Most of the Methodist world gasped in horror at the news last week that a prominent TV evangelist, the surreally-named Creflo Dollar, had gone public with his desire to raise $65 million from his faithful flock for a new private jet. (That’s a lot of dough — you can build a substandard high school football stadium with that! Rim shot, please …)
People in the liberal Protestant tradition can’t really relate to the financial attitudes of a large segment of Pentecostals and evangelicals. I can, because I grew up in this subculture.
My high school years, in particular, were spent at a growing, suburban megachurch in Plano, Texas, which came out of the Word of Faith movement, based in the ministry of Kenneth Hagin and Rhema Bible College. Churches throughout the world have imbibed their ethos from Hagin’s influence, as well as his spiritual descendants, including Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn, and others.
Since these are non-denominational churches, there is no direct link between them, except in the loose affiliation of friendly preachers and funders, as well as overarching themes and teachings, the primary one being something called “Prosperity Theology.”
The first, and fundamental, tenet of Prosperity Theology (PT) is that God desires that all Christians be, if not wealthy, then extraordinarily well-to-do, and completely healthy. According to this thinking, believing Christians should have no unmet material needs, nor should they be sick. Proponents of PT point to Abraham as the paradigm of the faithful believer; he was obviously a rich man by any ancient Middle Eastern standard. Much of the Old Testament supports the concept that the faithful will be blessed, while the wicked will be punished with poverty — even in this world, never mind that a whole lot of the Old Testament is also spent pushing back on this concept, including the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.
Financial blessing is a spiritual birthright, then, of the believer. There are a number of ways to tap into this windfall. The Word of Faith folks emphasize the words and speech of our mouth; what we say out loud determines what actually happens. You must constantly “confess with your mouth” that you are prosperous and blessed. You must not allow yourself to voice negative thoughts, worries, or concerns, because then those things just might come true.
Furthermore, you must constantly “believe” or “have faith” that what you want will happen. To “believe for something,” is PT code for “saying that something is going to happen, even though you don’t have any proof that it will.” It’s essentially positive thinking on steroids.
Another way to receive the financial blessings you deserve is to give out of your poverty. The best way to show your faith is to give money away that you can’t afford to give away. Like the widow who gave away her last two pennies, believers are encouraged to give sacrificially. These gifts are then, not simply offerings, they are “seeds” that are sown into fertile ground, and which will reap a substantial reward.
The best proof that this sowing and reaping dynamic works is to look at the preachers who practice it — the people who buy TV stations and broadcast their images throughout the world, while dressing like fashion stars, driving expensive cars, and, yes, buying private jets.
And this theology “works.” All you have to do is count the number of people in Dollar’s churches, or the numbers of people throughout the world who buy it. I was surprised to discover in Cameroon, that one of the handful of public TV stations that were available on every set, was a Christian station out of South Africa. Every program and preacher on the station promoted PT thinking. The Methodist pastors in our fledgling mission ate it up. They thought that’s what American Methodists believed, too.
And so, when I heard Creflo Dollar’s appeal, it didn’t shock or surprise me. It made a lot of sense:
“The mission of Project G650 is to acquire a Gulfstream G650 airplane so that Pastors Creflo and Taffi (his wife) and World Changers Church International can continue to blanket the globe with the Gospel of grace. We are believing for 200,000 people to give contributions of 300 US dollars or more to turn this dream into a reality—and allow us to retire the aircraft that served us well for many years.”
In my last year or two at this megachurch in Plano, I began to be troubled by the disconnect between what I heard from the pulpit and what I read in the Gospels. I notice that our pastor never preached on Jesus’ words, “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” He never preached about Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler, nor did he address Jesus’ words about not having a place to lay his head.
Even worse was the disconnect between the message preached and the reality around me. I heard people in my church literally tell a man that if he had enough faith, his wife would not die of cancer. Three weeks later, when she died, I couldn’t help wonder if his faith had been damaged for good.
