Now if you’re not a United Methodist, you should probably tune out right about now. But for those of us who find ourselves exercising our faith in The United Methodist Church, this is the time of year for our annual gathering among all of the churches in our immediate geographic area.
Quick United Methodist Polity lesson: Your local church is organized in a cluster of churches in and/or near your town. We call these districts. Those districts are organized with other districts in the surrounding area of your state (possibly including parts of your neighboring state) and we call this body the annual conference. Read more from our friends at Wikipedia here.
If you’ve ever been to an annual conference gathering, you’ll know that it looks a like a church version of a pep rally. Churches celebrate ministry. Agencies report on their work from the previous year. Pastors are honored for their work. We remember those who have died from the previous year. And at the very end, appointments for the upcoming year are fixed. It’s a wonderful time to come together and share in the love and joy that’s integral to being a part of the Body of Christ.
As we prepare to gather and make decision that will affect the life of the church in our area, I’m reminded of a very simple, yet powerful, truth: God is not confined to our Annual Conference gathering. You see, it can be a bit misleading to think just because we’re discussing the business of the church, God is somehow exclusively in our midst. We can get all pumped up for the latest program, revitalization strategy, or budget-saving idea. We can even work ourselves into a frenzy and start believing it’s our job to leave Annual Conference and take God back into the world. But last I checked, the very missional nature of God locates God actively in the world already. God doesn’t need to be “taken” anywhere. What God really wants is a church with the guts to dare to follow Him into the margins of the world that are too often forgotten by our churches when we worry so much about reports and budgets and programs.
Annual Conference is a wonderful time for reconnecting, celebrating, remembering, and yes even reporting. It’s a time to see old friends and to hear the Word even amid the stacks of paperwork and seemingly endless agenda items. But let’s just make sure we don’t confuse our time together as some sort of opportunity to hatch a plan to take God into the world — God is already there just waiting for we United Methodists to find the courage to come and follow.
God gives us strength and courage to be your missional people. Grant that we may hear the call to follow you wherever you may go. Amen.
“Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?” — James K.A. Smith
(quoted in Almost Christian p. 5)
What Kind of Christianity Are We Modeling?
Kenda Creasy Dean notes:
“Teenagers tend to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good, well-rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life.” (p. 6)
I would argue that for a long time now we in the Church have treated Christianity as more of a belief system than a life of trusting and following. One can believe the right way with very little demand on how they live their life. Sure, we say our beliefs have a great deal to do with how we live, but do we really mean it? You hear clichés around the church about “putting your trust in God” or “living for Jesus.” But what does that mean? Where’s the sacrifice? Frankly, we’d probably be fine with sacrifice as long as it doesn’t impede on the American Dream. In the end, I fear that we’re much too comfortable with a version of the Christian faith that prefers right believing over right living.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD Syndrome)
Dean argues that American Christianity is more akin to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism than to the heart of the Christian faith modeled by our Christian ancestors. So let’s begin by breaking down the phrase in order to fully understand what we’re dealing with. Dean offers Guiding Beliefs of MTD:
- A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself
- God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem
- Good people go to heaven when they die
“Exposing adolescents to faith, as it turns out, is no substitute for teaching it to them” (p. 16)
1) Most American teenagers have a positive view of religion but otherwise don’t give it much thoughtRead: Teenagers need to know that faith matters both inside and outside the walls of the church. Adults should know that young people don’t argue over issues of faith. We live in more of a “live and let live” world when it comes to matters of faith. But we also, by and large, do not regard religion as a source of identity. Churches must find grace-filled ways to lead young people to see their faith as an identity marker shaped by practices that inform unique ways of living in the world.2) Most U.S. teens mirror their parents’ religious faithRead: Contrary to popular opinion, teenagers conform to the religious beliefs and practices of their parents to a very high degree. Some will experience a time of “breaking away” later on in adolescence (think early college) and even largely come back to being more inclined to model their parents’ faith as young adults. The key here is that parents matter most when it comes to shaping the faith of youth. And parents need the church to help them be the very best models for their kids. So yes, it really does take a village.3) Teens lack a theological language with which to express their faith or interpret their experience of the worldRead: If you want to see church people really squirm, ask them to give their testimony. The fact is young people have a hard time articulating their faith with any depth because the rest of us have a hard time doing so. When Christianity is restricted to just a belief system, you lose the sense of language comprehension necessary for identity. Much of who I am requires a language to understand fully appreciate the depth of my identity. When Christian faith is left to surface-level beliefs we never learn the language necessary to see our faith with much depth. If teens are to learn how to talk about their faith in meaningful ways, then the rest of us need to learn to do so as well. This comes only through practice and allowing oneself to be vulnerable to think of their life in new ways.4) A minority of American teens say religious faith is important, and that it makes a difference in their lives. These teens are doing better in life on a number of scales, compared to their less religious peers.Read: The NYSR data showed that 8% of youth consider their faith as very important and big part of their lives. Dean notes that while religious youth don’t avoid the problem behaviors and relationships, they are more likely to do well in school, have positive relationships with their families, etc. But there are 2 important caveats to mention: 1) Participating in any identity-bearing community, religious or not, improves young people’s likeliness to thrive; and 2) Our ideas of “doing better” usually require conforming to social norms that sometimes contravene religious teachings. In teaching our kids to “do better” in life we have to remember the prophetic aspects of the Gospel that might lead us to take risks for the sake love, justice, and faithfulness. Our standard for doing well must always be held in tension with the standard of living a life that daily seeks to take up the cross of Christ.5) Many teens enact and espouse a religious outlook that is distinct from traditional teachings of most world religions — an outlook called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.Read: The goal of this alternative, though seemingly noble, version of Christianity is to helps people be nice, feel good, and leave God in the background to be called upon as needed. This is not the faith of Jesus Christ — God in the flesh, crucified and risen, who calls us to live as the people of God for the sake of God’s creation. Learning the difference between these two versions of faith requires tools for translation (formative ways of teaching and living), testimony (learning how to interpret and use the language of faith in the presence of those outside of the faith), and detachment (becoming counter-cultural through practices that define the Christian faith as different from the rest of society yet always for the sake of all of Creation).
