Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Prayer for the Survivors of Southern California Fires

I was prompted this morning to pray for the people who have lost their homes and belongings to fire in Souther California. I pray especially for the fire fighters, police, EMTs, and relief workers who are serving and caring for the survivors; many of whom have lost their own homes to the fires.

The following is an adapted version of a prayer from
Book of Common Prayer:

O merciful Father, who has taught us in your holy Word that
you do not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men:
Look with pity upon the sorrows of the people of Southern California:
those who have lost their homes to fire,
those who are fighting the fires,
and those who are working to relieve the suffering of survivors
for whom our prayers are offered.
Remember them, O Lord, in mercy,
nourish their souls with patience,
comfort them with a sense of your goodness,
lift up your countenance upon them,
and give them peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Spiritual Narcissism

The North American church is thoroughly enculturated. In other words, it is little more than a mirror image of the dominant culture that is governed by market economy, consumerism, and individualism. The market driven consumerism is necessarily self-centered. Consequently, much of North American Christianity is self-centered.

Evidence of this may be found at a typical worship service on any given Sunday in a typical Protestant church. It doesn’t matter if you visit a main line or independent evangelical congregation. You’re likely to hear prayers, hymns, and a sermon that are much more about who the people are, their needs, and what God wants for them. It is a rare congregation that focuses its worship on the holy, triune God. Rather, enculturated worship focuses upon making the people have a good, pleasant experience that “feeds” them and leaves them feeling good about themselves and their church.

One of my favorite writers, Mark Galli, has written another excellent article that addresses the unfortunate and challenging reality of “spiritual narcissism” that permeates much of North American Christianity. You can read it here: “Am I Growing Yet?”

Accompanying Galli’s article is an online survey provided by Christianity Today asking people how satisfied they are with how their congregation helps them with spiritual growth. The vast majority of people of poll respondents express dissatisfaction with how their congregation helps them to grow spiritually.

I’m convinced that if we took a similar poll among only United Methodists we will find a similar result. And yet, we have at our disposal today the very best resources for Christian spiritual formation in the history of the church. We have the most educated clergy and laity in the history of Christianity. And yet, people are dissatisfied with how their church helps them to grow spirituality. What does that tell you?

It tells me that while we have great resources available, we don’t know how to use them. Very few congregations offer a systematic process of catechesis. They do not require all members to participate in a catechetical process as part of their membership responsibilities. In fact, most congregations have such low requirements and expectations of membership that there spiritual growth is a benefit rather than an responsibility. I’m convinced this unfortunate reality is a consequence of the North American Protestant church being a dispenser of cheap, rather than costly responsible, grace.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Values Voters?

The so-called “Values Voters” held a convention in Washington, DC last weekend. All the Republican presidential candidates showed up (were the Democratic party candidates invited?) to plead their cases as to why he was the one who most deserved their votes. It seems none of them received a clear majority. Surprisingly, the guy who won the straw poll, Mitt Romney, is not even a Christian.

What I find most troubling about this group and the event, judging from what I’ve read about it in the press and seen online and on television, is the two issues that “Values Voters” hold up as their litmus test: abortion and gay marriage. They are looking for a presidential candidate who will do all in his power to overturn Rowe v. Wade and support a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

My question is “Why are these two issues the most important?”

I find troubling that a group of people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians identify these issues as the ones they are willing to live and die by. I’ve not heard, seen, or read about anyone from this convention say anything about alleviating poverty, making sure that all Americans have access to health insurance and quality health care, addressing the global AIDS pandemic, or the immorality of preemptive war. I heard nothing about seeking to align their vision for America with Jesus’ vision for life in God’s reign (see Matthew 5:1-7:29 and Luke 4:18-19).

The values of these so-called “Values Voters” seems to me to way to narrow and ideological for a group that also identifies themselves as followers of the Jew from Nazareth, crucified and risen one Jesus Christ. It seems to me that his values encompassed the whole of human life and all people. His values especially centered around the needs of people who are poor, sick, and outcasts. They are the ones with whom he explicitly identified himself (Matthew 25:31-46). And yet, the so-called “Values Voters” had nothing to say about them.

