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

General Conference 400 miles away: The Danger of Unasked Questions

This morning I came across a blog written by my friend, John Stephens, who is the Chair of the Order of Elders here in the South Georgia Annual Conference. In his piece, John asks some fundamental questions about the identity of The United Methodist Church displayed in and through the decisions being made at General Conference.

One paragraph in particular jumped out at me:

“While “making disciples for the transformation of the world” may be our espoused theory, is it really our theory in use?  Is it really what we do?  Does the whole denomination embrace it?  Is the vision shared?  Or, are we a collective of differing interests and priorities?”

Let’s push this reasoning a little further.

I’ve found as of late that the go-to answer in most circles of The United Methodist Church is “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” It’s simple, catchy and even sounds very theological. We throw this answer out whenever we discuss issues ranging from mission to money to church decline. We claim it as a mission statement and, by God, we hold ourselves to using the phrase on a regular basis.

What does it mean to “make disciples”? What does a disciple look like? How does one not only become a disciple but also continue to grow as a disciple?  Why is discipleship important?

These are fundamental questions that I don’t think we have consensus on. So if there’s no consensus, does using that catchy phrase render it empty? In many ways I think it does.

The hard truth about The United Methodist Church is that along with much of mainline, Protestant America, we’ve been more concerned with forming good people — people who love their families, pay their taxes, go to church regularly, and try to be nice to others — than we have with forming disciples of Jesus Christ. Now that people have begun to figure out they can be all of those things without going to church, we’ve lost ourselves in the despair of decline.

We’ve done very little in the Church to distinguish Christianity as something unique and different. We’ve been comfortable in our perch as an American institution and we’ve done our parts to ensure that remain our place in society. Unfortunately the 21st Century has awakened us to the reality that were knocked out of that perch a while ago. We’re just now waking up to that reality.

I’ve heard leaders and advocates of various restructure plans say in one breath “this isn’t a magic bullet” and “we’re doing this to ensure we make our top priority the making of disciples” (my paraphrase). If we aren’t discussing the basic questions of discipleship — what it is, what it looks like, what changes are required to live into it — then plans of restructure are simply plans to grow the church and sustain viability. These aren’t bad things at all. Nor are they 100% mutually exclusive. But we simply can’t go on assuming that we all agree on the very basics of discipleship just because we all agree on a catch phrase. 

I do hope there are some delegates present who will at least ask the tough questions of discipleship when they hear the catch phrase “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” If we don’t ask the tough questions, I fear we are, in fact, making a values statement by our lack of speech. We’ve got a long way to go if that statement is to reflect the reality of our lives together. It’s my hope that we begin the journey of a few thousand miles with a few tough questions.

General Conference 400 Miles Away: The Art of Compromise

“I shall argue that strong men, conversely, know when to compromise and that all principles can be compromised to serve a greater principle.”

-Andrew Carnegie

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…

General Conference 400 Miles Away: Some Initial Thoughts and Questions

[Disclaimer: Methodist nerd alert! Read with caution…]

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:

  • You’re pressured to be the salvation for a declining denomination.

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.

  • Everyone else knows “what’s best” for young adults without asking you

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.

Accountable Discipleship and Why General Conference Won’t Save Us

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.

Addressing Discipleship

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:

  • Discipleship remains a community effort
At some point we have to get past the idea that we can captain our own personal ships of discipleship. Individual-centered discipleship eventually turns into a self-centeredness that’s not conducive with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in service to the world. In other words, to be a disciple requires that we be reminded just how much we need one another. Small groups offer a format whereby disciples can gather in community in order to be held accountable for the fruits of transformation (the ongoing work of sanctifying grace). And the small numbers ensures that everyone can get an equal voice in the group during the alloted time designated for meeting (preferably 45-90 minutes per week). If the group gets too large you run the risk that someone can quietly slip into the background of the conversation.
  • Group covenants demand a discipleship based on an alternative way of living
Here is a sample of what a covenant might look like:

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 political divides take a Sabbatical?

 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…

  • Can we focus on discipleship

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.

Crunch Time: 9 Days Until General Conference

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’s Not About You, It’s About Jesus AND the Church

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:

  1. Moralistic: The object of Christian faith is to be nice to others in accordance with moral lessons in the Bible as well as natural law observed through reason.
  2. Therapeutic: The main purpose of life is to find happiness.
  3. Deism: God created the world and holds ultimate power, but is very uninterested in human life and will not intervene except when someone needs an answer to a problem.

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.

Institutionalized Cynicism

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. 


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