“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imagination and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
(quoted from pg. 1 of Almost Christian)
It’s rare that a book comes along that truly touches on the trigger of contemporary issues. Kenda Creasy Dean has done it with her book Almost Christian. The book is a commentary based on the National Study of Youth and Religion that is running from 2001 through 2013. This study is intended to follow a group of young people as they age and develop in the hopes that somehow the religious preferences of young people can be tracked and measured over a 12 year period. You can read more about the study itself here.
Kenda Creasy Dean offers a brilliant commentary in her book that I’m currently reading. One of the major points discovered early on in this study is that young people are largely influenced by those closest to them when it comes to faith. Further, when asked young people think Christianity is good, although it’s not that important.
So Dean pushes the study to this conclusion: “The religiosity of American teenagers must be read primarily as a reflection of their parents’ religious devotion (or lack thereof) and, by extension, that of their congregations” (p. 3-4)
Over the coming days and weeks I plan to blog about this book as I read it. The genius of Dean’s work is in her diagnosing American Christianity suffering from what she calls MTD Syndrome (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). As we face a declining church it’s my belief that Dean’s work can help us identify many ways we’ve neglected or not lived up to our call to be the Church. You see, as much as we’d like to blame society and the external lack of interest in Christian faith for our decline (and believe me, there’s a lot of that), that’s not our entire problem. We have, in many ways, failed to live up to the calling of Church. Instead, we’ve grown complacent with a version of Christianity that remains intellectual (read: Just believe the right stuff) and non-threatening (read: We’d rather be political than Christian).
I hope you join me for this self-examining journey that promises to be both enlightening as well as somber. And maybe, by the power of the Holy Spirit, conversation can be stirred around issues I write about and we can take ideas back to our local churches. God’s not finished with the Church just yet…
Question: In what ways have you seen the Gospel watered down to fit particular cultural standards?
As I’ve lamented before, the catch phrase of The United Methodist Church seems to be “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” I’ve lamented this because frankly it seems like this has replaced the old joke that “Jesus” is the answer to everything. Everything we do seems to call for the rubber stamp that what we’re doing is somehow “making disciples.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a local pastor, District Superintendent, or a Bishop, you feel the need to endorse everything you by justifying it as “making disciples.” In all of this, I contend that we continue to avoid the deeper question of “what does a disciple actually look like?” — but that’s a soapbox I’ll come back to (again) another day.
For today, I’d like to contend that in order to faithfully and effectively form disciples, we need to agree on a basic system that will act as the foundation for a culture of disciple formation. As Methodists know, we’re all about connection. And we often call layers of bureaucracy “connection” because we don’t like to admit that in many ways they function more on a bureaucratic level and less on a connectional level. Nonetheless, with many different parts and layers to our current system, we must try to (re)define the roles of everyone in the system if we want to effect the culture towards change (i.e. from our current system to a discipling system).
It’s NOT an Industrial Model
Disciple formation is not an industrial model where we somehow live in an assembly line model of doing things. Linear approaches to disciple formation often lack the ability to admit people rarely follow a neat and orderly process to becoming a disciple. Further, as Wesleyan Christians, we do not believe disciples are ever made – we are always in the process of being made. Approaching a discipling system by setting up models of universal starting points and ending points fails to meet people where they are. It also fails to recognize that context will also determine where we’re heading as disciples of Jesus Christ. After all, the call to discipleship is not one meant to make good church members — it’s a call to go into the world as new and different people.
The Role of Local Churches
The United Methodist Book of Discipline says:
“The local church provides the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” (par. 201)
If this is truly what we believe, then our greatest work as a connection as far as discipleship is concerned is to ensure that our local churches are able to do just that. Personally I believe this happens when local churches act as microcosmos for the church as a whole recognizing that people are at many different points in their faith journey. Some have heard the call to be disciples and want to do the work it takes to grow into a disciple. Others are still hearing the call or maybe even just worshipping and trying to be active. It will be the work of the church to provide the culture and environment where these people can hear the call of the Holy Spirit to a life of deeper discipleship. So local churches are tasked with the job of cultivating discipling communities within the life of the church. This way those who hear the call of discipleship will have a place within the local church to plug into without becoming separated from the overall mission of the church. Nonetheless, we ought to at least agree that discipling happens on a local level.
