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.

Preserve me from bigotry

I read today a blog post by a United Methodist who considers the election of Karen Oliveto as bishop as an opportunity for the United Methodist Church to “lance the boil” of bigotry enshrined in our Book of Discipline.

I want to sidestep getting into an argument with that blog about the definition of the word “bigotry” and the writer’s assertion about the church’s bigotry. Those are old arguments, and I have little doubt whether I could persuade that writer or those who think as he does to change his opinions.

But the post did get me thinking again about one of our doctrinal standards in the United Methodist Church, John Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry.”

In that sermon, Wesley uses a brief passage in the Gospel of Mark as his starting point. In the Gospel, Jesus rebukes the disciples for their eagerness to shut down a man casting out devils in the name of Jesus because the man is not part of their group. Wesley uses this sermon to address voices in English Christianity who were condemning other Christians because they worshiped differently or were dissenters from the Church of England or were — as the Methodists often were — viewed as irregular or illegal gatherings because they allowed lay preachers to preach. Wesley’s plea was that Christians judge such things on the basis of results.

Wesley starts by observing the scope of the devil’s work in England.

These monsters might almost make us overlook the works of the devil that are wrought in our own country. But, alas! we cannot open our eyes even here, without seeing them on every side. Is it a small proof of his power, that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land? How triumphant does the prince of this world reign in all these children of disobedience!

He less openly, but no less effectually, works in dissemblers, tale-bearers, liars, slanderers; in oppressors and extortioners, in the perjured, the seller of his friend, his honour, his conscience, his country. And yet these may talk of religion or conscience still; of honour, virtue, and public spirit! But they can no more deceive Satan than they can God. He likewise knows those that are his: and a great multitude they are, out of every nation and people, of whom he has full possession at this day.

Many in the United Methodist Church today, of course, would cast Wesley with the bigots for his list of those under the power of the Satan. But please stick with me rather than getting bogged down on that point. Wesley’s point is that the devil is at work in people’s lives and the work of a Christian minister is to be the instrument that God uses to break that power and bring them into the kingdom. We can see the work of casting out devils to the degree that these signs of the power of Satan are broken in the lives of men and women. Here is how devils are cast out, Wesley writes.

By the power of God attending his word, he brings these sinners to repentance; an entire inward as well as outward change, from all evil to all good. And this is, in a sound sense, to cast out devils, out of the souls wherein they had hitherto dwelt. The strong one can no longer keep his house. A stronger than he is come upon him, and hath cast him out, and taken possession for himself, and made it an habitation of God through his Spirit. Here, then, the energy of Satan ends, and the Son of God “destroys the works of the devil.” The understanding of the sinner is now enlightened, and his heart sweetly drawn to God. His desires are refined, his affections purified; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, he grows in grace till he is not only holy in heart, but in all manner of conversation.

So here is what I hear Wesley arguing as a preface to addressing the issue of bigotry. He is arguing that the real issue of concern for the church is that people need to be saved from the power of Satan and that this is effected by the preaching of repentance and the building up of people in holiness. This is the standard we should use to judge the work of other Christians. To criticize them or refuse to recognize them on the basis of other issues, he cautions, is bigotry.

But how do we know if another preacher has cast out devils in the manner Wesley commends. Here are his words.

The answer is easy. Is there full proof, (1) That a person before us was a gross, open sinner? (2) That he is not so now? that he has broke off his sins, and lives a Christian life? And (3) That this change was wrought by his hearing this man preach? If these three points be plain and undeniable, then you have sufficient, reasonable proof, such as you cannot resist without wilful sin, that this man casts out devils.

And so, this might be our practice, too, when dealing with division within our denomination. Rather than getting into endless fights over worship styles or even points of doctrine and theology, perhaps, we should follow Wesley’s lead and ask of each other this question: Can you show that your ministry has brought sinners to Christ in such a way that they have broken off from their sins?

Yes, yes, I am aware that the problem with my recommendation is that we disagree about whether sin is sin. And that is not unimportant. But can we find signs that those with whom we disagree cast out devils by their ministry? Can we see clear evidence that God uses their ministry to save men and women from the power of the devil?

If we can, Wesley would caution us not to forbid them from doing their work. And so, it seems to me, that we cannot be good Wesleyans or good Methodists or good Christians if we do not ask for such signs. Neither can we, upon seeing such signs, ignore them.

For Wesley, this is the true mark of bigotry — to see the work of God in the ministry of another and to oppose it still because that person does not follow our “party, opinion, religion, or church.”

I do not personally know enough about the ministry of other pastors and bishops to make such determinations. I find the work in my own church is consuming enough that I have little time to examine others carefully. But I do want to be mindful of Wesley’s warning and his closing admonition in his sermon:

Think not the bigotry of another is any excuse for your own. It is not impossible, that one who casts out devils himself, may yet forbid you so to do. You may observe, this is the very case mentioned in the text. The Apostles forbade another to do what they did themselves. But beware of retorting. It is not your part to return evil for evil. Another’s not observing the direction of our Lord, is no reason why you should neglect it. Nay, but let him have all the bigotry to himself. If he forbid you, do not you forbid him. Rather labour, and watch, and pray the more, to confirm your love toward him. If he speak all manner of evil of you, speak all manner of good (that is true) of him. Imitate herein that glorious saying of a great man, (O that he had always breathed the same spirit!) “Let Luther call me a hundred devils; I will still reverence him as a messenger of God.”

May God preserve me from ever being a bigot.