I understand the appeal of PT; it does seem to speak a word of hope and expectation to poor people. But it’s not the right word. It seriously distorts, not only Scripture, but also human experience.
I’ve tried to put that kind of theology far behind me. However, this morning, as I watch the furor around Dollar’s request, I wonder how much PT has seeped into our very own Methodist subculture.
I’ve been vocal in the last few years about how much I distrust numbers as a sign of fruitfulness. I’ve written here and there about the meaningless of statistics, particularly church membership and attendance. I recognize that this is partly due to my own experience in a PT church growing up.
But take a look at some of the largest churches in the world — Nigeria’s Living Faith World Outreach Ministry has a sanctuary that can seat 50,000. They have three services every Sunday. Pastor David Oyedepo is Nigeria’s wealthiest preacher, worth $150 million by some estimates. And he preaches the same prosperity BS that Dollar preaches. Is the size of his church a sign of God’s blessing on him?
I would argue, “Of course not.” It IS possible to build a megachurch which is built on a faulty theology.
This leads to the question, “Is the size of any church a sign of God’s blessing or curse AT ALL? Is it even a sign of doctrinal orthodoxy?”
The answer is, “No.” It’s simply not a direct correlation. Yet, we United Methodists continue to moan about our membership decline. We are worried that the numerical loss indicates something about our performance. This might be true, but it is not always true. Then we rush around trying to fix the numerical loss, assuming that it is performance-related. This causes us to create fundamentally-flawed, performance-based metrics. “Marks of fruitfulness” can never be expressed on a spreadsheet.
Let me say it clearly: the size and budgets of our churches do not matter, especially in terms of faithfulness, fidelity to the Gospel, and quality of ministry.
Let’s take that question a step further: “Is the size of one’s wallet, or salary, or savings, a sign of God’s blessing or curse AT ALL?”
Again, the answer is, “No, not at all.” Yet I fear that, subconsciously, there are a whole bunch of us Methodists who actually subscribe to the logic of Prosperity Theology, even if we would never articulate it in those terms, and are actually offended when we see it baldly expressed by the Creflo Dollars of the world.
John Wesley was absolutely right when, toward the end of his life, he lamented how wealthy the Methodists of England had become. He recognized that they never did really subscribe to the third of his famous trinity of financial maxims: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” In his sermon, “The Danger of Riches,” he preached:
O ye Methodists, hear the word of the Lord! I have a message from God to all men; but to you above all. For above forty years I have been a servant to you and to your fathers. And I have not been as a reed shaken with the wind: I have not varied in my testimony. I have testified to you the very same thing from the first day even until now. But “who hath believed our report?” I fear, not many rich: I fear there is need to apply to some of you those terrible words of the Apostle: “Go to now, ye rich men! Weep and howl for the miseries which shall come upon you. Your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of them shall witness against you and shall eat your flesh, as it were fire.” Certainly it will, unless ye both save all you can and give all you can. But who of you hath considered this since you first heard the will of the Lord concerning it? Who is now determined to consider and practice it? By the grace of God begin today!
How many of us actually preach it, or practice it?
I confess that I don’t, yet all the while, it convicts me, and gnaws away at my spirit, hoping that someday I might attain the practical holiness of Wesley.
I can sit here on my computer and take potshots at Creflo Dollar’s silly jet idea all I like, but perhaps I am just as silly, greedy, and deluded. I have succumbed to the same dream, the anti-Christian American Dream, the anti-Gospel Prosperity Theology, because I, too, simply want to be wealthy, healthy, and successful.
Lord, have mercy on me.
In the North Texas Conference, I am the chair of something called the Board of Church and Society. This is a fancy, United Methodist term for “Committee for Social Justice Issues.” (Or as the Good News folks would put it, “Everything That is Wrong with Liberal Christianity.”)
The name is a holdover from the sixties, I’m sure. It implies that only this committee deals with issues that concern both the Church and the wider world, because everyone knows that worship certainly doesn’t. Or prayer. Or discipleship. Sigh.
