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

What if Membership Vows Are Not Enough???

“As you join 1st Downtown UMC, we have to ask you this question: Will you support this church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?”

Maybe you’ve heard or even said something along those lines at the end of a worship service when someone (or even a few someones) take the long walk down the aisle at the end of worship during the final verse of a hymn. As the hymn ends you may have heard your pastor (or maybe you are the pastor) announce to the congregation the addition of a new member to the congregation. These vows are merely the formality of what promises to be a life-long loyalty to the church.

But what does that even mean?…

We’re in the midst of a 50+ year decline in membership in The United Methodist Church. There’s a growing market for curriculum designed to educate new and prospective members. I’ve recently conducted a very unscientific poll through social media and word of mouth. Among those who responded to me, the majority of churches who use a teaching model for new members generally set it up with a trajectory towards the membership vows — prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. I wonder if we’re in the business of making disciples, then should we root discipleship in the membership vows of the local church?

What if Discipleship Requires More?

One of the frustrations with imagining a church that makes disciples might be found in the fact that we set people up to be members and not disciples. The truth is our membership vows are essentially individualistic in nature. Membership vows convey the importance to support the local church through showing up, helping others, and even inviting others to join you in doing these things. But is this what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ journeying together towards salvation?

For John Wesley, the journey of faith was one that required sojourners to move towards entire sanctification — being perfected in love through grace. Wesley believed faith was a means to radically transform your life physically, spiritually, emotionally, and even economically.

Hear from Mr. Wesley himself:

“It is thus that we wait for entire sanctification; for a full salvation from all our sins, from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief; or, as the Apostle expresses it, “go on unto perfection.” But what is perfection? The word has various senses: Here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love “rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in every thing giving thanks.”

–from Sermon #43 “The Scripture Way of Salvation”

“Well, but what more than this can be implied in entire sanctification?” It does not imply any new kind of holiness: Let no man imagine this. From the moment we are justified, till we give up our spirits to God, love is the fulfilling of the law; of the whole evangelical law… Love is the sum of Christian sanctification; it is the one kind of holiness, which is found, only in various degrees”

–from Sermon #83 “On Patience”

“Entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is neither more nor less than pure love; love expelling sin, and governing both the heart and life of a child of God.” 

–from A Letter to Walter Churchey (June 26, 1788)

Therefore while it’s important we uphold our local churches as places where life-changing ministry can happen, we should root a ministry of disciple-formation in something deeper than our membership vows. If discipleship is to mean anything significant in The United Methodist Church, we need  to encourage something more that just being loyal and paying dues to a local church.

Using Our Baptismal Vows as a Basis for Discipleship

When was the last time you’ve heard about your baptismal vows outside of the context of witnessing a baptism? Let’s review them:

1. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
2. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
3. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

When our membership vows become the basis for discipleship, then the requirements of discipleship get scaled down to fit the local church. Ministry becomes defined solely as what happens within the local church instead of a lifestyle we embody for having been a part of the church. Service eventually becomes synonymous with volunteering instead of self-giving. Giving becomes a local dues paying system instead of a tangible sign of a spiritual sacrifice.

Our baptismal vows up the ante on what it means to be Christian. It moves our faith from the local church and into a whole-life approach to faith. After all, this is what a sending forth means at the end of Sunday worship.

Renouncing spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting evil, and repenting of sin requires the local body but it means more than merely participating in local ministry. Accepting the freedom and power God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression requires the presence of a local body but it means our perspective on faith is anything but local. And confessing Jesus Christ as Lord in union with the Church Christ has opened to all nations, races, and ages reminds us that while we’re apart of a particular local body, we are also strengthened as part of the Church in all times and places. The cosmic significance of this cannot be understated.

 What Can We Do Now?