The Role of Pastors
Despite a culture of leadership that seeks to make pastors the center of church life, I would argue that the greatest act of leadership a pastor can display is to empower the laity to be the church. Whereas pastors can have the occasion to work with others on discipleship, they should always seek for this process to be reproductive. In other words, laity who grow into discipleship should understand that part of that growth is lived out when they help others grow as well. Pastors cannot disciple everyone. But in order to begin a culture shift in your local church, pastors can work with the first group of potential leaders in accountable discipleship. As those laity are called to lead, pastors help them plug into positions where they can help others. All of this ensures that pastors are neither the center of congregational life nor are they off the hook when it comes to discipling ministry. It’s a symbiotic relationship that forms whereby everyone grows, everyone follows, and leaders are empowered to lead.
The Role of Superintendents and Bishops
The Book of Discipline says:
“The purpose ofsuperintending is to equip the Church in its disciple-making ministry”
This raises an interesting question as to what the hands-on role of DSs and Bishops is when it comes to discipling. On the one hand, the Book of Discipline says their role is vital in helping the Church be a place where ministry happens and where disciples are formed. On the other hand, if the local church is the primary place where disciples are formed, what actual role can a DS or Bishop have given their large geographic territories? I would say that if we truly want to concentrate on local disciple formation, the greatest task a Bishop or DS can do to that end is to empower and equip pastors to lead their churches. Disciple formation is not a top-down sort of thing. Faithful discipling is always an organic, ground-up process. It’s created locally and lived our locally. Geographic districts within an Annual Conference cannot directly form disciples. Annual Conferences cannot form disciples. But good appointments can be made. Resources can be shared. Pastors can be equipped. And local churches can function effectively within the structure of an Annual Conference. All of these are primary to a Bishop or DS’s role in disciple formation.
So Who Actually “Makes” Disciples?
In short: Disciples make disciples.
Structure cannot make disciples. Structure can give disciples a place to live out their discipleship. But it cannot fully form disciples in the ways of Jesus Christ. That process is much more local, often personal, but always communal. Structure helps express a greater culture but life must thrive within any given structure. This is why structure must adapt when goals are not being met and when life does not reflect the underlying values in a culture. In the end, disciples make disciples. And it’s our job as leaders and integral parts of the overall structure to live into this. Otherwise I’m afraid we’ll be spinning our wheels for many years to come.
*This is the Pastoral Prayer I shared yesterday on Mothers Day during worship. The prayer is a mix of original and borrowed lines from resources offered through The General Board of Discipleship Worship Planning site. It was written and compiled by me and offered to the glory of God and for the edification of the body of believers here at Mulberry Street UMC.
Mother’s Day Prayer 2012
[written and shared for worship at Mulberry Street UMC on May 13, 2012]
God of life and love, we give you thanks for this new day. We give you thanks for the rain and restorative power it has to cleanse and nourish your creation. We’re grateful, O God, for all the ways your presence is made known to us – both in great and small ways – whereby we are reminded of your steadfast love for us and for all people.
On this day of celebrating your love, we give you thanks for those who have given us life. Though we may call you “Father,” let us not forget how often mothers embody your steadfast and relentless love. We praise you, O God, for your gift of motherly love, both gentle and fierce, both strong and humble, both kind and true.
For those mothers have joined you in heaven and whom we miss dearly this day, we give you thanks. We are guided by their spirit and we remember that you promise us communion with your saints. So by the power of Holy Spirit we are never fully separated from them.
For mothers who work day and night to raise and care for their children, we give you thanks. And we also remember those mothers who labor at this task alone. May we, your church, remember to uphold all families through our life together as the Church.
For mothers who have lost a child to death and must carry on, we ask for your mercy. May we all sustain these mothers in their time of need and answer your call to reach out to them in compassion and love.
For women who are new mothers and those who are expecting children but aren’t quite mothers yet, we praise you, O God, for the joy and anticipation of new life. Grant that we never forget our duty to uphold these growing families – that in our shared life together we all may hear the call to be your disciples in this world.
For all of the women who have wanted to have children of their own but did not, we give you thanks. These women have been living examples of your love and grace as they have answered the call to nurture and care for others.
We also pray, O God, for the mothers who have failed to live up to the call of motherhood. We believe you are a God of healing and we remember that we all stand in the need of your grace. Where we cannot forgive, Lord give us strength.
We stand in solidarity this day, O God, with all of the mothers around the world who have watched their children die of hunger, every mother who has been victim of abuse, every woman who stands against a world that massacres her children in the name of war and dares to rename them “collateral damage.” We lift to you the spirits of all mothers around the world – even those mothers we will never know personally.
We praise your name and lift all mothers, those we have mentioned and those left unmentioned, as we join together in the prayer you taught all of your children in all times and in all places to pray: The Lord’s Prayer