An Offer of Grace May 30, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Personal Reflection, The United Methodist Church.
Tags: The United Methodist Church
What follows is an email, in its entirety, that I received today. The author has approved my sharing its content, but asks that I protect both her identity and that of her congregation. I think it is both a message of hope and realism — fair, reasonable, balanced, and deeply grateful. Here it is:
Dear Pastor Dick,
It has taken me awhile to figure out exactly what I want to say to you. I have been reading your blog and I find it a breath of fresh air in a somewhat dry and dismal desert of church rhetoric. That said, I want to politely disagree with you, or at least offer a perspective that is out of line with what you and others have said.
This is my story. Four years ago my husband ran out on me and my three children. Neither of us had been overlay faithful in our marriage, and I was scared to death. I didn’t know what to do. I was desperate. My life was a wreck and I was looking anywhere for help. I grew up in a Methodist Church, and the church on the corner was a Methodist Church with the Igniting Ministries “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” slogan displayed on every side. For me, it was an offer of grace and a beacon of hope. From the first day I entered the doors with my kids, I was accepted, loved, and included. I found a level of acceptance I have never known before except by my closest and best friends. I believe the church may have saved my life and saved my family a lot of hardship. That message of openness attracted me, and in my case, it delivered.
But that isn’t the end of the story. I am very active in leadership now, and I confess, it breaks my heart sometimes that we withhold from others the love and acceptance I personally received. They took in a divorced woman with a shady past, but they won’t accept the gay man who moved in across the street. They provide shelter to the homeless, but they refuse to help the drug addicts. They will visit the mentally challenged, but refuse to start a prison ministry. As I talk to more and more people, I realize that this isn’t exceptional, but normal. And this is the message I want to share with you. The issue of “openness” is not “are we open or are we closed,” but “where are we open, and where do we need to become more open?” I am distressed by your message that the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” campaign is hypocritical, or worse, a lie. No, we’re not perfect, but we are trying. “Open Hearts, Open Doors, Open Minds” is not a statement of fact, but an offer of grace. My church opened to me in amazing ways and I am a new and better person because of it. We may not be open to everyone, but we are open to many who need us.
You are challenging the church to be better. I cannot tell you how inspired I feel by much of what you write. But you are sometimes too hard on the church and church leaders. Continue to challenge us, but be kind. I know that the people I work with in my church are all doing the best they can, and the best they can is pretty wonderful.
Anyway, it took me a long time to figure out how to agree and disagree with you at the same time. Your position on Igniting Ministry is both right and wrong at the same time, just like our churches are both open and not open at the same time.
In God We Trust, In Church We Don’t May 29, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Congregational Life, The United Methodist Church.
Tags: church, Trust
An insidious distrust is raging throughout our connectional system. Pastors don’t trust laity and vice versa. Congregations don’t trust their Annual Conferences, and neither one fully trust the General Conference. Confessors don’t trust Reconcilers, Contemporary Worshippers don’t trust Traditional Worshippers, and Traditional Worshippers don’t trust that someone won’t sneak drums and guitars into the sanctuary. Gossip is a rampant problem at all levels. Many people disbelieve the veracity of our claims to openness, inclusiveness, justice, mercy, grace and love. The denomination suffers a growing credibility problem with spiritual seekers who perceive hypocrisy, dishonesty, and self-serving motives in much of what we say and do. How have we come to such a state? If trust is not a hallmark of the church, where else in the world can we hope to find it? (If you said government, politicians, pop stars, or the media… well, good luck.)
Yet, people want to trust. Surveys from a diverse set of sources indicate that people value honesty, integrity, sincerity, candor, and transparency in their leaders, and support those who seem to best embody them. People are willing to give others the benefit of the the doubt, until it is proven that their trust is misplaced. In our churches, trust shouldn’t be that hard to come by, but it seems to be a rare commodity.