If our baptismal vows are to become a part of the collective vernacular of our local churches we need to do a few things:

  1. Teach them. Lead a small group centered around the baptismal covenant. Follow the flow of the order to structure the flow of the class. Begin with a discussion on the nature of salvation. Move to the vows themselves. And then talk about what it means to be in ministry in the local church in light of these demanding vows.
  2. Preach on them. If you’re preaching on discipleship, then make sure you include these vows as a primary basis for your preaching. The good news is we don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to discipleship. Use the vows at your disposal and even invite worshippers to turn to the page in the hymnal where they can find them or project them on a screen for all to read and follow along. The vows will preach, I promise.
  3. Organize discipling groups that use these vows on a regular basis. Have groups write covenants together using these baptismal vows as a base for how they order their lives together. Discipling one another means watching over each other in mutual love and accountability. If discipleship is to become a part of the local DNA of our congregations, then we need to provide structural means whereby persons can disciple one another.

Discipleship in the Local Church (A Few Questions)

Remembering a Body of Work

Looking back over some posts from the past year, I realize that I’ve been harping on the topic of discipleship for sometime. I’ve written about the role of discipleship in the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church. I’ve written about the lack of talk on discipleship at our Methodist General Conference this past May. That piece followed a piece on how General Conference couldn’t save the church because we all knew it couldn’t focus on discipleship. I’ve written about how small group ministries are misunderstood as so-called “drivers of vitality” in the local church.  I’ve written about how our American spirit of individualism hurts our development as disciples of Jesus Christ (and again here). I’ve talked for sometime on the need to rethink what it means when we say “making disciples for the transformation of the world” here, here, and here.

 Enough on Theory — How and Where Can Discipleship Happen?

Since I am so new to ministry in the local church, I figure that while I’m fairly deep on theory I’m probably a little shallow on practical experience. However as a young adult in the ministry, I depend on those older than me to offer advice from their experience. So I will give you my assumptions on the looming questions of how and where discipleship happens, but I will do my best to put them in the form of questions. It’s up to you, the reader, to supply answers and direction from your own experiences.

Are We Biased Towards the Larger Church?

In all of the discussion on congregational vitality in The United Methodist Church, I can’t help but wonder whether or not we have a particular bias towards the larger church? Churches identified as uniquely “vital” are, more often than not, large churches with large worshipping communities. This is in spite of the fact that recent research has shown that only 4-5% of churches in The United Methodist Church worship 350+ on an average Sunday. In other words, are many of our churches not considered vital because they’re not like the top 5%? Though the Towers Watson report notes that 59% of vital congregations are among small churches, it notes that “larger churches are more likely to be vital” according to the standards used in the study.

Furthermore, our Book of Discipline is formatted with a bias towards the larger church. Just ask any pastor who’s tried to fill out the required committees in a small church. It’s nearly impossible to cover all of your required committees without asking people to cover multiple roles. How is it possible to concentrate on cultivating a culture of discipleship in a small church when everyone is run ragged covering committee work? 

Have we created a church culture whereby small churches are left to feel inferior because the ministry we place on pedestals most often comes out of larger churches who benefit from more people and resources to do ministry? And I appreciate our mega churches “giving back” by putting on resourcing workshops. But there’s a big difference between pastoring a small church that’s just been planted and pastoring a small church that’s been historically small.

Can Large Churches Actually Disciple?

In the drive to grow (not to mention the drive to just carry out the basic ministries of the church) how equipped are our larger churches for the work of discipling? After 2 years as an Associate Pastor in a larger congregation I can testify to the efforts it takes to meet these 4 core areas of ministry for a local congregation: Worship, Teaching Basic Doctrine, Pastoral Care, Community Activity. Even if you’re able to do these things exceptionally, you’re still lacking in the area of discipleship. Are these great demands on a local church why discipleship has been swept under the rug for so long?

In all of our talk about vitality, we seem to be describing ways to more effectively meet the 4 basic areas while simultaneously growing in membership as a result — is this the same as actively forming disciples of Jesus Christ?

Quick, What’s a Disciple?

A disciple is defined as a follower of Jesus Christ. We can nuance that all day but essentially this is what we’re describing. In a previous post I defined discipleship in the local church as: 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.

Therefore, the work of the local church is twofold. First, the local church must intentionally and creatively make the process of discipleship a primary ministry of the church. Secondly, an emphasis on process and accountability must be a part of any ministry of discipleship.

