Tag Archives: Elaine Heath

Elaine Heath on “Alien Priorities” in the Church

Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker have recently written a book in defense of a movement that, they say, is gaining ground.  The movement consists of an increasing number of new Christian communities, which are an amalgamation of the house church and new monastic models.  Though written for a UM audience, their comments will resound with anyone suffering the Mainline blues.

After the death of a dear friend and spiritual mentor, Heath tells us that she decided “to quit the club.”

“I do not mean I am leaving the United Methodist Church, although the thought has occurred to me at times.  But there are alien priorities in our midst, anomalies that contradict the soul of our tradition.”

She then tells the following story, which is instructive for the ailments of not only the local church (in many places) but also, by extrapolation, to the larger denomination:

“When I went to meet the pastor parish relations committee prior to being appointed to one of the churches I served, I came away with the strange knowledge that what that church wanted from their next pastor more than good preaching, pastoral care, the development of children’s ministry or just someone who could write a decent bulletin, was a pastor who would live in their parsonage.  That was really and truly their top priority.  The last pastor, for a number of reasons, hadn’t been able to live in the parsonage.  If a pastor would live in the parsonage, they reasoned, giving would increase, the kids who had graduated from high school and left church would come back, and everyone would contribute more stuff to the annual rummage sale.  Life would be good.  All manner of thing would be well.  I left the meeting and wondered what I was getting myself into.”

Such myopic priorities are a major contributing factor to the decline in not only our local churches but also, in an analogous fashion, to the larger denomination as well.  The “alien priorities” of security over risk, maintenance over ministry, and club over mission have become Mainline staples.  This “club” mentality is what Heath and Kisker warn against:

“It is the club of Denominationalism Posing as the Church.  Denominationalism is dead.  Self-serving institutionalism is dead.  The notion that the church is a bureaucracy that should look and act like the federal government of the United States is dead.  That which John Wesley greatly feared has come upon us.”

A note indicates that the fear being referenced is Wesley’s famous quote from “Thoughts Upon Methodism”:

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both to the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Alien priorities make for a dead sect.  Can new – really, re-discovered – priorities revive this part of the Body?  One thing is certain: the question is not “How do we save the denomination?”  The question is, how do we offer Christ? How do we lovingly serve our neighbors?  As Heath and Kisker conclude,

“The real question is, ‘What is the Spirit saying to the church?’”