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

What if Membership Vows Are Not Enough???

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

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

But what does that even mean?…

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

What if Discipleship Requires More?

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

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

Hear from Mr. Wesley himself:

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

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

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

–from Sermon #83 “On Patience”

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

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

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

Using Our Baptismal Vows as a Basis for Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

 What Can We Do Now?

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

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

Evangelism as Narrative

In the first post in this series on evangelism, I wrote about the temptation to view evangelism as an exercise of relational power. What could begin as a legitimate mission of spreading the gospel can quickly run amuck when we choose to carry this mission out by means of manipulation, superiority, and inflexibility in terms of how we view “the church” and “the world.” I argue that much of this is due to a misguided priority we place on protecting the institutional church at all costs.

In the second post in this series, I argue that the way we view the idea of Radical Hospitality can serve as an example of our practice of evangelism from a posture of power and superiority. This practice of existing as the church is a fundamental testimony of the God who calls and welcomes us together. When it is used as a means of attractional evangelism, however, it becomes nothing more than a polite ploy to bring people into our church buildings.

In moving toward my own understanding of evangelism in a contemporary society, I want to begin by defining the practice evangelism in terms of narrative.

If we are to have any hope of redefining the practice of evangelism in a contemporary society, we have to begin by understanding what exactly evangelism is in light of the overall life of the church. To do this, we must talk in terms of narrative, or story, both for us as individuals as well as the church and even creation as a whole.

For any activity or practice to be understood, or explained, it must be considered within its appropriate context. As Bryan Stone points out, “narrative is an intrinsically historical genre that embodies the unity of a life across time and points toward some end, or telos” (Stone 2007:39) Therefore, we can argue that to become a Christian is to join a story and to allow that story to begin to narrate our lives. In other words, conversion is the process whereby I grow to understand my personal story in light of the gospel story–past, present, and future. It is the reorienting of our lives as we gradually exchange our story as we’ve always understood it for a new story, born out of the light of the love and grace of God.

I emphasize the term process because more times than not we not converted in a single moment or event, but we are instead gradually changed–transformed if you will–into something new over time and through practice.

One way we have to understand evangelism in terms of narrative is to address how we see ourselves in light of the larger story of history and creation. We must ask ourselves whether the church merely a collection of individuals who happen to be sojourning at the same time and in the same place, or is the church something larger? I would argue for the latter. In order to further the process of conversion, we must shift away from our modern notion that the individual is at the center of creation and social order and see ourselves in light of the much larger story of history and creation.

In the end, we have to ultimately view our narrative in terms of where it will end. The telos of any narrative plays the guiding role of how the story ends. As Christians, we believe the telos, or ending, of the story of creation is salvation: humanity and creation fully restored; God’s shalom. It is quite literally the kingdom of God being revealed on earth.

Salvation is understood as both a present and future possibility. It is a future possibility because we recall that time will end with the culmination of “a new heaven and a new earth”–one where God has triumphed over tears, pain, sorrow, weeping, and death (read Revelation 21:1-6). It is the end, or telos, that narrates where we are headed.

But salvation is also very present in our current time. It’s what happens when love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimate unity triumph in a world that would offer a different trajectory of its story. Salvation offered by God to the world is not a set of ideas that people then are able to deem as credible or incredible. Salvation in this life is quite literally a community that finds its life source in its being shared together, and with the world, and into which people are invited to be welcomed and incorporated by the Holy Spirit. It’s a visible expression of life as it was meant to be from the beginning of creation–shared together in union with all people and creation. The church is made capable of witnessing to God’s salvation only when it becomes a witness itself. In this, the story of salvation becomes the message expressed and made visible to the entire world; one that goes well beyond programs, cliches, “attractional” emphases.

Next Post: Evangelism Beyond “Conservative” and “Liberal” Approaches

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lenten Reflection: The God Who Won't Leave Us Alone

I always find it curious that one of the goals of a seminary education is to locate and understand the work and presence of God. For many of us we subscribe totally to the omnipresence and omnipotence of God in all time and everywhere. This logic sticks God’s endorsement on every circumstance in life. For others of us, this assumption correctly falls short in that it can eventually justify evil and other tragedy. Therefore, we are careful to locate God in places where it is consistent with what we understand God’s activity to be. If God is indeed everywhere, we fear both what that endorses and also how that judges us in return.

It is difficult to locate God only in certain places. For instance, we tend to locate God in church and worship. We then locate God in certain practices of worship. For instance, we can argue God only shows up in the Eucharist or in the singing of traditional hymns or the preaching on Sunday morning. This limits God to only being present in the realm of worship.

