A few pretty ideas and nothing more

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. (John 3:36)

Do you ever encounter this in church? Do you ever meet Christians who cling tightly to verses that promise life to those who believe in Christ and yet ignore the call that Christ puts on their lives? They act as if “belief” in Christ means nothing more than saying a few words with sincerity about his divine nature and his resurrection from the dead.

I find this attitude rather widespread and also quite difficult to change. Christians have been persuaded that this thin version of belief is all that is required for them to get to heaven, and so they rest happy in the delusion that Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, calls them to do nothing more than to hold a few pretty ideas in their head. They cling to John 3:16 and Romans 10:9 and look for loopholes in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the sheep and the goats.

The phrase I picked up from somewhere along the way goes like this: “The hardest people to convert to Jesus Christ are nominal Christians.”

Have you found this to be true? Do you have an experience with moving people deeper in their belief?

‘The process’ and the pastor

I was listening to Bill Simmons interview Los Angeles Lakers Coach Luke Walton. Although the Lakers are not winning a lot of games right now, Walton said he thought the team was succeeding this year because it is building habits and setting a foundation that will help the team become what it needs to become down the road.

I often here leaders in sports and business talk like this. They talk about process and building fundamentals and foundations. They have a clear vision in their head what “winning” looks like and they can measure success along the way based on moving toward that vision.

So often, it feels to me, that we in the church do not have anything similar. We can list things the church does, but quite often cannot clearly sketch what the church is building toward or tell you if we are getting closer to or farther from our ultimate goals.

For John Wesley, the vision was pretty simple at its core. He wanted to move people toward holiness. Therefore, everything he did was judged based on whether it helped do that. Reading his journals, it does not sound like he started with a blueprint for what Methodism would become in his head. He simply had a goal in mind and knew what “success” looked like — more and more Christians making serious strides toward holiness in heart and life. As he went, he judged new ideas and processes against this goal.

Other church innovators and planters often have a more clear vision of an end product they hope to create. They see “successful church X” and in their minds strive to recreate that in whatever place they find themselves.

In my first year as a full-time pastor, I find myself thinking about this and wondering what “success” should look like right now. I wonder what we should be building toward and how to get the congregation to buy-in to that vision. I wonder how to lead this and how to do things day-to-day to make progress toward that goal. I am aware that it is my job to answer these questions.

At the end of the interview, Walton said the biggest difference he felt between being an assistant coach and a head coach was the constant demand on his time and attention. The responsibility never ends. There are no breaks. The head coach is always responsible for moving ‘the process’ forward. So is the senior pastor.

Evangelical amnesia

Scot McKnight was one of the first evangelical writers I read as a new Christian. If you have never read his books or his blog, I’d encourage you to do so.

Recently, he wrote a blog post about the demise of evangelical Christianity.

As an evangelical Methodist, I find much of what McKnight writes in his post compelling and on target. Indeed, I would say that much of what is troubling United Methodist churches that I have been a part of can be attributed to the degree to which we are afflicted by the ills McKnight outlines in his post. We United Methodists are evangelicals with a case of amnesia. We have forgotten that we are evangelicals. We have forgotten ourselves and therefore have no idea why we are here or what we should be doing.

McKnight highlight the following areas of trouble. See if any of these ring true to you.

The Bible is diminished – Preaching is not rooted deeply in it. People do not study it. We are not shaped, formed, and challenged by it on a daily basis.

Evangelism is diminished – We do lots of mission work, but somehow that activity has been divorced from church planting and the salvation of souls. Whether it is overseas or in our own communities, we are very eager to provide bread for the body but not food for the soul.

Vocations are diminishing – Is this one true in the UMC? McKnight writes that the numbers of people coming forward to seek vocations as pastors is decreasing. I don’t know if that is the case in my conference in the UMC. I know that my commissioning class was fairly large by recent standards, but that may be a decline overall from historic trends. I do know that there is much talk in my conference about retirements out-pacing new vocations.

The Cross is diminished — McKnight’s point is that there is a lot of confusion and contention around atonement theology. Camps are divided. Progressives seek theories that downplay or dismiss the notion that Christ died for our sins. Conservatives go all in on penal substitution and ignore other aspects of the work of Christ on the cross. In all this, we end up diminishing Cross and  — dare I say — emptying it of its power.

I’m sure these critiques are not valid in every place United Methodists gather, but much of McKnight’s critique seems like it applies to us as well. It feels in the church that we are much more comfortable with “doing good works” than we are in the hard work of sanctification or the often unrewarding work of preaching the gospel to those who have not heard it. And we are really, really, really good at clustering together with like-minded folks and clucking about how those “other Christians” are doing it all wrong.

What do you think? Does any of this seem on point to you?

What can we do to shake off our amnesia and help others to do the same?