“I shall argue that strong men, conversely, know when to compromise and that all principles can be compromised to serve a greater principle.”
Compromise might as well be a 4-letter word these days. Everyone accuses one another of compromising morals, compromising values, or compromising ideals in order to keep peace. It’s as though by compromising, we’re somehow willing to make a deal with the devil. We’d rather champion our personal goals and values. We think the “voice crying out in the wilderness” is much more appealing than a communal pursuit of any common good. Boy I sure hope that’s not the entire story of compromise.
When big issues arise and decisions need to be made by consensus, compromise is quite often the very best course of action. Sure, it might be nice if we lived in a totalitarian regime some days. That way, if you’re ideals lined up with those of the regime’s power, you were always on the “winning side.” But then again, in that scenario there’s quite often another side always being oppressed. Nonetheless, winning debates sure sound appealing.
As our delegates continue their gathering at General Conference in Tampa, FL my hope is for a spirit of compromise on the big issues we face. I know there might be some who would rather take their toys and go home if they don’t see the change they went to Tampa to bring about. But I hope we would remember that we’re Methodists. And it’s part of our Methodist DNA to gather together, and somehow, in the mayhem that ensues, look for signs of holy conferencing and live into them. What makes conferencing holy is the ability to find the will of God above our own personal wills. And that’s a lot harder than it may sound.
I remember a commencement address Stephen Colbert gave at Northwestern University. In it, he told the graduates that he would shy away from the classic graduation remarks like, “You are tomorrow’s leaders. Go and take the future that waits for you.” Colbert reminded them of a lesson he learned at the Second City Improv School in Chicago. “Actors cannot win scenes,” he said. The art of improv is discovered in how you treat your colleagues in the scene as the most important part present. You can’t hog a scene if good improv is to happen. It’s always about the whole group. If everyone treats one another as the most important character, then the scene wins. The collaborative efforts of sharing yourself with others in such a way that the greatest goal is for the scene to win — in spite of our own personal desires to win — is how great improv happens.
I pray that delegates in Tampa hear the call for our scene as United Methodists to win in spite of our personal ambitions. Our life together as United Methodists will be made better when we discover the art of improv acting in community — the ideals of the communal life together always outweigh those personal ideals we might want to champion.
I don’t know if Andrew Carnegie or Stephen Colbert were United Methodists. But I sure hope they were…
I’m 400 miles away from Tampa, FL and I’m already getting tired. Trying to manage my day-to-day tasks at my local church and keep up with the proceedings of General Conference is a daunting task. It’s been an eventful first couple of days. A few things have struck me as interesting and I’m curious to see what changes (if any) are coming.
The Tokenizing of Young Clergy
Between those advocating for the voices of young clergy to be heard and those who want to ensure that young people find a place in our churches, I’m growing a bit weary of this tokenizing of younger adults. I’m 29 years old and after 2 days of watching General Conference from afar I feel like I’m either a part of a token group for leaders to cite in proposals or I’m ignored in favor of “raising up” a magical group of younger leaders not yet called into ministry.
It’s tough to be a young clergy member. There’s so much to learn and so much you don’t know. Experience and time often serve as the greatest teachers in ministry. And at the same time, there’s a glowing gap of my contemporaries in the local church.
So you’re stuck between two often competing ideas:
It’s not enough anymore that Jesus’ death and resurrection is our salvation, we now need younger leaders to save our church. That’s a lot to take on when you’re just getting your feet wet in ministry. And there’s a potential to either defer responsibility upon those who are younger or even discriminate against those who are older, yet still serving faithfully and effectively in ministry.
It can be easy for people to judge an entire demographic based on a limited experience with a few representatives of said demo. I hear all the time, “young people all think x,” or “young adults all want y.” My fear in the reform offered at General Conference is that we run the risk of projecting certain ideals on an entire demographic of people. That would be fine but I’m not convinced enough younger adults have been brought into the decision-making process for that to be done with integrity. What we forget when we do that to any demographic is that more often than not we end us projecting our own personal values on others because of our bias. Listening and learning are key components to faithful change and reform.
