To which heart should we be relevant?

I was at the movie theater when a preview for a Hillsong movie played. One of the only two other people in the theater said to the man sitting next to her, “Why do they think we’d want to watch that?”

Her words reflect the culture in which the church find itself. The crisis of relevance has been with us for a long time. The idea that Christianity is not only unwelcome but also dismissed as ridiculous is gaining wider currency. And, of course, we in the church find ourselves wondering how to respond.

A good question for us is this: What is the cause of people’s negative reactions?

Many people will point to the church itself as a cause. They have no end of advice about ways we can make ourselves more attractive to those who disdain us. But allow me to propose a different interpretive approach.

Is it possible that people disdain Jesus and the church because they are unconverted sinners?

I don’t want to ignore failings of the church. We have many for which we need to repent. We are always in need of reform.

But let’s not forget our theology.

Wesleyan theology, to the extent it still takes Wesley as a guide, suggests three different states for the human heart.

The natural heart neither knows nor desires the things of God. It conceives of itself as happy and self-sufficient. God — if he exists — exists to service the needs of the person or the society. In any event, he should not go around interrupting movies or other activities. My companions in the movie theater had such natural hearts, perhaps.

The convicted heart — one under what Wesley called the spirit of bondage — is aware of God, but its dominant awareness is of God’s great goodness and the heart’s great unworthiness. It is the heart of one deeply conscious of his or her own failings and dirt. It often is the heart of one who feels shame or guilt. I like the old word “wretch” here because it describes one wandering far from God.

The converted heart knows the forgiveness and awesome love of Jesus Christ, and can say in the spirit of adoption Abba, Father, in communion with the holy God of the universe. The converted heart rejoices in God, rejoices in forgiveness, and counts all things in the world as nothing compared to knowing God.

The problem in Wesley’s view is not that we are out of step with the times, but that the fallen world is out of step with God.

Wesley would not be at all surprised to hear what my fellow movie-goer said. For him, though, it would be diagnostic. It would help him to understand the state of her heart, and perhaps form his own ideas about how he might speak to her if given the opportunity.

In writing this, I’m aware of a few things.

First, Wesley’s categories are derived from but not explicitly outlined this way in scripture. You can read Romans in a way to support this, but it is not the only way to read it. Second, I am aware that many of our contemporary theologians view Wesley as a historical curiosity rather than as a vital thinker for today. And these are theologians in our own tribe. Finally, these thoughts don’t touch on the relevance issues raised when we talk about worship styles or cultural forms that welcome or engage different groups. We need to distinguish between relevant styles of worship and relevant doctrine. We need the first. We need to be wary of the second if it means abandoning the gospel. Wesley went where the people were to bring them the gospel.

With all this acknowledged, I do think Wesley helps us think through the crisis in relevance in some ways.

He challenges the easy conclusion that if people don’t want to hear about Jesus we must not be packaging him well. Those with natural hearts should be expected to resist any talk of God and holiness.

He also causes me to reflect on the state of my own heart and those in the congregations I serve. Are we displaying the converted hearts of those who have received the spirit of adoption? Do we desire it? Or do we want the church to bless our natural hearts and soothe away any conviction we might feel?

These are the kinds of questions that arise when you spend time with John and Charles Wesley and then go out into the world.

It is why I keep reading and singing with them.

How do we tolerate Marley’s ghost?

This is the season in which millions of people will watch with joy some version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

It is interesting to me that we can watch this story and approve of its viewing in a world in which any talk of judgment is labeled as destructive to the mission of the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The central arc of this story is a redemption story driven home by the horrible fate awaiting Ebeneezer Scrooge if he does not repent. Granted, an eternity walking the Earth as a ghost burdened by heavy chain is not hell fire, but can there be any doubt that Scrooge’s reform is set in motion by the prospect of the wrath to come?

It strikes me as a deeply Christian parable. But make no mistake, it is a story that stands in deep judgment of Ebeneezer Scrooge and flinches not an inch at the punishment his heart’s unholiness deserves.

How can we reckon this with the popular response to judgment?

In our creed we say Jesus will judge the living and the dead. The Bible certainly says the same thing.

Although some people have popularized the idea that their is no judgment, I cannot agree with such ideas, no matter how appealing. I can’t agree because such a sentiment makes void so much of scripture and church teaching. It also seriously undermines the claim that God is just and faithful, a keeper of promises. The notion that there is no punishment for the wicked strikes me as a hope that only the comfortable hold dear.

The oppressed pray for justice. The oppressors and their anesthetized allies plead for a “reasonable” god, who does not hear the cries arising from Egypt and Babylon.

Isn’t Marley’s ghost nothing more than the convicting spirit of the Holy Ghost? Why do we reject conviction in the church but enjoy it on our television and computer screens?

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 who are 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?

In his footsteps

Some thoughts on 1 John 2:1-6.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

I love that “but.” John is saying — and has just written with a stark image of darkness and light — that we should not sin. BUT if we do sin.

In other words, John is a realist. Indeed, he knows himself. He speaks of “our” sins and the advocate that “we” have in Jesus Christ. He writes in the first person, placing himself among the sinners.

I notice, as well, the atonement language here. Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice,” as the NRSV puts it, or the propitiation. What a contested word we have here. I’m not up on the debate enough to comment, but I will rest on the simple point that John sees in Jesus’ death a radical cure for sin, not only ours but the world’s.

It is not just Paul who makes such a big deal about the death of Jesus and the cross and all that goes with it. Any Christian theology that shies away from the significance of the cross is missing something of utmost importance about Jesus Christ.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

What a series of hammer blows to lazy faith we find here. John does not write it just once and move on. He circles around his point and piles it on. If we claim to know God but do not obey his commands, we are liars. Just a few verses earlier, he said the same thing. If we say we have fellowship with him but walk in darkness, we lie and the truth is not in us.

It is interesting to me how much of these early verses of 1 John are tied up in testimony and action. There is a real concern with how well our actions match our words, and whether our words are shown to be true in our deeds.

That last verse about walking as he walked sounds like an outline of discipleship to me. There is a sermon series there, I would think: Walking like Jesus.

And how is it that we can walk the way he did? Not because we are creatures of light and goodness, no. We can walk as he walked because he is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. If we confess our sins, he will cleanse of of all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9).

As I reflect on these verses, I find that John is offering us a fairly easy to use litmus test for the disciples of Jesus Christ. We in the United Methodist Church talk a fair amount about wanting to make disciples, but we are not often very good at describing what it means to be a disciple. Here is an answer. Obey his commandments. Walk as Jesus walked.

I need a new pair of sandals.

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.

Thanks, Chad, for a good idea

Chad Holtz reports on how his ministry has been impacted by not blogging or reading about the controversies in the UMC.

And praise be to God we have seen the fruit of such labor!   In the past 12 weeks we have baptized 13, brought in 29 new members (with more coming this Sunday), reshaped the vision and focus of our Sunday worship from a traditional, gospel feel to a more modern/contemporary feel, and increased community awareness about the recovery ministry we are gearing up to launch in November which promises to transform hundreds if not thousands of lives in our county starving for such a holistic, Christ-centered ministry.   I don’t share any of this to boast but to simply yet loudly announce this to my colleagues living in cyber space on both sides of this issue:   Get off the computer and get to work!