U.S. Christians are a lazy, passive, well-intentioned bunch. I am not talking about the 11% who are engaged in some form of regular hands-on ministry. I am speaking of the 89% who define “active” faith as attending church when convenient, showing up at an occasional potluck supper, buying the doo-dad-du jour from the youth group, or who toss a few bucks in the offering plate so that somebody else can do ministry for them. This is the group for whom faith is about “feelings” more than behaviors. 69% of active church-goers have never been on a mission trip or even a one day mission project — yet most are very proud of the mission work of their congregation. Living the faith by a few degrees of separation. I know, whenever I bring this up, people tell me I am being unrealistic to think that people’s actions will reflect their core values and beliefs. Actually, I DO think our actions belie our true beliefs and values — this is the problem.
People who read me regularly know that I am all about spiritual gifts and fruit — how God equips us and what we produce with what we have been given. I don’t believe that there actually is such a thing as a passive Christianity. Oh, I know there are passive people plopped proudly in our pews, and I think they like the idea of God and Jesus, but I also don’t believe they have the first clue what it means to be a Christian (let alone a disciple). Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is not the culmination of anything, merely the launch. And anyone who seeks a faith without hard work, commitment and sacrifice needs to look elsewhere. Christianity is, in essence, defined by five characteristics: 1) an intention to be in full relationship with God through Jesus Christ, 2) a devotion to deepen this relationship in learning, prayerful contemplation and corporate exploration, 3) the development of gifts, skills, knowledge, competency, and passion for serving God and neighbor, 4) the cultivation of synergistic community to seek, discern, understand, and carry out the will of God, and 5) regular employment to allow God to produce such fruit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, mercy, compassion, humility, grace and respect. There is no room for spectators — in this game, everyone is expected to play, no excuses, no exceptions.
In the Wisconsin Annual Conference, we are launching a quadrennial vision for Living the Fruit of the Spirit. The greatest early challenge we face is the “yeah, so, we already do that” attitude. There is a smug satisfaction that just because we call ourselves Christian that this automatically means we are loving, kind, gentle and patient. Sad flaw in our thinking. We are trying to emphasize that the fruit of the Spirit are not nice feelings or good ideas, but that the outward and visible signs of our living in the Spirit mean we view these qualities as verbs rather than nouns, actions rather than concepts. We are blending “tude” words — attitude, aptitude, fortitude, gratitude — to challenge people to adopt an active fruititude — a commitment to produce fruit through what we do together as Christian community. To act in loving ways, to create a joy-filled environment, to make and promote peace, to practice patience, to extend kindness to all, to give from a truly generous center, to make faith about action in relationships instead of personal and private beliefs, to treat one another (especially opponents) with respect, civility, consideration and acceptance, and to bridle our emotions and not demand our own way — these are the activities and practices we are working together to promote and support. It is fascinating to see how people respond and react to such an invitation.
Some people are angry and horrified that we would suggest such a thing. How dare we try to impose restrictions on how we want to treat people, especially people we don’t like. Many Christians are furious that it be suggested they be civil to people they judge to be sinners. They want to know who said anything about having to love or forgive “them”. We’re not going to waste a whole lot of time or energy on these faithful saints. We’ll let God sort them out. No, instead, we are focusing on the larger number of people who are captivated by a vision for a better way to live and be — and there are so many such people. They are passive from a base of ignorance or lack of leadership, not because they are bad people. For many of these folks, no pastor or lay leader has ever explained to them that being like Jesus means actually doing what Jesus did and taught. That this is a new concept speaks volumes to our current leadership, but fortunately it isn’t too late. Who shows up to church is not nearly as important as what they do when they get there, and more importantly, what they do when they leave.
How have we come to a place where our behaviors are so divorced from our beliefs? By what process did “going to” church displace “being” the church? When did we allow the high standard of faithful discipleship to be compromised by the low standard of church membership? What will it take to redeem our faith from a passive attendance to an active engagement? What must we do to shift from plugging Christianity into our lives where convenient to completely reordering our lives around a transformative relationship with God in Jesus Christ? Ironically, lay people don’t argue with me so much about these questions as do pastors who are tired of trying to make people want something more. Sadly, it is the pastoral leadership who say that people don’t want discipleship — they want a simple, consumeristic, optional, convenient faith. But this ignores a small segment who DO want something more. There is a faithful population who not only want to produce fruit, but they wish to share it with the world. My hope and prayer is that our church may have the wisdom to shift so much time and energy away from those who could care less (but are vocal and vehement that the church should take care of them) and direct our best efforts on cultivating radical fruititude with those ready to produce a bountiful harvest.
Categories: Christian discipleship, Congregational Life, Core Values, spiritual practices, Vision
An excellent post. It reminded me of Kyle Idleman’s recent “Not a Fan,” which challenged everyone to decide whether they were a fan sitting in the bleachers or a truly committed follower of Jesus who is out doing His work.
Excellent post! I am left chewing on several things… in fact, after I posted the blogpost on my FB page, I had to come back and re-read to chew some more. “Living the faith by a few degrees of separation.” “Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is not the culmination of anything, merely the launch.” “Many Christians are furious that it be suggested they be civil to people they judge to be sinners. They want to know who said anything about having to love or forgive “them”.” (This one blows me over with a gentle breeze… really?!?!? People seriously do not know that we are to love as Christ loved? Okay, I’ll step away.)
We all have learning and growing to do…. and encouraging others in that too. It isn’t going to be easy to change the movement of a big ship, but if the leaders (clergy and lay) are revitalized and encouraged and equipped, then hopefully they/we can live into the change enough to bring others into it so that BEING the church and living and loving and serving as Christ modeled is lived out…..
Thank you, Dan.
A truly Spirit-powered rant! Just started reading the late Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve” (published posthumously by his family). He addresses the lack of courageous leadership in our society from the family to the church to the White House. He (and I) would affirm your call to stop wasting our time on passive consumer christians who don’t want any more and focus on those who want to grow into strong, robust followers of Jesus.
BTW what’s the source of the statistics in the beginning of the post? I’d like to use some of them in my blog. soon. I feel a rant coming on! Keep up the great writing.
Reading “A Failure of Nerve” was very helpful to me, and I recommend it to others.
Have you read Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy? Willard deals with this from a look at The Sermon on the Mount.
Thanks for another good post!
I read the Willard book when it first came out, but I should dig it up again and review it.
Dan, This post was excellent and reflected my feelings as well. I highly recommend you read Divine Conspiracy again when you have time. I just led a study using it because it is such a powerful treatise on discipleship. It addresses every single subject you bring up in this post. I also used the videos and they are excellent. I greatly admire Dallas Willard, because he knows what it means to “speak the truth in love”. I am sometimes so frustrated by the statistics you list here, that I forget to love. Thanks for your faithfulness and insight into this institution we so dearly love.
Amen! There are those who get it and hunger for it. We need to do all that we can to teach and encourage them and then get out of their way.