{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

A Call to Niceness or A Call to Holiness?

“A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world and might even be more difficult to save” – C.S. Lewis [quoted on p. 25]

Trying to Be Relevant in a Culture of “Whatever-ism”

Dean reports an interesting indictment of the Church when she quotes the NSYR study where it says, “Most religious communities’ central problem is not teen rebellion but teenagers’ benign ‘whatever-ism’” (p.28). It seems as though a good number of American teenagers will attend church, participate in youth ministries, and maybe even go to Sunday School. What teenagers lack, this report shows, is a depth of knowledge of orthodox Christian doctrine and how that doctrine translates into religious practices. Further, teenagers by and large lack a basic working Christian language. It seems as though we’re doing a decent job of putting our kids into formative classes and activities but we’re not teaching them the faith language that would form them into new people.

Maybe problem comes from a compulsion the Church seems to have in striving to be relevant? We spend so much time wanting to relate to others in terms of the language of the larger culture (a good thing at times) that we forget our own unique language in the process. Transformation cannot happen unless new language is taught and learned. Otherwise the church remains little more than just another extension of the larger culture.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a specific divine mission in the world. This false Christianity seeks to give us good self-esteem and solve all of our temporal problems. As Dean notes,

“It is a self-emolliating spirituality; its thrust is personal happiness and helping people treat each other nicely.” [p. 29]

Why is it that many teenagers practice such a watered-down form of spirituality? Frankly, they do it because this is what we’ve taught them in church. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes no claim to change lives. It’s built on a low commitment system where the highest ideals are to “make me happy” or “meet my needs.” This is very different from a faith that seeks to bend people’s lives into patterns of love and obedience to God through formative teaching and practice.

Relevance is an unattainable goal. It’s a goal concerned with the church accommodating society in order to keep a foothold in the culture. We should always be skeptical and question those who would push us to “be more relevant.” More times than not, it’s a quest that’s more misguided than we might think. As Dean observes,

“The church’s accommodating impulse does not stem from God’s call to us to share our lives with the stranger or to share God’s love with others. Instead, it grows our of our need as a church to be liked and approved.” [p. 34]

The Difference Between Nice and Holy

I’m not here to say that we shouldn’t teach our kids to be nice. In fact, we adults could use refresher courses on being nice. But I am saying as strongly as I can that “being nice” is not the ultimate purpose of being a follower of Jesus Christ. Religion has become the great umbrella we go to hide from the world under. Religion in America is built much more on a sense of loyalty and allegiance through personal choice than it is on identity and relationship. If our culture is built on a consumer mindset that we can get what we want through personal choice in the marketplace, then it’s no wonder that a growing number of people are finding religion to be unimportant. Religion built on a sense of identity doesn’t care much for personal choice — mainly because God chose us before we choose God. My favorite brand cannot claim my life at this level because I can always shop for a new brand. But a faith built on the idea that we know ourselves to belong to the One who made us and who loves us too much to lose us claims our lives in ways Apple or Nike never will.

Let’s consult our author one more time:

“Perhaps young people lack robust Christian identities because churches offer such a stripped-down version of Christianity that it no longer poses a viable alternative to imposter spiritualities like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. If teenagers lack an articulate faith, maybe it is because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation. Maybe teenagers’ inability to talk about religion is not because the church inspires a faith too deep for words, but because the God-story that we tell is too vapid to merit more than a superficial vocabulary.” [p. 36]

I believe the great sin we need to identify and confess is that we as a Church have lost a sense of missional imagination. We’ve grown accustomed to believing that we’re here for ourselves. This in turn causes self-centered spirituality to grow and spread like a weed in a garden. We confuse Christianity with self-preservation — a sense of building ourselves and our buildings and our institutions up. And we forget that the witness of Jesus was one of self-giving — the call of disciples to lay down their lives, take up a cross, and follow the self-giving One wherever he may go.

Holiness is a word that implies justice, kindness, and humility before God (Micah 6:8). Dean reminds us this is what we mean when we say sanctification – a life conformed to the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh who came into the world to save (and not condemn) it. A call to holiness is much deeper than a call to just be nice. Holiness requires everything we are and it forces us to live in a community where the common pursuit is how to be holy in such a complex world.

The good news is not all teenagers belong to this cult of benign niceness. Many are committed Christians actively living our their faith daily. But these are set apart from their contemporaries by 4 main religious characteristics: a creed to believe, a community to belong to, a call to live out, and a hope to hold onto.

So ask yourself this simple question: When was the last time you heard these four things together at church?

When was the last time you heard of a real hope — one that’s more concerned with transformative faith than trying to simply put “biblical principles” on life’s problems? When was the last time you were invited into a community that breaks line of family, gender, or maybe even race in order to form the Body of Christ? When was the last time you were told you had a specific call on your life from the very One who created you? And when was the last time you heard words of hope that defies the logic of our self-centered worldviews?

