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.