A house upon the sand?

In the course of his sermons expounding on the Sermon on the Mount, John Wesley comes to consider the significance of Matthew 7:21-27. In that discourse, he begins by sketching out what it means to build our house upon the sand.

Near the beginning of the sermon, he singles out the preacher as one at risk.

After I have thus successfully preached to others, still I myself may be a castaway. I may, in the hand of God, snatch many souls from hell, and yet drop into it when I have done. I may bring many others to the kingdom of heaven, and yet myself never enter there. Reader, if God hath ever blessed my word to thy soul, pray that he may be merciful to me a sinner!

This is a warning that cuts to the heart and highlights the temptations preachers face. To so many people, we are the face of piety and faith. This is often not deserved and certainly not sought, but it remains. Wesley here shakes us from such delusions.

Wesley goes on — in his typical fashion — to warn against relying on good works or being innocent of any outward harm. These are also sand if relied upon to take the place of real Christianity. To those who can preach and teach all orthodoxy, who do no harm, and how a diligent in doing good, Wesley warns we may hear a harsh word from Christ in the last day.

Even then I did not know you as my own; for your heart was not right toward God. Ye were not yourselves meek and lowly; ye were not lovers of God, and of all mankind; ye were not renewed in the image of God; ye were not holy as I am holy.

Once again, we come face-to-face with the essential element of Christianity as understood from a Wesleyan perspective: holiness of heart and life.

I am reminded when reading Wesley how he distinguishes between things that I often hear others conflate. The goal of Christianity is new creation, holiness of heart and life, to be remade in the likeness of Christ. The means to this goal are conviction, justification, assurance, good works, piety, and so on.

I am often tempted to confuse the means with the end. I confuse the outward and inward activity for the actual change and transformation that these things are meant to foster. And I confuse myself about the basis on which Jesus will judge all humanity at the end of the age. He will not judge whether we practiced the means. He will judge whether we achieved the end.

Wesley closes the sermon — and therefore his series of 13 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount — with an exhortation to the practice of a religion of the heart.

Let thy religion be the religion of the heart. Let it lie deep in thy inmost soul. Be thou little, and base, and mean, and vile (beyond what words can express) in thy own eyes; amazed and humbled to the dust by the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Be serious. Let the whole stream of thy thoughts, words, and actions flow from the deepest conviction that thou standest on the edge of the great gulf, thou and all the children of men, just ready to drop in, either into everlasting glory or everlasting burnings! Let thy soul be filled with mildness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering towards all men; — at the same time that all which is in thee is athirst for God, the living God; longing to awake up after his likeness, and to be satisfied with it! Be thou a lover of God and of all mankind! In this spirit do and suffer all things! Thus show thy faith by thy works; thus “do the will of thy Father which is in heaven!” And, as sure as thou now walkest with God on earth, thou shalt also reign with him in glory!

In his day, such an exhortation drew thousands to Methodism and repelled thousands more. It was met with the charge that Methodists held out too high a standard for Christianity. People could not attain this and remain in the world. It would cause men and women to despair of salvation. It was fanaticism not fit for a reasonable religion.

We have — more or less — sided with Wesley’s critics. Few of us could read the paragraph quoted above and relish it as a portrait of the faith to which we aspire and to which we call our brothers and sisters.

I am left, though, with the question suggested by Jesus’ warning. In ignoring Wesley’s teaching here are we building our house upon the sand? Is that why we are so badly buffeted by the floods and storms of our age?

Of the church

 

In a post on First Things, Stephen Webb writes about the nature of theologizing today. He asks where we locate authority in an age in which belief in the self-interpretation of Scripture and the brilliance of bishops no longer holds. He asks what are “the necessary conditions for the Church’s ability to embody Christianity in the midst of the erosions of a spiritual marketplace”?

In his post, Webb nods toward Rome but also holds out hope for a diffuse church with many points of authority.

In our current United Methodist debates, we are dealing with some of the same questions.

  • What is the church?
  • What is the basis of its authority?
  • What is necessary for it to “embody Christianity” in today’s world?
  • How can it maintain its integrity or defend its boundaries?
  • How can it also creatively engage changing conditions in the world?

