Hauerwas, Rolling Stone, and Mars Hill

It is probably because I’m reading Resident Aliens again, but I keep hearing Stanley Hauerwas when I’m reading other things.

For instance, this Christianity Today piece on this Rolling Stone article about the sex lives and norms of Millennials strikes me as something straight out of Hauerwas. (BTW, read the Rolling Stone piece and tell me again how polyamory is not something the church needs to be able to talk about.)

The gist of the CT piece is the author’s shock at the sexual norms of Millennials followed by the realization that advocating for conventional biblical sexual norms will either be drowned out or will drive people away from the church. Instead, the author comes to realize, all that talk about what to do with our private parts is intended not for the pagan culture outside the church but for those inside the church trying to live a new people.

From the records we have, we can deduce that Paul talked about sex with people who were already within a church community. He didn’t stand up on Mars Hill in Athens and preach about immorality. He told the story of Jesus, the one who rose from the dead. He didn’t argue about “lifestyle issues” with pagans. If he argued about anything, it was about grace and truth and love. And then he told the story of Jesus again. (See Acts 13, and Acts 17 for two examples.)

Of course Paul writes plenty about sex, but again, he does so to people in Christian communities and he almost always does so in the context of whole-life change. Sex is one moral issue amidst a host of others. Paul assumes that for these Christians to change—whether in what they eat or who they sleep with or how they talk or anything else—Paul assumes change will be radical, positive, and ongoing. He assumes it will only happen with the help of the Spirit, in the context of Christian community, and only as they grow up in the knowledge and love of Christ.

Christian speech is only intelligible inside the community called church. This sounds a lot like Hauerwas to me.

The writer concludes that she should not speak of biblical morality at all outside the church community. I’m not convinced that is the right approach.

I’m certainly not advocating getting on a soap box and screaming “fornicators!” at people on the street. But there is something to be said, I think, for the claim that Jesus Christ is Lord and he offers something that all the sexual exploits in the world cannot. When Paul stood up in Athens, he did not shy away from saying he knew something about God that all their searching and striving had missed.

We should never be smug. To be a Christian is to be humble and meek. But I don’t think we want to hide the holiness of Jesus Christ under a basket.

I could be argued out of this thought. What do you think?

A failure to communicate?

David Watson looks at the United Methodist Church’s main web site. If our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, he asks, why is that mission so hard to discern from the web site?

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

Distinguished evangelist: Mark Beeson

Here is a story e-mailed out by Riley Case. Whatever your reaction to the Confessing Movement, this is a fascinating profile of a United Methodist elder’s path from church camp to mega-church.


By Dr. Riley B. Case

The Sunday I visited Granger Community Church (United Methodist) in Indiana the pastor, Mark Beeson, was concluding a four-part series on “The Bridge.”  The eries was on sin, Jesus Christ, the cross, and salvation.  For three weeks two platfors stood on either side of the stage, one representing God and one humanity.  The space between was the chasm of sin.  For three weeks sermons dealt with how to bridge that chasm.  On the fourth week there was a bridge, representing Jesus Christ, through whom we have access to the Father.  At the close of the service, while an old camp meeting hymn was sung, “Come, Ye Sinners Poor and Needy” (set to contemporary music) persons were invited to walk to the platform and give their hearts to Jesus by walking across the bridge.  In the several services nearly 400 made the walk.

It is not often that one hears of nearly 400 persons making a decision for Jesus Christ in one church on one Sunday. But that is the sort of thing one could expect to happen at the Granger Church. While the news is not always encouraging within United Methodism this is something to celebrate. Beeson became Granger’s founding pastor in 1986.  Today this mega-church worships over 5,100 each week on three campuses.  The church has a major ministry in inner city South Bend.  It has trained hundreds of pastors in India.  It has an effective ex-offenders ministry.

This year the Foundation on Evangelism awarded its Distinguished Evangelist of the Year award to Granger’s pastor, the Dr. R. Mark Beeson.  Thus Beeson joins such giants as Eddie Fox, Ed Robb, Adam Hamilton, and Jorge Acevedo, some of the past recipients, as persons who have done outstanding work in the United Methodist world in evangelism.

United Methodism has a number of large, significant congregations but very few that qualify as “mega-churches,” which for our purposes might be defined as churches with over 5,000 in attendance, usually “seeker-friendly,” often new church starts, almost always contemporary in style.  The Beeson story might help to explain why there are not so many mega-churches: in brief it is because:

1) Mega-churches are almost always evangelical in orientation, an orientation frequently not affirmed by United Methodist leaders.

