The questions I get asked the most

In my work as a pastor, I’ve come across a curious gap. It looks like this. In my work with regular Christians and non-Christians, the questions I get most often are some version of the following.

Who is going to heaven?

Is ____________ in heaven?

How do I get to heaven?

The word “heaven” is not always used, but that is the meaning of what people ask and what they want to know about. Even when people ask less heavenly questions, the concern about heaven is in the background. If someone asks me about their divorce or the pet vice that they can’t give up and want me to help them justify, the unspoken question behind the conversation is often something like “can I still get into heaven, despite the thing I’m asking you about?”

A lot of people think a lot about heaven, and a lot of them think I am a person who should be able to help them find answers those questions.

Despite these facts, I don’t hear pastors and contemporary theologians talk much about heaven. Or rather, what I hear and read most is caution about putting too much emphasis on heaven. We are advised not to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good and taught the ways that popular notions about heaven are not biblical. I have many teachers who can help me redirect and divert attention from these questions to “more practical” concerns.

More and more, this all strikes me as strange.

Here we have lots of evidence before us of a gnawing hunger for teaching and instruction, and often what we offer in response is self-help, politics, and pop philosophy. It would be like going to a dentist for help with a tooth ache and being told to sign up for a plan to put fluoride in the city’s water or being given advice on how to live with the pain.

Perhaps there is in this observation some explanation for the great gap in vitality between the early Methodist movement and the United Methodist Church today. The Holy Spirit stirs up these questions. He causes the ache, but too often we send people away with academic arguments and political slogans when what they need is some spiritual root canal.

Contrary to our practice, John Wesley did not shy away from the topic of heaven. Indeed, the question “what must I do to get to heaven” was the animating force of his own spiritual journey and his ministry. In the preface to his standard sermons he described the sermons themselves as the result of his labors to discover in the Bible the way to heaven. As he wrote: “I want to know one thing — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore.”

And so I wonder what would happen if that became our question as well. What if the central question of our ministry was “How can I show people the way to heaven?” Would it change what we do? Would it change what we teach?

I hope to explore these questions further in the coming the weeks.

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Are we a church or an institution?

Do we in the United Methodist Church consider ourselves a church or a human institution?

Yes, I know, the answer is both because we in the UMC always say the answer is both. But bear with me for a moment, please.

As I’ve listened to clergy in the UMC begin to prepare themselves for a possible split within the UMC, I hear lots of people saying some variation of this: “The institution might change, but God’s work continues.” Or this: “Whatever happens, I know that God called me to this vocation and God will see me through even if the institution falls apart.”

These kinds of statements are variations on the theme you often hear when clergy and laity talk about the United Methodist Church. They betray, I think, a weak theological understanding of the church or, perhaps, an unspoken acknowledgement that we are not really a church at all.

In the minds of many in the United Methodist Church — left, right, and center — seems to be the idea that the UMC is a human institution not a product of the Holy Spirit’s work. I get the impression that many of us do not really believe that the Book of Discipline is a result of the Holy Spirit’s guiding hand in our conferencing. I suspect that many do not really believe that the Holy Spirit works through the General Conference. Many of us have seen how the sausage is made and find it hard to believe the Holy Spirit was leading the process.*

I suspect all this because of the ease with which we speak of the demise of the UMC and the way I hear so many speak of it. I get little sense that many of us understand the UMC to be a church raised up by the Holy Spirit, sustained by his power, and in communion with one another and with Christ. We tend to speak of it as a bureaucratic superstructure that holds our local congregations together — sometimes against their will.

It may very well be that God has decided that the UMC as it is constituted now no longer serves his purposes, and God is working to do a new thing with our church. God might be dividing us or purifying us. We see only in part right now, and so it is hard to say. But I find it helpful to remember that the UMC is itself a work of the Holy Spirit, a clay vessel, perhaps, but one with precious treasure within and formed by the potter’s hands.

If we believe we are a church, the way we talk about the bishop’s commission and the possibility of church division should reflect that. We should talk much more about what God is doing in and among us and have much less brave talk about the mere institution being something that does not really matter in the end. If the institution does not matter, was it ever a church to begin with? On the contrary, it matters a great deal.

The United Methodist Church was raised up by the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s ends on the earth. And right now the church is like Jacob wrestling with the Spirit at night, aware of our failures, anxious about our future, and crying out for a blessing. I don’t know how this encounter with the Holy Spirit will end or which direction we will be sent limping away from it, but I do think we would all be better served if we would be intentional about the way we think about the church and speak of it in these times.


*Do we betray an aversion to incarnation here? When pushed do we resist the idea that God actually works in and through messy human beings?

Remembering what it means to be a Christian

We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.

— Rod Dreher, from the Introduction to The Benedict Option

The church in every age is tempted by the surrounding culture as Christ was tempted by the devil. Worship me, the church is told, and you will have power and prestige. It is the deal that kings and aristocrats made with the church. It is the deal that plantation owners made with the church. It is the deal that the Nazi government made with the church. It is the deal that America makes with the church.

The result of the church’s easy acceptance of the 20th century American version of this temptation is the desolation of the 21st century church. It turns out that rather than power and prestige, the church’s easy embrace of American cultural values — consumerism, me-first individualism, militaristic nationalism, and therapeutic spirituality — has led to the church’s marginalization. With little to offer people that they could not get in other places, the church found itself with less and less to say that was not already being said by others. As a result, more and more people see the church as irrelevant to their lives.

At its core, I believe, the problem of the church is that a great many Christians have no idea what it means to be a Christian. We leaders in the church have failed to teach, and the people have failed to learn. Instead of Christianity, a great many Christians practice a kind of hopeful niceness with a veneer of Christian vocabulary layered on top of it. Many of them would be stunned to learn that being a good American and a friendly neighbor are not the sum total of what it means to be a Christian.

This development has not gone unnoticed, of course. I am not breaking any new ground in writing this. Indeed, this problem is not even unique to our day and age. The Bible is a story of the ways in which God’s people have chased after things that are not God rather than worshiping and being formed by obedience to God. Remember the stories about that apple and that golden calf?

This is the same problem we read Paul scolding churches about and John of Patmos dictating letters about in Revelation. It is what inspired Luther to get his hammer out and John Wesley to preach while standing on his father’s tomb. And so it stirs many in the church today.

One response to this need is the The New City Catechism, which has been published as a book and has a handy mobile app. The Catechism is a short work — only 52 questions — packaged as a devotional. It grows out of the Calvinistic Gospel Coalition and is based heavily on the catechisms from Westminster and Heidelberg. The roots of the catechism mean it cannot be easily adopted wholesale for use in Methodist churches. For instance, the Heidelberg catechism was adopted by the very same Reformed Synod that condemned the Ariminian affirmation of free grace.

And yet, there is such pressing need for good formation and teaching in our churches, that I believe the New City Catechism could be a useful resource for pastors and lay leaders who want to help their congregations better understand what we believe and how that belief shapes the way we live.

I’d be interested in resources for teaching you have used in your churches and in hearing about ways you have used or adopted catechism in your ministry.