This video is an unbelievably compelling portrayal of where young adult Christians are in our modern world (it’s about 9 minutes long but worth every minute).
The lesson I get out of this video is that young adult Christians are very interested in Kingdom work over church work. Now what does that mean for congregations and insititutional religion? It means the “market” will force churches to exist and function out of a more missional and less maintenance posture. Churches will have to stop being the place where issues are debated and it will have to become the place where people work towards solutions. People of all backgrounds, lifestyles, and ethnicities will come together for a common good. As the church we have to prioritize that good to be the will of God in the name of Jesus Christ. But, if the church fails to put this first and let all of the other stuff that clouds our priorities go, then they will inevitably dry up.
This isn’t rocket science and we need not belabor the obvious point. This generation has an inherent belief that this life isn’t all there is. With God’s help things can be better. Lives can be changes. Salvation can actually be close to a reality in this life. And we can get to this better place together. Funny, I think there was once a young adult from Nazareth who walked around talking about these very same issues…
It’s been official for a very long time now and should come as no shocker-politics has invaded the church for centuries. Sure, there are monastic communities who offer a beacon of hope that politics can be kept out of the Christian community. But by and large politics has been the driving force of Christianity since the beginning of Christendom.
In his new book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, N.T. Wright raises the discussion on the difference between “rights” and “dignity” both for the individual and for the Christian community. One of the issues this raises for me is how to identify just how deep American ideology runs through mainline Protestantism. This is not always a bad thing. In many cases, it is very good. But I cannot reckon with the notion that these two can ever be fully united as one “mega-ideology.” Inevitably, national ideals will serve the needs of preservation as its ultimate ends. On the other hand, Christian ideals command us to take up our cross and follow Christ (Mark 8:34-35) because, in the end, those who lose their life will save it and those who save their lives will lose it (Luke 17:33). Therefore, national ideology and Christian discipleship are never totally one in the same.
This brings us to the dichotomy of “rights” and “dignity.” First we begin with “rights.” We hear much in our contemporary world about the preservation of rights or the pursuit of one’s rights. Again I can’t help but point out the disconnect here. The “pursuit of happiness” is found nowhere in Gospel. Those are the words of the deistic Thomas Jefferson. Further, I’m afraid that talk of “rights” have been co-opted over the years in order to score political points for every cause that dares to claim it “preserves rights.” What exactly are our “rights?” Are we really due as much as we claim? Or, do we fight for the rights of the individual, often unknowingly, at the expense of the greater community. Here is illustrated another disconnect between American and Christian ideals. American ideals say that life’s ultimate goal is the fulfillment of the individual. We’ve worked very hard to reduce everything down to its individual parts. Humans are just a collection of individual cells. Molecules are just a collection of individual atoms. Groups are just a collection of individuals. Therefore, my personal rights are the ultimate ends of human life. But the Christian ideology says this is not so. Christian ideals say there is more value in being a part of a community than there is being alone. We are, in the end, better for having been part of the group. We can be something greater than we could ever imagine if we remained alone. This is why Christianity must be practiced as a corporate faith. There is no Christianity without the community of faith.
This now brings us to the idea of “dignity.” Dignity is a Christian value. There are countless stories in the Gospels of Jesus seeing through the culture’s claim of individual and group roles in an effort to offer human dignity and compassion to those who’ve never known it. Dignity is an ideal that commands the Christian community to look beyond individualism and elitism to the higher notion that all people are of sacred worth. Dignity offers the hope that life is about much more than my exterior qualities (demographic stats). It seeks to encompass the entire person and, in the end, invite the person to do the same for others.
So what’s the difference you ask? Well, put simply, rights are something governments seek to ensure in an effort to preserve itself by convincing people that their individual status is what’s most important in life. Dignity, on the other hand, is the command to love and have compassion for all persons-no matter their status. Rights often divide communities by valuing the individual as greater. Dignity commands the community to act in unison to ensure that the sacred of all persons and groups are preserved-whether the government chooses to recognize this or not.
I fully recognize that I write this as a middle-class, white male who has been afforded all the rights I can stand to enjoy in life. But I also argue that we are much more than our demographics. Further, the Christian community must seek to press beyond mere demographics in order to love as Christ loves. After all, it’s our only hope.
This is a very thought provoking blog entry from Bishop Will Willimon. You may agree or disagree with an number of these (I know I do). I invite conversation and debate as always.
