Elmer ColyerElmer Colyer is professor of systematic theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, and pastor of a Methodist congregation. Dr. Colyer received his Ph.D. from Boston College/Andover Newton in 1992.

Dr. Colyer explains why church renewal programs don’t work and how gospel-centered congregations need to take the lead.

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Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: Let’s talk about church renewal. It’s a hot topic and a lot of churches want it, but it doesn’t happen very often.

Elmer Colyer: We United Methodists, that’s a very hot topic for us, and as I mentioned in one of our other interviews, it’s partly because we’ve lost 60,000 members a year since 1968 and it’s finally begun to affect us financially. So we want renewal basically to save us from going completely down the tubes. That’s an immediate problem. Once your motivation for renewal is to save the dying ship or anything like that, renewal doesn’t work very well.

In our culture, because we think all this stuff can be programmed, at least in our tradition, as soon as you start talking about renewal it’s some kind of a program. And the track record of programs leading to renewal is not very good. The reason is because it doesn’t lead to any kind of fundamental change in our life together in communities. We’re going to have some kind of program that we bring in externally, and then we’re going to do it and hopefully that will bring renewal, and that doesn’t work very well. The fundamental reason is because renewal is not primarily something we do.

Renewal is primarily something God does, and when we think it’s something we can program, we already have the emphasis, where renewal is rooted, and how it’s going to take place, we’ve got it in the wrong place. We think if we can get the right program, the right people, all of that stuff right, renewal will happen. It doesn’t work, because God is the author of renewal.

JMF: So what can a church do? What if a church is seeking renewal, recognizing its need for renewal, what steps ought it take?

EC: If a church is seeking renewal, it already shows that the Spirit of God is actively involved in a renewal. It’s the Spirit of God that really moves us to see that the way things are, not the way they should be. There’s a fundamental incongruity with who we are as Christians, who we are as the church, and what we sense the gospel is all about. So as soon as there are questions about renewal, I always become hopeful, because I assume that the Spirit of God is beginning to blow, as it were, on the embers of life that are still there in the church and getting people to begin to ask that question. When that kind of impetus of renewal begins, the one thing that we want to do as leaders is channel it in the right direction, rather than channel it towards “Now we’re going to give you your program and this is going to do, so do it,” which doesn’t work to channel it in the right direction.

If renewal comes from God, then seeking God and praying for renewal is the first act. Indeed, prayer is the first act of the Christian life, the first act of all ministry, because it’s acknowledging, as we talked about in one of our other sessions together, what Jesus says in John 15 – that “apart from me you can do nothing.” Unless we abide in Christ and Christ in us, we cannot do anything, including renewal.

When you look at the history of renewal, before renewal ever took off in the church, there has always been a time where people sensed the need for renewal and the people of God began to pray for renewal. It isn’t that prayer is some kind of a magic, it’s that the church begins to realize that its sole hope in Christian life, its sole hope in community life, is Christ and the gospel. Renewal always has an element of returning back to first things of the gospel, returning to the core of the gospel. This is an acknowledgment of our helplessness. We can’t renew ourselves. Unless the Spirit of God is at work in our midst, renewal is not going to happen.

JMF: Sometimes people who are trying to help a congregation find renewal will tell them that it’s their fault that no renewal is coming, so therefore they need to pray harder and longer, and they start talking about the bowls in Revelation, and until those bowls can get filled up, God won’t respond. They talk about how there’s not enough real desire in the congregation. If the congregation really cared, God would respond.

I suppose it comes all the way back to when Jesus said, “People will know you are my disciples if you have love one for another,” but we don’t have love for one another. So where do we start, what do we do, and how do we learn to wait on God, and what does that mean?

EC: Those are good questions, and you’re right in that those kinds of things don’t work very well. My question is, anybody that’s been involved in a church or any church that you’ve seen, how well does that work when you try to bring about renewal that way?

In the situation that I’m in at the seminary, because I’ve been a pastor a long time, the bishops of the surrounding annual conferences occasionally ask me to go into troubled congregations that are in dire need of renewal. This is kind of amusing, because a congregation that’s used to having the bishop and cabinet appoint a pastor, when they find out they’re going to get a seminary professor, it’s like, “Oh my, we’ve been really bad now. Not only do they not have a pastor, they’re going to send us a seminary professor, an egghead who doesn’t know anything about the church, so we’re doomed!”

When I go into a congregation, in some respects it speeds up the process, because they already know that I don’t have anything to offer them. They’re not hoping that I’m going to be able to come in and solve anything – they’re in really dire straits then.