Questions for You, the Reader

  • Is the small church more equipped to make discipleship the primary ministry of the community? Since a small church is more versatile and nimble, can it shift priorities more quickly to make discipleship a primary ministry in the local community? For this to happen, the powers that be in our leadership would need to recognize the unique abilities of a small church for discipleship and consider rethinking expectations (i.e. more emphasis on faithful discipling and less emphasis on numeric growth). This isn’t to say the small church can’t carry out the 4 basic areas of ministry. It’s simply an acknowledgement that discipleship can (and should) look different in a small church due to its size and resources. 
  • Do the medium and larger churches require discipling communities to come alongside the ministry of the congregation? In the work it takes to meet the 4 core areas of ministry, I wonder if medium and larger churches would be better off recruiting and cultivating discipling communities within the congregation. These communities would be vital to the ministry of the local church and members would be formed both as disciples and congregational leaders. But these communities would be embedded within the life already happening in the local community and “gates” would be needed in order to funnel new, would-be disciples in, as well as disciples “in-process” back out into the life of the church. 
I look forward to your thoughts…

Final Thoughts on the book, “Almost Christian”

This will be the final piece in my series on Kenda Creasy Dean’s fantastic book, Almost Christian. I cannot say enough that all church people — clergy and lay people alike — need to read this book. Suggest it as a small group or Sunday School study. But read this book and talk about it together!

Let’s begin with a sobering quote:

“Since the 17th Century more and more people havediscovered, originally to their surprise, they could ignore God and the church and yet be none the worse for it.”

— David Bosch

The simple truth of our struggle in the church is that we do not teach and model for people how faith is a matter of life and death. I know how extreme that reads, so let me explain myself a bit. The life and death I’m talking about is not necessarily heaven and hell (although it could apply as well). I’m discussing the potential for life we have right now and the fact that we’re all guilty of choosing the comfort and security of things to the contrary. As Americans, we’re consumed with the narrative of success. We’re taught (as Dean notes we then teach our youth) that faith is vital insofar as it helps them get further in life. Faith and church become utilitarian tools to give you a good life. God helps you when you are in need. Church makes you a better person. Attending youth group will look good on a college resume. Come on down! Dean reminds those of us in the church when it comes to thin and immature Christianity, teenagers are not the problem — the church is the problem. And more importantly, the church also has the solution.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is in the DNA of our congregations. We have to admit it and confess it as sin. And yet, as Dean confesses, I too have a certain sympathy for Christians who default to MTD as a way of faith. Somehow it’s become less combative than the religious bigotry that can make the gospel seem like anything but good news. I confess it’s easier to turn to this way of being a Christian whenever I turn on the news and they choose to profile Christianity through the close-minded, hateful, and bigoted voices disguising themselves as Christian pastors and leaders. I don’t blame folks for not wanting any part of that ballgame.

Making Faith Too Easy

So many of our churches set the bar low for faith commitment. When someone joins our church we ask them to affirm vows of membership to the local congregation — “Will you be loyal to this community?” But how often do we ask members, new or veteran, to reaffirm their baptismal vows — “Will you be loyal to Christ and affirm your willingness to die to self?” There’s a lot of baggage attached to the later option so we stick with the former in an effort not to not scare people off. Yet in an age of church shopping, we tend to encourage the heart of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism when we simply ask someone to be loyal to the local church. That “heart” is thinking faith is about us and not God or God’s continuing work of salvation for the world.

Are Young Folks Really Religious Relativists?

Dean makes an interesting point towards the end of her book:

“It may be that young people are not the religious relativists we make them out to be (i.e. you can believe what you want because everything is equal in the end). It may simply be that Christianity — or what passes for Christianity, as teenagers practice it — does not merit a primary commitment.” [p. 193] 

Dean reminds us that teenagers are correct to give little priority to the gospel if it means some people are more welcome before God than others. If that’s the case, this fake-gospel should be rejected. The uniqueness of Jesus is precisely why the church cannot be an exclusive club. And the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is precisely the act of God that allows for every human being to equally stand before God.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Kenda Creasy Dean wraps her book up with 5 major points to take away:

  • Faith can be vital for young people because others are succeeding at this

To a large extent, we in the church can affect the degree to which our congregations choose to imitate Christ. It’s up to us to be Christ’s witnesses of generosity, hospitality, and sacrifice. It’s also our choice when we practice a self-centered version of faith that avoids risks in favor of self-fulfillment. There are, in fact, traditions (like the Mormons for example) succeeding in forming youth in meaningful ways to that tradition.