I want to offer a brief tease for my projected summer blog postings. First, I am very excited to share that I have invited 9 friends who are either in the ministry currently or studying to serve very soon. For everyone, the Church is both a major love and a notoriously frustrating entity. I’ve asked each person to offer a response to one of the theses offered by Will Willimon in a past blog entry he had. I’m very excited as I’ve invited a diverse cast of characters who both support and disagree with the points made. They are sure to offer insightful critiques in the hopes to spawn greater conversation on where the church is headed. Secondly, I have a series of biblical stories I will attempt to offer short sermonic essays on as practice for future writings-criticism is a MUST here and I appreciate any and all I can get. Finally, I have been experiencing (and will continue to experience) a great deal of change and I’ll offer some thoughts on that. So hang in there and enjoy this blog entry from Bishop Willimon:
All of the gospels depict Jesus and his disciples as people on the move. They never stay anywhere long. Jesus teaches or performs some wonder, then immediately moves on. A dead god is a god who locates, settles in, never surprises. A living God is a God on the move.
We are privileged to minister in a time when ordained leadership is changing and adapting to be more congruent with the mission of Jesus Christ. After decades of floundering, thrashing about trying this and that latest scheme to renew the church, we are at last focusing and moving in a definite direction.
Recently I was asked to identify some of the most significant moves that we clergy are making in our leadership. I believe in these moves we are not only becoming more effective leaders, but also we are being more faithful to our Leader, Jesus Christ and his peculiar style of leading his church.
Today, the most effective, faithful pastors are making these moves:
Move from caregivers to passionate, transformative leaders
Moving from mere maintenance of the congregations that we have been handed from the hard work of previous generations of pastors, we are daring to let God use us to rebirth, new birth, and to transform our people to more actively participate in Christ’s mission. Any church that cares more about itself and its inner life than it cares for the world is a church in decline. Pastors are ordained for more significant ministry than merely care of the congregation.
Move from contented church of monopoly, to church in competitive, missional environment
We mainline Protestants have lost our monopoly on American religious life. We find ourselves in a mission environment in which our churches must compete with the lures of the world for our people’s faith. It’s a time when the church has the opportunity to recover the oddness and the joy of the peculiarity of ministry in the name of Jesus Christ rather than ministry as service to the infatuations of the world.
Move from nonchalance about results to attentiveness to results
One of the most dramatic developments among the churches of North Alabama is the creation of and the almost 100% participation of our churches in the North Alabama Conference Dashboard. We are determined to notice the numbers and to interpret the numbers as valid indicators of what God is doing among us. God intends for us to bear fruit and promises to give us what we need to bear fruit.
Move from preservation and sustaining to adaptation and supple, flexibility
Church observer Bill Easum told our Conference (the year before I got here) that the “seniority system is killing you.” United Methodism has no seniority system in our Discipline. We have put far too much stress on experience, wisdom, and continuity when we need more stress upon talent, adaptation, flexibility, and innovation. Our Conference mission statement states that our goal is to have, “Every church challenged and equipped….by taking risks and changing lives.” I am so inspired by the outbreak of innovative ministries among our congregations.
Move from the pastor as head of an organization to the pastor as spiritual leader and congregational catalyst
Pastors are becoming more than efficient managers. Pastors are preachers, those who tell the story which is the gospel, laying that upon the congregation on a regular basis and then pastors get out of the way, leaving Jesus to deal with his people. Pastors are there not to do ministry, no really even to lead ministry, but rather to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”
I am taking a short hiatus from blogging as I’m getting ready for the big transition into my first appointment at Mulberry Street UMC in Macon, GA in June. Also, I’m looking forward to a much-needed vacation with my wonderful wife to the Caribbean over these next few weeks as well. I’ll be back blogging once I get transitioned into the new job.
So here is a sermon from the always amazing Barbara Brown Taylor preached at Duke Chapel in February 2010. Enjoy!!!
Through further study and reflection, this post has been replaced. An updated post can be found here
This is the essay I am turning in for my Theology of Wesley final exam. It is my account of what is called a “Neo-Wesleyan” view of the primacy of Scripture interpreted through the hermeneutical lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.
(Note: I think it’s a bit silly to call this “Neo-Wesleyan” considering it was discussed only 20 years after the creation of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral-again people, John Wesley DID NOT invent the concept of the Quadrilateral)
I do believe, “the rule of Scripture within the tri-lateral hermeneutic of tradition, reason, and experience,” is a viable way of theologizing for United Methodism. Further, I believe this is both an accurate portrayal of John Wesley’s theology and is the most viable way for the modern church to retain its theological integrity in the contemporary world. For the purposes of this essay I would like to articulate this stance by expounding what I believe about each of the four elements of interpretation in question, what the modern United Methodist Discipline says about them, and how I see them functioning as a working unit in the modern age.
Reason can be defined as the means by which efforts can be made to discern the revelation of God’s activity in the world. I believe reason is important in making the needed connections between revelation and experience, faith and science, grace and nature in an effort to construct a credible and communicable assessment. Often experience will happen that does not fully coordinate with past tradition. Reason is then a tool one can use to discern the discontinuity between the two. When used along with Scripture one hopes that a new reality is formed in light of such discernment. Wesley believed revelation could be above reason but never contrary to it. This is why reason is part of the via media of the Church of England. Reason, for Wesley, is not only a tool of interpretation but a piece of his context that enables him to understand faith. For this reason, reason is a very important interpretive tool for Wesley. In regards to Christian authority, however, reason cannot be used exclusively from Scripture.