I don’t understand. It seems to me there is a major disconnect with the values of Jesus Christ (the reign of God) and the so-called “Values Voters.”

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Towards a Missional Church

“What if the church is not about attracting people into a building but living as God’s people in the public space of their own community and neighborhood?”[1]

“The church is not simply a gathering of well-meaning individuals who have entered into a social contract to meet their privately defined self-interests. It is, instead, an intentional and disciplined community witnessing to the power and the presence of God’s reign.”[2]

I’ve been in the church all my life. I was baptized as an infant in the Methodist Church. I was a 14 year old youth when we became The United Methodist Church. For much of my adult life I’ve felt an uneasiness about the character of the local church. This dis-ease has intensified by theological education, 10 years of pastoral experience and 8 years working at a general agency.

I say dis-ease because my experience of much of local church life and ministry is that of a place where people come as consumers of religious goods and services. Programs are equated with discipleship. In fact, in most congregations discipleship is little more than a program. It is one option among many for those who want to try it out. When discipleship is an option rather than an expectation of membership the church can no longer be the church, it becomes another social organization; albeit with a religious veneer.

I’ve recently read some books that give me hope for the church. The books are reassuring to me because they are a tangible sign that many others have had a similar experience and dis-ease with the contemporary North American church. The quotes at the top of this article are from two of the books: Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, edited by Darrell Guder and The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World by Alan J. Roxburgh & Fred Romanuk. Others are Transforming Mission by David Bosch and The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch. All these books describe a Biblical vision for the church. They remind me that the purpose of the church is not to serve me and my needs. Rather, the purpose of the church is to be a sign-community for the coming reign of God. The church is intended to be a disciplined community of servants witnessing to and working alongside Jesus Christ in the world; preparing the world for the coming reign of God. The church’s task is to order its life so that it participates in Christ work in, with, and for the world.

All these books also make clear that God does not need the church. God’s reign will come on earth as it is in heaven, with or without the church. Certainly, God’s desire is for the church to be a channel of grace for the world; a sign that reveals and points the way to God’s coming reign. God wants the world to get a glimpse of the kingdom through the life and witness of the church. And, in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, God has given the church all it needs to become all God intended it to be.

John and Charles Wesley were missional leaders of a missional movement. They knew that the church was to be salt and light for the world. The Methodist mission was to help the church to become more fully what God created it to be. They witnessed to Jesus Christ in the world and followed his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

If the church I know today is ever to make the shift from voluntary society to missional community of Jesus Christ it must first acknowledge that we live in a post-Christian culture. Christendom is dead. We need to stop pretending that it is not.

One way to make this shift is to take membership seriously. We need to claim the church membership described in the whole Baptismal Covenant. When people offer themselves for membership in the local congregation we must stop simply asking them to be loyal to the UMC and to support it through their prayers, presence, gifts and service. We need to invite them into the whole of the Baptismal Covenant. We do them nor the church any favors when we let them believe that church membership begins with them. When we invite them into the Baptismal Covenant we tell them that church membership begins with God. They first declare their loyalty to God, along with the entire congregation. And God wants the whole person, not just their prayers, presence, gifts and service. Church membership is about the whole person: heart, soul, mind, and strength. It is also a call to obedience and service, to self-denial, “cross-bearing” and following where Jesus Christ leads.

[1] Alan J. Roxburgh & Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 170.

[2] Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 159.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Can the Church be a faithful Witness to Jesus Christ through Marketing?

In my humble opinion marketing is the bane of the contemporary church. When the church resorts to marketing strategies it will always tend to, as marketers are trained to do, distort the truth in order to get attention and attract a crowd of consumers.

Which is precisely the problem. Marketing is all about reaching the maximum number of consumers to purchase your goods and services. Christ, and by extension, the church is not interested in consumption. The church ought not be in the business of attracting consumers of religious goods and services, unless of course its intention is to convert them into servants and witnesses for Jesus Christ.

Mark Galli has written an excellent piece on this topic. You'll find it here: Do I Have a Witness?