  • Faith formation is not an accident

Faith formation for young people is a part of the legacy of communities that invest time, energy, and love into their youth. And it’s a sign of the religious faith of the adults present insofar as it inspires the children being formed. The culture of our churches should be geared towards one of formation, first and foremost.

  • The cultural tools needed for making faith vital for young people are a part of every Christian faith community already

Every faith community should have in its DNA a particular vision of God expressed in word and deed through the life of the community. The life of the community should speak to the personal and powerful nature of God, the significance of the faith community for formation, the centrality of Christian calling and service, and the hope that the life of the community is a part of the larger story of God’s salvation for the world.

  • Vital faith comes with risks

Quite simply, any Christian community that doesn’t teach the love of Christ is a love worthy dying for isn’t teaching about Christ. As the church, we don’t have to be narrow-minded religious zealots intent on brain-washing young prototypes of ourselves. We also don’t have to teach kids that it’s okay to “live and let live” when it comes to choosing their faith. Children and youth are formed in the very image of those teaching and leading them. Faith is vital to life itself and we can model and teach a faith that both forms and allows youth to hear their own unique calling of discipleship.

  • Our job as the church is to participate in the imagination of a God who sends and transforms, which is different from reinventing the church through our own creativity

This is a big one for United Methodist congregations. A God-shaped mission is bent on the redemption of the world and not just the church. Don’t be mislead into thinking that once we redeem the church the world will magically follow.  While church renewal is important we need to hear the temptation that a mission of church renewal can quickly become a mission of serving ourselves and our own ideals. This is a symptom of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The single most important task of the church to cultivate a missional imagination in our children and adults is to reclaim our call to follow Christ into the world as witnesses of God’s self-giving love.

Postlude

I wanted Kenda Creasy Dean to have the final words on this series because her work has been so influential on me through this book. Besides that, she’s a fantastic writer and she can end this series better than I could:

My role in the faith journeys of young people is embarrassingly small: naming a God-sighting here, inviting them to pray or serve there. Mostly what I do is show up, and get to know them, and respond to them as the incredibly creatures God made them to be, while trying to be a faithful Christian adult alongside them.

…teenagers are still discovering that every one of them are an amazing child of God. Their humanity is embedded in their souls as well as their DNA. Their family is the church, their vocation is a grateful response for the chance to participate int he divine plan of salvation, their hope lies in the fact Christ has claimed them, and secured a future for them. If we, the church, lived alongside young people as though this were true — if we lived alongside anybody as though this were true — we would be the community Christ calls us to be. That would be more than enough.  [p. 197]

Imagine a Church With No Labels

I freely admit that I can be a bit of an idealist at times. I resonate with expressions like, “Why can’t we all just get along?” So maybe it’s just an expression of my young, naive, and idealistic nature that I’m just plain weary of ideological labels.

Maybe you’ve come across two articles making the rounds this weekend describing the two sides of the liberal/conservative divide in American churches? The first article is, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, written by Ross Douthat of the New York Times. The second article was a response written by Diana Butler Bass for The Huffington Post entitled, Can Christianity Be Saved? Let me say from the outset that I’m writing this to offer another perspective because I think both authors miss the mark in a big way. Remember, I’m an idealist at heart. So you’ll have to forgive my picky ways.

Here are a couple of quote-worthy snapshots from both articles.

Douthat writes:

“This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital” 

Later he writes:

“Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.”

Now on to Diana Butler Bass:

“A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones…A quiet renewal is occuring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a 20th Century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now.”

 So let me try to fairly critique both of these articles for missing the mark in a major way for me…

Critique of Ross Douthat

Let’s begin by telling the truth about decline in American Christianity: Every denomination is declining. Let’s just stop playing the broken record of “conservative churches are growing and liberal churches are dying” — it’s not 1980 anymore. The fact is all denominations in America are in numeric decline. Diana Butler Bass rightly notes in her article that this is a thesis that’s been around since the early 1970s. The Church Growth Movement in America — which is largely responsible for the rise of what we now call “mega churches”— began arguing this in its theological literature 40 years ago. In 2012, this is no longer true. There are conservative denominations in decline now. The Southern Baptist Convention is a great example. So no, so-called liberal churches don’t need to be like their conservative counterparts in order to grow — no one is growing right now.

