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.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Discipleship is Practicing the Basics

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … Therefore … work out your own salvation; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:5, 12b-13).

One of my favorite signs of spring is baseball spring training. The pitchers and catchers are the first to migrate to Arizona and Florida. The position players and flocks of fans soon follow them. After a five-month rest, the teams assemble every March to take up glove, bat, and ball to hone their throwing, catching, hitting and running skills. Spring training is a time to remember and practice the fundamentals of the game. Players know that if they do not attend to the basics they will not play well and their team will not win many games. They all know that the teams that do the best at practicing and executing the basics (hitting, running, catching, throwing, and thinking) are the teams that win championships. They are also the teams that have the most fun.

A few years ago, I read a brief article in Sports Illustrated magazine with a young woman who worked as one of the producers for a major television network’s broadcasts of major league baseball games. If you watch baseball on television, you know that the manager, along with some of the coaches and players, wear microphones during the games. This allows the network to occasionally broadcast parts of on-field or dugout conversations. The woman’s job was to listen to those conversations and determine what may be broadcast. The interviewer asked her “What surprised you most as you listened to all those conversations?” Her reply fascinated me. She said, “The thing that surprised me most was how often the managers and coaches reminded the players to pay attention to the basics of the game.”

Think about it. Major League players have played baseball nearly all their lives. They are among the best in the world at playing the game. Their coaches know that they must constantly be reminded of what’s needed to play the game well, attending to the basics, because they are easily taken for granted. And when the basics are taken for granted they are neglected. When the basics are neglected play gets sloppy and games are lost.

Good coaches and managers understand that becoming and being a baseball player happens through attending to the fundamental skills of the game. Anyone who has ever watched a baseball game knows how simple throwing, catching and hitting appear to be. That is, until you actually try them yourself. Then you realize how difficult these seemingly simple skills really are. But, with practice and some coaching from someone who has played the game for any time, you can throw, catch, and even hit with some confidence. And, if you love the game, study and learn its strategy, practice the basics and listen to your coach, you will become a baseball player.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with discipleship. As I study and learn about Christian discipleship in the Wesleyan tradition, I have become convinced that it is very similar to playing baseball. In other words, discipleship is a craft. There is a set of basic skills that must be learned and practiced. With discipline and practice persons grow in knowledge and ability to live into the goal of the craft. An athlete who engages in the discipline of baseball becomes a baseball player. A musician who engages in the discipline of the piano becomes a pianist. A person who commits his or her life to the discipline of following Jesus Christ in the world becomes a Christian disciple.

We know that not all people are gifted athletes or musicians. However, God has given every human being the gift of God’s own image (Genesis 1:27). This means that we are created to be like God who is triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God’s triune nature is relational. God is a community of divine love. Therefore, to be created in the image of the triune God is to be created for relationship. This means we are created for love.

The gift that God shares with all of humankind is the capacity to love (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). God has given us the means to develop and grow into Christ’s way of loving and living in the world: grace. Flowing from that grace are the teachings (Matthew 5:1-7:29), commandments (Matthew 22:37-39; 28:19-20a; John 13:34-35), and promises (Matthew 18:18-20; 28:20b; John 14:1-3, 15-27) of Jesus Christ.

Grace is the power of God working in the world to draw all of humankind to God’s self. It is the power of God’s love that gives human beings the capacity and ability to love. Grace is God working in with and through me and you to awaken us to God’s presence and power for good in my life and yours and in the world. Love is grace. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). It is God’s love, incarnate and active in the world in Jesus Christ, that awakens, equips, and empowers us to love as God loves. This love draws us to God and sends us into the world to love those whom God loves as God loves them.

The teachings, commandments and promises of Christ guide us into this way of life. They are like the rules of baseball in that they provide boundaries and direction for playing the game. Inside the boundaries of the rules there are infinite possibilities for how the game is played. The same is true of life lived in Christ.

The rules of baseball determine the basic skills and practices players must develop if they are to have fun and play the game well: throwing, catching, hitting, running, and thinking. They also establish that one must be part of a team in order to play the game. Baseball is not an individual endeavor. It is a team effort. The same is true of Christian faith.