There was one congregation that the bishop and cabinet asked me to serve. In my tradition, this is a sign that this is not a good place, that the bishop is sending you. When the district superintendent, who is kind of the bishop’s assistant, introduces you to the congregation, and when he meets you, his hands are trembling, that’s a sign that this is not going to be a good appointment. I didn’t understand why his hands were trembling until I talked to some other people. In the previous meeting that they had had with the previous pastor, and the pastor parish relations (PPR) committee, and a representative from the seminary, and the district superintendent…

The pastor parish relations committee, which is a small committee that deals with the relationship between the pastor and the congregation and therefore with the bishop and cabinet, was meeting downstairs talking with the pastor and the district superintendent; the congregation was upstairs. The congregation got impatient and they started stomping their feet on the floor. This is a sign it was probably not a good appointment, either. They stomped their feet so loudly that they could no longer hold the PPR committee meeting. The PPR chair had to go up to try to quiet them down, and he came back down and said, “We’ve got to go up there, because they’re going to tear the church apart.” This was the congregation that they invited me to go to, to help bring about renewal.

They barely agreed to let me come, and they were so antagonistic toward me before they met me, they would not give me a key to the church. In our polity, the pastor has final authority for the worship of the church, and based on the discipline, I could have demanded them to give me a key. But if you do that, you already create hostility and lack of trust, and you’re never going to be able to lead them. They appointed me July 1, and for the first six months, I didn’t even have a key to get into the church; I had to wait for them to come to open the church.

What do you do in a congregation like this? This is a hopeless congregation. Small congregation, rural congregation, dying farming community, a small number of people who are angry at the bishop and cabinet, angry at the world. Humanly speaking, they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being renewed. What do you do?

I don’t think guilt or anything like that works. I don’t think that’s what begins to foster the spirit of renewal. I think it’s returning to first things. You talk to them again about the love of God in Christ. You help them remember why they’re Christians in the first place. You bring them back to the verities of the faith. I had to preach about the love of God in Christ for them, and manifest love in Christ for them for six months before I got a key to the church.

It was kind of humorous. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the three leaders of the church (who were not the official leaders, as sometimes happens in dysfunctional congregations…there were people off on the periphery who were the leaders, but they weren’t in a leadership position)…and without even thinking about the symbolic significance of it, they jointly after church presented me with a key to the church.

After I walked out the door I went, “Yes! Jesus, we finally have our foot in the door.” We built enough trust in our commonality of going back to the verities of the faith rather than looking at all the problems they were facing, because you’re not going to find renewal first facing all the problems. You have to first go back to the verities of the faith. We needed to have a little conversation about that. By then we developed enough trust that I could speak the truth in love to them and basically tell them,

Look, you’re angry, and you’ve got some good reasons for being angry. Do you think this is all going to foster renewal in your midst? It’s not. It’s only going to come from the verities of faith, and God has called you to be what? A missionary outpost here in this dying farming community. You have young families in this area who are unchurched who are going through the farming crisis (this was 15 years ago when the farming crisis was very real in this part of the country) and God has called you to be a missionary presence, a missionary outpost in here, and it’s God that is going to bring renewal to you and bring renewal to these persons’ lives.

It’s only when we focus on the center of the gospel, and we’re convinced that God is the one who brings renewal, and we begin to seek God’s face and open ourselves to be renewed and to be used by God, that renewal takes place. The wonderful thing about that little congregation is they chose to change their entire frame of reference, to re-believe the gospel as they’d heard it, and to view themselves as a little missionary outpost. After I left, the bishop and cabinet appointed another pastor who helped them continue that vision, and they’re never going to be a large congregation, but they’re still growing, still reaching out. There are younger people coming in.

It always has to begin, rather than telling people what they’re not doing, telling them what the problems are, to once again return to the verities of the faith. What is the church? Who are we as Christians? That’s where we find the real joy, the real impetus for renewal – there in the verities of the faith. Once they begin to capture a vision of what it means to be the church again, then you can go on and begin to do some changes in how you’re doing things. But until they have some kind of vision for renewal, until God has recaptured their attention, all you can do is pray for them, pray for the congregation, pray for the people, the movement (in my case the entire United Methodist Church is in need of renewal), until God recaptures our attention and refocuses our lives on the verities of the gospel.