If so-called liberal churches have given into the social whims of the day, then their more conservative counterparts are guilty for selling into the consumeristic whims. If there was a day where more theologically and socially conservative churches were growing, it was often accomplished through appealing to consumeristic tastes in the name of being attractional. In other words, selling one’s reputation of faithfulness on the auction block of being appealing to the masses knows no theological label. We’re all guilty in some respect. One of the greatest flaws of American Christianity is that we’d rather be liked by others than faithful to our mission. The balance we need is figuring out how to be hospitable and welcoming while being faithful and challenging.

Critique of Diana Butler Bass:

Does Christianity really need to be saved? I know she was doing a play on words with the title from the Times, but my fear is that the body of her article actually reveals a position that we, as humans, have the power to “save” our faith. The truth is, the role of faith is to save us — not the other way around. It’s a theological error to assume we humans have the role (or power) to save religion.

Why do we talk about 21st Century forms of church and use 20th Century terms? How can we truly discuss a “new form of church” for the 21st Century while we’re stuck in camps of liberal and conservative? If the church of the 21st Century is to be new, then we need to blur the lines that have divided us for the last century. Her words on rethinking church appeals to me right up until I realize the church she’s talking about has a particular ideology rooted in a liberal worldview. As much as I might resonate with her views, her conclusion is a church I do not want to be a part of. Liberal fundamentalism is not the answer to what ails us in American Christianity.

My Conclusion

I don’t want to come off as totally negative about either of these authors. Both articles had merits and both authors made points I agree with. They actually critique each other in good and healthy ways. However they both get it wrong for me because they continue to perpetuate a vision of the church where labels divide us.  So the question becomes whether or not we should just accept the coexistence of liberal and conservative churches. I, for one, refuse to accept either as a truly faithful expression of church. Inevitably both sides will leave out necessary parts of faith in order to remain true to their respective camp. As a United Methodist, I’m reminded that the fullness of our Wesleyan theology is found in the combination of the very best from both the liberal and conservative views. We shouldn’t have to pick sides!

So yes, I’m an idealist. I don’t think it’s a faithful act to label ourselves as liberal or conservative. I dream of a church where we can leave our labels at the door when we come to worship. And maybe, if the worship is lively and faithful enough, and we’re sent back into the world in service, then we might just forget to pick up those labels on our way out.

Why You Can’t Solve Your Church’s “Young Adult Problem”

I think many in the Church will agree that, by and large, we have a “young adult problem.” What’s the problem, you ask? Well, young adults are not coming to our churches.

There are all sorts of methods out there to get young people into coming to church. Many church leaders have made strides in adding to a body of work on attracting young people. Some of the material is really good — material that recognizes the world of 2012 is vastly different than the world of 1952 or even 1982. Other material is just plain bad — material that tries to bait-and-switch young people into church by selling a notion of volunteerism or bland utopian community while conveniently forgetting to mention the name of Jesus because it doesn’t play well for focus groups. While there’s no real clear answer on how to get young people into church, I think we can all agree on this simple fact: We’ve got a major deficit of young people actively involved in our local churches.

What are we church folks to do about this young adult problem?

Let me cut to the chase and say what we should NOT try to do: If you want to “solve” the problem of young people not active in church, you’re going to fail from the outset. This is not a problem you can solve. So if you’ve bought the latest material on how to magically attract young people after following 5 easy steps, take it back right now. You’re not going to find a recipe to attract young people. You can’t order a prescription from the local Christian resource center that will make young people beat your doors down. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but some problems can’t simply be solved.

Instead of solving our problems, let’s try to look at them in new ways — maybe even as opportunities to learn.

Translation is Key

What we need are for local churches to become places of translation — not just interpretation. What’s the difference? Interpretation simply means that a church tells you what to believe and how to behave. But churches who take the work of translation seriously will also create ways to live out those beliefs and morals in community. When this happens, the church becomes less rigidly judgmental of others and more serious about the need we all have for redeeming and sustaining grace.