Tone and Tenor of Debate
This is a tough one because I’m chief among the sinners here. In a previous article I wrote about the power social media will have in this year’s General Conference gathering. The problem with granting access and voice is that it can become messy. Honest and thoughtful critique can often turn snarky and unproductive when you’re just working with 140 characters at a time. Honesty is important and many will discredit honesty by calling it “snarky.” But nonetheless, critiques and questions should always be measured against the love of Christ.
On the other hand, I’m also concerned by the tenor of the discussion over reform on the other side. Have we really bought into a theology of death for our church if we don’t act? When did our mission becoming defined solely by our actions? When did our identity as church become solely dependent on how effective we are? Here I thought we were called to be the Church of Jesus Christ — a calling defined by life and not death.
I want to wholeheartedly support the concerns of those who want to change the structure of our church. We do need to change and adapt for the 21st Century. But I personally wanted to see a presentation on change based on hope and not death. Why didn’t the presentation ask more questions like “Can you imagine our church looking like this?” or “What if we decided to be the Church in this exciting way?” Instead we heard the same song and dance about declining numbers. I don’t think the numbers and decline should be ignored — they shouldn’t. But my question is should that be the story that ultimately changes us?
These are just a couple of my initial reactions as a distant spectator of the wonderful gathering of The United Methodist Church known as General Conference — a gathering I’m praying for and a church I dearly love.
It’s hard to believe that we’re finally on the cusp of General Conference 2012. The last year has seen the fleshing out of the issues that will define this year’s gathering: reforming structure, clergy effectiveness, new emphasis on local congregations. The pressure is high for delegates because there’s a lot riding on the next few weeks. Jobs will hang in the balance. A whole lot of money will be up in the air waiting to be potentially distributed in a new areas. The hierarchy of The United Methodist Church could look and function drastically different. Delegates must really be feeling it right about now…
So how about we take a deep breath and consider a little reality check?
Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
Before we get too distracted with issues of finances, structure, and authority, maybe we should reevaluate what the “main thing” is? We have a discipleship problem in The United Methodist Church. For those who want to push the Call to Action and similar reform efforts with the caveat that “this isn’t a final solution to what ails us” you should enjoy this reminder.
If discipleship is the main issue, then we should take a deep breath and remember that what happens at General Conference will not ultimately save or kill The United Methodist Church. We can do some top-down tweaks–many of which are probably long-needed changes. But take heart, delegates, what you ultimately decide in Tampa will not ultimately save or kill the denomination.
In a previous post, I introduced the idea that I believe small groups are the key to changing the culture of discipleship we currently have in our local churches. Before we can fully change a culture, we must evaluate the present state of the culture we have and find the grace to tell the truth about it. I believe small groups as we know it quite often are nothing more than an exercise for meeting personal needs (need for intimacy, need for autonomy, need for personal connection). All of these things are fine and dandy, but they will not form disciples of Jesus Christ. To form disciples, we literally need to form small groups that will gather around the idea that one’s personal needs are checked at the door in favor of seeking the needs of a greater story–namely, the kingdom of God.
I had some wonderful comments and critiques about this argument in my previous post. And I want to make sure I’m clear that I do not think all small group ministries are more concerned with meeting needs. In fact, examples like Covenant Disciple Groups and Emmaus FourthDay Groups should be lifted up as examples for all small groups everywhere. The difference between small groups that effectively form disciples and those that do not is the presence of loving accountability. Our Wesleyan heritage offers a blueprint for how small groups (class meetings) emphasize discipleship based on holding one another accountable to a communal covenant of living–“watching over one another in love.” In these small group settings based around accountability, the ultimate aim is to equip one another in the art of discipling–“disciples making disciples” as my friend Steve Manskar says.
And by the way, this practice of accountable discipleship whereby disciples help make disciples is the only faithful way to live into our mission statement, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Why Covenant Based Communal Discipleship?
Covenant-based communal discipleship ensures a couple of important characteristics in a local church:
We are disciples of Jesus Christ. God intends to save us from sin and for lives of love to God and neighbor. God has called us and the Spirit has empowered us to be witnesses of God’s kingdom and to grow in holiness all the days of our lives. We commit ourselves to use our time, skills, resources and strength to love and serve God, neighbor and creation, trusting God’s power through these means to make us holy.