JMF: Doesn’t that work pretty much the same across the board in almost everything? The gospel is good news, so when we focus on that good news of what the gospel is and what Christ has done, who we are in Christ, who he’s made us to be, that bears fruit. Focusing on what’s wrong (which necessarily causes you to focus on who is to blame, what steps can be taken to right the wrong and so on, or to punish the guilty or whatever, but it’s a focus on negative issues…) never produces good fruit. It always comes from focusing on what is true and real, which is good, which is what the gospel is there to bring us.

EC: Yeah, and I think we often too quickly move to programs that will either bring about change inside the church or bring about change outside the church. Until they are rooted in a re-appropriation of the gospel, refocusing on the verities of the faith, programs don’t work very well. Once you’re re-centered on the verities of the faith, guess what? There are a variety of programs that can be used that often work well.

It goes back to, again, if we have to prod the people in the pews to go out and tell others about the gospel and invite them to church, if that’s the only way we can get them to do that, and they try to do that and it usually doesn’t work very well. The reason is because until we’re participating in the verities of the faith, until something of that begins to manifest itself in the kind of community that we have internally, people don’t want to go out and share it. What’s happening in the church isn’t good enough that they want to export it. I have lots of United Methodist pastors ask me about renewal and what they need to do about it, and I tell them,

As long as you’re in the state that you’re in now, you probably shouldn’t try to do outreach or anything, because even if you did attract new people into the church, what you have to offer them might be a travesty of the gospel and do them more harm than good. You first need to focus once again on the verities of the faith and begin to seek God’s face until that renewal begins to manifest it in the church and then move outward.

When you look at the history of renewal, it often starts with a group of people who begin to meet together and pray together to seek God’s face and ask God to bring about renewal, because they know that the situation is impossible. That’s why I think sometimes the congregations that I get assigned to are the ones that are the easiest to work with (even though other people don’t want to go to them), because they’re already so hopeless that they know that they need something beyond them in order to bring about renewal. And it certainly ain’t going to come to from this seminary professor. They’re cast back upon God at that point.

JMF: There’s a great quote from Mahatma Gandhi …at least attributed to him…where he was talking to group of Christian missionaries and he said to them something like, “You work too hard. If you would look at the rose, a rose, if it has fragrance, people will cross the room to smell it.”

EC: That’s wonderful. Watchman Nee, the famous Chinese Christian, said that, “The Christian’s first purpose in life is to walk so closely with God that we carry around a sense of the presence of God in our lives that creates a hunger for God in the lives of others.” That’s right. That’s what I’m talking about in terms of congregations.

When you look at the church in the New Testament, they didn’t have some major plan for evangelism, but they were so profoundly transformed by the love of God in Christ they couldn’t help but tell their neighbors and friends, and the quality of community that they had, as you read it in Acts 2 and 4, “There was no needy persons among them, for whoever had property or land sold it and brought it to the feet of the disciples.” I often ask our seminary students, “If your congregation manifests that kind of community, that people are willing to make that kind of sacrifice to meet the needs of other people in the community, do you think you’d have any trouble attracting people to the church?” You wouldn’t.

Even though it’s always imperfect in the church, it’s something about the quality of our ongoing relationship with one another and God, when we’re participating in the realities, and that’s taking place, that does provide us with a distinctive fragrance that the world is attracted to. Without that, simply going out and preaching the gospel doesn’t work very well. Jesus said, they’ll know you’re my disciples (not if you preach the four spiritual laws or you knock on people’s doors), if you love one another. It’s very important to focus on the quality of community before we begin to try to export it to the world.

JMF: If you go out and invite somebody to church and they come into a setting where people don’t love one another, they might as well be anywhere else. They might as well be down at the racetrack or at the ballgame, because what’s the point? When people do love one another in a congregation, it’s obvious. You walk in, you feel like the people care about each other here, and at least it strikes me this way, that when people care about each other, they tend to be having fun. They tend to be enjoying it. And you can see that fun and that enjoyment. You see people laughing, you see them smiling, you see them having fun with each other, they get together, they enjoy one another’s company, and all that makes people want to be part of that, because there are positive relationships going on, which is exactly what people are starved for. They don’t have positive relationships, they want to be cared about or to belong, but in the church, unless that’s going on, unless you see that, why would you want to stay? And why would you invite somebody to it?

But if you are enjoying one another, this is the gospel, isn’t it? The purpose, the reason Christ came, is to heal broken relationships, but in the church, we tend to think that the gospel is all about obeying rules and following laws and making sure that we obey God. We get the idea that we’re to make disciples, we’ve got to do this, it’s a burden, it’s a chore, or maybe it’s a joy, whatever. But it’s something we have to do, so we go out to do it. And we miss the point that we’re not making disciples just to get people saved, but there’s a reason to be saved… We’ve been saved for something.