The fact that “social justice issues” are dealt with only in this particular committee of the larger church is problematic for me. I find it fundamentally disturbing that we so easily partition off so-called real life issues from the rest of our faith.
There is a seamless integration between the things we believe about God and the way we live inside God’s creation, just as there is no difference between the command to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and the command to love our neighbor. It’s one and the same thing. It’s simply two ways of talking about the same exact thing.
You can’t be a great Christian in your heart, while at the same time taking advantage of folks in your neighborhood. You can’t be a wholehearted Jesus-follower in some mystical, spiritual sense, while also being a dickhead to people you don’t like.
Those things don’t hold together. As John put it, “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”
But something insidious burrowed its way into our churches and congregations and persuaded us that “faith” was somehow more important than “action,” and that “belief” has primary over “behavior,” and that “evangelism” is the main task of the church while “justice” is something we can only hope to get around to every once in a while.
John Wesley liked to say that there is no personal holiness without social holiness, to which I say, “Amen!” And to recover the sense of vitality in our own movement, we must rediscover the importance of the pursuit of justice in our lives as followers of Jesus.
Perhaps one problem is the very word, justice. It’s a fuzzy word for lots of us. For some, it conjures up “Law and Order” episodes, in which good guys chase after bad guys. For others, it hints at all sorts of left-leaning causes, which makes a lot of people in my neck of the woods very nervous.
For me, Biblical justice is a very simple concept. It refers to the restoration of right relationships with God, with others, with self, and with the rest of creation, including the earth and its elements, plants, animals, and the outer limits of our knowledge. While we cannot literally restore right relationships between every person and God or others, we can certainly begin the work of demolishing or changing the structures and powers that keep relationships fractured and broken.
I would say this definition of justice describes very well the entire story of God and God’s interaction with the world, as it is told in Scripture. Justice is the reason Jesus Christ came into the world. Jesus came to put things right.
And that’s what what folks who claim to follow Jesus are supposed to be doing, too. We’re supposed to be doing justice work! We look at the world with a yearning for things to be made whole again. We should be looking at our communities and asking the really difficult questions, such as, “Why are children in our neighborhood dying from malnutrition and lack of basic medical care?” and “Why do the poor live in such rotten parts of town?” and “Who benefits from such arrangements?” and “Do we have to let things stay like this?”
But these are dangerous questions. And that’s precisely why most of us DON’T do justice work. It verges on the political, on the controversial. And we want so badly to steer a middle course. We don’t want to appear to be “partisan.”
OF COURSE WE HAVE TO BE PARTISAN!
Has anybody noticed that Jesus was clearly partisan? He took the side of the least of these, the poor, the oppressed, and all the other motley outsiders. He was on THEIR side, as opposed to those who were powerful, greedy, arrogant, self-righteous, and overly pious. Yes, he took sides. He played favorites!
In his coming-out party at a Nazareth synagogue, he stood up and said, “Well, I can see that the poor need to hear some good news, that there are prisoners who need to be set free, that there are blind folks who need to see, and there are some oppressed people who need to stand up straight again. Let’s do it! Let’s put things back in their right place!” And as soon as he said this, the townspeople attempted to throw him off a cliff.
But Jesus never once stopped to preach and said, “I think I’ll do some spiritual work now,” after which he said, “OK, back to my secular work, back to real life.” Evangelism and social action were one and the same to him. God’s work was everyday work, something which consumed him 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Unless we integrate our lives, and unite our theological convictions with justice in action, then we will be merely “almost Christian.”
Which is to say, not Christian at all.
Isn’t it time for churches, congregations, and Jesus-followers to rediscover the call to do justice?
A few weeks ago, a friend, Rob Rynders, posted a rousing call to innovation in the United Methodist Church. Along with the other members of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, I co-wrote a response to Rob’s call on our own website.
We wanted to let him know that we were doing precisely what he called for. We are innovating within the church; we are doing some exciting new forms of ministry. In particular, I wrote a paragraph about New Day, the missional micro-communities which I have the privilege of helping to form and nurture.
