Okay, I understand disagreements over theology. I understand disagreements over fundamental beliefs — between different religions. I think most of the divisions and debates are pointless, but I understand them. What I don’t understand is the virulent and vehement disagreement over discipleship and church membership. What are our defining features? Jesus didn’t make discipleship easy. As described in the Christian scriptures, Jesus taught that the Christian life is one fraught with sacrifice, peril, discomfort, and the risk of death. He also indicated deep satisfaction, fulfillment, and a killer retirement plan, but there was nothing simple or easy about being Christian. Paul endorses these themes. Christianity as defined in scripture is a reorientation of one’s whole being. It impacts lifestyle, values, practices, and vocation. In short, Christians must work at being Christian, devoting some significant time to learning, practicing, serving, and sweating.
So why is there so much push back from pastors about holding people accountable to their vows? The vast majority of pastors I work with think it is grossly unfair, impractical, and unreasonable to expect people in this day and age to pray, to read and study the Bible, to attend worship regularly, to work for and through the ministries of the local church, etc. Oh, sure, it would be nice if people wanted to do these things, but really, we can’t expect them to. These same pastors lament the state of the church, but see no correlation to our constant low expectations and lack of accountability. They argue that if we make Christianity anything other than easy, people won’t want it and they’ll take their money and go home… or to a church that asks virtually nothing of them.
I find it troubling that making Christianity mean something is a debatable point. A number of my friends and colleagues remind me that the majority of United Methodists have no interest in “being disciples,” let alone “making disciples.” But I still maintain, what’s the point of creating a society of passive Christian-believer spectators? What do we gain by pandering to the complacent end of the church? Why don’t we see value in downsizing the non-engaged to free up valuable resources to equip the highly engaged? Yes, I know I am speaking heresy, being mean, being insulting, being offensive — but I work with churches all the time that are dying under the weight of complacency at a time when we desperately need the body of Christ to be active, fit, and healthy. It will not happen by accident, and it will not get better if we choose to merely ignore its current sorry state.
Disciples unite! We need to rally the highly motivated and the deeply passionate and the fully engaged to lead the church into the heart of the 21st century. We need to acknowledge that the 7 million United Methodist member church is really about 700,000 disciples rubbing elbows with 6.3 million believers not that interested in doing more than attending worship occasionally and tossing in a couple bucks now and then. AND THIS ISN’T A BAD THING! What I am advocating is not lamenting that more people aren’t highly motivated to grow in their discipleship, but to focus more on those who are. We will still serve the passive side of the church, but not as our primary audience. 700,000 highly motivated disciples can move incredible mountains. Nothing breeds success like success. As the church recaptures its relevancy and purpose, it will become more attractive to others who seek something more for their lives. Will everyone want it? Of course not — never have, never will. But at least we will have reclaimed our witness — to be the body of Christ for the world.
Complacency, boredom, inactivity, irrelevancy, lack of vision, lack of motivation, lack of purpose — these things are not what we truly believe are an appropriate witness, are they? Yet, these are the very things we allow when we lack accountability and challenge in our churches. It is time to step up, time to get real and get dirty, time to remember that taking up one’s cross isn’t about going on a picnic. The gospels remind us that there can be a lot of fun and fellowship along the way, but that the real point is to teach and serve and heal a broken world — and if we don’t get busy soon it could be too late.