This isn’t a post about when the most people attend church in our denomination (or Pentecost would be replaced by Mother’s Day). This is about three ecclesial worldviews I have experienced in my 30+ years of church leadership that shape the spectra of contemporary Christian belief. This is a personal reflection on three kinds of Christian, and is not meant in any way to say what “ought” to be, or what is “best.” All three types of relationship with God through Jesus Christ offer immense value to individuals, congregations, and the world. In brief:
- Christmas Christians form a deep relationship with Jesus, wanting to know Jesus personally, follow Jesus’ teachings exactly, and live life in a way they believe is pleasing to God. Right belief is a driving force for Christmas Christians.
- Easter Christians seek to understand the risen Christ, to live lives that reflect the power and presence of Jesus the Christ in the world today. Behavior pleasing to God in the form of mercy, grace, justice, and love shape this worldview.
- Pentecost Christians seek to be the incarnate body of Christ in the world, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Shunning legalism and exclusion, this worldview embraces a future grounded in the vision of the realm of God, and refuses to be bound by the past.
Obviously there is some overlap between these three types, and most people travel back and forth among at least two of them throughout their faith development. In the same way that birth precedes death, death precedes resurrection, and the resurrection precedes the rebirth in the Spirit, Christmas faith precedes and grounds Easter faith, and Easter faith fosters and undergirds Pentecost faith, which leads in an ever-deepening process to rebirth, further growth, and formation into the very likeness of Christ.
Christmas Christians — the birth and life of Jesus hold a special place in the hearts and minds of Christmas Christians. There is great joy and comfort in knowing Jesus, and the Bible provides a firm foundation and security — to know what the Bible says and to live accordingly is of utmost importance. There is deep gratitude in this worldview — Jesus saves us from sin and death. Avoiding sin(s), following the teachings of Jesus, going to church, praying — these are the things Christmas Christians focus on. Anything not pleasing to God should be avoided at all costs, and sin, more than any other factor, distinguishes “good” from “evil.” “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me,” is a guiding scripture.
A personal relationship with Jesus — knowing Jesus as ones personal Lord and Savior — is the foundation of this worldview. Church is for personal edification, inspiration, encouragement, and renewal more than for the benefit of the whole community of faith or to extend into the surrounding community and world. Learning to be a good Christian is the hallmark of faithful discipleship. People seek a congregation where they feel comfortable, nurtured, safe, and respected.
Easter Christians — the death of Jesus on the cross and the resurrection of the Christ are the seminal experiences for Easter Christians. Drawing heavily from the teachings of Paul, Easter Christians seek to create a more just and loving world, seeing God’s love as the primary tool for global (and local) transformation. While Christmas Christians express deepest gratitude for what they have been saved from (sin and death), Easter Christians are most grateful for what they have been saved for (redemption of creation in whatever forms possible). In the grand tradition of John Wesley, Easter Christians shift focus from the wrath to come to sharing in a life of holiness that transforms the world. Being “do-ers” of the word and not hearers only is a driving mantra of Easter Christians. Whereas right belief defines Christmas Christians, right behavior and action define Easter Christians. “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy and kindness, and walk humbly with your God,” is a favorite scripture.
Christian community supersedes individual wants and needs for Easter Christians — the mission and ministry of the congregation becomes the driving force for living our faith in the world. The community is open to new people with little regard to core beliefs. What people have known of God in the past is not as important as what God will reveal in the future. The “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” concept is an Easter Christian hope and dream — wanting to welcome everyone, regardless of their background. Diversity, inclusiveness, social justice, and global concerns are all high priorities for Easter Christians.
Pentecost Christians — the transformational birth of the church in the passionate fire of the Holy Spirit defines “church” for Pentecost Christians. (Note, I am not talking about Pentecostals…) We are not defined by the Bible, Church history, a denominational polity, or the whims of any given congregation — God’s Spirit is a living, thriving force within the hearts and lives of Christians joined together in Christian community. When we live in prayer, reflection, discernment, devotional study of the Bible and spiritual writings, and heartfelt corporate worship of God, we open ourselves to the guiding and abiding presence of God — uniting us to be the hands, and feet, and heart, and voice of Christ for the world. The church is the body of Christ, uninhibited by denominational boundaries or congregational walls. “There is now no division in Christ Jesus — we are a new creation, one in Christ Jesus,” are scriptural concepts at the heart of this worldview.