However, if I am completely honest, I will admit that something bothers me about Rob’s article and my follow-up.
I think we may be a little over-optimistic about the UMC’s capacity to handle all this forthcoming innovation.
The problem is that Rob’s argument assumes the continuation of a permission-giving institution. But innovators can’t work in places where they have to get permission for every little thing. The UMC is currently structured to require permission from pastors, from boards, from committees. That’s what kills creativity. That’s what keeps good ideas from getting traction. There is always somebody above you to say, “No, that’s not good.”
Innovators simply cannot — and will not — thrive in that kind of system. It may happen in rare circumstances. It might pop out in various places. But as soon as a bishop changes, or a supportive cabinet member rotates off, then all bets are off.
I am very skeptical about the possibility of large segments of the denomination actually embracing an era of innovation, of creating positions like Chief Innovation Officer, or changing systems of training.
Perhaps I once believed change was possible. As a young clergy, I believed that we were on the cusp of something big, on the verge of turning the denomination around. I thought that, if we worked hard enough, then something new would happen.
It didn’t. So here I am getting closer and closer to middle-age, and all I have seen in my experience of ordained ministry is good, creative folks getting their heads smashed against the walls of hierarchy. Eventually, they wise up and decide not to do it any more. Thus, they either leave the ministry and/or denomination altogether, or they reluctantly accept that appointment to Grumpy Old White Folks UMC.
Towards the end of the article, Rob drops this line: “We must then work within the system we have.”
But the truth is … we don’t.
We don’t have to work within the system if we don’t want to. We can work without it. We can go outside of it. We can leave it if it continues to stifle us.
The idea that we have to remain constrained by old DNA, creaky polity, and most of all, stubborn people in leadership, is ludicrous. The option of leaving the denomination is always before us, even if it makes us uncomfortable, and even if we really don’t want to leave. If God calls us into the desert places, then we have to follow.
Sometimes I think the system works to produce people like Charles Wesley, instead of John.
Charles worked as a restrictive influence on John, begging him to keep his radical ideas to himself, lest there be a break with the Church of England. Charles worked as hard as he could to keep the Methodist movement firmly within the church — but how’d that work out?
It’s as simple as this: John Wesley was an innovator. He tried to innovate within the status-quo Church of England. Some of the folks in the CofE were friendly to John’s innovations, but most weren’t. It didn’t work. Finally, the Methodists had to leave and do their own thing. End of story.
While it would be wonderful if everybody in the UMC read Rob’s blog and said, “Oh, what a great idea; let’s do it!” I know they won’t. We have not produced the kinds of leaders, clergy or lay, who can do what Rob says we need to do.
This is the blast of cold, hard reality that all of us clergy — and motivated, inspired laypeople — need to face.
God’s future, whatever it looks like, might lay completely outside of the UMC. Or any other denomination for that matter. The future might very well be out there, not in here.
The important thing is to find oneself in God’s future, not to keep propping up the skeletons of the past.
I have written before that, up to this point, I have felt called to remain in the UMC; that’s the only reason any of us should stay. But one’s call can change.
The simple question should always be, “What does God want me to be doing right now?” We have a responsibility to discern where God is at work in the world, and to participate in it.
In the end, if you can’t do the innovative work that God wants you to do within the structure of a denomination, then you must leave.
Go, innovate. No matter what.
United Methodists don’t like the death penalty.
We have always been strongly against it. You’ll find the opposition in our Book of Discipline, Book of Resolutions, and in a myriad of statements, declarations and direct actions in local expressions.
But why? Is it a historical accident? Or because our boards skew toward progressive social policy? Is it our concern for justice? What is it about the death penalty in particular that seems to engage a sensitive spot in United Methodists?
It’s simple to me – it’s our doctrine of salvation. I believe that Wesleyan theology implicitly rejects the taking of any life, because it denies the possibility of grace to that human being.