EC: For community, you bet.

JMF: You’re being saved from broken relationships and estrangement and alienation, to belonging, being part of the relationship Christ has with the Father in the Spirit. When that’s happening, the sweet smell of the gospel is present even if it’s not at a church, as far as that goes.

EC: You’re right. There are a whole bunch of issues tied into that. One is the way we tend to understand the core of the gospel in North American culture, which is primarily in juridical forensic terms – that we’re forgiven now and we’re going to be with Jesus when we die. What gets lost is that we’re not simply saved from sin, we’re saved for loving relationships with God and one another. That’s what we do, between the time we come back into a relationship with God and when Jesus comes back, is we’re about manifesting this kind of a community and showing the world that there’s a better way.

But if our understanding of the gospel is simply that we’re forgiven now and we’re going to be with Jesus later, then what do we do in between? Then the fundamental place of Christian community in God’s plan of things manifesting love for one another to a broken world, really gets lost.

The other thing about this is, to be in this kind of relationship involves time together. This is where I think the greatest hindrance to renewal and the movement of the gospel in North American culture today is that we’re so busy consuming goods and services that we don’t have time for relationships. Therefore, if we want to see renewal happen in the church, one of the first things that we can do is begin to have small groups in our church meet together to pray and seek renewal in our own life and in the life of our church and to do it together.

In the same way, John Wesley said Christianity is a social religion, and to turn it into a solitary religion is to destroy it. The same thing is true of renewal and outreach. It’s not meant to be a solitary adventure, it’s meant to be something we do together in community. To begin to meet together, to share deeply of life, to talk about our struggles as Christians, to pray for renewal in our own life and pray for renewal in our relationships with one another in the church, is a prelude to beginning to take that beyond the church to others.

This is one of the reasons I’ve often been a little wary of what they call “seeker-friendly services.” There’s a sense in which we want to be welcoming, and we want non-Christians who are unchurched to be able to come to the church and feel welcome, but if we in any way change the character of the community that they experience when they’re there, I think we’re making a fatal mistake. We’re misrepresenting what the gospel can do in their lives if we don’t invite them to a service, a kind of a Christian community where they experience what community is really like.

I haven’t studied carefully the background of this, but I understand that Willow Creek, that big movement in the Chicago area, they were one of the ones that talked about seeker-friendly services and have done that. The idea was, people would come to seeker-friendly services and they would then be assimilated into the small group ministry of the church. I don’t want to misquote them, so those of you who are on the internet, I’m sure you can go and check this out, but my understanding is they found out, guess what? People were coming to the seeker-friendly services, but they were never getting assimilated.

My question for them is that when they went to those seeker-friendly services, were they experiencing the kind of community that is a part of those small groups at Willow Creek? Because if they weren’t, at those seeker-friendly services, that’s probably why they weren’t getting assimilated, because they were assuming that what they were doing in the seeker-friendly service is what Christian faith was all about, when really it is loving one another and manifesting that love of God in Christ in small groups as well as toward the world, that is where it’s at.

JMF: Yeah, and it happens more easily in a smaller group. Most of our [GCI] churches in the Unites States are small, they’re under 50, they’re under 30. And they’re frustrated, they wish they were bigger. They see the Willow Creeks or they see the big church on the corner and they wish they had more members and they could do more things and they had more facilities. But it’s in the relationships that you can have with the few people, because how much time do you have for 1000 people? You’re still only going to have so much time. The relationships going on in a small church can be more dynamic, spiritually speaking, and more caring …

EC: Part of the problem with small congregations is a lot of times their smallness and the level of fellowship that they have can be an impediment to allowing new people to come in, because they don’t know how to incorporate those new people into the fellowship. The only fellowship they have is for the people that are already there.

One of the interesting things that I see in the history of the renewal, for example, in early Methodism, is they had small groups that were designed for people who were not yet members. How many of our congregations have a small group designed particularly for people who are coming in from the outside and need to be assimilated, need to have a place where they can go for fellowship and where they can learn about Christian faith, see it embodied? We don’t have that. We tend to have fellowship groups for people who are already inside the church, and then if the church is small, we have no way to incorporate those from outside the church into that small group fellowship.