Our conversations and announcements do not usually explicitly engage these questions, of course. What we often talk about instead are the rules in our Book of Discipline, the dysfunction of various bodies, the bad faith of rival groups, and the lines our own consciences will not allow us to cross.

I’ve read before that part of our mushy ecclesiology in United Methodism comes from a combination of John Wesley’s desire never to see his movement exist as an independent church and our own aping of the institutions and values of the new American republic when we put together our own constitution.

That may all be so. Nonetheless, I wanted to see what John Wesley’s sermon “Of the Church” might tell me about our own answers to some of these questions.

Wesley starts by distinguishing between the building and the people.

How much do we almost continually hear about the Church! With many it is matter of daily conversation. And yet how few understand what they talk of! How few know what the term means! A more ambiguous word than this, the Church, is scarce to be found in the English language. It is sometimes taken for a building, set apart for public worship: sometimes for a congregation, or body of people, united together in the service of God. It is only in the latter sense that it is taken in the ensuing discourse.

Wesley works through his understanding of the church from the top down. Leaning on Ephesians, he first defines the church universal by the marks laid out by Paul.

The catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world … as to be “one body,” united by “one spirit;” having “one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.”

Those members of that universal church gathered in a single country, form a national church. Those in a single city the church of that city. In addition, following Scripture, Wesley writes that we may think of a church within a single household or even as a church constituted by the gathering of two or three in the name of our Lord.

In other words, Wesley’s conception of “the church” does not fit very well into our denominational boxes.

Wesley goes on to consider the definition of the church laid out in the Articles of Religion of the Church of England. He expresses disagreement with the Article’s requirement — that I believe derives from Reformed theology — that the “pure word of God” be preached and the sacraments be “duly administered.” In his text, Wesley displays both his anti-Roman Catholic sentiments and his catholic spirit.

I will not undertake to defend the accuracy of this definition. I dare not exclude from the Church catholic all those congregations in which any unscriptural doctrines, which cannot be affirmed to be “the pure word of God,” are sometimes, yea, frequently preached; neither all those congregations, in which the sacraments are not “duly administered.” Certainly if these things are so, the Church of Rome is not so much as a part of the catholic Church; seeing therein neither is “the pure word of God” preached, nor the sacraments “duly administered.” Whoever they are that have “one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of all,” I can easily bear with their holding wrong opinions, yea, and superstitious modes of worship: Nor would I, on these accounts, scruple still to include them within the pale of the catholic Church; neither would I have any objection to receive them, if they desired it, as members of the Church of England.

And so, to see what the church truly is — according to Wesley — we must look to a closer definition of those marks, which he lays out for us.

The church catholic are those who have

One spiritSome understand hereby the Holy Spirit himself, the Fountain of all spiritual life; and it is certain, “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Others understand it of those spiritual gifts and holy dispositions which are afterwards mentioned.

One hope a hope full of immortality. They know, to die is not to be lost: Their prospect extends beyond the grave.

One Lordwho has now dominion over them, who has set up his kingdom in their hearts, and reigns over all those that are partakers of this hope. To obey him, to run the way of his commandments, is their glory and joy. And while they are doing this with a willing mind they, as it were, “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.”

One faithThis is not barely the faith of a Heathen; Namely, a belief that “there is a God,” and that he is gracious and just, and, consequently, “a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Neither is it barely the faith of a devil; though this goes much farther than the former. For the devil believes, and cannot but believe, all that is written both in the Old and New Testament to be true. But it is the faith of St. Thomas, teaching him to say with holy boldness, “My Lord, and my God!” It is the faith which enables every true Christian believer to testify with St. Paul, “The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

One baptismwhich is the outward sign our one Lord has been pleased to appoint, of all that inward and spiritual grace which he is continually bestowing upon his Church. It is likewise a precious means, whereby this faith and hope are given to those that diligently seek him.

One God and Father of allthat have the Spirit of adoption, which “crieth in their hearts, Abba, Father;” which “witnesseth” continually “with their spirits,” that they are the children of God: “Who is above all,” — the Most High, the Creator, the Sustainer, the Governor of the whole universe: “And through all,” — pervading all space; filling heaven and earth

Here Wesley offers not only a definition of the church that breaks the boundaries of denominational lines — giving preference to geographical ones — but also evicts from the church catholic huge numbers of people now at worship in most congregations. This point he brings home with particular force near the end of the sermon.

