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
I’ve been reading through the book, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, as part of my Lenten discipline. It’s a fantastic read from some of the greatest theologians and authors you could ever find compiled in one book. But this reading from Soren Kierkegaard is probably one of the very best essays I’ve read in a long time on discipleship and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I welcome you to share this post with folks in your church, prayer circles, and small groups. These are words all hopeful disciples of Jesus Christ should read and meditate on.
It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for. Christ understood that being a “disciple” was in innermost and deepest harmony with what he said about himself. Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6). For this reason, he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching – especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible. Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving, not instructing it. At the same time – as is implied in his saving work – he came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower. This is why Christ was born and lived and died in lowliness. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to sneak away from the Pattern with excuse and evasion on the basis that It, after all, possessed earthly and worldly advantages that he did not have. In that sense, to admire Christ is the false invention of a later age, aided by the presumption of “loftiness.” No, there is absolutely nothing to admire in Jesus, unless you want to admire poverty, misery, and contempt.
What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires. To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm. Admirers are only all too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. As such, they refuse to accept that Christ’s life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended at him. His radical, bizarre character so offends them that when they honestly see Christ for who he is, they are no longer able to experience the tranquility they so much seek after. They know full well that to associate with him too closely amounts to being up for examination. Even though he “says nothing” against them personally, they know that his life tacitly judges theirs. And Christ’s life indeed makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it. When there is no danger, when there is a dead calm, when everything is favorable to our Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a follower. And this can happen very quietly. The admirer can be in the delusion that the position he takes is the true one, when all he is doing is playing it safe. Give heed, therefore, to the call of discipleship!
If you have any knowledge at all of human nature, who can doubt that Judas was an admirer of Christ! And we know that Christ at the beginning of his work had many admirers. Judas was precisely an admirer and thus later became a traitor. It is just as easy to reckon as the stars that those who only admire the truth will, when danger appears, become traitors. The admirer is infatuated with the false security of greatness; but if there is any inconvenience or trouble, he pulls back. Admiring the truth, instead of following it, is just as dubious a fire as the fire of erotic love, which at the turn of the hand can be changed into exactly the opposite, to hate, jealousy, and revenge. There is a story of yet another admirer – it was Nicodemus (Jn. 3:1ff). Despite the risk to his reputation, despite the effort on his part, Nicodemus was only an admirer; he never became a follower. It is as if he might have said to Christ, “If we are able to reach a compromise, you and I, then I will accept your teaching in eternity. But here in this world, no, that I cannot bring myself to do. Could you not make an exception for me? Could it not be enough if once in a while, at great risk to myself, I come to you during the night, but during the day (yes, I confess it, I myself feel how humiliating this is for me and how disgraceful, indeed also how very insulting it is toward you) to say “I do not know you?” See in what a web of untruth an admirer can entangle himself.
Nicodemus, I am quite sure, was certainly well meaning. I’m also sure he was ready to assure and reassure in the strongest expressions, words, and phrases that he accepted the truth of Christ’s teaching. Yet, is it not true that the more strongly someone makes assurances, while his life still remains unchanged, the more he is only making a fool of himself? If Christ had permitted a cheaper edition of being a follower – an admirer who swears by all that is high and holy that he is convinced – then Nicodemus might very well have been accepted. But he was not! Now suppose that there is no longer any special danger, as it no doubt is in so many of our Christian countries, bound up with publicly confessing Christ. Suppose there is no longer need to journey in the night. The difference between following and admiring – between being, or at least striving to be – still remains. Forget about this danger connected with confessing Christ and think rather of the real danger which is inescapably bound up with being a Christian. Does not the Way – Christ’s requirement to die to the world, to forgo the worldly, and his requirement of self-denial – does this not contain enough danger? If Christ’s commandment were to be obeyed, would they not constitute a danger? Would they not be sufficient to manifest the difference between an admirer and a follower? The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. No, no. The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires. And then, remarkably enough, even though he is living amongst a “Christian people,” the same danger results for him as was once the case when it was dangerous to openly confess Christ. And because of the follower’s life, it will become evident who the admirers are, for the admirers will become agitated with him. Even that these words are presented as they are here will disturb many – but then they must likewise belong to the admirers.
