Just saw Tomorrowland — the new George Clooney film (not great, but good fun, nonetheless). It triggered in me an odd reaction. I think our Council of Bishops and all the nay-saying, “gotta turn this ship around”, “death tsunami” consultants need to go see this movie and view it as a modern-day parable for The United Methodist Church. The basic premise is that a Utopian alternative to the “real” world is envisioned, but people are motivated to embrace it not on its wondrous merits, but because what we have now is corrupt, broken, ugly, smelly, violent and heading for disaster. Rather than helping people want to reach a Promised Land, the powers-that-be (Hugh Laurie) hammer home the need to escape “the wrath to come.” Shocked and stymied, the Hugh Laurie character cannot fathom why doom-and-gloom, death-and-destruction messages fail to motivate change. Does that sound like our church, or what?
I have mentioned before a few key elements of our current reality whereby our leadership effectively shoots themselves in the foot by focusing on problems instead of possibilities. Even when we use visionary and positive language (“vital congregations”) it is from an institutional preservation mindset, not engaging a ravenous world in a life-giving plan and process for spiritual awakening and enlightenment. We want people to count warm bodies instead of evaluating our impact on world-wide community, personal relationships, and co-creating a realm God would be proud of. So many authors state what the church should be like, then illustrate their point with myriad images of how we are blowing it, missing the point, or otherwise under-functioning. We look to new people not as a means of strengthening the body of Christ, but as the key to survival and continued existence. We wonder why so few are attracted by our invitation for them to come assume responsibility without authority. Silly us.
It seems as if the best answer we can give to “how can we become a phenomenal church?” is “stop doing bad, ineffective things”. The General Rules of our church are not individual silos of attention, but three equally weighted and important juggling balls. Do no harm, do all the good you can, and engage in the “God-ordinances” of spiritual practice together, when set in motion, trace the symbol for eternity, and begs the question “which ball is most important?” Duh. Each ball is equally important in precise and constant relationship to the others. Doing no harm is impotent to bring about radical spiritual change if it is separate from doing all the good we can and our bonding rituals of prayer, study, contemplation, fellowship and service. There should be an “and” between each of the General Rules.
The same is true for our understanding of church. The juggling metaphor is apt once more. Paragraph 201 of our second holiest book (The Book of Discipline, 2012) states that “under the discipline of the Holy Spirit, the church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world.” The language, so odd and quaint, is compelling. “Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit…” Do we truly give credence to spiritual empowerment in our churches today? Haven’t we grown too sophisticated for this spooky Holy Ghost stuff? Most pastors I know have an undeveloped (or non-developed) pneumatology. For most of my ministry, I have taught spiritual gifts discovery, development and employment. I cannot begin to count the number of times that clergy and laity will ask some form of this question, “So, when you say ‘spiritual’ gifts, you don’t mean like ‘woo-woo’ Holy Spirit enters your body and makes you do things, do you?” No, I don’t, but I do believe in an essential energy and will that equips, enables, and empowers people to live fully from skills, abilities, knowledge and competencies that are innate and natural, but not universal. And I also believe that most pastoral leaders never fully grasp, understand, or engage most church-goers at this level — meaning that our churches almost always under-function and we waste many opportunities for ministry and service.
I find “maintenance of worship” and interesting choice of words. It feels like keeping worship oiled, tuned, clean and in good working order. Just at that level, we don’t always do a very good job… But the root of the word’s origin means to make sure it is “filled with life.” Okay, that’s cool. We are charged to keep worship alive and, by extension, lively. A later derivation of maintenance is to “protect and preserve the main thing.” Again, cool. Keeping the worship of God central to all we do as a community of faith — not just the services we hold on a Sunday morning (or alternative time). Maintenance implies constancy and continual attention. We are to be a worshipping people.
“Edification of believers” is more than just educating, but more fully preparing. We employ all kinds of “E” words in true edification — educate, exhort, encourage, equip, employ, engage, esteem, elevate and emulate come to mind. Early use of the term ranged from “to build up the soul for service” to “build a structure for occupation.” Interesting in both uses, the process of building is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. We edify believers so that they can DO, not just KNOW. Discipleship is active, never passive. We edify by teaching people to LIVE their faith, not merely believe.
And the “redemption of the world”. We, as the body of Christ, are here to participate in the ever-evolving co-creative work of God’s restoration and renewal of creation. Wow. Good thing we don’t have to do it alone. It frees us from asking what we need to fix (focusing on the past) and allows us to ask what needs to be done (present) and what we can create together (future). It kicks us out of faithless institutional preservation into faithful enlistment and service. This is what Tomorrowchurch needs to be — the fullest expression of all we DO have, all we CAN do, and everything we seek to become.
Worship, edification, and redemptive work are the three juggling balls we are called to keep in the air. Notice how it isn’t about numbers. It isn’t about buildings. It isn’t about celebrity pastors. It isn’t about programs. It isn’t even about money! It is about our willingness to shift from a basic “what’s in it for me/us?” mentality to a more grounded “what is God calling/helping us to become”?