Needless to say, this book is amazing!…

The Motion I WISH I Had Made at Annual Conference

As much as I was enthused leaving Annual Conference here in South Georgia, I do have one regret: I wish I had made a motion from the floor to define discipleship for our annual conference. You see, I counted some 70 times that the phrase “making disciples for the transformation of the world” was mentioned in one form or another. But not once was that phrase defined or elaborated on. Much of our business set as its goal the “making of disciples” but we never defined discipleship clearly. My great concern is that we endorsed a great deal of business on the premise that we all understood and agreed on a basic definition of discipleship.

So I regret that I didn’t follow my gut and propose a motion that would do 3 things:

  1. Admit, as The United Methodist Church, that we’ve failed in our attempts to form disciples in the ways of Jesus Christ. This addresses something bigger than merely a decline in membership. This confession puts front and center the fact that we’ve been more consumed with our own self-perpetuation than we have the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Failing to make disciples admits that while we may have enjoyed some years of good attendance and participation, by and large we failed to make committed disciples of Jesus Christ. This is an admission that measuring our current health by the standards of 1968 is based on the myth that we were once a perfectly healthy church who formed disciples. The truth is while we may have formed many disciples, we also failed as the years went by in forming new disciples. Therefore 1968 should NOT be our baseline for success in terms of disciple formation.
  2. Locate the primary setting for discipleship in the local church. I’ve heard a number of people advocate the idea that discipleship can happen in different areas of church life. And while this may be true, discipleship must always be focused on the local church level first. Annual Conferences do NOT make disciples. Districts do NOT make disciples. There is no discipleship without a local community whereby disciples can worship, attend to the ordinances of God, participate in the sacraments, etc.
  3. Define discipleship as an annual conference. If discipleship is our primary concern as an annual conference; and if this concern is one located in our local churches; then it would be helpful to finally define discipleship as an annual conference. The goal of this was to form a working definition that could be lived out in a variety of contexts. Discipleship, at its very best, will have both universal values and local expressions. The goal of this definition was to define our values and priorities while at the same time leaving it open-ended enough to plug into any local setting.
Below you’ll find an example of the motion I wish I’d proposed from the floor of my annual conference. Maybe some of you will take this and tweak it (hopefully improving it) and propose it from the floor of your annual conference. If more of us did this maybe we could finally begin working towards the mission we claimed called us to.

Whereas, We admit that the greatest issue facing The United Methodist Church is a lack of depth of discipleship; and

Whereas, the local church is the primary and most significant location for the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ according to paragraph 201 of The United Methodist Discipline (2008 ed.); and

Whereas, it is necessary that we define discipleship as it pertains to life in the life of our local churches in the South Georgia Annual Conference and in the transformation of the world;

Therefore, be it:

Resolved, that the primary focus of ministry, proclamation, and life in the local church should be to praise God and form disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — all ministry should serve these two, conjoined aims.

Resolved, that the primary of location for discipleship are the local church communities across our conference — any conference-led initiatives towards the goal of disciple formation should be focused on how best to achieve this goal at the level of the local church.

Resolved, that discipleship is the process of being formed in the ways of Jesus Christ as taught in Scriptures and expressed in acts of justice, mercy, worship, and devotion under the empowering guidance of the Holy Spirit — all teaching and practice of discipleship should meet this criteria and it should be emphasized that such formation and practice is meant to be lived out both personally and corporately.

Annual Conference 2012: In Spite of Our Best Efforts, There Was Hope

I never cease to be amazed by the ways God surprises me…

We’ve just completed the 2012 edition of the South Georgia Annual Conference. The week promised some interesting material and potential for debate sprinkled within the annual slog through reports and business sessions. I was excited because my local church sent not 1 but 2 delegates under the age of 40 this year. With conference held in our town we felt it was a great opportunity to send a couple of younger, first-time delegates to experience and learn about the process of annual conference.

I’ll have a follow-up post with the perspective of 1 of our delegates who enjoyed his experience but questioned how effectively we used our time and prioritized the material we went over — but more on that later.

In the meantime, I want to lead with news of an unexpected hope I encountered over these last 3 days.

Could it be?…

Monday Lunch:

I attended a luncheon for a group that I help lead. The roots of this group can be summed up by saying about 7-8 years ago, a tradition began where people chose between one of two breakfasts depending on what side of the liberal/conservative divide you found yourself on. Keep in mind, most of our clergy chose not to attend either gathering. But fairly or unfairly, these two groups seemed to embody the political and theological divide in our annual conference.

This year we decided to make a concerted effort to begin branding the group as more than group united by a single voice. We tried to reach out to those not only “in the middle” on various issues, but also from the “other” breakfast (i.e. the “others”). We brought a speaker down to discuss General Conference and hoped that at best we’d get a decent crowd and maybe a few new people. We ended up running out of food and had a good many people who had never attended the group’s gathering before.

You can imagine my amazement when I walked into the event and was greeted at the entrance by a man who has served 50 years in ministry and frankly is identified as a sort of representative of the “other” group. My jaw literally hit the floor [maybe it was just figuratively but it sure felt real]. We chatted and I decided to ask him when and where the “other” breakfast would be held. By golly, if he’s willing the come to my event, then it’s only fair I suck it up and attend the “other” gathering as an olive branch of peace and open-mindedness. Our luncheon was wonderful and except for a faulty sound system it went off without a hitch.