The teachings, commandments and promises of Jesus determine the basic practices that must be taught and learned. They also establish that to be a Christian means being part of a community that promises to surround you with … love and forgiveness, to pray for you and to do all in their power to increase your faith, confirm your hope and perfect you in love (see The United Methodist Hymnal pages 35 and 38).

If we are to follow Jesus and love those whom he loves as he loves them, we need to learn and practice some basic disciplines: prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, reading and studying the Bible, participating in small groups for mutual accountability and support, fasting or abstinence, feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing those who have no clothes, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoners. John Wesley called these basic practices works of piety and works of mercy. He understood that attending to these “means of grace” is “faith working by love” (Galatians 5:6). They are how Christians “work out their salvation” (Philippians 2:12-13). In the process they regularly keep their daily “appointments” with God in the places and actions where God has promised to meet them.

These basic practices of faith are called “means of grace” because they are gifts given by God through which the Holy Spirit works in disciples to heal and form their character into the character of Christ. They are how disciples live into “having the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5).

One of the purposes of Covenant Discipleship groups is to help disciples learn and practices the basics of Christian life. They do this with others who are seeking to grow in love of God and neighbor. Those who have more experience and maturity in discipleship share their experience with those who are less experienced. As disciples meet together weekly for mutual accountability and support for following Christ in the world they become more and more the persons God created them to be, in Christ. As Christians help one another practice the basics of following Jesus they become more confident and faithful witnesses to and channels of his love for the world.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Rev. Michael Welch

Yesterday I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the tragic death of Rev. Michael Welch. He was killed, along with his wife and two children, when a tractor-trailer slammed into the rear of their van. Michael was the pastor of Lafayette United Methodist Church in Lafayette, TN. He was helping to lead the recovery work after the devastating tornado tore through Macon County on Tuesday night.

I knew Michael only a short time. He was a student in a class I taught last month at Saint Paul School of Theology. Michael and his friend Rev. David Hesson travelled from middle Tennessee to Kansas City to take the class as part of their preparation for membership in the Tennessee Conference. Michael was the guy who kept me supplied with a cup of Starbucks coffee each morning. I could also count on him to ask excellent questions and make insightful comments in class. He was a man of warmth and genuine love. He loved God and he loved all people with every ounce of his being. Michael not only believed the gospel of Jesus Christ, he lived it every day. I'm going to miss him.

The tragedy of his death is compounded by the deaths of his wife, Julie, and their two children, Hannah and Jesse.

Please pray for the people of Lafayette United Methodist Church and the community of Lafayette, TN as they grieve the death of the Welch family and the deaths of 14 of their neighbors and friends who died in Tuesday night's storms.

You can read about the tragedy here: Pastor's Work Comes to Unthinkable End

Thursday, February 07, 2008


The United Methodist Church suffers from an acute case of programitis.

Programitis is inordinate dependence upon programs developed by the UM Publishing House, GBOD, Alpha, EcuFilm, and other parachurch organizations. These resources are well-intended and high-quality. They teach people in the church about the Bible, theology, spirituality, and discipleship. Church leaders offer them and teach them in the hope that filling heads full of information will lead to hearts turned toward Christ and serving with him in the world.

However, this approach to Christian formation is backward. The people of the early Church knew that learning does not lead to faithful behavior. Rather, they knew instinctively that behaving leads to new ways of thinking and learning. They knew that being a Christian is more that knowing and agreeing with a set of doctrines, propositions and creeds. They knew that Christianity is a relationship with the living God who became one of us in the Jew from Nazareth named Jesus. Living that relationship in a community of others seeking to live the Jesus way, leads to faith and new ways of thinking; not the other way around.

Dependence upon programs gets the church trapped in a cycle of consumption. As soon as a program is completed the people ask “What’s next?” They immediately look for the next program to keep them interested and entertained. A prime example of this dynamic is Disciple Bible Study. It is one of the most powerful and excellent resources ever produced by the United Methodist Publishing House. Disciple has changed countless lives and helped many congregations. However, because of the way it has been developed and marketed Disciple has propagated programitis in the church. When a group completes Disciple #1 (the best of the bunch) the church encourages them to take Disciple #2 and then Disciple #3 and then Disciple #4 and then Jesus and the Gospels and so on and so on. The insidious nature of programitis is that it convinces the church that studying and learning about the Bible, theology, spirituality and discipleship is the same as living as a disciple of Jesus Christ in the world.

