Dollar General (Conference)

I love my church, and there are very few things it does that both anger and hurt me.  In specific terms, I hate it when my own church hates — when it goes out of its way to judge and revile and hold God’s children in contempt.  We affirm their goodness then tell them we don’t want them.  This is awful.  But in the broad and general sense, nothing angers me more than cheapening our Christian faith, watering it down to make it more palatable and easy to do.  I sat through a beautiful worship service at General Conference on Monday night (April 30) then had the whole thing ruined by an infomercial for our “Vital Congregations” emphasis.  Each of our conferences committed “goal cards” that redefined “Christian discipleship” as attending church, being in a small group, or giving money to the church.  (Some did commit to mission projects/work, but not too many).  So, what we have now communicated to the world is that discipleship is not about sacrifice, or supreme commitment, or risk, or even death (forget all that icky cross stuff…), but about going to church when we feel like it.  We have taken the Biblical teachings attributed to Jesus, and made them simple and easy and cheap. And ALL of our bishops stepped up to witness to this new, disciple-lite definition.

Now, I have been engaged in this discussion for quite some time, and I realize I am in the minority.  I have been told in no uncertain terms by the agency that I formerly worked for that if we make “discipleship” less intimidating, it will attract more young people.  I have heard that expecting people to adopt spiritual disciplines and to align one’s life with the teachings of Jesus is unrealistic and might drive people from the church.  I had it explained to me that since we cannot expect people to rise to the level of authentic discipleship, we need to lower the standards and description of discipleship to make it more attainable to average United Methodists.  My position that discipleship is a lifestyle and relationship to which we should challenge and nurture church attendees has been refuted by church leaders at all levels.  But, I haven’t changed my mind.

I understand that our driving goal and vision is size and numbers.  I get that.  I also realize that a committed Christian life is not for everyone and that if we make authentic discipleship our goal, we will lose a lot of people and attract fewer.  I can understand the low expectations and I even understand why people are downgrading discipleship to be open to all.  In 1998, I conducted a survey that showed that 71% of United Methodist’s defined discipleship as “believing that Jesus is God’s Son.”  All that has happened is that this has now been adopted as the UM standard.  It really helps us live with our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  As long as discipleship is defined in simplistic, non-demanding terms the church doesn’t have to get serious about changing.  What we are already doing is good enough.

But what are the long-term implications of cheapening discipleship?  In the short run, it may make us more attractive and popular — like a diploma mill granting degrees to anyone who pays the fee.  We can achieve our growth goals without raising expectations or developing standards of accountability.  All we have to do is change our language, and viola — members become disciples, attendees become disciples, and regular visitors become disciples — the church grows!

Dollar General exists to make cheap products available to everyone.  It’s a very profitable business.  The question with which we must wrestle is this:  Is Dollar General a good model for the church to follow?  We have been challenged to be more like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart in the past, why not Dollar General now?  Perhaps I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but I honestly believe that discipleship requires a higher level of commitment than just joining a church.  My greatest fear is that if we cheapen life in Christ as a disciple, we are in danger of bankrupting the faith.

42 replies

  1. Dan, can you/ would you be willing to effect some sort of online community in support of those wanting/endeavoring change in their little corner of the world of the UMC?

  2. Somewhere I read this quote: “If everybody is Christian, then nobody is Christian”. And Billy Graham said: “It is unnatural for Christianity to be popular.” And there was also something about the first Methodists viewed the Church of England as a field ripe for harvesting.

    Christianity was never supposed to be so institutionalized. Church as Wesley envisioned it was each person saving his own soul; then assisting each other in working out their salvation; and then after those two,”as far as in them lies”, save all men. Which makes perfect sense to me; in the airplane, you put on the air mask first before helping somenone else. You can’t save the other person if you are not saved yourself.