Acts of Compassion
- I will actively seek out ways to show compassion and care for all people and all of God’s creation.
Acts of Justice
- I will witness for justice, inclusiveness, and equality, and encourage forgiveness always and reconciliation wherever possible.
- I will actively support a movement for world peace with justice, and will communicate regularly with my elected representatives on these issues.
Acts of Devotion
- I will spend time daily in reading scripture and offering prayer, including praying for enemies, and include the members of our covenant discipleship group in our daily prayers.
- I will care for my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Acts of Worship
- I will faithfully join in corporate worship each week unless prevented.
- I will offer my resources faithfully to support the work of God’s kingdom, beginning with the local church with which I am affiliated, with the tithe as my guide. Resources interpreted broadly to include money, time and talents.
Name:_________________________________________ Date: ________________
Final Thoughts on General Conference and Our Real Problem (for now…)
As we all get geared up for all the ramifications that will come from General Conference, let’s all take a collective sigh of relief that the future of our denomination will not ultimately be decided in that gathering. Sure, there will be some changes–many of which are probably long overdue, others which will cause some growing pains for the church. But we will still hold worship the following week across the connection. We will still serve the missional needs of our communities as they arise. And we will continue to live and work and grow together as a people called Methodist.
But just a couple of afterthoughts to keep tucked away for the days that will follow General Conference:
Can we try to forge new ways of working with those with whom we disagree? General Conference is a time for caucus group across the connection to spend a lot of time and resources getting folks energized around a variety of issues. But can we just give it a rest come May 4th–even if just for a little while. Change will require we work together and at least seek to bury the hatchet of ideological divide in the name of unity. Maybe we could even fake it if need be, who knows what might come from pretending we actually love one another…
Once we settle (at least temporarily) the issue of structural change, can we please focus on our real problem–namely, discipleship? The thing is, we can’t depend on General Conference to settle this issue. This will have to happen within every local church and station of ministry. Disciples of Jesus Christ do not magically appear from legislative reform. They come through time and effort being spent together–held accountable in mutual love and formed by the practices of the Church and in the ways of Jesus Christ. This comes as result of grassroots efforts being shifted toward the hard and often messy work of disciple formation. It’s not top-down and we have to stop convincing ourselves otherwise.
I have great hope for General Conference despite my apparent cynicism. I know change is coming and, by the grace of God, we will survive it. But I also long to be a realist–one who is able to see the reality that top-down reform cannot change the hearts and minds of a people wandering in the wilderness in search for manna. That comes as it always has for the people called Methodist–as grace, a gift from God. So yes, despite the press and cynicism and divide that abounds, I suppose I’m ultimately hopeful for a number of reasons.
It’s almost here. General Conference 2012 is shaping up to be one of the most important gatherings of The United Methodist Church in some time. Change is on the horizon. Church structure is subject to reform. The tension is quickly rising as delegates prepare to make the trek to Tampa for this important gathering.
Over the next 9 days or so, I’d like to blog on a variety of topics relating to General Conference. Much of this will be guided by the assortment of news and pieces coming out on the cusp of the meeting. I hope folks will interact, debate, and pass this along to members of your delegation.
Bishop Schnase: The Most Significant Arena
In a column released by Ministry Matters today, Bishop Robert Schnase discusses the impact of the Call to Action and how it will aid in the efforts of local congregations discipling members.
Bishop Schnase begins the article by recounting the story of Methodism in the days when it was just a movement. In our earliest days, before we worried about salaries, pension, and buildings to upkeep, we organized in classes, societies, and bands “in order to provide a disciplined accountability to sustain growth in Christ and growth in service.” The aim of the movement was discipleship that sought the total transformation of individual through the means of communal accountability. Schnase gives a wonderfully accessible account of our these alternative communities shaped disciples through the General Rules and practice of the means of grace.
