Mission: Impossible

selfishnessTwo recent conversations stick with me and stand in stark contrast to my understanding of the church.  Now, my understanding may be completely wrong, so take what I say with a grain of salt.  My personal belief is that the church exists to serve in the world — that we are not here to create an oasis or sanctuary that separates us from the world.  I believe that our local congregations serve three purposes — to teach, comfort, affirm and equip people in their faith, to constantly promote growth and development in the life of Christian discipleship, and to move out into the world to be the body of Christ for others.  For me, there is no church apart from the integration of these three things.  However, I have been challenged in these beliefs in no uncertain terms, and it causes me to reflect seriously on what it actually means to be the church.

A long-time pastor — over 40 years in ministry — wrote me a letter saying that he finds my emphasis on “the world” to be troubling.

The world is guided by a different set of values from the church.  We are to hold fast to what is sacred and holy.  We are to strive to be good.  We honor God by NOT being like the world.  When we invite people into the church, we invite them out of the world.  We rescue people from the secular world into a sacred world.  Our church is in trouble.  Those who profess to believe in Jesus Christ don’t act like it.  Our mission is not to the world, but must be to the church.  We have got to make people who believe act like it.  We need to teach people to pray and to read and live by the Bible.  We need people to stand up to the sins of the world and say “no.”  We cannot afford to bring more of the world’s sin into the church, or our church will be destroyed.  The world is NOT our parish.  Our parish is a church that has forgotten what it means to be a church.

I actually resonate with a lot of what this man shares.  However, I don’t think we can afford to take an either/or approach to sharing the gospel.  If we have done a poor job helping people understand what it means to be church, then indeed we do have an awesome task ahead of us.  But just because we have failed doesn’t mean we abdicate our responsibility to uphold the mission of the church.  We must both make disciples and share in God’s transformation of the world.  We can ill afford to circle the wagons and focus only on ourselves.  Should we get our own house in order (to mix metaphors)?  Certainly, but this cannot become our exclusive motivation.  We need to be spreading the good news as much as we can.  Which leads to another conversation I had with a younger pastor recently.

I think I can grow a church of over 1,000 regular attenders, if I am just given the chance.

I asked, “1,000 attenders?  You mean, of worship?”

Yeah, I can get a thousand people a week.

I pressed, “You can?”

It is a personal goal.  I want to prove that any church should be able to grow to a thousand regular attenders. 

What about discipleship?

What do you mean?

I mean, what about forming people in the faith so that they will become Christian disciples?

If people are coming to church every week, they’re becoming disciples.

How do you figure that?

Because they wouldn’t be coming otherwise.  I am a biblical preacher.  People come to faith through the Word, rightly taught.  I challenge people to live the Christian life every time I preach.

And how well does that work?  How do you know it is happening?

Well, that’s not my problem.  It is my job to get them to church and to preach the Word.  It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict their hearts.

So, attending your church is all a person needs to become a Christian disciple?

Yeah, pretty much.

 In what universe is church attendance a measure of spiritual maturity?  Well, in the universe of The United Methodist Church.  We LOVE churches that have high attendance on Sunday morning.  Those that save lives and transform lives?  We don’t give them much attention.  They don’t swell the ranks and put up big numbers.  Oh, well, as long as we’re no in decline this isn’t a real issue.  Oh, wait, we are in decline.  This is an issue.  Quality should be more important than quantity.  But apparently it’s not.  Just look at the examples of “success” we promote.  Just look at the ways we are being resourced to be successful.

Methodism has its roots in evangelism and missions.  What happened to us?  Why are we so fascinated and self-fixated?  How did we become so important to ourselves?  So many voices decry with doom and gloom the future of our denomination, assuming that it is important the we continue to exist.  Ultimately, though, the validity of our existence rests on the value we provide and the good we do.  If we are in decline it simply means we lack value and we do little good.  Focusing on preserving and protecting our own interests?  Not such a good idea.

Our future depends on adding value to the work of Christ in the world.  Getting more people in our pews only has value if we are engaging people in life changing work in the church for the world.  Church isn’t the place we go on Sunday morning.  Where we go on Sunday morning — and hopefully throughout the week — is the place we are transformed to BE the church for the world.  We really need to reflect deeply and regularly on our mission — making disciples (not passive believers) of Jesus Christ for the transformation (not the accommodation or tolerance) of the world.  For any who see this as impossible or unworthy?  Well, we have enough of those already…

3 replies

  1. I like your summary: “I believe that our local congregations serve three purposes — to teach, comfort, affirm and equip people in their faith, to constantly promote growth and development in the life of Christian discipleship, and to move out into the world to be the body of Christ for others.”

    Anything you can share about how to form transformative disciples for witness in the world during the week would be gladly received by me.

  2. Dan, I see you as in real dialogue here with Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon – champions of what I have called the Duke ecclesiology. All that talk of the church being the church is right out of Resident Aliens. Your 40-year pastor sounds to me like someone well versed in their ideas.

  3. Dan,

    I think what you’ve set out for congregations to do is actually more a descriptor of the church, if which one format is the congregation.

    Methodism wasn’t a congregational movement precisely because congregations don’t, by design and long history, do everything the church is called to be and do. Or at least they don’t generally do some of those things well– including especially the intentional and accountable formation of disciples of Jesus and deploying them as missionaries.

    Methodist class meetings and societies did that well. Sunday school classes and congregations generally don’t– but they do other things well that the older Methodist groups didn’t.

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