So that’s another thing where it’s important to learn from the fact that the church has two equally primordial expressions – the large church gathered for worship, for sacraments and that kind of thing, but also the small group gathered for discipleship. I think there ought to be small groups for people wherever they’re at in their faith pilgrimage, including people that are just seeking God. The Alpha program, maybe some of your pastors and congregations are familiar with that, was designed to be a small group way to reach out to non-Christians, where a Christian would invite neighbors and friends into their home over fellowship to talk about the basics of what Christian faith is all about. That has been a tremendously effective program, because it’s done in the context of fellowship. That’s the kind of program we can incorporate into our congregations as a way to bring new people into the church, if we had the kind of fellowship there to bring them into.

JMF: Often you meet somebody and you would like for them to come to church with you, but you don’t want them to go to your local church, because you know that it would be a turnoff for them.

EC: It’s a good point. About ten years ago the district superintendent of the Dubuque District had a passion for the unchurched. We have a high level of unchurched and marginally churched people in the Dubuque area. It’s about 85 percent Roman Catholic. Protestants are a small number. There are some very pious Roman Catholics, but a lot of people who grew up in Roman Catholic families are cut off from the church and unchurched. He wanted to reach out to them, so he had an idea of using this Alpha program.

I said, “All right, but what are you going to do once you bring them to Alpha? What church are you going to invite them to where they’re going to be able to go, if after they get a taste of what Christian faith is all about, and be assimilated into a vibrant Christian fellowship?” That took him aback, because he had to face the fact that within his tradition, he really couldn’t point to a congregation where that was taking place.

So I told him, “Maybe before we start talking about outreach, maybe we need to go back and talk about what we need to do to revitalize congregations so that we have renewal beginning to happen in an organic way, so that people like that will be able to be incorporated into congregations where it will actually work.”

JMF: In that sense, renewal, and learning to love one another, has to come first, before drawing people in. And then it happens because of what’s going on, without having to create programs.

EC: Yes. You have a lot better sense for your church than I do, but from talking to all of you here, I sense that the Spirit of God is already stirring here – that there is a profound longing for renewal, and that shows that the Spirit of God has already begun the work of renewal here. If we could get pastors and lay persons and small groups and congregations to begin together, to kneel down and ask God to let renewal begin with us, and ask God to come and begin to mess with our lives, and to begin to turn us into this kind of Christian community, I think we would see the Spirit of God beginning to fan those flames of renewal in the church.

One other interesting thing I have learned about studying the history of renewal is that once renewal gets started at a small level and the Spirit of God is beginning to work renewal on wider and wider scales, that renewal always has to embody itself in some kind of a form – some kind of a form that’s reproducible, where you can take the renewal from one context to another and take the flame from one context to another and have it ignite again. That’s what I see not happening in North America. I see the winds of renewal in mainline Christianity in many different places, but I don’t see groups that are finding a way for it to be reproducible.

For example, in the United Methodist Church, we have some large dynamic congregations with dynamic pastors who are experiencing renewal, but it’s built around the personality of that lead pastor and it’s not reproducible, because not everybody has the gifts and graces of that person to be able to do it. What needs to happen is average rank-and-file congregations and pastors need to somehow link together and find a way, when the Spirit of God is bringing renewal, that they can take that to other congregations and bring about renewal.

This is one of the things I see about early Methodism. Not only was the Spirit of God renewing it, but in Wesley’s lifetime there were never over five to ten ordained clergy persons in the entire Methodist movement. It was all done by laity. They had to find a way for this renewal to continue to go from London to Bristol, and from Bristol to Newcastle and then out into the surrounding areas, that was done by average persons and lay persons. In some respects, in the history of Methodism, renewal has been far more effective when it’s been rooted in the laity and their participation in renewal than it has been oftentimes when it’s been in the clergy and from the top down.

The fact that the Spirit of God is stirring the winds of renewal makes me tremendously hopeful. If pastors and laity could begin to pray for that and then find a way to put it into a reproducible form, I think the Spirit… It isn’t that the Spirit of God doesn’t want to renew the church, the Spirit of God longs to renew the church, but we’re grasping at straws in terms of some of the ways we do it – looking at programs, or as we’re doing it in our tradition, doing it out of fear. We’re trying to attract a few more adherents so Methodism doesn’t die. Those ways of renewal are never going to work. It’s not going to work until we return to the verities of the faith, that we begin to embody in a small groups where we begin to love one another, and then we find a reproducible way to take it from one place, to one place, to one place, to another.

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Last modified: Sunday, March 28, 2021, 9:22 PM