However I notice a suspicious link immediately after his wonderful historical account of Methodism. He says:
Throughout the history of Methodism, the primary means by which we have brought people into this way of life has been through faith communities. Congregations offer the invitation and embrace of Christ. They offer worship that connects people to God and that stimulates the change of heart that transforms lives so that people see the world through God’s eyes. Congregations provide the means to grow in faith through small groups, Bible studies, support groups, and the care of souls. People cooperate with the Holy Spirit in their own sanctification, growing in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. And fruitful congregations help people discern the calling of God to ministries of service, mission, and justice. They provide avenues for life-changing, sacrificial service that transforms the world. Congregations draw people into the body of Christ, and through congregations God changes the world.
Unfortunately, this is not historically accurate with the early Methodist movement! There was, in fact, a movement that existed before it reached the shores of America. Classes, societies, and bands were formed in our earliest history as parallel communities that came alongside Anglican congregations. For the Wesleys, the institutionalized Anglican Church had failed in the areas of discipleship, conversion, and total transformation. Wesley knew there was more to discipleship than merely observing the rituals of congregational worship. However, members of these alternative groups were also required to participate in congregational worship. In our earliest days, congregations were not the primary means of disciple-making — parallel discipling communities like classes, societies and bands did that better than congregations ever could.
Our Book of Discipline says:
“Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs” (¶120)
What if the greatest act of discipling a local church could do is form and nurture parallel discipling communities within the life of the congregation? What if rather than leaving the local church as the basic building block of the church, we seek to break that down even more, recognizing that within our local churches there’s much work to be done on a variety of levels if disciples are to be formed? Truth-telling is an act of grace and we should tell the truth that very often we have a mix of people who are at various points in their discipleship journey.
Rather than a top-down initiative that seeks to take a broad (and vague) look at a major problem, we need a more grassroots approach to discipling in our local churches. Structural reform is important and greatly needed. But please, let’s not get too far out there lest we confuse structure, realignment of money, and a congregation-centric focus with the transformative power of discipling communities. These are not nearly as interchangeable as many of our leaders might want us to think.
It seems it’s becoming passe to hate the Church and claim to love Jesus.
“The Church is an institution that Jesus never intended.”
“Following Jesus is about more than the Church”
“Being Christian can lead us to leave the Church”
These are just a few of the responses I’ve heard to the recent Newsweek article by Andrew Sullivan called Christianity is Crisis. Sullivan touches on a similar chord that Jeff Bethke struck a few months back with his YouTube viral hit Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus. It’s becoming more and more popular for people to construct this sort of false dichotomy where we reject the Church but still follow Jesus. But why is this so popular?
A Bad Case of MTD
In her book, Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean argues that American Christianity has in large part evolved into what she calls MTD (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). My friend, John Meunier, has an excellent introduction to MTD in his latest blog post. But let’s encapsulate it by looking at the 3 terms that make up the concept:
We’re taught that Christians are at least supposed to be decent people who pay their taxes and try to follow the laws. Getting along with one another is among the highest ideals of our MTD.
All of this makes me wonder whether we create this idea of following Jesus without the Church out of a self-centered, individualistic approach to faith. Does personal faith trump the community of faith? Can we be followers of Jesus without the Body of Christ? To these questions and others like them, I say absolutely not.
Faith is a personal idea that is absolutely dependent on a communal experience. One cannot hold one’s faith as a private possession and still call it Christian. To be Christian means we must have a community through which we learn how to live out our faith in the world. A common misconception is that we can read the gospel accounts of Jesus only to gain personal insight on what it means to be a follower. While that’s partially true, it’s not the whole story. The gospels were, in fact, written for communities struggling to figure out what it meant to be people of The Way (and then later Christians). They were a people formed by a communal narrative much like the Jewish people. Greek words like “oikos” (family), “soma” (body), and “ekklesia” (gathering) are the focal points of the New Testament. You see, there’s no “I” in the Body of Christ that doesn’t form a “we” — you simply cannot separate the two.