Outside of worship we tend to locate God only in places where we see justice or where we see the piety of individuals. This is suspect because when we place God only in the practices of worship or personal piety we forget God’s place in the everyday means of life where justice and equality and love are to be the goals of all existence. On the other hand, when we locate God only in the social realm of justice and love and equality we tend to escape our accountability to be transformed into creatures that are meant to live out a life with God by means of pious and holy practices. Is this done without God? Surely not. But by God’s grace we can not rightly argue the immediacy for God’s justice and righteousness of such an immediacy is not present and practiced in our own lives. On the other hand, we can not take God out of the social realm in favor of the personal God who seeks only to “save souls” without such salvation entailing a means of living holy lives both personally AND socially.

I am becoming more and more convinced in my seminary education that seminarians, preachers, etc. are just as susceptible to the assumption that God is ONLY where WE wish God to be. In this season of Lent, the season of the Cross, we are reminded to reflect on a Savior who died for the pious and unpious, the faithful and unfaithful, and the individual and the social sects of humanity. This Savior knew no distinction for salvation and, therefore, saved all people everywhere.

It is difficult indeed to locate God. What’s more, how do we explain a God who may be present, though ignored, in the face of that which is evil and oppressive and sinful? I don’t know. But by God’s grace we are reminded that the shadow of the cross covers all and even the bleakest of circumstances. So a better question might be: is this our greatest fear or our great hope?

Implications from a New Testament Lecture: More Questions than Answers

So the other my New Testament professor pointed out a text from Paul used in both Romans and Galatians. In Greek it is Pistis Christeou. Translated it is “Faith Christ.”  Now the debate is whether this text refers to “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ.”  And the implications of the translation could be very meaningful to the text and its interpretation.  ”Faith in Christ” refers to the traditional Xhristocentric claim that salvation comes through belief in Christ alone.  But if one translates the phrase to mean “faith of Christ” then universalist claims could be given more validity.  In other words, if we are justified by the faith of Christ then is that exclusive for Christians alone or for everyone?  And what is the nature of our understanding of salvation?  I will say that I don’t know and don’t have a clear stand on either option.  The discussion served to raise more questions for me than answers.  But it did make me reflect on a couple ideas:

  1. What is salvation? For Paul it definitely was not “going to heaven when you die” as we have come to understand it.  Throughout his letters he argues that salvation is inclusion in the community of saints and the inclusion into God’s holy community (i.e. the Church).  There was a definite tension for the communities Paul writes to.  Some are too focused on the “already” aspect of the Kingdom of God and are not living holy lives as examples of this faith (remember that Faith = obedience for Paul).  Some were so focused on the “not yet” aspect they were fearful of what would happen to them and their loved ones who died before Jesus’ return that they retreated from community life and stopped living as examples.  But there are not really texts we can point to for Paul that define salvation totally as the notion of one’s going to heaven when they die.
  2. Why are we so threatened as evangelicals (or orthodox) if Paul does not make exclusive claim to salvation meaning one’s going to heaven? I fear that for too long we in the church and as Evangelicals have used this notion of heaven=eternal reward and hell=eternal punishment as a bullying tool to manipulate people into a one-time experience of “being saved.”  Now I know I am breaking from tradition-especially the one I grew up in as a United Methodist in the South.  But I am beginning to think we have really missed the mark by stressing such notions and especially by neglecting to stress other and more important notions pertaining to salvation.  Salvation means life with God right now and that life is lived out in community.  This life is required (not merely suggested) to be lived seeking and working to bring the Kingdom of God to earth through holy living where we seek to edify one another with the love of Jesus Christ.  This notion of limiting salvation to ONLY mean where one might spend eternal life has, I’m afraid, given Christians the permission to be soft on issues of justice and righteousness right here in THIS LIFE.  We turn a blind eye when injustice happens because, after all, at least we know where we are going.  We turn a deaf ear to issues of life or death for others because, after all, we are banking on being swept up in the “by and by” before things get too bad-mainly because of a bad reading of Revelation either by ourselves or Tim LaHaye.
  3. Does salvation “happen” when we “accept” it or “ask God” for it? I have a real hard time with this idea of the transactional nature of salvation.  I would love to think I can simply ask God and he grant me something as large as my salvation.  But then we are reminded that it is but for the GRACE OF GOD that are included in God’s holy community.  When Christ died he died for ALL of us then, before, and those to come after (which is us).  This inclusion comes to ALL-and even us.  We can’t limit it nor can we act as gatekeepers to the Kingdom.  And thank God because I’m not sure if I get in if anyone other than God is gatekeeper.

I know for some this may anger you that a self-avowed Evangelical Christian writes such things that go against the very tradition of Evangelicalism.  I know for others you may be glad to hear that maybe I think a more universalist notion of salvation is in order-well don’t put me over there either.  I wonder if the real answer here is the non-answer?  Maybe the beauty of this particular debate is that we aren’t the ones who have to give the answers?  Maybe we shouldn’t worry about the after-life nearly as much as we always have.  And if that’s the case, then what does that mean for how we live the life we have RIGHT NOW???