Now I had to face my inner prejudices and figure out how I’d bring myself to drive to the “other” gathering the next day now that I’d offered to go.

Surprised By Grace

Tuesday Morning:

The “other” gathering began at 7am and was being held at a church just around the corner from my house. I was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, it was close enough I really had no excuse to go. On the other hand, maybe I could skip it and no one would notice. I’d say I slept through my alarm or something.

I arrived at the church around 7:15am — a little late because I really did sleep through my alarm. But I was present nonetheless. With fear and trembling I entered the room and got in line for breakfast. To my surprise a few people I’d never met came up to me in line and said, “Hey, great luncheon yesterday!” What?!?! And then the man whose attendance the previous day took me by surprise came and welcomed me as though I’d been a member of the family my whole life. Here I was fighting every urge to just slink out the back door hoping no one would see me, and this man extends the hand of radical hospitality to me.

Note to self: Grace takes a surprising shape sometimes…

Did the weather reports say hell might freeze today?

Later on Tuesday Morning:

One of the major pieces of legislation before our annual conference was a report on the idea of reducing the number of districts in South Georgia. Currently we have 9 districts and last year a proposal was made to study the feasibility of reducing by 2 or 3. After a year of study and number crunching, we were split on what to do. The task force charged with studying the finances said it would be feasible to cut 2 or 3 districts. The Bishop and Cabinet resolved that due to the number of unanswered questions, we should simply retain the current number of 9 districts.

Let the debate begin…

An amendment was brought to the floor as a compromise. Essentially the amendment said we’d keep our current number of districts but work another year to answer the questions left unanswered by the previous year’s study. Now it was time to speak for and against the amendment.

It helps to know that the author of the amendment is the pastor of a large church and is a sort of poster child for what many consider a more liberal group in our conference. He spoke of compromise and spoke boldly.

One by one, persons stood at microphones voicing their opinions. The debate was tense but it never got ugly. Folks representing small rural churches, larger urban churches, theological liberals and conservatives, and different races all spoke together on a very important issues in our annual conference. Some agreed and others disagreed. I was struck both by the diversity of those who agreed with each other and the civility with which persons chose to respond. I happened to be sitting by the amendment’s author and my experience was capped off when our conversation was interrupted by the very same man who surprised me with grace earlier that morning. The two men chatted and found they supported one another. As he rose to get behind a mic, he looked at the amendment’s author — a man who represented a good many views opposite of his own — laughed and said, “Let’s see if this annual conference is ready for us to agree on something.”

What does this mean?

In a society that seems to thrive off of bitterly disagreeing with others, I saw a glimpse of a different sort of reality. After a General Conference that seemed to bring out the absolute worst in everyone — people on both sides of the political/theological divide — I saw brief glimpses of unity and I had hope. We’re not a perfect annual conference by any means. Lord knows we have our issues. We’ve got a lot of work yet to do. But as a young clergy person still learning the ropes of Annual Conference, I was filled with the hope that maybe, just maybe, we might actually learn to talk with each other and even listen. Despite all of the grind and stress that comes with Annual Conference I left hopeful. And dare I say it, my heart might have even felt strangely warm.

Time For Annual Conference Season — Let’s Not Get Confused

The days are getting longer and warmer. The school year is winding to a close. It’s the end of May and you know what that means: Summer Vacation Annual Conference season!

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.

The Disease That Masks Itself as Christianity…

“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:

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself
  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die
All of this sounds harmless enough. However this is a bland version of the Christian faith that becomes something more akin to a nice bank account — something nice to have that’s available in case you ever need to draw from it. The cultural trend has long been that we expose children and youth to faith in the hopes that they one day choose it for themselves. What’s missing in this picture is that very little religious identity happens by osmosis. You can’t become a Christian by simply hearing about the faith — you must be given the tools to actively participate for it to become a part of who you are.
As Dean notes:
“Exposing adolescents to faith, as it turns out, is no substitute for teaching it to them” (p. 16)
How Do We Break the Cycle of MTD?
For starters, youth ministry offers an interesting way to break this cycle of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. For too long we’ve sequestered youth ministry off into its own individual thing in the Church. And I’m sure that more churches are struggling than are thriving at youth ministry right now. The great hope among churches is to find that all-star youth minister who is cool, dynamic, and can attract 100+ kids to a church’s program. The reality is the majority of churches would have better luck trying to find a needle in a haystack. The beauty of this reality is it gives churches an opportunity to reclaim youth ministry as a mainstream ministry of the church. Parents and volunteers can now work with youth ministers instead of simply contracting the work of ministry out to the hired person.
Kenda Creasy Dean offers 5 important findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NYSR) on p. 17-21 of her book. And I think these 5 findings can offer potentially transformative ways of doing ministry across generations within the Church:
1) Most American teenagers have a positive view of religion but otherwise don’t give it much thought
Read: 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 faith
Read: 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 world
Read: 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).
Next Post: The Quest For Relevance: Asking First, Relevant to What?

A New Series: “Almost Christian” And Other Ways We’ve Gotten Faith Wrong

“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? 

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