The Church is called holy, because it is holy, because every member thereof is holy, though in different degrees, as He that called them is holy. How clear is this! If the Church, as to the very essence of it, is a body of believers, no man that is not a Christian believer can be a member of it. If this whole body be animated by one spirit, and endued with one faith, and one hope of their calling; then he who has not that spirit, and faith, and hope, is no member of this body. It follows, that not only no common swearer, no Sabbath-breaker, no drunkard, no whoremonger, no thief, no liar, none that lives in any outward sin, but none that is under the power of anger or pride, no lover of the world, in a word, none that is dead to God, can be a member of his Church.

Wesley’s purpose in this sermon was not merely to offer a definition of the church, of course. It was a polemical sermon aimed at critics of his movement who objected to him harming the Church of England. And yet, his definition does give us the opportunity and the responsibility to reflect as United Methodists on the nature of the church.

I have a few thoughts. I am not sure I can or would defend these are final thoughts, but they are provisional ones suggested to me by reading Wesley’s sermon, and that alone.

First, the church is both universal and local, but it is not denominational. Denominations exist — to repurpose language from our Book of Discipline — for the maintenance of worship and edification of believers. Denominations are human superstructures that support the universal church gathered in particular places. Our devotion and zeal, however, is owed more to the church universal in our city or neighborhood — whatever denominations might provide its material support — rather than merely to those who depend upon the same superstructure.

Second, we have a lot of people who claim to be part of the church but simply are not. They have their name on the books at the denomination, but not in the book kept by our Lord. I cannot tell you that I know who is who. Wesley believed that was fairly simple to work out with simple questions, ones we do not ask very much these days. What standing such people should have in the denomination is difficult to discern.

Third, I find in Wesley’s formulations a challenge to the via media proposals and the recent statement of our Council of Bishops that want to ground “the church” in merely the sharing of creedal orthodoxy (the devil believes as much and is a devil still) or a unity based on a denominational mission statement. These may be strategies for holding together a denominational superstructure, but they do not strike me as representing a robust view of the identity of the church catholic.

I don’t imagine these thoughts of mine will solve any of the problems facing the United Methodist Church today. I do find them stimulating me to think in some different ways about the UMC and my local congregations, though.

The measure of a great team

From Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage:

Some people find this extreme emphasis on results to be a little cold and uninspiring. But there is no getting around the fact that the only measure of a great team — or a great organization — is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. … See, no matter how good a leadership team feels about itself, and how noble its mission might be, if the organization it leads rarely achieves its goals, then, by definition, it’s simply not a good team.

When I read this, I detect a couple problems for the United Methodist Church.

First, I’m not sure most local churches or our denomination as a whole can state what it is that we are setting out to accomplish. We have things we say, but I’m not convinced we say it with the kind of clarity we need to actually judge our own accomplishments.

John Wesley said some vague things, too. You could argue “spread Scriptural holiness across the land” is not terribly specific. But he did flesh this out with quite a bit of detail in theory and in practice. Among his more specific statements was the word to his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.

What are we trying to accomplish?

The second thing that emerges for me as I read this is discomfort. I want to wriggle away from what Lencioni is saying. I want to come up with a reason to deny what he claims. I don’t want to agree when he says a team that fails to achieve its goals is not a good organization or lead by a good team.

I want to avoid this because agreeing with him calls for action.

Do you want to be healthy?

You have no reason to take the recommendation I am about to make. I have no place dispensing advice on leadership or fostering organizational health. I’m a Myers-Briggs INFP who has spent most of my life in more-or-less solitary work.

All that said, I think every church leader should read Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

While the book is geared toward business, the insights clearly apply to churches.

Lencioni describes healthy organizations this way:

  • Minimal politics
  • Minimal confusion
  • High morale
  • High productivity
  • Low turnover

Wouldn’t you like to be part of a church that fits that description? Do you know a church that falls short on one or more of those dimensions?

Lencioni’s book is organized around describing four disciplines that are necessary for organizational health.

