Throwing fish at hamsters

Francis Chan is not a United Methodist, but reading some of the marketing materials produced by our denomination make me think of a Bible study he once taught.

Chan was teaching about how he has a hard time reading in the Bible about the church of the New Testament and then looking at the church as it exists in contemporary America. He describes his experience as being like walking into an ice skating rink and seeing people throwing fish at hamsters that are running around on the ice. When he asks them what they are doing, they say, “We’re playing soccer.”

Chan said, “I don’t even know where to start.”

When I read through the #BeUMC website materials produced by United Methodist Communications, I’m not sure where to start. The points of emphasis in the messaging have that unique quality that marketing language often has. It appears to say something without actually saying anything.

Take, for instance, this statement: “We embrace the fundamentals of the Wesleyan tradition and dedicate ourselves to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

There are words here that sound specific, but they are empty containers that people can pour into whatever they desire. I have no idea what they mean by “the fundamentals of the Wesleyan tradition,” and I suspect that is the point. If we were to identify what those fundamentals were, we would start to draw lines and make distinctions that are not useful if your goal is to say “you can believe anything and be a United Methodist.”

What is most interesting to me in the overview materials is that they miss something that absolutely jumps out of some of the supporting research. I dug a little deeper — and it is hard to get too deep here — and found this nugget. In the research that supposedly supports the #BeUMC messaging they asked UMC laity what they thought should be the primary focus of the church — saving souls or advocating for social justice.

Go read the overview of the #BeUMC messaging again. Based on that page, what do you think the underlying research would say. Just take a guess. Based on what is written as a summary of their research, how important do you think UMC laity say saving souls should be?

Just as a reminder, John Wesley told the early Methodists we have no business in this world except the saving of souls.

What answer did you come up with?

Would you be surprised to learn that 70% of UMC laity said our main focus as a church should be saving souls for Jesus Christ?

Seven in ten.

And yet, in the materials about the #BeUMC message there is not a word about salvation.

Consider this for a moment. A website produced by the communications and marketing arm of a Christian church makes no reference to salvation, even though the supporting research behind the website notes that 70% of UMC members think the salvation of souls should be the main focus of the church.

As Francis Chan said, “I don’t even know where to start.”

The perilous work of the pastor

I read an immense amount these days about clergy burn out. My brothers and sisters serving churches are well aware of the many pressures that have come with leading a congregation during a pandemic.

When I find myself feeling such burdens or stress, I often find it helpful to ask myself what lies at the core of what I’m doing. Finding my focus often helps me better cope when days get difficult. It may not help you. It does help me to ask questions about who we are and what we are about.

What is the work of a pastor?

Here is one of the ways John Wesley described it:

It is, indeed, a very great thing to speak in the name of God; it might make him that is the stoutest of heart tremble, if he considered that every time he speaks to others, his own soul is at stake. But great, inexpressibly great, as this is, it is but the least part of our work. To “seek and save that which is lost;” to bring souls from Satan to God; to instruct the ignorant; to reclaim the wicked; to convince the gainsayer; to direct their feet into the way of peace, and then keep them therein; to follow them step by step, lest they turn out of the way, and advise them in their doubts and temptations; and to comfort the weak-hearted; to administer various helps, as the variety of occasions requires, according to their several necessities: These are parts of our office; all this we have undertaken at the peril of our own soul. (from “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”)

Having been a recent sojourner in the ordination process of the United Methodist Church, I am struck as I read these words by the sense of danger Wesley infuses into his description of the pastor’s work. In case you missed it, he writes that as we preach and shepherd the portion of the Lord’s flock that has  been placed in our care, we must be aware that our own souls are on the line. If we lead people astray or speak falsely of the things of God, we are responsible for the harm we cause. Christ will hold us to account if we betray this trust.

We don’t talk about that in seminary. It does not come up in our interviews. No one ever says to those navigating the hoops and hurdles of ordination: “Consider this carefully. Make sure you are really called to this work. If you screw this up, it is your soul that is on the line.”

Okay, so perhaps this does not feel like the best way to ease the burden of pastors in days like these, but I want to explain why it helps me.