Experience is a powerful tool in understanding life. Experience in continually in need of assessment both on a corporate and individual level. For the purposes of understanding the nature of Christian authority, experience can be defined as the tool that vivifies the truth of Scripture in a contemporary manner. The argument against experience as the primary norm of making Christian assessment is that experience is undoubtedly subjective from person to person. Wesley acknowledged that human experience could not truly capture the entire reality of God’s presence. If all truth were measured primarily by personal experience then relativism would rue the day because truth would become subjective depending on a person’s context and perspective. On the other hand, experience cannot be ruled out when understanding Christian truth. One of John Wesley’s greatest contributions is the idea that often, human experience can be just as reliable and vivid as any empirical senses. Experience is one of the major ways in which God continues to work in the present age. To rule experience out as a norm of interpretation would run the risk of relegating God’s activity to a past subject. Experience is a method by which God continues to move among us in the present age. Therefore, I believe experience is a powerful tool one can utilize in the endeavor of understanding Christian truth, just as long as it is used as a means of attempting to vivify the truth of Scripture along with the discernment of reason.
Christian tradition is a time-honored concept used in the making of Christian assessment. Past tradition is the reminder that the theological task of Christians does not happen in a vacuum. Christian assessment does not make the leap from the New Testament Church to the modern church as though nothing is to be learned from the saints of past. Therefore, tradition is an important tool one can use in the quest for making Christian assessments. The argument against using tradition as the primary means of making Christian assessment is that just as experience alone relegates God’s activity to that which is new, tradition alone relegates God’s activity to that which has already happened. This emphasis makes tradition similar to Christian confessions in that it is a means of understanding doctrine that discounts the fact of God’s continuing activity in the world. Further, there is no tradition that can claim the primacy of Scripture in regard to Christian authority. As Karl Barth asserts, “Holy Scripture and the Confessions (or tradition) do not stand on the same level.” Therefore, Christian authority incorporates tradition insofar as it helps to illumine the truth of Scripture interpreted in one’s experience and discerned by one’s reason.
Finally, I believe that Scripture is of primary importance in regard to Christian authority. One must remember that Scripture is never used alone. Interpretation always accompanies Scripture. It is in interpreting Scripture that one must use one of the secondary norms outlined previously. But, in the end, it is the truth of Scripture that is primary when attempting to make Christian assessment. If a question of Christian authority is what are we to think and say, one can turn to the words of Karl Barth when he says, “we have learned from Scripture where to draw this ‘what’ from.” Scripture is the source of all truth for Christians. I understand how bold the previous statement is. But I believe this is the unique offering of Christians to the world. Christians follow the truth of the Word of God found in Scripture. It is the secondary witness to God only behind the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. All of Scripture then points to this revelation of God in Jesus and it stands as the primary source of Christian authority. This does not change the fact of the need for the aforementioned tools of interpretation. Scripture is interpreted through reason, tradition, and experience. But Scripture can also, and often does, serve as an interpretive tool for reason, tradition, and experience as well. Scripture then is both passive and active in its being. It is passive as a source of norms for Christian assessment and living. It is active as a means for measuring the validity of one’s reason, tradition, and personal experience. One must remember, however, these two characteristics are not easily separated.
I come from a context where the majority of Methodists uphold my view of Scripture as primary. It has been my experience, however, that this notion carries no weight if it is held simply because “it’s just how it is.” Inevitably human experience will run counter to scriptural evidence and present reason cannot adjudicate the difference and tradition will offer no precedence. But this is not a reason to diminish the primary role of Scripture as a source of Christian authority. Scripture must be a conversation between the text and the reader and not simply a reference book. It must be read with a sense of vocation and curiosity. But it cannot be read in an attempt to arm one’s self with “Bible bullets” for future use against those with whom we disagree. Scripture is an account of the character of the living God and of the incarnation of that God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It will not have an index of issues we can turn to for advice for all things. But it can direct us to the One who has acted toward us and on behalf of us. This is also the One who sustains and inspires us in times of confusion and doubt. Therefore, to assert that Scripture is the primary source of Christian authority within the hermeneutical lenses of tradition, experience, and reason, is not a limiting statement or a period denoting the finality of all Christian understanding. It is, rather, the small opening we are granted into the exciting and life-changing world of life with the Living God, revealed in Jesus, and accounted in but not limited to Scripture. This method is not the end of Christian understanding at all-it might just be its beginning.
 Heitzenrater, Dick Wesley and the People Called Methodists p. 10
 United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2008 ¶104
 Heitzenrater, Dick Wesley and the People Called Methodists p. 318
 Barth, Karl Dogmatics in Outline (Harper Torchbooks: New York 1959) p. 13
 Ibid p. 12