Pentecost Christians are ecumenical and interfaith, trusting that God can speak in many different voices from many different perspectives. There is a global “we” at work in this worldview. Nothing is impossible, because Pentecost Christians don’t think in terms of what their congregation or district or conference or denomination can do. Instead, they prayerfully discern what God is calling them to and they join forces and pool resources with as many others as they can to accomplish God’s will. Pentecost Christians don’t focus on what they lack, but maximize the power and potential of all that is available to them. They are rare, but it only takes a handful (think 12; it’s biblical) to bring radical reformation to fruition. Pentecost Christians do not waste time looking for things that divide us or that we should condemn — instead they look for ways “to break down the dividing walls of hostility” and bring unity and harmony to the world.
In my experience, almost everyone falls into one of these three categories in the church — though, as I say, there is plenty of overlap. I feel that about 65% of our church is comprised of Christmas Christians, another 25% are Easter Christians, leaving about 10% in the Pentecost Christian camp. This aligns very closely with the percentages I perceive of those who are truly visionary within our denomination — calling us to a new promised land of grace, peace, justice, inclusiveness, and radical love (about 10%). Another 25% are striving to build bridges into this bright new future — challenging the status quo, reviving faith practices, building community beyond the walls of the church, striving to improve what isn’t working and create new alternatives for what is completely broken. Then there are the remainder seeking to be led, willing to follow, trying to learn, working to live with integrity and hope, willing to pitch in from time to time, and loving their church as they know it.
Together, we make up the church. Together, in all our imperfections, we live to please God, to better understand God’s will, and to be good people. Not everyone is visionary. Not everyone leads. Not everyone can create new possibilities. It is why we NEED each other. Christmas and Easter and Pentecost belong together — they tell the whole story (or at least the story up until today…) — none can make sense without the others.
For years, one of my deepest wishes has been for United Methodists to celebrate Pentecost with the same passion, energy, sacrifice, and joy as Christmas and Easter. Pentecost, in my experience, has been the short leg on the three-legged stool of our Christian story. Why is the rebirth of Christ as the Church not as wonderful as the birth and the resurrection of Jesus the Christ? It makes no sense to me. I’m not meaning we should commercialize it or create specialized candies and ornaments. I mean why aren’t our sanctuaries filled to standing-room-only? Why don’t we march from our sanctuaries into the world singing our songs and telling our story? Why don’t we make it impossible for any conscious person NOT to know that Christians are celebrating Pentecost? I don’t have any answers. I just keep wondering.
Evangelisn’t – Part Two May 27, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Christian discipleship, Congregational Life, Evangelism, The United Methodist Church.
Tags: Christian discipleship, Evangelism, The United Methodist Church
My commentary on the research on evangelism and faith sharing in The United Methodist Church generated some interesting response — some defensive, some reflective, but no one really surprised by the conjecture that we’re not doing very much in the way of inviting people into relationship with Jesus Christ. I indicated that I think this might be a problem, but that is only my opinion. I wanted to follow up with a ‘part two’ that shares the opinions of some of the people we interviewed. Two of my colleagues — retired researchers Harold Jones and Tom Perry (and I don’t want to hear any jokes about research being done by any old Tom, Dick & Harry…) — helped me conduct 47 telephone interviews, and these conversations shaped some of the conclusions I drew in the last post.
Let me just set the stage, then I will get out of the way and present a collection of quotes from active United Methodists. We recorded each 20-30 minute conversation, so the quotes are essentially verbatim (though we cleaned up the ‘uhs,’ ‘ers,’ “likes,’ and other quirks of conversation. There were some common themes and shared feelings among the 47 interviewees. Here are a few distinctions that may help along the way:
- Evangelism tends to be heard as either a negative term — based on negative stereotypes of people pushing their faith on others or televangelists — or something that the church should do, but that the individuals do not view as their responsibility.
- Faith sharing is a much more acceptable term than evangelism, but it is interpreted as talking about their faith within their own congregation or family.