If John Wesley believed anything, he was convinced that every human being is caught in a web of grace, from the beginning of life to the end. Wesley wanted to be part of spinning that web, and so he committed his own life to spreading the good news of grace to as many people as possible, including death row inmates.
Using the simple schematic of Wesley’s “stages of grace,” we find a powerful three-fold argument against the death penalty:
1. The death penalty prematurely stymies the work of God’s prevenient grace
According to Wesley, every person, no matter how hardened or embittered, has been given a measure of God’s grace:
Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world … So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he has.
This vague sense of God’s love, this “transient conviction of having sinned against Him,” this longing for God – these are all signs that the Spirit is at work wooing the heart. This is prevenient grace.
For Methodists, this is the beginning of salvation, even if it takes a lifetime to become aware of it. This is our strongest argument against retributive justice – we believe that no one is so far gone that he cannot be reached by God. No one is beyond redemption; no one has wandered so far that they cannot return.
But when a person is executed, the work of the Spirit is cut short. The executioner says, in effect, “You are beyond hope.”
2. The death penalty precludes the possibility of God’s justifying grace
In Wesley’s eyes, the crux of the meaning of justification is forgiveness of sins. One is justified when she, through faith, repents, receives forgiveness, and is restored to right relationship with God. This is conversion, regeneration, or the “born-again experience.” The Methodist emphasis in conversion has traditionally focused on the righting of relationship, not only with God, but with each other.
Regardless of the stereotype of the “jail house conversion,” the fact is that conversion can, and does, happen anywhere. People who have committed heinous crimes DO need to repent, and DO need to be forgiven.
This was the story in the film, Dead Man Walking – Sean Penn’s hideous character hid behind a façade of victimization until Susan Sarandon, as Sister Helen Prejean, drew him out into the light of God’s forgiveness through her unrelenting compassion. The inmate was truly converted before he was stretched out on the gurney.
Besides the matter of one’s relationship with God, however, there is a relationship with the human community that needs restoration. And this relationship is forever severed when one is executed.
3. The death penalty prevents people from going on to perfection
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of Wesley’s theology of salvation is his insistence on the possibility of sanctification and Christian perfection. He believed that justification was only the beginning of the true Christian life. Through the power of the Spirit, once we are forgiven, we begin to grow in the love of God and neighbor. God begins to work in us, not merely for us.
The goal of our life then becomes living in such a way that we do everything out of the love of God. This is the essence of perfection. And we are all to be “going on to perfection.”
Assuming that an inmate has responded to the love of God, feels the assurance of the forgiveness of sins, and has begun to grow in grace, why would we dare to cut short this process? Why would we say, “You cannot go any further in perfection; you are flawed enough that your life must end now?”
These arguments will not likely be persuasive for the non-Methodist, and certainly not for the non-Christian. However, I could distill these arguments down to an even more basic sentiment:
When we exercise the death penalty, we claim we know better than God.
Ever since I became a United Methodist about twenty years ago, I’ve been told repeatedly that one of the best – and most unique — things about the church is our “connection.” We are a “connectional people,” I am repeatedly told.
But I confess that, twenty years on, I still don’t fully understand the concept, and I certainly can’t understand why this makes us unique.
According to our Book of Discipline, our “connectionalism” is evident in four particular ways: our tradition of faith and doctrine, constitutional polity, mission, and ethos (para. 130).
However, if being connectional means sharing a common tradition of faith and doctrine, then there’s not much that divides Methodists from Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, or any other mainline Protestant group for that matter. Our articles of faith are similar to their articles of faith.
If being connectional refers to our polity (organizational structure) which involves a bishop exercising authority over a geographical area, then we are very similar to Catholics and Episcopalians. We also have general boards and agencies, but so do other denominations.
If being connectional refers to having a “common mission,” then we are just like any other non-profit organization which has a mission, vision, and values statement.
And every organization has a “common ethos that characterizes (a) distinctive way of doing things” (para. 130). We’re certainly not unique there.