Let me offer a story to illustrate:

I heard another heart-breaking story last week from a young adult who refuses to go to church. It seems that she was marginally involved in a local church — some months were better than others for attendance. But she volunteered in the nursery some and helped with Vacation Bible School because if she didn’t really know what to think about church attendance yet, she knew it was important for her daughter. She started dating a young man who was a member of the church soon after she started attending.

But a few months into her tenure in the church it started. It seems a few of the members — some younger a some old enough to be her mother — caught wind of her “past life.” They began spreading stories around the church about her and her new relationship — much of which was nowhere near to being true. But truth is relative when perception shapes so much of how we think. It wasn’t long before a whole section of the church had heard these stories and it got back to the young woman and her new boyfriend.

Needless to say, they refuse to go back to that church and I fear they’re done with church altogether after that incident.

One of the reasons we in the church won’t ever solve our issue with young adults is that we think it’s really their problem. They want to come to church and be with us, they just don’t know it yet. So we need to invest in all sorts of attractional methods to help them realize this deep longing. Churches are not perfect — nor should we ever think they will be — but as long as church people do mean things to people who are a little different, don’t be surprised when no young people want to attend your church. This girl bears the burden of not wholeheartedly investing in the church. But that’s a process for many people, old and young alike. However she’s not at fault for the fact that some people decided her past was too risque for their taste and decided to spread rumors about it. This is the kind of caricature account Flannery O’Connor would write about. Instead, I’m afraid it’s a reality more common that we church folks would care to admit.

A community who takes the work of translation — living out the gospel, putting hands and feet on the love of God, etc. — might not have been so quick to judge someone who was a little different. A community of translators knows how hard it is actually live the morals and beliefs they profess.

What’s Wrong with Wanting to Solve?

What if the compulsion to solve our problems was a part of something that’s wrong with us — even sinful at times?

I recently heard a podcast with Dr. J. Kameron Carter where he had some striking comments about solving our problems. Dr. Carter suggests that “the impulse to solve is a part of a wider impulse to master.” In the church we see this very clearly in the collective impulse church leaders and strategists have to solve the issue of young adults not coming to church. What actually happens is we define our idea of young people based off of what we see around us and not a missional view guided by the Holy Spirit. Those in the church want young adults, but the truth is we really want young adults that look, talk, act, and see the world like us. We’re on a mission for prototypes of those already in the church — younger versions who care about the things good church folk care about and want to live by the same standards. Maybe this is just the residue of the missional attitude that helped colonize and conquer others as a means of spreading the gospel? Whatever it is, it’s a desire undergirded by the preservation of power and not guided by humility and love.

Why are young people not in church? I have no idea. I’m a young adult myself and I’m forced to live in the tension between a vocation in the church and relationships with my peers who either don’t see it as compelling enough, or worse yet, have been hurt so badly by well-meaning people who don’t understand them they’ll never grace the doors of a church again. It’s a tough place for a young pastor sometimes. However, I do hope the next time we say we want to “solve our young adult problem” we stand back and see the implications of that statement: Do we really want all young people in our churches? Or, do we really mean we want to preserve our values in a younger generation of prototypical images of ourself? And are we willing to make the gospel compelling enough by trying to actually live it?

If you want young people in your church, go where they are. Learn what they do. Strike up a relationship and trust the Holy Spirit enough to let you know when it’s time to invite them to church. In the meantime, make sure your church is a place that worries about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). After all, that’s all disciples can hope to do.

It’s Not About Us: Rediscovering the Church’s Missional Imagination

“The Church’s first witness is the way we live before the eyes of the watching world.”

–John Howard Yoder [quoted on p. 87]

 Kenda Creasy Dean cuts right the heart of the problem with the American church in this chapter:

“Every church is called to be a ‘missional church.’ The fact that we have turned the word ‘mission’ into an adjective testifies to the American church’s frayed ecclesiology. A nonmissional church is not a church in the first place, but in a culture largely void of a theological vocabulary, this language has become necessary to remind us that the church exists not for ourselves, but for the world.” [p. 89-90, bold emphasis mine]

As much as we like to quote the Great Commission as the mission of the Church, I worry sometimes if we “get it.” How easy is it to assume “making disciples” is the same thing as making church members? How easy is it to assume baptizing and teaching are the primary means by which we grow the church? What about the mission of God? Does the Church simply exist for itself and those within its walls?