- Four-out-of-five (39 of 47, or 82.9%) people interviewed define evangelism as “inviting people to come to church.”
- Virtually no one (2 of 47, or 4%) remembers ever being taught how to share their faith with people outside the church.
- Not many more (4 of 47, or 8.5%) say that they would like to be taught how to share their faith with people outside the church.
- Three-out-of-four people interviewed said they don’t think it is their responsibility to share their faith with others; that faith is essentially both a personal and a private matter.
Evangelisn’t May 26, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Christian discipleship, Congregational Life, Evangelism, The United Methodist Church.
Tags: Evangelism, Faith Sharing, The United Methodist Church
Faith sharing and evangelism have fallen on hard times in The United Methodist Church. For the most part, we don’t do them — except with people who already believe what we do. As part of our research on spiritual practices, we asked 922 United Methodist lay people to share their evangelism attitudes and practices with us. The responses we received fell into five broad, basic categories:
- faith sharing with others in their congregation, or other churches (316, or 34%)
- those who define evangelism as something their church does for them (287, or 31%)
- those who weren’t clear what evangelism is (164, or 18%)
- those who define evangelism as the way they behave, but don’t talk about their faith (and generally don’t let others know that their faith is their primary motivation to behave the way they do) (128, or 14%)
- those who have spoken with a non-Christian about making a faith commitment within the past 12 months (27, or 3%)
Additionally, almost one-third display Christian symbols (jewelry, bumper stickers, flags/banners, magnets, etc.) and feel that is a public witness to their faith.
Wanted: Heart Warmed — Strangely or Otherwise May 23, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Personal Reflection, The United Methodist Church, worship.
Tags: Christian worship, The United Methodist Church
I sat through another United Methodist worship service — this time bombarded by thumping, lively praise music extolling how awesome, moist, and shiny Jesus is. (If you’ve experienced ‘contemporary’ praise music, you know what I mean…) The energy was high, it was the theology that was missing. Everything was simple and simplistic. It may not be the service that needs adjusting, but my attitude. I want more. I want to be moved. I want to feel the presence of God. I want to feel my heart strangely warmed. I want an Aldersgate experience.
I reread Wesley’s journal entry and I feel jaded. Part of the reason is, I know it’s out there. I still experience the thrill from time to time. Worship still whisks me away to a higher plane. My spirit soars. I am renewed, revived, feeling humbled in the presence of the divine. It has happened in a small church in Rhode Island, a smaller church in Ohio, a new church start in Oregon, and in a store front church in Arizona — all United Methodist. My problem is I’m not near any of those places, and those are only four out of the hundreds of worship services I have attended.
Once again, part of it is me. I am a closet mystic. I need silence. I need centering. I need reflection. I am an unlikely candidate for the United Methodist cosmos, cluttered as it is with busyness, noise, sit/stand calisthenics, multiple musical performances, announcements, etc. I just barely catch a glimpse of God from the corner of my spiritual eye, but there are so many distractions that by the time I turn back to God, there’s nothing there.
Pleonexia May 22, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Congregational Life, Religion in the U.S., Stewardship.
Tags: church, Stewardship
Pleonexia — (Plē-ō-nĕx´-ia) — the insatiable desire for more; a condition of deep dissatisfaction with what one has; seeking fulfillment through the acquisition of possessions, prestige, or power.
Besides being a great word that’s a lot of fun to say, pleonexia is an insightful description of much of modern culture — including church culture — in the United States. At an individual level, people organize their entire lives around getting — getting homes, jobs, money, cars, clothes, (in my case, books), toys, and then getting bigger, newer, fancier, costlier versions of each. It is like a disease — which is why pleonexia is such a great word. It sounds like a disease.
Viral pleonexia is infecting our churches, pushing us to pursue bigger sanctuaries, bigger staffs, bigger budgets, bigger program, bigger parking lots, bigger projection screens, and even bigger egos. No matter how much we have, we want more — even when we don’t very well manage what we already have. Bigger is better, no matter the cost. Money, time, energy, expertise are all aligned to expand and grow. Size not only matters, it becomes the only thing that matters. Pleonexia may be the swine flu of mainline Protestantism in the U.S.