Surely being “connectional” means something deeper and more significant than this.
Last week, I attended our annual clergy retreat, with over two hundred pastors gathered for a couple of days of relaxation, worship (led by the Connections Band!), and stimulating lectures by Brian McLaren. As usual, I thought to myself, “I don’t spend nearly enough time with my friends and colleagues in ministry.” It occurred to me, then, that “connection,” mostly has to do with pastors.
Hear me out, all you laypersons who are crying foul just about now. I would like to argue that, yes, the “connection” primarily refers to the way that we Methodist pastors are supposed to be organized and go about our work – but not because I want to short-circuit the work of non-pastors.
Furthermore, I would argue that we simply are not “connectional” at this moment in our history. At least not in the sense that we ought to be.
In his book, Marks of Methodism, Russell Richey argues that true Methodist “connectionalism” has eight primary meanings, the most important of which, I believe, are “covenantal commitment” and “missional principle.” Historian Richard Heitzenrater confirms this idea when he describes early Methodist connectionalism as “the covenantal association of preachers committed to a united mission to spread scriptural holiness under the direction of John Wesley and the conference.”
In other words, the connection is a group of preachers who have pledged to be accountable to each other and be in mission to the world.
I would like to suggest that we pastors ought to view ourselves in this way, to imagine that we are an intentional, covenantal community ordered for the mission of God in a particular geographical area. This means that we should be primarily accountable to each other, worshiping together, and gaining strength from our fellowship together. We know that our membership is in the Conference, not in any local church, but this is only a technical reality. What if it became a living reality? What if pastors met weekly in covenant groups, and discipled each other? What if appointments were viewed as missional engagements, and were freed from a place on the salary ladder? What if the bishop forsook the rest of his or her duties to do nothing but pastor all the pastors?
This is not how we currently live out our connectedness. Right now, being connectional means simply that we pay apportionments; we share resources within the conference and from the general boards and agencies; we gather once a year for Annual Conference and do our business; we are held accountable for actual measurable results in our appointments; the bishop and cabinet strategize and order the overall work; and we preachers are lucky if we see each other more than twice a year.
What if being connectional, instead, meant that each pastor were required to be in a covenant group with other pastors; that each pastor viewed the entire conference as his own appointment; that each pastor viewed herself primarily as a missionary, sent into a particular mission context; and that no particular appointment or context was viewed as more “valuable,” “lucrative,” or “vital” than another?
Being connectional means being committed to the whole forest, not just the individual trees. I’m as guilty as any other pastor of not being able to see the forest for my own personal tree. In fact, I take pride in caring for my own tree; I spend all my time trying to make my tree bigger and taller.
But the point is that we’re all in this together. The mission of God is common, because it is shared by all of us, pastors as well as laypersons, preachers as well as Sunday School teachers.
Somewhere along the way, the mission of the church got delegated to “professionals” who have made a career out of impressive sermons, top-notch counseling, and chairing committees. And in the process, the connection was weakened, made brittle, and shattered.
It’s time to become truly connectional again. If not, let’s stop using the word.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about following Jesus in the UMC. I am looking back to John Wesley’s three-tiered structure of discipleship for suggestions and hints of how Methodists ought to pray, plan, and proceed in the future. The first post is about the UMC’s drift away from discipleship; the second explored the meaning of the very word “Methodist.” The third and fourth posts began to explain Wesley’s structure, specifically the nature of “societies.” This post investigates Wesleyan “bands.”
Does any significant spiritual growth happen in gatherings larger than just a handful of people?
That’s not a rhetorical question – what I’m asking has serious, long-term ramifications for the way we do things in the United Methodist Church.
When I look back on my own life, the really important things that happened in my soul and spirit occurred in small, quiet, largely private settings. I flash back to discussions with youth pastors, conversations with college roommates, and heart-to-heart chats with fellow seminary students. I also remember being profoundly shaped by those of us who went through the candidacy process together – we met monthly in prayer and accountability groups.