Participating in God’s mission intrinsically links us to the life of Christ — a life given as a most radical act of grace, a life so bound up into our lives that absolutely nothing can separate us from him — and we’re called to respond by linking our lives to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. All of this is how we know and participate in the mission of God. And by the way, for the church to be missional, we have to see mission as more than just a trip.

Missional Principles

Dean uses the work of Andrew Walls to identify missional values consistent through Christian history. There are two main “missionary principles”:

  1. Indiginizing Principle: Christ made his home among us, accepting us as we are, becoming “one of us,” fully translated in human terms, fully participating in human culture. In this way, Incarnation embodies God’s radical acceptance of humanity.
  2. Pilgrim Principle: God’s radical challenge to us to follow Jesus — we are not merely accepted as we are, but we’re also called to become something new by the power of God. But this transformation requires us to relocate from our comfort zones.

The pilgrim’s job is to confess the good news of God in Jesus Christ. The pilgrim’s life is to become a testimony to the love and presence of God. The pilgrim’s job is to confess, not convince. This really challenged me when I came across this in reading this book. Maybe we ought to spend a little less time grandstanding on whatever the issue of the days is and spend a little more time authentically confessing the presence of God in our lives — a mysterious yet undeniable force that continually shapes us. The truth is, the more we confess, the better we’re able to see what we confess. As we practice looking for God’s active presence in our lives we gain new eyes to see the world around us and, eventually, new ears to hear the call to go further in the journey of discipleship.

Sometimes we’re called to faithfully wait as we hone these new eyes and ears. Being encountered by God is a big deal. It calls for a total life change in response. And this doesn’t happen over night. Even the disciples and gospel writers needed time to process what we heard and saw and how it transcended life as they knew it. As Dean puts it:

“It must have been part of what people remembered, and recounted, when they retold the story of that Easter night. In this moment of grace, of divine waiting…God remains with us. This paradoxical place, where Christ woos us as he waits for us, is marked by revelation, recognition, and rejoicing.” [p. 102]

Confession is not an easy thing. But we can’t get too absorbed by the temptation to convince others lest we forget that we don’t totally “get” when we’re talking about in the first place. It’s but for the grace of God that we’re able to even marginally comprehend what it means to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

Recovering a Missional Imagination

“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the unholy residue of a church that has lost its missional imagination. In stark contrast to institutions colonized by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, missional communities do not exist primarily to perpetuate themselves.” [p. 104]

It’s a mighty bold thing to say the church exists for the world. And in a time of decline across the church, it’s a mighty risky thing to declare that you want to be a missional community whose sole goal is to continually give yourself away for others. Funny thing is, that’s precisely what Jesus did! One of the problems Dean notes is that we, as the Church, teach MTD to young people and while it’s understandable, it’s not very compelling. Handing on the faith to young people is not a matter of “giving them Jesus” [p. 105]. Jesus isn’t “ours” to own and he’s surely not ours to give to others. The presence of God in the lives of our youth is not dependent on us — God is already with them before we ever get there. This is why we believe baptism is a public confession to the presence of God’s grace already at work in the lives of people. It’s our job to help them see what’s already at work in them. And maybe in the process we’ll rediscover that same presence in ourselves.

Making disciples requires incarnation — not cultural adaptation. Being real and authentic about our faith is much more important than trying to communicate using whatever new, hip language tools are at our disposal. Christian communities throughout the ages share certain qualities: we learn from the same sacred writings, pray to the same Triune God, use bread, wine, and water in the same meaningful ways, and we claim to somehow, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be connected to these communities around the world and throughout the ages. Incarnation is not about being relevant as much as it’s about being real — being real about who God is, who we are, and who we long to be together.

This missional spirit — the incarnational presence of God among us — eventually drives us to be more concerned with sending people out rather than roping them in. I suppose that’s the true meaning of Great Commission’s first command to “Go…”

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