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.

‘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.

Churches are limited by their leaders

As a leader, you must understand your enterprise will never outgrow you.

— Dave Ramsey

Pastors are leaders, right?

I have to put that question mark on there because I think there are people who would argue against that. Church people often get itchy when words and ideas used in business are spoken in the sanctuary.

But, let’s be honest. Pastor are leaders. We are called and appointed to lead congregations.

This may be obvious to you, but it is weighing on me these days. A few months into my first appointment in the United Methodist Church, I am aware of the truth of Ramsey’s quote. This church I serve was here long before me. It is doing many good things and has many good Christians trying to be better Christians, but its ability to rise above what it is and to do the things it needs to grow and fulfill its mission depends to a great extent on the kind of leadership I offer will it.

That does not mean I am “the boss.” Ramsey makes a great point that people who just try to throw power around are bosses not leaders. As leaders in the church, pastors rarely have that kind of raw power and if they did and used it, they would undermine their own leadership.

To reject bad leadership, though, is not to reject the need for leadership. And it is wrong of pastors to say “I don’t lead the church. Jesus does.” It is wrong because it is an escape from responsibility. Jesus took Peter aside and told him to feed his sheep. Of course, Jesus is the head of the church, but he appoints people to lead within it. I am one of those people.

So, I’m coming to terms with what it means to be a leader of a local church, not just a guy who can write a fairly good sermon, think deep thoughts about Wesleyan theology, and teach a good Bible study. I can do all those things. But what my church needs me to do is to become a leader, a Christian leader, a servant leader, but a leader.

I have few deep thoughts about this to share with you today, but as this blog has been a journal of my progress in faith and into the clergy, I am checking in to share this thought. Pray for your pastor, and pastors pray for each other. I’ll close with a second Ramsey quote that I will carry with me for some time.

Organizations are never limited by their opportunity; they are limited by their leader.