2) Mega-churches are almost always pastored by unusually gifted, creative pastors, the kind that are often alienated by UM institutionalism.

3) Other UM churches and pastors often are not supportive of mega-churches because they see them as a threat.

Mark Beeson as a Christian was birthed by the (former) North Indiana Conference through its camping program (as was Michael Coyner, now bishop of the Indiana Conference).  In 1962 North Indiana enrolled 3,200 senior high youth in its Institute programs and 1,147 junior high youth in its Camps Adventure.  The camps were successful because they were district based and had clergy involvement.  They were also evangelistic, especially the junior high camps. Denominational outsiders, who sometimes served as consultants, were often critical because the camps didn’t seem like camps.  Their critique, especially for junior highs, was that Camp Adventure wasn’t really camping. It was more like–in today’s terms–a glorified Jesus Festival.  There was much more talk about Jesus than nature.

No matter.  Hundreds, thousands have been won to Christ.  One of those was Mark Beeson who was saved, anointed, and called to preach all in one week at Camp Adventure.  He has never deviated from that call.  And part of that call was to give back to Camp Adventure and to the church what was given him.  For the next forty years, and even today, Beeson has preached and ministered and been committed to junior high camp.  If the mission of the church is to make disciples for Jesus Christ there is no better place to begin than with youth and at camp.  When Granger found itself without a youth director not long ago, the lead pastor, Mark Beeson, took over the program temporarily.

Because he was such a gifted communicator Beeson would soon be called upon to work in as many youth camps as his schedule would permit.  Never a very patient person he was ready to go to the challenge, which was pastoring, which he probably would have done at age 16 if he had been allowed.  Age 16 did not work but age 18 did.  The superintendent had a church, Cammack, ready to close but he gave them a last chance with a recent high school graduate, Mark Beeson.  The church grew from 30 in weekly attendance to 65 in three years.

But United Methodist pastors have hurdles, like seminary. Some students thrive in seminary, some do not. Mark Beeson did not.  This was the early 1970s, a period of radicalism in the UM Church.  When Beeson came in talking about Jesus they thought him far too enthusiastic.  They called him charismatic before he even knew what the term meant.  He expected opportunities for spiritual growth and Bible training.  What he got at his UM seminary was professors who smoked and cursed, and who seemed mostly interested in Viet Nam, inclusive language, and discounting evangelicals.  Beeson transferred.

The Board of Ordained Ministry was the next hurdle.  Boards of Ordained Ministry do not take well to flamboyant, independently-minded candidates who talk frequently about the will of God.  The board felt Beeson had a rigid (i.e., evangelical) theology and “authority issues.”  They also did not want pastors who might end up being “lone rangers.”  He didn’t fit the institutional mold.  Beeson was delayed.  He needed a different attitude.  But he had friends who gave him encouragement, and he made it through.

Then came the issue of the new church start.  The North Indiana Conference did an unbelievable thing in the mid-1980s.  It went outside the denomination and brought in Carl George of the Fuller Institute for Church Growth and Evangelism.  George’s message, which at least some in the conference bought into, was that the key to church growth was in new church starts, and the old method of building a first unit and waiting for people to show up, was no longer a workable strategy.  What was needed was “skunks” (church growth had its own language), unusually gifted, highly creative, highly motivated pastors.

Several pastors thought they fit the description, including Mark Beeson.  Beeson on his own got further training; he also did research on the Granger area, an area of population growth between South Bend, Elkhart, and Mishawaka, Indiana, where he believed a church should be planted.  The conference leadership was not pleased, for various reasons.  Beeson had pastored a conventional church that had not gone well.  Again the charge of “lone ranger” came up. Pastors don’t usually make their own appointments.  When Beeson said he had been called to start a new church a superintendent replied, “We’ll tell you when you’ve been called.”  Like many areas in Indiana this location seemed to encroach on other churches’ parish boundaries.  Elkhart, a city of 42,000 had 14 UM churches.

