Monasteries during the Dark Ages, the first Franciscans facing a church weakened by wealth and power, the Protestant Reformation alarmed by legalism and religious profiteering, the early Anabaptists disturbed by a cozy relationship between church and state, Methodism seeking to revive the staid Church of England—all began as renewal movements in times of historical crisis. All brought fresh air and life into the church and world of their time.
But eventually, renewal is replaced by complacency, bureaucracy, decay, and mission drift. All renewals eventually need renewing. And when personal faith and weekly church life becomes predictable routine, or is turned upside down by crisis, it is true for our own lives as well.
As our pandemic era begins, distress signals are coming from many places in the church, all of which began as renewal movements.
From the United Methodist Church to the Anglican Communion to Mennonites, denominations are unraveling due to divisions. Church attendance has declined since the pandemic. Many people have dropped out completely and are not coming back, deciding that worship is not as important as they thought. The upheaval of our new time will permanently change the way people relate to church.
Considering the distress signals, the decay, the idolatry of a church that does not believe what the church itself teaches, if I had to choose one word to name what I sense is happening with the church in our time, it is pruning. Without regular pruning, a fruit tree will gradually lose health and vigor, and its fruit will lose its quality. Pruning is painful. It requires trimming, cutting off, losing limbs that we are used to having and that seem precious. And pruning does not have immediate effect. After a tree is pruned it looks . . . well, a bit small, modest, humble. But in time—just wait—better and more fruit is coming.
Again, renewals need renewing.
The pruning of the church itself, and the good fruit God makes of it, is precisely what the world longs for.
Part of that pruning in our new time relates to Jesus’ call, “Repent and believe the good news.” How do we carry that call into encounters with people of other faiths and people of no faith? How do we plant new churches where believers are few?
Yet I propose that a more important question comes first. Listening to the distress signals in the church, the question is, What kind of Christianity are we evangelizing people into?
According to Jesus, the church’s quality of life, its unity, is the sign that it is filled with the love of Christ and that Jesus is Lord. What an opportunity for the renewal of the church.
What compels us forward is not our love for Christ, but Christ’s love for us and for this world. The love of Christ—the one who was in the beginning with God, the one who calls us friends—that is the primary reality of the universe. That is who walks with us to face the great challenges of our time. There is no renewal without Jesus as friend.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 NIV). It is the time of pruning. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to be more of a minority. For churches to get smaller. To lose political power. To face the decay and the idols. Receive the pruning of God’s gentle hand. It’s the only way for more, and better, fruit to come.
Chris Rice (DMin, Duke University) is director of the United Nations Office of the Mennonite Central Committee, an international relief, development, and peace agency. He served as cofounding director of the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation, and has worked through the academy, churches, and faith-based organizations to heal social conflicts in east Africa, Northeast Asia, and the American South. He is coauthor of Reconciling All Things and More Than Equals, which both won Christianity Today Book Awards. His latest book is entitled From Pandemic to Renewal.