  • Building a cohesive leadership team
  • Creating clarity
  • Overcommunicating clarity
  • Reinforcing clarity

In addition to description and examples, the author also offers steps that an organization could take to build strength in these areas. I found nearly every section of the book challenging and inspiring.

For instance, under the discipline of creating clarity, Lencioni offers six questions every organization needs to be able to answer and every member of the leadership team needs to agree about.

  1. Why do we exist?
  2. How do we behave?
  3. What do we do?
  4. How will we succeed?
  5. What is most important, right now?
  6. Who must do what?

Lencioni describes each of these questions in depth and outlines methods for arriving at answers to them. Wouldn’t it be exciting to be part of a church that could work through those questions and arrive at answers that all the key leaders embraced? I know my answer is “yes.”

I offer these examples from the book to give you a taste of the topics in the book. Of course, there is much more depth than a few bullet points can convey.

The ministry of order is an area in which I need to grow quite a bit before I am fit for ordination in the UMC. I think this book will be an important tutor for me. A line from the last chapter will stay with me for a long time.

There is just no escaping the fact that the single biggest factor determining whether an organization is going to get healthier — or not — is the genuine commitment and active involvement of the person in charge. … For a church, it’s the pastor.

I have to say, I believe he is right. Lord, help me act on that belief.

If we want war, we have it

My favorite blogging DS, Sky McCracken, has added to what is a growing genre of blog posts appealing for more Christian discourse in the midst of our differences. Several other Methodist bloggers have weighed in on this topic recently.

McCracken writes, in part:

If we want war, we already have it. But if we want to be people of peace who truly embrace Jesus – we HAVE to sit with each other. Talk. Build relationships. Pray. Desire to have a heart that is at peace rather than at war. Listen. Quit labeling. Quit looking for “code” words. Long before we had any books on conflict resolution, we had Jesus modeling all of these things.

In my seminary classes, we use a book by Marshall Rosenberg called Nonviolent Communication. In it, he argues for a form of communication that is oriented toward observing facts, naming our own feelings, taking responsibility for them, and making requests of one another. (A one page summary of the model is here.) The goal is not to persuade but to understand. Rosenberg argues that we should put down the tools of persuasion and rhetoric and the seductive power they provide.*

Needless to say, this is not the kind of discourse we often see on the Internet. It may not be a form of communication possible in a disembodied medium like this. But reading the book again this week for class does bring home the contrast between Rosenberg’s ethic and the strategic rationality (to use a term from Jurgen Habermas) that dominates our discourse.

It has me pondering what I might do to change things. Please note, I am intentionally turning my gaze inward here. It is easy to say what everyone else should do. But — as I learned in family systems theory — the only part of the dysfunctional system I can change is myself. And so, I am thinking about that today.


*For what it is worth, I am not giving a blanket endorsement of Rosenberg’s book. His theological base assumes all humans are by nature good and compassionate, and he finds talk of sin and moral guilt life destroying. With some revisions to account for fallen humanity and redemption in Christ, much of what he says is both helpful and instructive, but I do not embrace his theology (largely unstated) or anthropology (explicit from the first sentence).

Community without Christ

Ed Stetzer’s reflections after discovering that the son of progressive evangelical Tony Campolo has become an atheist chaplain contain several good points that are worth your time to read.

One of the one’s that caught my eye goes like this:

In this extremely informative and compelling talk Bart gave earlier this year to the SSA Annual Conference, he is quite clear that he embraced a Christian community, but not the Christian faith.

As parents, we need to work to ensure our children have a relationship with Jesus, not just a desire to be part of a loving community doing good. In other words, we need to ask, are we discipling or merely socializing our children in church?

One thing that has struck me about some the church talk I’ve been around since I started attending church on a regular basis is how much church is sold as a community. In some settings, this is so strongly emphasized that it can feel as if the community is more important that Jesus Christ himself.

John Wesley wrote that church is a body of believers who gather first to save their own souls, second to help each other in working out their own salvation, and third to roll back the kingdom of Satan and set up the kingdom of Christ. Community serves these ends and it may be the final result of these efforts, but community itself is not the point of it all.

It may just be the introvert in me speaking, but I do think we get that out of whack at times.