Beeson, and others, were aware of what had happened to Beeson’s brother-in-law, Joel Hunter, in Indianapolis, just a couple of years before.  Hunter had grown the Mt. Auburn Church to an attendance of 1,800 and the church needed to expand and build.  The superintendent and bishop were not pleased with Hunter’s ministry. Hunter was too evangelical; his dreams seemed unrealistic. Nearby UM churches believed they would lose members if Mt. Auburn expanded.  Through the Board of Church Locations Mt. Auburn Church was denied permission to expand and, by implication, to grow.  Hunter left the denomination and went to Florida to Northfield Church in Orlando which grew from an attendance of 200 to over 10,000, the largest church in Florida.  Hunter was hardly a right-winger; he prayed at the 2008 Democratic Convention.

In the end Beeson’s appointment was made to the Granger new church start. Perhaps no appointment was so thoroughly debated during the time I served on the cabinet, as this one, but as it was said, if the conference was going to bring Carl George in as a consultant, why not listen to him?  There have been bumps along the road.  An associate left and took part of the congregation.  The economic slow-down hit the South Bend- Elkhart area hard (President Obama made two visits). But the gospel is preached and disciples are being made for the transformation of the world.

(If you want to see an example of the worship at Beeson’s church, you can see a recent service including baptism here.)

The oldest heresy

Andrew F. Walls has been a key thinker in Christian mission and the transmission of faith for a number of years. I only discovered him this week when I read an article he wrote contrasting being a proselyte and converting to a new faith. The essential difference, he argues, is that a proselyte abandons the old culture and joins a new one, giving up ways of life that are incompatible with the new one.

He argues that the early church had a choice between being a proselyte church or a converting one in the first decades after Christ’s resurrection. That was what all the arguments over food laws and circumcision were about. The proselyte party wanted a church that remained essentially Jewish and required its members to become Jewish and adopt Jewish ways. Set against that was a church that took converts, people who brought their whole life and culture with them into the church. It was then the church that was challenged to, in Walls words, read Christ into and through that culture.

Walls marks the start of this turn from proselytizing Jewish church to converting Christian one with the first persecution after the stoning of Stephen that sent the first followers of Christ out into Gentile cities, where they continued to proclaim Jesus.

This meant talking about Jesus in a new way. There was little to be gained by stressing the ethnic term “Messiah.” It could be translated into Greek easily enough, but the translation (“the Smeared One”) would still seem odd to anyone not well acquainted with Jewish institutions. Explaining it would require a lengthy introduction to the Scriptures; and supposing there were Greek pagans with the interest and stamina to pay attention, they might still be puzzled to see any relevance to their own situation. Why should they rejoice that the national savior of Israel had arrived? What sort of good news to them was the restoration of Israel?

Walls argues that the cultural encounter with and incorporation of non-Jews into the church also led to pushing Christ into the culture. And he argues that this choice and tension still remains one of the most important aspects of the Christian mission:

The distinction between proselyte and convert is vital to Christian mission. It springs out of the very origins of that mission, demonstrated in the first great crisis of the early church. The later church has seen many heresies come and go, but the earliest of them has been by far the most persistent. The essence of the “Judaizing” tendency is the insistence on imposing our own religious culture, our own Torah and circumcision. Christian conversion as demonstrated in the New Testament is not about substituting something new for something old—that is to move back to the proselyte model, which the apostolic church could have adopted but decided to abandon. …. Nor is conversion a case of adding something new to what is already there, a new set of beliefs and values to supplement and refine those already in place. Conversion requires something much more radical. It is less about content than about direction. It involves turning the whole personality with its social, cultural, and religious inheritance toward Christ, opening it up to him. It is about turning what is already there

Evangelical preaching

From Mark Noll’s The Rise of Evangelicalism:

The preaching that occasioned these conversions represented something new because its practitioners were intending to work directly on the affections and were aiming directly at life-transforming results. This preaching was sometimes provided by itinerants (Whitefield, Howell Harris and soon many imitators), sometimes by settled ministers (Daniel Rowland, Jonathan Edwards) but in all forms it sought not simply intellectual communication but also the responsive engagement of the whole person. The power of evangelical preaching lay in its depiction of a severe divine law and a capacious divine gospel.

This description is of the preaching that was beginning to take hold in England in 1739 and thereafter. What strikes me about this description is how we tend to divide the two things that Noll observes were joined. The very notion of a severe divine law is deeply contested today and often overtly criticized. It was so in the 18th century as well, at least to a degree. Wesley complained frequently about preachers who were all gospel and no law.

Have you heard preachers hold law and gospel together with skill and power? Is it needed today? Would it yield results?