I posted on Facebook recently about the need for some old-fashioned peer pressure and support to improve my eating habits. That let to a bunch of helpful comments and some private invitations to join in with others in an accountability group.
As I read these comments on my Facebook page, I thought instantly about spiritual matters. Methodism grew out of such a group. The original Holy Club at Oxford was little more than a group of spiritual seekers gathered to support each other and hold each other accountable. As Methodism became a movement, it fostered such groups across Great Britain and North America. It understood the basic truth that we need other people and external structure to help us overcome our bad habits. Our own holiness grows best side-by-side with others seeking the same holiness.
And yet in so many of our churches we think that one hour of worship a week is all the spiritual effort needed to work out our salvation.
How crazy is that?
Over at the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy blog — a long title on a blog worthy of attention — you can find a discussion of the meaning and significance of the UM doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.
It is a good post and a helpful summary that makes a point of getting down to the “so what?” questions.
One part of it, though, did get me thinking about some of our trials in the UMC.
Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins.
Reading this, I am reminded that many of our brothers and sisters do not believe we need divine intervention to redeem us. They are not troubled by the problems that require God to be both fully human and fully divine. Whether it is the lingering effect of liberal Protestantism discarding of the supernatural or a latent Pelagianism, lots of people do not really believe in their bones that we are in need of a redeemer. A helper, yes. A role model, sure. An encourager and example, absolutely. But not a redeemer.
Many of us are not people who believe the verb redeem describes anything of which we are in need. Or we believe we are the ones who will do our own redeeming.
This is a fundamental problem. It makes Jesus Christ — as understood in our doctrine — unnecessary.
I’m not sure how to respond to that situation as a pastor. People who are not thirsty never seek out the source of living water, no matter how well it is packaged and sold.
The United Methodist Reporter has an interesting look at ongoing work to revise the administrative law in the Book of Discipline to reflect the global nature of the church.
At the end of the story, Bishop Patrick Streiff touched on what strikes me as a key goal:
Streiff hopes that one outcome of the committee’s years of work will be a more stable Book of Discipline that will invite fewer legislative revisions each General Conference.
“If we are right about the essentials,” he said, “they do not need to be changed every four years.”
The unspoken word here is “trust.” The reason why the Discipline keeps growing in length and complexity every four years has to do with trust. It is when we do not trust the structures that in place to oversee the denomination that we spawn more and more rules to try and force behaviors we want.
Worried that the church will not pay enough attention to diversity? Write rules about board membership to ensure it happens. Worried that the boards of ordained ministry will not do their jobs? Put in hard and fast rules about who cannot be ordained. Worried that bishops will run rough shod over clergy? Write rules that restrict bishop’s powers and expand clergy rights.
Rules rush to fill the vacuum created by an absence of trust.
As we all know, of course, trust cannot be decreed. It is the by-product of experience.
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.
The latest E-pistle from my bishop. I added highlighting to one paragraph that really leaped out at me:
Our Extended Cabinet team of 14 District Superintendents, Directors and a couple of spouses has just returned from our trip to Mission Guatemala. That ministry is led by Rev. Tom Heaton, a clergy member of our Indiana Conference who began this mission work just four and a half years ago. Already that ministry has grown into several communities, helping provide health, nutrition and education for some of the poorest people in Guatemala. Our team visited ministry sites, worked hard on a couple of projects and learned from the passion, creativity and energy of Mission Guatemala. Truly Mission Guatemala is helping to transform the world in the name of Christ.
During one of our daily devotional times on our trip, Jennifer Gallagher, our conference treasurer, observed: “We need to be Mission Indiana when we get home.” We all agreed. We are not sure what all that means, but we sense this is our role as conference servant leaders:
- We need to see Indiana as a mission field, even to realize that Indiana is a land that is underdeveloped spiritually, as much as Guatemala is an underdeveloped country.
- We want to help every appointed pastor to see his/her appointment as an assignment to a community and not just to a church.
- We hope that every congregation will see itself as a mission station to serve others, and not as a religious club where the members expect to be pampered.
- We are ready, as the Extended Cabinet, to lead the way, to model a new sense of being on a mission for God and to seek nothing less than a transformed Indiana.
Our mission remains the same: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That mission begins with each of us, and it extends to Mission Indiana.
“Imagine Indiana” helped us to form a new Conference over the past five years, and so “Mission Indiana” may be the next logical step. Indeed our Annual Conference sessions the past two years have already focused upon the themes “Be a World Changer” and “The Outwardly-Focused Church.” Our theme this year will be “Sharing Our Story.” Many churches and many of our pastors and people have already caught this vision of being a church on a mission, making disciples and transforming the world.
Maybe it is time to release those who don’t want to be part of a mission movement – allowing them to go in peace. Maybe it is time to close any church which is not making disciples or reaching its community – and use those assets to start new ministries. Maybe it is time for us to help any pastor who is not “all-in for our mission” to leave with dignity and with support to find another career. Maybe it is time to get serious about our mission and to become Mission Indiana.
I invite you to think and pray about this, to consider whether or not you are “in,” and to discuss this in your congregation, cluster, and clergy covenant group. Are you ready to be a part of Mission Indiana?
Tom Lambrecht has written a series of posts in response to the resolution of the complaint against retired bishop Melvin Talbert. Here are links to Lambrecht’s posts: 1, 2, 3.
Near the end of the third post, he writes this:
The supreme law of the church is no longer the Discipline or General Conference; it is individual conscience. Personal judgment is now the ultimate arbiter of our faith and practice. We are no longer a connectional church, nor even a congregational one, but an individualistic one. Every person is now clamoring to do “what is right in his/her own eyes.”
I wonder what would happen if the Council of Bishops got together like a group of Thomas Jeffersons with razor blades and cut out of the Book of Discipline every line and paragraph that they would be unwilling to enforce or insist upon.
I wonder what the resulting book would look like.
I wonder if it would not be a more honest and more effective book than the one we have.