Funny, but I grew up in a tradition (charismatic non-denominational) that actually valued the public worship gathering as the locus of the work of the Spirit. Services tended to focus, not on preaching, but on the extended time of praise and worship after the sermon, accompanied by altar calls and prayers for healing. It was rather frenetic, noisily chaotic, and extremely emotional.
I remember being raised with the idea that nothing really good happened in a worship service unless lots of people moved up front at the end, shed tears, were “slain in the Spirit,” and asked Jesus into their hearts.
It didn’t take long, however, to discover the deeper truth that what happened at church, tended to stay at church! Frankly, much of what happened there at the stage was simply good old-fashioned excessive emotionalism.
Certainly good things can – and do – happen in large groups. Public worship gatherings can be inspiring and moving, of course. Music and preaching have their place.
But it seems rather obvious that true, long-term, mature discipleship only takes place in the context of small groups of people who are open, transparent, and committed to each other, and to their relationship with Christ.
It is my conviction that John Wesley understood this concept extremely well, and shaped a system that effectively funneled interested people into smaller and smaller groups of people in order to facilitate this kind of discipleship.
The pinnacle of this system was the “band.” Bands were groups of four to nine people, of the same sex and, usually, same station in life, who met as often as twice a week.
Bands were a prominent feature of Wesley’s first society, the group which met at Fetter Lane beginning in 1738. According to the rules of the society, during band meetings everyone was invited to take a turn to “speak as freely, plainly, and concisely as he can, the real state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.” In other words, bands were a kind of intimate confessional group. In the freedom of band meetings, individuals could share frankly and openly about their lives, their hopes and their doubts.
I imagine that, during the 18th century, Wesley was responsible for hundreds of these small bands across the English countryside, which met regularly like AA and Weight Watchers to support each other.
There’s no doubt that having three or four close friends who stay in touch on a regular basis for the explicit purpose of supporting you in prayer and encouragement would have a powerful effect on your walk with Christ.
Once again, here I must ask, to what extent does the current UMC provide for, and attempt to establish, band meetings? When was the last time you were asked to become a part of a very small group of persons who wanted to do nothing but meet regularly for prayer and spiritual conversation?
We could at least begin with our preachers, who are folks who desperately need the fellowship and support of colleagues. In some annual conferences, clergy are assigned to various large “cluster” groups for the purpose of mutual accountability, but the practice of requiring clergy to participate in band meetings is unknown in my experience.
Walk to Emmaus Reunion groups also contain “band”-like features. In my last church setting, I knew of at least two active reunion groups which have kept individuals tied together for at least five years. The participants acknowledge that they hardly ever miss meetings, because the fellowship is so rich and valuable. In fact, they are more likely to skip Sunday morning worship than miss a reunion meeting.
My point is simple – how can we possibly expect to “make disciples” if we aren’t constantly creating and fostering those places where we know disciple-making occurs best?
Go start a band!
The overwhelming consensus about the United Methodist Church right now seems to be that we are “dying.” Thus, we speak of “death tsunamis,” and “declining memberships.” Charts show us plummeting downward, as if to indicate a plunge toward the grave.
This line of thought drives me crazy for a couple of reasons.
First, the concept of dying does not necessarily carry negative implications. Jesus made this very clear in John 12, when he said, “Hey, a grain of wheat is worthless unless it is buried in the ground. Only then can it come back to life in a significant way.” If “the church” is dying, that might be a good thing. Because then it might come back to life in a fresher, more vibrant form. In fact, particular forms and expressions of Christianity and church are constantly dying and being reborn. There is nothing bad about this.
But on the other hand, the idea that the church, in the sense of “the body of Christ,” or the community of God’s people on earth, will ever die is a preposterous one. In Matthew 16, Jesus himself said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. The church, or the people of God, is the one thing that we can be assured will last as long as the earth. In other words, God will never leave the world without an embodiment or incarnation of God’s own purpose and will.