We’ve seen a growing distrust of institutions throughout modern life. The government can’t be trusted. Politicians are only looking out for their own self-interests. The Church is an institution that would rather offend, exclude, and hoard wealth than be the representation of Jesus Christ in the world. We’ve all heard these critiques before. I won’t dare try to claim that these accusations are entirely false–there’s a lot of truth in them. But I’m beginning to wonder whether criticizing institutions is in turn becoming institutionalized. Think about how many politicians rail against the institution of Washington only to conform once they get elected. The Church is no different. But what if criticizing our institutions is only masking an underlying desire to fight against authority because we honor individuals over institutional power?
In the Church, we call criticism prophetic–speaking truth to power. But we also have to remember that “truth” and “power” are relative and subject to our own personal twisting. My truth against your power sometimes might be nothing more than my wanting to disagree with your ideas on things. Sure, we get locked into the minutia of our individualistic “needs,” but if we’re honest with ourselves, we just don’t like following rules set forth by someone else. Speaking truth to power very quickly becomes an exercise of exerting power.
Are There Any Answers?
Sullivan rightly diagnoses a Church that has too often lost its way in following Jesus. We’ve become distracted by protecting national interests because we think no American means no Church even though the Church is universal and for all time. We’ve become distracted by social and moral issues because it’s easier to talk about other people’s sins than to really examine our own sinfulness that exists no matter how “saved” we claim to be.
But Sullivan (and others who jumped all over this article) missed a major pothole in the road. In the article he claims that the witness of St. Francis (charity and good works) linked with the reputation of Thomas Jefferson (faith rooted in reason) make for a more palatable Christianity. This is precisely what we mean by a bad case of MTD–being nice and exercising a certain amount of reason doesn’t make you a Christian.
It’s About Jesus AND the Church
As much as we love the idea of a renagade Jesus who thumbed his nose at organized religion, it’s simply not supported by biblical evidence. Jesus did critique the Law and Temple life, but he didn’t leave the organized community. He was a faithful Jew who observed the rituals and knew the Law inside and out. It’s an American phenomenon to think one can be faithful by leaving the organized Church to launch out on an individual journey of faith. MTD tells us that in those instances, Jesus just becomes the moral exemplar we choose to ascribe to. That’s very different than the Jesus who came, lived, and died to be the image of the unseen God that sin and death might be eternally defeated.
I want the Church in America reformed. I’m a United Methodist and I believe we need a reform within our denomination. But I’m very skeptical of those who would advocate the Church is dead and so it’s time to jump ship. Folks like Andrew Sullivan obviously speak from an MTD perspective where the individual has the ultimate power in setting the rules for faith. But those of us in the Church should know better. Baptism is literally (at least we say it is) a death to an old life and a rebirth into a new one. It’s something that God does for us. So part of that death is the giving up of the notion that I am the ultimate captain of my life. And if the Church is worth our salt, we should do our dead level best to form individuals into the communal life of a people called to a different way of living in the world. Distractions are not acceptable anymore.
Claiming to follow Jesus means we’re always in a place to be critiqued for falling short. But it also means we’re in a place to choose whether we really want to follow Jesus or simply put a Jesus stamp on our own self-centered journeys. Either way, following Jesus always means it’s about our life together in community.
There’s a popular rumor going around The United Methodist Church these days. The word is that small group ministry is a driver of vital congregations. Essentially, it’s being argued that churches with small group ministries are much more likely to be growing, vibrant churches. I, for one, won’t argue with that. Every church I’ve seen with an emphasis on small groups seem to grow. It would seem that providing space for folks to interact and bond on a smaller level is indeed important for the ongoing health of a church. But here’s the question I want to ask those who advocate this theory: If small group ministry is vital for congregational development, is it also the best format to form disciples of Jesus Christ?
You see, it’s my belief that we advocate a generalized “small group ministry” format not because we’ve seen tremendous discipleship development, but rather because we’ve seen churches grow in size when they employ this as a centerpiece of congregational life. Leaving the concept vague implies that the real emphasis is on growth in congregation size and not growth in our depth of discipleship. Think of how many church plants you see that use small groups as the counter-balance to the large-scale worship experience. Traditional mainliners have long employed this in the Sunday School model for years. Connecting people on a smaller, more intimate level, tends to enhance congregational life. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this method. It’s very important for the ongoing care and meeting of healthy social needs for members.
