from a gathering which included a female Google executive.
“You people have never met a culture you couldn’t handle,” he recalled her saying. “Who knows if Google will be around in 10 years? 10 years is a lifetime in the technology world.”
Then, she added, the church has regenerative staying power.
“Name me one other operation that’s been in business for 2000 years,” Willimon said the Google honcho queried.
Big Tent, August 1-3, is a celebration of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) mission and ministry organized Presbyterian conferences, more than 160 workshops and special events to mark the 30th anniversary of the formation of the PC(USA) and the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Presbyterian Center here.