Christian Fruit Loops May 21, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Devotional Reflection, Mission of the Church.
Tags: church, Mission & Purpose
People who know me know that I am very big on fruit: the outward and visible manifestations of the faith we profess. James says it all when he reminds us that faith without works is dead. Furthermore, it is not enough just to produce fruit because until it feeds somebody it hasn’t filled its purpose. Fruit must nourish. Fruit must strengthen. Fruit contains that which is essential for health. And the fruit that we produce as the church is not to be hoarded and enjoyed by us. We produce this fruit and bear it to a starving, malnourished world, bringing sweetness and succulence to an all-too-often dry and bitter existence. The fruits — peace, patience, love, joy, kindness, generosity, self-control, faithfulness, and gentleness — should be the very first qualities that come to mind when people hear the word “Christian.”
Messin’ With the System (and A Beloved Metaphor) May 19, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Church Leadership, Congregational Life.
Tags: Church Leadership
There are a number of pastors who feel I am being too hard on the church, too critical of our ministries — and by extension, too critical of them. I apologize for that. I believe from the depths of my being that pastors and laity leaders are doing the best they can, and that none of them are trying to be anything less than good leaders. I also believe that the church we serve is constrained by its own system — the tag line of much of my teaching comes from Dr. Ezra Earl Jones’ deeply profound observation: “The system is designed for the results it’s getting.” Our current system of church is designed for decline — it is an institutional preservation model out of step and time with the larger culture and spiritual movement of the day. And pastors are stuck in this system. Take fine china, run it through a wood-chipper and what have you got? (Hint: not fine china!) You take the best intentions and efforts of deeply committed Christians and run them through a wood-chipper and what have you got… you catch my drift.
Picking on pastors is not my intention, and not my desire. I rarely ever meet a pastoral leader who is not willing to change and grow. We all know we can do better. We don’t need some annoying blogger running around poking us while nagging, “Do better. Do better. Do better. Do better………” But I do keep hammering on the system we’re in, hoping to trigger some new thinking about how to BE better within a broken system. No pastor or local lay person has the power, influence, or position to fix (or greatly change) the system. All they can do is adapt within the system to maximize their impact and effectiveness.
Tags: anti-intellectualism, Biblical interpretation, Christian Education
Q: What is the number one complaint of seminary students when they serve in the local church? A: What they learn in class they can’t teach in the local church. It seems that the quest for knowledge ends for many at the church door. A significant number of American Christians do not want to base what they believe on the best scholarship in biblical studies and theology. They don’t even like “theology lite” as presented by such popular authors as Marcus Borg and Bart Ehrman. Heaven help us should we bring in any heavyweights. Many in our congregations would die of apoplexy. Why is this?
Partially we have created it for ourselves. Poor translations like the King James Version and imprecise paraphrases like The Living Bible and The Message fuel the “the Bible should mean anything I want it to” mentality of the modern spirit. Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason) and Stephen Prothero (Biblical Literacy) describe the anti-intellectualism that poisoned the Protestant church in the 20th century. The desire to make the Bible accessible to the widest possible population, including the least educated, motivated a movement away from scholarly study. The “me and my buddy Jesus” mentality at the heart of the “do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior” movement resulted in a massive “proof-text” support system where the Bible was interpreted as if it had been written by modern middle-class minds for the U.S. pop-culture. What the Bible said, and what it originally meant no longer mattered. The only thing of value was “what does the Bible mean to me?“ Erroneously labeled “post-modern,” this view has a long historical precedent. It is a basic, somewhat lazy, subjectivity. We work for years to teach our children that they must learn to support their opinions and beliefs with evidence, information, and facts. This is known as education. But for some reason we don’t want to apply these standards to issues of faith. A few year’s ago, the “What Would Jesus Do?” phenomenon swept the country, but research overwhelmingly indicated that the question couldn’t be answered by most American Christians because they don’t bother reading the Bible. Not that this stopped any from voicing strong opinions anyway…