What happened to the church at Ephesus? Everything seemed to be going so well. Paul seems pleased with their success. After Paul’s visit to Ephesus, which was memorable, they continued to grow and thrive. In an era without the internet and modern communication, he was able to stay abreast of events in the church he planted. “Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that I don’t stop giving thanks for you when I remember you in my prayers.” Paul remains thankful for the Ephesians. They are at the top of his prayer list. This makes sense. After investing so much of his time and energy in establishing the church, he’s glad to hear things are working. I’m sure Paul prays for all the places he’s lived, visited, and established. Nevertheless, when given the variable, especially in the middle of a hostile culture and Roman religious practices, Paul’s going to be extra thankful for the Ephesians. These first few verses of Ephesians point in us that direction.
We know from Luke’s story of Paul’s time in Asia Minor what happened in Ephesus. The letter to the Ephesians reveals Paul’s directions and response to ongoing events in Ephesus. Yet, this doesn’t answer my first question. What happened to the church at Ephesus? We know what happened. You can travel to Turkey and take a tour of Ephesus and see the remains of the community of Ephesus. The church isn’t there. You can do the same thing in Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia. Most of the places where Paul planted churches are archaeological ruins. Let me emphasize the word “ruins”. Paul’s greatest successes have vanished from the face of the Earth. There are no functioning churches. If churches do exist in the vicinity, they are not the churches Paul started. Paul’s churches are dead. The Corinthian Church, unable to love but always willing to fight, is consigned to the dustbin of history. The Ephesians and the Philippians (the two communities who seemed to “get it”) are no more viable than United Methodism is about to be.
Reading Ephesians 1:15-23, I came away with this idea: good churches that make disciples, with grand intentions to transform the world, who do everything right, still fade away into history. We can do everything right (whatever “right” means) at the special general conference and the next general conference and still fail. It probably won’t matter. If right means preserving each “sides” version of the status quo, then we’ve left the powerful in place and postponed our inevitable journey toward Ephesus like oblivion.
Mainline Protestantism is dying. Our churches are struggling. This is not because there are liberals in the pulpits and conservatives in the pews. It’s not because people aren’t giving until it hurts. The system we’ve inherited from our parents and grandparents is broken, antiquated, and isn’t easily adaptable to life in the 21st century. We’ve streamlined and changed titles. Nothing changes this reality: our organizational structure is essentially as it was prior to World War II. That’s killing us. It’s 2018 and we’re still assigning clergy like it’s 1918. That’s a serious problem.
Methodism’s current theology toward human sexuality is also flawed. Also, our institutions and systems of power were developed in a pre-industrial age America. If we discard the former we need to significantly overhaul the latter.
The institutional church is out of touch with the people sitting in the pews; one need only read the horribly written press release which announced the Council of Bishops’ decision last Friday. Communication is not among their spiritual gifts. Private meetings and unreleased votes and ridiculously long time tables inspire little confidence in those who are charged with leading communities between Sunday services. I know more about what Robert Mueller will do if a subpoena to the president is challenged in the Supreme Court than I do the future of my own denomination and livelihood. The White House keeps America better informed than the Bishops keep Methodists in the loop. That’s sad. It’s also true.
Richard Lowell Bryant