Is someone building an ark?

They say every preacher has one sermon. Dan Dick has one blog post, but it is a good and needful one. Here’s the latest iteration.

In this he laments the low expectations culture of the United Methodist Church as a whole.

We want a definition of discipleship that costs absolutely nothing.  People often comment that they think I make discipleship too hard, that I expect too much of people, that I am unrealistic in my expectations.  I always wonder where people got the idea that discipleship was supposed to be easy and convenient.  Can people be Christian “believers” and not read the Bible and not pray, and not attend church regularly, and not give or serve as an expression of their faith, and not fast, and not share their faith?  Obviously, a lot of people think so.  But be a disciple?  Discipleship has some built-in defining characteristics that are much more demanding than occasionally showing up.  People who haven’t shared in public worship for two years should not be called disciples.  Those too busy to pray, who have no time to meet with other Christians for accountability and spiritual practice, who neglect a sacrificial commitment of time or money should not be called disciples.  Those who do meet to debate carpet colors, criticize the pastoral leadership, snipe over music styles, and decide who isn’t welcome are not disciples.  Those who only pay attention to the parts they like and that make them feel comfortable and lovable are not disciples.  Come on!  Why would anyone want to be a disciple if the key qualification is breathing?

On his blog, I asked — and will repeat here — whether we are institutionally capable of surviving the fall out that would happen if United Methodists got serious about discipleship. Here is what I predict would happen: First, there would be a tremendous amount of conflict and shedding of “members.” Then, the remnant would go forth and be much more like the church as the New Testament describes it. But make not mistake, it would be a much smaller church. It would probably be more active and vital, but it would be smaller.

There would be fewer buildings, fewer full-time jobs for clergy, and even less cultural relevance than we have now — at least for a time.

If we want a church of disciples — I think it says this somewhere in our mission statement — then shouldn’t we being doing the kind of institutional prep work that getting that kind of church is going to require? The image that comes into my head is Noah. If we know a flood is coming, shouldn’t we be building an ark?

Maybe someone is. I can’t hear the hammering from where I stand, though.

Encouraging cross bearing

I’ve been thinking about the necessity of cross bearing the last few days.

As I often do when pondering such things, I’ve been reading John Wesley. Here is his word on the topic from his sermon “Self-Denial.”

The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, Him.

I’ve been thinking about these words and thinking about being a pastor.

When someone comes to me as a pastor and shares a word about how hard it is to follow Jesus, to really follow, do I lose faith in the virtues of cross bearing? Often, I fear, I do. I am good at extending a word of consolation and solidarity. Yes, yes, that is difficult. I struggle with that, too.

But what I fail to say is that, yes, God is calling you and me to do this very thing we find so hard. It is in taking those steps that we discover that we have faith. God will give you grace to bear this burden. Trust him.

I fear my failure in this area is a sign of my own need for spiritual growth. I cannot encourage a practice that I avoid.

Three fruit marks

I’ve been playing around with simple ways to describe what a fruitful Christian looks like from the outside.

Here is one set of three “measures” that might fit the bill. A fruit-bearing disciple of Jesus Christ:

  • Can explain to another person why Jesus is important him or her.
  • Can describe specific ways their love of God is visible in their life.
  • Can describe specific ways they reach out in love to their neighbors.

The goal here is to be able to assess the spiritual maturity of disciples without resorting to some sort of checklist that might promote a legalistic understanding of faith or might create a box into which everyone is forced to fit.

The first criterion might be too vague. Jesus being “important” and Jesus being “my Lord and Savior” are not the same thing. I find people struggle to describe in what way Jesus is their Lord in Savior. Most often — if they can reply at all — they offer a canned phrase that echoes some doctrine or Bible verse rather than an expression of living and vital faith.

I see these not as binary (yes/no) measures but as ways to assess growth. The person who struggles to say more than “I attend worship 3 or 4 times a month” as a description of how their love of God is visible might then be engaged with teaching and counsel about ways to deepen and mature in their love of God.

I’m open to other ideas.

What other ways do you have for assessing the spiritual maturity of disciples?

Rules for a class meeting

I’m working on inviting people into discipleship groups based on the Methodist class meeting, although I’m looking for a name other than “class meeting.”

Here’s a reading of the “rules” of the meeting that would be included in every meeting — after prayer and a scripture reading.

The only condition of entry into these meetings is a desire to become a true follower of Jesus Christ.

We come together to watch over one another in love and to encourage each other in spiritual growth.

We are not here to judge each other, but should come ready to open our hearts.

We are not here to make small talk or gossip or do any business other than tending to the growth of our souls.

We are relying on and expecting the Holy Spirit to touch our hearts and strengthen us.

We are joined in this moment in a sacred trust. All that is said and shared here is to remain here and with God. We will not talk about what we hear in this place with anyone else.

As this fellowship depends upon the participation of each member, we come ready to answer the question: “How is your life with God?”

We cannot stand still

Ebenezer Blackwell was a London banker. He was also a supporter of John and Charles Wesley’s Methodist movement who reportedly gave “considerable sums” to John Wesley for distribution to the poor. In Wesley’s works, we find several letters to Blackwell. A recurring subject in the letters is Wesley’s concern that the wealthy banker faces many temptations and dangers to his soul. Here is one example:

Whereunto we have attained, let us hold fast! But this can only be, by pressing on. Otherwise, we must go back. You have need of courage and steady resolution; for you have a thousand enemies: The flattering, frowning world; the rulers of the darkness of this world; and the grand enemy within. What need have you to put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day! I often tremble for you. And how few will honestly and plainly tell you of your danger! O may God warn you continually by his inward voice, and with every temptation make a way for you to escape!

The letters are instructive for the glimpse they give of Wesley’s pastoral method and for what they reveal about Wesley’s concern for “The Danger of Riches.”

I also find in the quotation above a compelling image of the life of the spirit. We cannot stand still. We either press on or we slide back. We either go on toward perfection or we slip back toward sin.

This is a pastoral rather than a purely scriptural observation by Wesley. It came from his wide experience shepherding souls in all corners of the British Isles. It is also why he was so adamant about the need for individuals to be in society with other Christians. We need the encouragement and at times the gentle prod of others to help us to keep pressing on. Otherwise, we sag and slide and fall away from the way that is set before us.

This all rings true to me.

As a part-time pastor with little direct interaction with more experienced pastors, I am continually grateful for the lessons and challenges that I find in Wesley’s words.

Do you need searching or encouraging?

Here is another case of John Wesley’s attention to the different spiritual states of men and women to whom he was pastor. It comes from some advice in a letter he wrote to a band leader in 1762:

As to your Band, there are two sorts of persons with whom you may have to do – the earnest and the slack. The way you are to take with the one is quite different from that one would take with the other. The latter you must search, and find why they are slack; exhort them to repent, be zealous, do the first works. The former you have only to encourage, to exhort to push forward to the mark, to bid them grasp the prize so nigh!

If we had to sort the people in our congregations into these two groups, could we do it? Do we know the slack and the earnest? Can we tell the difference? Would we like the results if we could?

Of course, a lot of our answers here will have to do with definitions. Without a clear notion in our heads about what it means to “push forward to the mark,” we will have a hard time identifying those who are and those who are not pushing forward. We will have a devil of a time sorting out who needs to be encouraged and who needs to be searched.

We will have an even more difficult time of it if we do not let our means of assessment settle on merely outward things. If we look for changed hearts rather than clean finger nails, it will be even more challenging. And yet, Wesley would say, that is why we were called to this work.