Simple Isn’t Easy

I received a number of responses and comments on my Simplicity Itself post.  I think three in particular deserve specific response:

Dan.  I hear you, and agree with many of your points, but I am curious to how you propose to live this out either in your ministry in the Wisconsin Annual Conference or in any proposals coming forward to the General Conference.  Obviously, it is easy to point out problems, but it becomes much tougher to offer solutions.  What are your solutions? (from John)

My suggestion ARE my solutions, but I acknowledge that this is fundamentally a systems problem.  We have designed a church system around numbers, money, prestige and survival, so any suggestions that threaten such a status quo will be viewed as unreasonable or unfeasible.  To hold people accountable to the standards of discipleship will drive the less committed away.  Many of those will take their money with them.  Fidelity to the gospel will result in fewer people rather than more; less money rather than an increase.  To leave our buildings is to leave the monuments and edifices that we have built in our own honor.  What a blow to our egos to do with smaller and less?  That is not the American way.  Too many pastors work too hard for too many years to consider serving a small church in a modest building.  But our buildings keep us inside.  Christ has left the building.  So, the choice for us is do we hold onto our buildings or do we follow Christ?  Most American adults don’t want to learn; they want their opinions affirmed.  To grow, to change, to learn, to be transformed — these are not the values that drive our dominant culture.  The values of comfort, security and the preservation of the familiar are our governing values — even in the church.  Christ calls us to a learning culture, where we never arrive at the final destination, but are always in process, always becoming something better than what we have been in the past.  There is simply no way to commit to comfort, security and the status quo and be a full member of the body of Christ.  Our faith isn’t about US, but about God’s will.

So, if you believe we are so <screwed> up, why do you stay?  You make it sound like our church is run by a pack of morons who are totally clueless and/or selfish.  It doesn’t make sense that someone who works for the church dislikes it so deeply. (from Tom)

I am one of those naive believers that if you want to change a system you must be part of the system.  Real change my come from the fringe, but it is still on the board someplace.  It is way too easy to walk away and then criticize and complain.  I love the potential of the church too much to abandon it.  And my critique of leadership may be too harsh and unfair.  I believe that systems produce what they are designed to produce.  Our current system produces decline, mediocrity, discord, complacency, and a witness of irrelevancy and impotence.  The problem is that we elevate leaders within this system to keep it going.  I cannot imagine what many of our bishops and general secretaries feel at the end of the day.  Satisfaction and a sense of achievement?  I doubt it, but that’s just me.  The majority of pastors serving local congregations claim that they are no longer living the call that originally brought them to ministry.  The dreams and visions of spiritual leadership have given way to corporate management.  We see broad evidence of burnout, poor health, stress, and early retirement (where it is affordable or merely going through the motions where it is not).  This is not the church we want, but instead of recreating our church by a spiritual enlightenment reformation, we merely discuss institutional preservation.  We talk about plastic surgery and call it change.

I am not sure I understand what you want the church to do.  Are you saying we need to get better at keeping people out?  I would think we would want to do everything in our power to make it as easy as possible to become Christian.  I like the idea of calling everyone a disciple like our bishops promote.  I think we should let everyone in and not keep anyone out. (from Gail)

This is my definition of cheap grace: taking all the benefits for absolutely no personal cost or responsibility.  Do we let a musician who refuses to practice a chair in the orchestra?  Do we let anyone volunteer to play a sport regardless of their commitment to the team?  Do we allow anyone to practice medicine because we’re all interested in health?  There is a clear distinction between believing in Christ and being a Christian disciple — and then emerging as a Christian spiritual leader and teacher (discipleship not being the end of the journey…).  The United Methodist Church raised the bar.  Our mission is not to help people believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son.  No, we said that we exist to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Shame on us when we then define discipleship as attending worship whenever we feel like it.  Our deep commitment to mediocrity is evidenced by the fact that we allow our lowest common denominator — consumeristic Christian believers who come to church to be served — to define us.  Membership in The United Methodist Church is meaningless.  We have no standards, expectations or accountabilities by which to judge if a person is living up to the vows they make to God and to their Christian community.  Our baptismal vows and the commitments we make each time we share communion are abstract at best, ignored at worst.  We are indeed an “easy” church, and we communicate to the world that there is no cost — and therefore no value — to being Christian.

Anyone who has followed my writing for any period of time knows that I believe we should be in ministry to all people and should be welcoming and ready to include all who wish to be connected.  But connection is not the same as committed.  We need committed Christians to be the church; we need the church to serve a needy and broken world.  We do not need the needy and broken world to define us.  We need God to define us as a people who will give all they have and are to serve God’s will.