I think the biggest challenge that pastors face in the church today is mission creep. Since there is no job description for pastors, you can come up with a reason why we should do literally anything. It might take a little work to get there, but since most people see the primary job of pastor as “helping” people, you can talk yourself into just about anything as long as it helps someone.

As the American church has become much more reticent to talk about sin, judgment, hell, and eternity, the notion that the church and the pastor exist to “do good” has become not just the external evaluation of churches but often our internal justification as well. In Methodism, we even pretend that John Wesley told us “do all the good we can” was the definition of what it means to be a Methodist.

In such an environment, it is no wonder pastors are burning out and breaking down. There is literally no end to the things pastors should be doing right now if you think our primary job is to “help people.”

For me, the words of Wesley help me clarify why I am here and what I am called to do in the church. They put the focus on the particular “good” I am called to do. They do not simplify this work in the least, but they do help me to keep my eyes on the target. They do not eliminate the questions about how to be the church in a pandemic, but they do help me think a bit more clearly about what “the church” is and what it is meant to be doing.

Reading Wesley’s words above, I find myself a bit intimidated by the importance and the size of the task I have been given to do. I am immediately aware that the only way I can hope to do this work is by spending a lot of time asking God to help me. Thank God, he does.

The big C Church

I’ve been reading City of God by Augustine recently. A couple of passages about the nature of the church have grabbed my attention and won’t let me rest.

Normally, I would write a post about these kinds of passages and try to make some point or argue for some conclusion arising from them. But for the last couple of days I’ve been trying to land on a conclusion without success. So, I’m going to share these quotations and some questions they are stirring up for me.

Here are the passages:

[W]hile the City of God is on pilgrimage in this world, she has in her midst some who are united with her in participation in the sacraments, but who will not join with her in the eternal destiny of the saints. Some of these are hidden; some are well known, for they do not hesitate to murmur against God, whose sacramental sign they bear, even in the company of his acknowledged enemies. (Book I, Chapter 35)

And later:

In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliation is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the stings of fear, the tortures of sorrow, the distresses of hardship, and the dangers of temptation; and she rejoices only in expectation, when her joy is wholesome. In this situation, many reprobates are mingled in the Church with the good and both sorts are collected as it were in the dragnet of the gospel, and in this world, as in a sea, both kinds swim without separation, enclosed in nets until the shore is reached. There the evil are to be divided from the good … (Book XVIII, Chapter 49)

I love that phrase “in the dragnet of the gospel.”

Here are some questions and thoughts that arise for me from reading these words.

I experience a tension here between Augustine’s realism about the church as it is and John Wesley’s passion for a movement that strives for a robust sense of lived holiness. Perhaps this is at its heart the difference between a church and a movement. If so, I wonder how United Methodism — or whatever forms come next — learns to live with that tension.

I wonder what Augustine sees as the role of the clergy in shepherding those in the church who are known to “murmur against God”? What, I wonder, did the bishop do in the face of members of the church who did not keep their baptismal vows? Wesley did not hesitate to eject “disorderly walkers” from Methodist class meetings. What would Augustine say about that?

Finally, I’m struck by the Augustine’s language about the church here. Just as his book speaks of the church as the city of God, he writes in these passages in a sense of the church as a collective. The church is being prepared for its final exaltation and glory. The language is a contrast to the way I often think and often hear others speak about the church. We often see the church as a collection of individuals, and we usually talk about salvation in terms of this or that individual. Augustine has a different point of focus. Clearly, he is attentive to the fact that the church has individual people in it, but his vision of the church and salvation seems to come — for lack of a better phrase — from the top down rather than the bottom up.

Again, I feel a tension between our emphasis on local, contextual, and congregationalist impulses and the idea that the Church (capital C this time on purpose) is a body that as a whole is on a pilgrimage toward glory. I don’t know exactly how to describe this tension much less discuss ways to navigate it, but I wonder if we United Methodists have let our distrust of our broken polity erode our ability to perceive or speak about the Church in the way an Augustine would.

As I warned you at the start of this post, I don’t have any conclusions to argue here. I am sharing these passages from Augustine and some of the thoughts in my head because I need to get give those thoughts another place to live for a while until I can give them more attention. I don’t have the leisure right now to wrestle with them like Jacob.

I’d be interested in any thoughts or questions these words stir up for you.