-Kierkegaard as found in “Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter,” p. 55-60 (bold print is my addition for emphasis)
Don’t conform. Stand out. Be an individual. How often have we heard these mantras promoting the virtue of individualism?
I remember hearing an analyst of the Olympics talk about the difference between the U.S. and Chinese teams in various sports. The two countries were neck-in-neck in medal count and the roundtable group was discussing the strengths and weaknesses, similarities and differences between the American and Chinese approaches to Olympic sports.
The analyst noted, “China performs better in team sports that require synchronization and shared effort. The Americans always shine in individual sports that allow for dynamic flare.” [paraphrased]
This should come as no surprise at all. Individualism is the spirit of American life. If you want to make it in this world, you have to forge your own way and chart your own course. We live in a society grounded in the sense of individual rights and liberties. We celebrate one’s ability to stand out from a crowd and be unique. We turn those who are innovators by breaking the assumed rules of our culture into pop culture heroes .
Individualism in the Church
The Church has succumbed to the same love for individualism. So much of our Christian lives are expressed in terms of “my faith” or whether something “feeds me.” I’ve even read a very well-known United Methodist pastor argue for contemporary praise songs over traditional hymns because it’s more experience driven to sing to songs “to God, rather than about God.” (Adam Hamilton, “Leading Beyond the Walls” p. 72)
Not long ago the Barna Group released a study that found while Christianity dominated America (81% self identified as Christian), only 21% of those polled believed that spiritual maturity required a vital connection to a faith community.
What do these two example hold in common? For starters, I think both of these examples show that much of what we call “Christian” is rooted in an individualistic approach to faith.
It’s a fine idea to sing songs to God. The Psalmists regularly wrote psalms addressing God directly. And I’m a big fan of the idea of giving people a more personal glimpse of worship–one that links head and heart and life in real ways. But we must remember that the psalms describe the character of God just as much (if not more) than they personally address God. A steady diet of songs to God will eventually create a world where worship is primarily about me and God and where God is little more than what I make God to be at any given moment.
Likewise, one’s personal relationship with God is very important. That same Barna study showed that 78% of those polled felt strongly that spirituality is very important to them. But if only 1 out of 5 see that spirituality as dependent on one’s connection to a faith community, then spirituality simply becomes a personal affair. Spiritual maturity is not served at a table set for one. And as I’ve argued previously, true discipleship must not be limited to one’s own personal experience.
Spiritual But Not Religious Christians
Much has been said recently about a group labeled, Spiritual But Not Religious. Many consider this to be a growing group (often younger) of folks who want the spirituality of faith without the rigidity of organized religion. But I believe the Church in America has long been creating members who prefered individual spirituality over being accountable to a community. The 20th Century presented a paradox where evangelicals made famous the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” while liberals spent a great deal of time and energy conflating biblical justice with individual rights and liberties. Either way you slice it, the 20th Century did a great deal to produce a Church marked by individualism. Even now, as we decline in membership we try to be one-stop shops tailored to everyone’s personal needs. So before we get too high on our high horses about the “secular world” and what it’s done over the last 50 years to contribute to the decline of the church, let’s remember that the individualism we bemoan now has been alive and well in our churches for some time.
A Shift in Culture
For all of the talk about reform and realignment in The United Methodist Church, very little has been said as to how we can integrate a culture of discipleship in our churches. Sure, we can all identify the need for more discipleship, commitment, and faithfulness. But we can’t seem to go into much detail as to how we do this and what it will look like. I would like to offer a few suggestions for changes in church culture that could address this need for more discipleship in our local churches. These are in no particular order:
1) Church attendance and giving do not equate discipleship
2) Discipleship MUST be a culture of accountability
3) Discipleship means nothing short than a transformed way of living
“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.”
Individualism has its place in our world. And personalized faith has its place in the life of the church and how we practice discipleship. But we cannot divorce personal belief from accountable living if we’re to have any hopes of creating a culture of discipleship in our churches. To emphasize conversion, and then to leave faith solely in the realm of personal experience would be to have an abortion of the new life God promises in Jesus Christ. Personalized grace is cheap if it doesn’t come with the cost of submitting ourselves to one another in love.
American individualism might be a praise worthy virtue but it’s not the way of the Church. So if we hope to have any substantive conversations on church renewal, let’s ponder that idea for a while, collectively confess our sins accordingly, and begin anew the complex and rich life of accountable discipleship together.
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