Simple is not the same thing as easy.  Easy is what we have tried to be for way too long.  Simple is what Jesus called us to: love God, love neighbor as self.  Pray.  Know God.  Produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Love mercy, do justice, walk humbly.  Nowhere are we told to become celebrities, build big buildings, or fill sanctuaries.  My lament is that we like what we have.  Mediocrity is the new fantastic.  We just want to make sure we have a pension in a few years and that people will respect us.  My sense is that this isn’t enough.  We have a world in pain; a planet in crisis.  If we could actually BE Christ for the world, I think most of our other “problems” would go away.  Are we willing to make the changes that are needed?

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8 replies

  1. As a retired United Methodist pastor, I have now been on the fringe of the church for 8 years. I believe there are many more of us than you might believe. We have been pushed aside by those in power, relegated to the small church, or otherwise silenced. May God direct us day by day so we may grow in grace, love, and holiness. I still have a charge to keep, and the world is now my parish. Thank you Dan.

    • The world IS our parish!! Christ lived, died & rose again for ALL people. I continue to meet with disapproval from church members if I dont subscribe to their definition or corpoate criteria of what they perceive to be Christian living. They can be so judgemental. I routinely reach out to the margialized people who seek God in their lives & in their real world situations. They just want me back in their fishbowl so that THEY feel better! So that I validate their brand of Christian life. They disown me when I befriend people they fear. Did not Jesus eat w tax collectors, hang out w prostitutes and share living water w the woman at the Well?? He didnt hide in a Sunday school class…he was out amongst real people…showing us HIS WAY. I refuse to be a Pharisee!

  2. If we believe the Wesleys rightly understood that God offers us nothing less that complete salvation that can move us to perfection in love of God and neighbor in this life, and that the gospels got it right that God’s kingdom in our midst is serious about dramatically transforming the world, then who are we to ask and expect anything less than serious attention to being on such personal and social journeys with one another?

  3. So glad that your blog was linked from the UMC website as you have an important message that we need to hear as we think about our future at General Conference and at the local churches.

    I see so much heartbreak in my own church as our seniors look around at our declining membership and their own children that have drifted away from the church. I think that our heavy focus on numbers has been our very downfall…we have made discipleship so easy that we are less challenging and expect less than our local Rotary club. People want to serve, they want to belong, they want a greater purpose. We have to drop our focus on numbers and return to your three elements and truly encourage and empower disciples that model the life of Christ.

  4. How refreshing!! I refuse to be a “fishbowl” manager. I also recently lost a friend who denounced my love & care of a modern day Samaritan (man of Middle Eastern descent.) She was fearful of bringing “that” into her family’s life. This man is an American and has bravely served with our military in the war on terror.

    I am still astounded that people who call themselves Christians can be so ignorant and potentially ruin his chances of being saved. This ignorant woman would still consider herself committed Christian disciples, still do not see their neighbors…much less love them!!

  5. I agree with the idea of high-commitment churches with a priority on disciple-making. Anyone can attend the church and participate in its ministries, but becoming a member ought to entail a commitment to fulfilling the vows of membership. The vows might not be a complete definition of discipleship, but they are a good start. The problem here, of course, is that you have millions of non-disciple members who are already “grandfathered” in under the low-commitment model. It is very difficult to take a congregation built around low-commitment people and turn it into a high-commitment organism.

    Where I disagree is about deserting the buildings. A building can be a very effective tool for discipleship, or it can be an idol. The problem is not the building, it is our attitude toward it. We need an attitude adjustment, not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Yes, some buildings will need to go (or be re-purposed for some other task). But that needs to be a case-by-case decision.

    Hopefully, the emphasis on “vital congregations” can provide us with a way to leverage the church toward high-commitment discipleship. Thanks for your thoughts, Dan!

  6. As I read John’s question and your response, the story of the rich young man who wanted to know what else he could do to inherit the kingdom and was told to sell everything he had and give it to the poor came to mind. I cannot picture a major denomination agreeing to sell all of their buildings and meet in a store front, and yet it is what Jesus taught and what the disciples were to do–”leave everything and follow me”. I can’t picture it in my own life much less the life of a congregation, but maybe the effort to travel light would be worth it. And yet, it is what we are called on to do–it’s just not easy or comfortable. But then. if it were easy, how could you tell the Christians from everyone else?

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