At a recent workshop, discussion shifted to the question, “So, just what IS the current reality of our local churches in United Methodism?” The following framework emerged from this discussion. In summary: The United Methodist Church is an amalgam of three key aspects that work well in combination but are disastrous when not well-integrated or aligned. The three key aspects are the “Big Bs” of Belief, Belonging and Behavior. The baseline we hope every person can achieve looks like this:
There is a mutual overlap that helps individuals connect through their core beliefs and values, rituals and practices, and relationships and fellowship. The areas of overlap constitute where most people define “church;” the place we go, the associations we form, and where we learn the basic tenets of the faith. However, this is a starting point, not the ultimate goal. We will look at the ultimate goal (as was discussed by the workshop participants) at the end, but first we want to explore the very real shadow sides present in our contemporary church.
What happens when these three spheres are not well-integrated or closely aligned? What happens when these spheres become disconnected? No matter the scenario, when one sphere eclipses the others, disconnection occurs, and an unintentional and unsustainable pathology emerges.
When Belief is the primary driver, tension results. “Right” thinking, “right” believing, “right” understanding, and “right” teaching all set a tenuous dynamic — a false “righteousness” where anyone who disagrees is, by definition, “wrong.” Belief becomes an intellectual exercise. We can debate concepts and ideas forever, with the basic result that we damage belonging and connection, and we reduce behaviors to those actions that validate our beliefs. Around beliefs we draw lines of who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, who is righteous and who is sinful. Doctrine shifts to dogma, discipline to disciplining, and diversity as a strength gives way to deviation as weakness. Only those who believe what we believe “belong” and we judge the rightness of belief by “behaviors.” All this accomplishes is to solidify the lines between “us” and “them,” resulting in endless debates over who is “really” Christian/United Methodist and who is out to destroy the church.
Emphasis in this model is all about the individual. Each person is a faith unto his or her self. When someone says, “I am spiritual, but not religious,” they are really saying that belonging and behavior are less important, and as long as one feels good about his or her buddy Jesus, all is well in the world. You also hear folks in this model say things like, “you don’t really need to go to church to be a good Christian,” or “it doesn’t matter if a person serves as long as they believe the right things.” Actions and relationships are secondary to personal beliefs and opinions. It is easy to see the slippery-slope this creates. This skewed view of belief can damage relationships and promote a very passive, inert faith.
Things don’t get much better when we focus primarily on behaviors over belief and belonging. On the ultra-conservative side, behaviors are all about obedience to a restrictive code, while on the ultra-liberal side Christian faith is reduced to social activism. “What would Jesus do?” thinking promotes a simplistic, “actions speak louder than words” Christianity. Doing good trumps a healthy relationship with God or an intentional engagement with a faith community. Often, Christian behaviorists lament that they are “too busy” to pray or read the Bible, and that attending church is a “waste of precious time.” Sitting at Jesus’ feet (anointing him with costly nard???) like Mary drives the overdriven Marthas to distraction. Faith without works is dead, but works without faith is fine. And at the other extreme, being “good” alleviates the need to do anything for the poor, hungry, injured, oppressed or lonely. Passiveness is next to godliness. Christian activities like going to church, giving an offering, attending a church function, and reading the church newsletter are all it takes to be a good Christian.
One of the joyous pastimes of the behavior-biased is to judge the behaviors of others. As with beliefs, the normative perspective kicks-in: what is right for me is right for all. All too often, those of the behavior bent relish developing a list of sinful acts, unsavory practices, and deviant deeds. If there is a biblical reference, either blatant or subtle, they wield the scriptures like a sword to smite the sullied and sinstruck. Somehow, judging as a wrong behavior is ignored — how will we maintain purity and piety if we can’t condemn those who annoy, irritate or offend us? Our good behavior gives us the right to judge the bad behavior of others — and we don’t even need confirmation from a Christian fellowship (though we love others who share our definitions of right, good, acceptable, holy, sacred and godly, so that we are not alone in our judgment of what is wrong, bad, repulsive, evil, worldly or perverse. In the church of holy behavior, it’s what you do, not what you believe that makes all the difference in the world.
However, some are not really concerned with what to believe or how to behave as long as they are included as part of the “in crowd”. To belong is to be right. To belong is to be better than. To belong is to be safe. As long as I am a member of the church, it really doesn’t matter how I live my life. My name is on a membership roll, so I have my ticket punched for heaven and I am golden. There really isn’t even a reason to attend church; heck, I was confirmed and once saved, eternally saved, right? And if I actually do attend, I will make darn sure my needs and desires are met. Heaven help the preacher or other member who tries to change anything I care about. This is “MY” church. I won’t put up with loud music, or kids running, or “those people” messing up the kitchen, or any change to the worship service. Sure, I want to grow and receive new people, but they had better not try to change anything! Any of this familiar? When the church is the club a person belongs to, they tend to focus on rights and entitlements, not responsibilities and the common good. They will fight to the death to preserve the status quo and keep themselves comfortable, secure, and surrounded by the things they love.
The sense of entitled ownership is widespread — and not just among laity. It is fascinating to hear pastors talk about “their” church, “their” ministry, “their” people. They bask in the warm glow of their achievements and focus on how much they do for “their” congregation. One of the most toxic messages I hear is one of pastoral dependency — “oh, I don’t know what we would do if pastor so-and-so ever leaves”. “The only reason I come to this church is because of the preacher.” Or, “we want a pastor to come in and turn things around (FOR us),” or “when pastor so-and-so was here we had to set up extra chairs in the aisles every Sunday.” This is passive, social club thinking — what do I/we want to make everything good again? And the extension of this are all the people who stop coming to church because they don’t like a particular pastor or because they lost a vote and can’t cope with the fact that they didn’t get their way.
These three aberrations are all too common — defining us as the rule and not the exceptions. But there is yet one more model that offers hope. Consider a setting where the three spheres overlap so closely that it is difficult to distinguish between them. Beliefs are shared beliefs, and the few differences of understanding and worldview in no way prevent people from feeling connected and united. Community — being together for a greater common purpose — trumps individualism and the whole feels the truth of the sum being greater than the parts. The corporate behaviors are affirmed and supported within the community and extended beyond the community. The focus is on building and strengthening the body. Focus is on what should be done, not worrying so much about what shouldn’t be done. Working together to generate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, mercy, compassion, grace and goodness simply takes up too much time to allow for petty bickering and small-minded judgmentalism. Focus on the positive infuses every aspect of the shared life together. There is no room for passivity or inactivity. Every person is engaged. Every person is connected. Every person is both learning and teaching, following and leading, receiving and giving. All are improved, affirmed, encouraged, and welcomed. Cool, huh?
We have too long viewed church as somewhere to go or something to do. We have not given adequate attention to what it means to BE the church in the world. When the three Bs of Belief, Behavior, and Belonging integrate fully, by the miracle and grace of the Holy Spirit a new “B” emerges — Body — the very Body of Christ. This isn’t as hard as we are making it out to be. For the group that met and contemplated this model, it made a lot of sense. A paradigm for thinking, organizing, planning and changing presented itself, and it challenged the status quo for many in the group. There is nothing new here; nothing earth-shaking. But it is a nice way to envision where we may have strayed from the path, and what we might do to journey toward integrity.