    I am through with what Donald Haynes calls “churchmanship” and “church-ianity” and “gradualism”. All that got me was clinging to the edge of the abyss three years ago–happenings within the church became the first step in my descent. I’m ready to walk the walk. The earlier comment about people need to be inspired/challenged by someone to take the walk of discipleship is absolutely true. My current pastor, who is leaving after only 4 years, is my inspiration. He is the first person in all my years of “churchmanship” that modeled “doable discipleship” and I am absolutely intrigued. However, the congregation as a whole missed what he had to offer because they are so focused on “churchmanshsip” and “church-ianity”. The first part of our mission statement is “Share the Joy of Knowing Christ”; not one person had ever shared that with me until this pastor walked in the door– I have been involved with this church since 1981.

    After watching General Conference from afar–I am very discouraged about the future of the UMC as a denomination. There is so much bloated beuracracy that has to be dealt with, and there are such diverse understandings as to “church”, there is no change that can be effected at that level that would positively impact the local church in a timely fashion. Plus, I am personally aware that often these “so called binding doctrinal decisions” made at General Conference have little or no impact on the local church. The restructuring fiasco demonstrated lack of visionary or even effective leadership. So I am focusing on the voices that keep saying it is ultimately about each person within each congregation that can effect change. Walking away also seems like a viable option and would make the most sense. But then I am a genetic Methodist that loves the prospect of engaging in the “Wesley Way of Practicing Christianity for the 21st Century”. But first I have to grieve and lament for my church that I placed so much trust in and growing up showed me a viable option to my Dad’s darkness.

  3. Dan,
    You are correct as you often are. I wish that our leadership would actually study Matthew 28:20 when they think about disciple making and focus less on rethinking church, transforming the world, or the cause de jour and more on obeying Christ’s commands and teaching others to do so. I also wish that they would take seriously the warning in James 3:1. Those of us who preach, teach, and lead will be judged on the way that we present the Lord to our flocks. May God have mercy on us if we lead them into error or hide the riches of the gospel and the abundant life from them because we know it will require sacrifice and work. What worthwhile thing does not require sacrifice and work?

    I pray that those with the vision for discipleship and disciple making, like yours, will not be so distracted by the metrics and “accountability” to earthly leaders that they fail to be and make disciples.

  4. Interesting that you posted this the week before my church’s graduate recognition Sunday, in which one thing I will tell our graduate and parents is:
    Christlikeness is bold, daring, courageous and risky, virtues that we generally spend eighteen years squeezing out of our children. We are teaching our children to be nice and socially acceptable. What a shame, even a sin. Personally, I would think my pastoring a failure if our young people didn’t consider joining the military – not because Christian virtue demands military service (it certainly doesn’t, of course) but because we must inculcate in our children the willingness to take risks on behalf of great causes. They need to understand that consumerism, money-making, the correct educational credentials and upward mobility do not define the virtuous life. So they should do something difficult and risky before they pursue the great American dream.

    Ronald Reagan said the U.S. Marines, “Some people wonder all their lives if they’ve made a difference. The Marines don’t have that problem.” Why is that rarely said about disciples of Jesus Christ? Because we play it safe, that’s why.

    Parents and pastors alike must show greater vision to their church’s high school seniors than going to college and joining the Wesley House United Methodist fellowship.

    We are offering our youth no worthy battle to fight, no cause to sacrifice for. Then we denounce them when they find such things on their own. And we wonder why when they grow into young adults they stay at home on Sunday mornings.

    The Church is perpetually only one generation away from disappearing. What the world, especially America, needs fewer of is nice Christians. We need dangerous Christians who know how to wage war with godly power. The Church needs graduates who will one day wear the scars of spiritual battle, not the grey flannel suit of middle class dreariness. “For,” as Paul wrote, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

    See also John Meunier’s entry of how Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the predominant theology of mainline denominations today, very much including (I might say especially) us United Methodists.

  5. I reposted this on my FaceBook page, and one of my church leaders responded: “I understand that “Paint by Numbers” was once a big craze in the US. Funny, I don’t own a single one.”

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