However, we should at least tell the truth that such a method is often more effective at connecting people within the life of the church, but not always effective at bridging the gap between those connections and discipleship as evidenced in lives being transformed.
Alan Roxburgh points this out in great detail in his book, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition:
“Since the middle of the 20th Century, the small-group movement has shaped congregations. Such groups, by and large, have had little to do with forming people in practices of Christian life. In churches today, small groups usually exist for people to connect on a personal level to find spiritual forms of intimacy in a lonely world. The Bible serves as little more than a springboard for conversation about each other’s lives. These groups do little more than reflect how the metanarrative of modernity, with its focus on autonomy, intimacy, and personal needs, has taken over the imagination of the church. The current use of small groups in church serves to deepen the captivity of the church to expressive individualism and trivializes the biblical narrative by reducing it to a means of engaging personal experience and feelings.” (p. 146)
Roxburgh points out the great flaw of small group ministry is that it will eventually evolve into an exercise of engaging one another on a personal level with the ultimate goal of “being fed” or “having our needs met” or whatever other sort of cliché we like to use in the church. It’s become so much a part of the DNA of the church that we don’t even realize how much time and energy is spent focusing around meeting the needs of expressive individuals. Think about the so-called “worship wars” that have gripped our churches for the last 20 years or more. Or what about the massive growth of niche programs in our churches that have sprung up in an effort to “offer something for everyone”? All of these endeavors have an underlying purpose of giving people what they want–meeting preferences with product.
And this isn’t simply an error of strategy or management–it’s a theological error. Here’s Roxburgh again:
“Those who argue that meeting needs is a strategy to get people into the church miss the point. If we communicate a Gospel that says at the front door that Jesus is all about meeting my needs (remember, most of the time we’re talking about middle-class expressive individualists who are already the most pampered generation on earth), then at some point we’re going to have to tell them that in fact the opposite is the case. Jesus actually came to call them into a life that requires them to let go of their needs.” (p. 147)
The theological error here is that we assume the mission of the church is to grow in numbers and size. In order to grow, we should meet the tastes of our consumers so that they’ll tell others about our product. This growth-oriented mentality comes from the often mis-used Matthew 28:19-20 text. Too often we read “making disciples of all nations” as a numeric command. We too often forget all about the words that follow, “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” When we do this, we sacrifice the obligation to teach in transformative ways that might form disciples.
Small group ministries cannot be treated as a means to grow a church by meeting the needs of spiritual consumers. Therefore it’s my belief that small group ministries, as widely practiced today, are insufficient in forming disciples of Jesus Christ.
A Harder Road, A Better Way
Written into our DNA as Methodists is a rich tradition of small group ministry that didn’t seek to “meet needs” as much as transform lives. You entered a class meeting and essentially joined a parallel community to that of the larger church–one that carried out the function of discipling in ways that corporate worship alone could not. These groups, known as class meetings, provided a format whereby would-be disciples could grow in their faith by way of communal support and accountability. They were the meat to the milk and honey of Sunday sermons and worship. One heard and sang the gospel in worship, but the class meetings were a method to ensure that you had to also apply the gospel to your life in loving and serving God and neighbor.
Today we have The General Rule of Discipleship:
To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit
We can thank David Lowes Watson for this modern interpretation of Wesley’s emphasis on acts of mercy and piety.
I wonder how many of our churches lack the understanding of what it really means to be Methodist. We ascend to concepts like prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace but we fail to make those beliefs into tangible practices in the daily life of our congregations. We sing out of a Methodist hymnal and might even know a little Methodist history, but do we really get the main thrust of the early movement?
To be Methodist meant to carry out a method. And that’s not just a quant fact of history. There’s a methodical discipline to being a disciple of Jesus Christ and our Methodist roots offer us a roadmap of just how to do that. I suppose the great question we should be asking is: Will we remember and heed the challenge of discipleship offered to us by our Methodist ancestors?
Next Post: Covenant Discipleship as a Means of Forming Disciples