Imagine a group of people who love music and want to become musicians. They go to a community that promises to help them fulfill their dream. The community then gives the music-lovers a series of classes in which they learn about the fundamentals of music, music theory, notation, and arrangement. They listen to recorded music and watch videos of great musicians performing. In the end their heads are filled with knowledge about music but none of them have ever actually picked up an instrument and learned how to play. While they completed the study about music, in the end none of them are actually capable of making music. Consequently, many of the music-lovers become frustrated and disappointed with the community because they know that knowing about music is not the same as being a musician. They are ready to begin the hard work and discipline required to move from being a music-lover to becoming a musician.

Programitis is a problem because it allows congregations to avoid the hard work of discipleship. Programitis is one more way the church dispenses what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace:”

“Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that teaches this doctrine of grace thereby confers such grace upon itself. The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for it sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God” (Discipleship, page 43).

Programitis, like any other disease, if undiagnosed and untreated will kill the patient. While the patient may appear to be alive, it is dead on the inside. That’s the way programitis works. It eats away at the heart and kills from the inside-out. Programitis is insidious because when the church realizes how sick it really is, it will look for the right program or set of programs that will restore it to health.

To be clear, I am not saying here that programs are inherently bad. I am saying that the way most congregations use them and become dependant upon them is the problem. We tend to use programs in place of leadership and to find a quick fix to problems like declining membership and giving.

The cure for programitis is to look to the places in the world where the church is most vital today: Africa, China, Latin America. These are churches populated by mostly poor people who live with hunger, violence, and oppression as daily realities. Their only resources are the Bible, Christian tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation and their relationships with one another. In other words, these congregations have essentially the same resources used by the early Church and by most Christians up until the advent of the 20th century.

We can also look to the Wesleys and the early Methodists. The only resources they had were the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the General Rules, the hymns of Charles Wesley and the writings of John Wesley. Their only program was regular meetings for accountability and support for discipleship. The Methodist societies were focused on the formation of Christians. They did this by initiating people into a way of life, guided by relationships with mature Christians, Scripture and the General Rules. In the course of learning how to live the new way of life people learned theology, spirituality, and Scripture. The focus was on holiness of heart and life.

The future of The United Methodist Church will depend upon how well it can liberate itself from its dependence upon programs. We need to shift our focus from offering pleasing and entertaining programs to people to a new way of living centered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Marketing Jesus

Last night I saw a fascinating documentary on PBS. Marketing the Message examines the many ways various Christian organizations practice evangelism. It's clear from the title of the film and the groups featured that sales and selling is the dominant paradigm for evangelism. One clear message that emerges from the people on camera is that the ends justify the means when it comes to telling people about Jesus. To that end, several methods that can be perceived as deceptive are featured.

The film maker offers salient, and gentle, critique of the content of the Jesus and gospel presented by the featured groups. This Jesus wants to be our buddy and therapist. The content of the "gospel" presented is: Jesus died for your sins. Believe in him, accept him as your personal savior, and you will go to heaven when you die. Nothing is mentioned about discipleship, deny yourself, take up your cross and following Jesus, or living as a citizen of the coming reign of God.

Marketing the Message reveals the problems and weakness of sales as the dominant metaphor for evangelism. I highly recommend it. The film also gives me greater appreciation for an alternative metaphor for evangelism that is more faithful the Scripture and to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The alternative metaphor is that of evangelist as journalist. The task of evangelism is witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world and telling the story of his good news for the world. The content of his good news is the kingdom of God that is coming on earth as it is in heaven. The task of the journalist is to simply report the news, to tell the story. We leave the rest up the Holy Spirit.

Evangelism as Journalism leads to a much more honest and ethical presentation of the gospel. It also allows us to tell the whole story about the whole Jesus (Prophet, Priest, and King).