Of course, I am perfectly aware that the reason we use the language of death and dying for our institution is because we are trying to shake ourselves into an awareness of a need for change. To say “the church is dying” is to attempt to wake us up, to provoke a response.
I would suggest that one great way to do this is to change the narrative. Let’s look at our story, our plot line, differently. This reframing exercise might help us put our own particular expression of church in a different light.
We Methodists have a standard narrative, and it goes something like this:
John Wesley shook up the dead 18th-century Church of England with an evangelical message, revivalist fervor, and an emphasis on good works. Instead of reforming the national church, the movement spawned a brand new church, which then spread to America, where it captured the heart and soul of the nation for almost two hundred years, and became the prototypical Main Street church, existing as a cohesive force for families, communities, and the country. But eventually, liberalism and secularism gutted the soul of Methodism, and the church began to lose influence, members, and money.
That’s where we are now, according to this narrative – we are “dying.” According to this story line, our “problem” is that we are “in decline” and any good “solution” would involve reversing this situation and returning the Methodist church to a position of power, influence, and respect in our cities.
That particular narrative has some lasting power. I’ve used it before myself. And there is some truth to it.
But is there a different narrative? Is there a way to tell our story that frames our situation differently? And more importantly, does it tell us that there is a different “problem”?
How does this narrative sound?
The Protestant Reformation (and Enlightenment) which swept the Western world in the 16th century was a necessary reaction to the corruption and excess of the Catholic Church. It triggered a series of mini-reformations, such as the Anabaptist rediscovery of Christian nonviolence, the Pentecostal rediscovery of the Holy Spirit, and the Wesleyan rediscovery of the power of covenant discipleship. However, all of these reformations were accomplished within the overarching sphere of Christendom. These movements happened within Western nation-states that were officially and uniformly Christian. We have entered a post-Enlightenment, postmodern, and post-Christian era, and the last vestiges of Christendom are fading (regardless of the hopes of the religious right in America). Every expression of “church” in the Western world is facing this change. We may be the majority religion in America still, but we are a democratic, secular society.
If we use this as our primary narrative about what is happening to “us,” then the “problem” is something larger than our own denomination. We’re talking about a cultural shift, a tide that is overtaking us. This narrative threatens to swamp us with overwhelming force, and our “solution” may be one of two things: one, to simply continue doing what we’re doing because we can’t think of a reasonable way forward, or two, to hunker down into an antagonistic relationship with the culture, and lash out at those who are not Christian.
Let me suggest one more narrative, one which I think sounds more promising and hopeful:
God loves this world, and is constantly working to bring blessing, favor, and dignity to the peoples of the world. God accomplishes this in a multitude of ways – through prophets, scripture, music and art, and religious movements, just to name a few. Before Jesus, God especially worked in and through a unique race of people, a family called Israel. Since the life and times of Jesus, God has especially worked in and through a unique people called “Christian” or “church.” In different times and different places, the church has been given different gifts, perspectives and insights, which have helped bring blessings to particular peoples and nations. But lately, it appears as if God is working in wider, more expansive ways than the church had ever imagined. Increasingly, the people of God are recognizing that we need the different gifts that particular churches have – we Methodists need the insights of Catholics, Anabaptists, and Pentecostals, just to name a few, and they need ours. And we are beginning to recognize the work of God outside the traditional bounds of church, whether in other religious traditions or non-religious streams of thought.
If this narrative is true, and I think it is, then what is the “problem”? The problem is that we as the people of God are not in tune with what God is doing in the world. The tragedy is that so many of our churches are not bringing blessing, favor and dignity to people in our communities. That’s what God wants to do, but we don’t seem to be interested in doing that. Instead, we are mostly concerned about keeping our doors open.
The solution is clear then. We must try to figure out where God is moving … and rush to catch up. If the old form of “church” dies behind us, then it’s OK. Because there will always be a people of God, and there will always be a God sending, loving, and blessing.
That’s the only story worth telling.