Monday, August 29, 2011

A "Third Option" for the Future of the Church

Sunday I talked about how Campbell UMC might experience a vision for the future here in Springfield, Missouri. To clarify the vision, I had to speak in generalities, and generally speaking I avoid generalities. But for the sake of clarity and definition, I hope you will forgive me, if not in general then just this once!

Generally speaking, there is a perception in Springfield that there are only two options in choosing churches. The first I will call “evangelical.” Congregations of this option are perceived as large churches with relatively newer and fancier facilities. They are perceived as younger, comprised of families with school age children. The perception is that they are conservative, and focus exclusively on one’s personal relationship with Jesus and getting into heaven when one dies.

The second perceived option I will call “social justice.” It is perceived as the alternative to “evangelical.” Congregations of this option are perceived as smaller in size with older or more basic buildings. The perception is that they are comprised of older people, retirees and empty nesters. They are perceived as liberal, and focus exclusively on helping people who need help and making the earth a better place in this lifetime.

(There may be a third option beginning to take shape in Springfield, and it may be called “emerging,” but this option is still in its infancy.)

A dynamic of these two prevailing models for congregations in Springfield is that people who associate with one tend to view the other in very generalized, stereotypical ways. The atmosphere in this community is highly polarized; there seems to be a strong either/or mentality in the Ozarks that predominates the public discourse. This trickles into the church culture as well. While the truth is far more nuanced, it seems that Christians in Springfield are labeled either an evangelical or a social justice type.

The idea that you could be both is something that would seem counterintuitive to many good and faithful Christians in this community.

However, that is precisely what I see as a viable “third option” in the Ozarks, and I believe that it is rich soil that is well tilled and ready for sowing. And, as it turns out, this “third option” for Springfield is a long-held and distinctly Methodist perspective. Of course the balance of personal and social is an important part of other traditions, also. But the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley, made it a keystone of the movement they began so long ago, and that continues even now.

I have witnessed a spiritual hunger in this community for church-without-agenda. “Can’t anyone just be church?” is a question posed in some form in multiple conversations I have had with people who are not a part of a congregation. And a church “just being church” takes only one agenda as their own - God’s agenda - for which another term could be God’s mission, the mysterious and transcendent Missio Dei. God’s mission is made known in Christ Jesus, who not only came to announce the mission and undertake the mission, but to embody it. The mysterious and transcendent made flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth.

As such, the body of Christ in the world today, the church takes its cue from Jesus, which means that the church must be concerned with both the personal and the social. Jesus was as concerned with forming personal relationships with disciples as he was caring for the poor of his day and subverting the oppressive Roman Empire. We must not underestimate political implications of the radical proclamation of Jesus, that the only Empire that matters is God’s. And we must never forget that he entered into personal relationships with individuals, forgave their sin, and charged them to go and sin no more.

Church is not an either/or proposition. Neither is it a watered down mixture of the two, resulting in a wimpy kind of cliquey gathering place that you are a part of because you feel “comfortable” there. Being the church is not wimpy, nor is it polarized; it is (perceptually) paradoxical in that it is 100% evangelical AND 100% social justice. It should be hard to distinguish one from the other, if it is done well. To love Jesus personally IS to love your neighbor as yourself, and if you say you love Jesus and then don’t help your neighbors when they need help, then you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do (1 John 3-4).

I’ve been contemplating John Wesley’s text “The Character of a Methodist” recently, mainly as a part of my grief process, working through my grandfather’s death. In it, Wesley writes that a Methodist “‘does good unto all men;’ unto neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies: And that in every possible kind; not only to their bodies, by ‘feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those that are sick or in prison;’ but much more does he labour to do good to their souls, as of the ability which God giveth; to awaken those that sleep in death; to bring those who are awakened to the atoning blood, that, ‘being justified by faith, they may have peace with God;’ and to provoke those who have peace with God to abound more in love and in good works.”

Notice in this remarkable sentence the balance of evangelicalism and justice. Caring for the physical needs of others is woven seamlessly together with caring for their souls. (And btw, look how cleverly he includes his “Way of Salvation” - you can see grace awakening, justifying, and sanctifying in one pithy summary sentence!) The two words “much more” indicate that the spiritual work will likely be a harder process, and require a fuller investment of discipleship to accomplish, and also that it has everlasting consequences.

And yes, I believe this is a distinctly Methodist approach, as did Mr. Wesley. Many may say, this approach isn’t really Methodist, it’s just basic Christianity. Well, Mr. Wesley also met that observation. He responded, “If any man say, ‘Why, these are only the common fundamental principles of Christianity!’ thou hast said; so I mean; this is the very truth; I know they are no other; and I would to God both thou and all men knew, that I, and all who follow my judgment, do vehemently refuse to be distinguished from other men, by any but the common principles of Christianity, -- the plain, old Christianity that I teach, renouncing and detesting all other marks of distinction.”

And it comes full circle, back to Springfield, Missouri in 2011. That is precisely my point; the common principles of Christianity have become lost in polarizing agendas, and many in this community desire a congregation where they can simply be the church, be guided by God’s agenda, and help one another become disciples of Jesus Christ who are changing the world for God’s sake.

I just so happen to think that Campbell UMC is perfectly suited to offer that “third option” in this area. Nothing would make me happier than if this congregation could be as Methodist as we could possibly be!

- Click here for the document “The Character of a Methodist.”
- Click here for my previous article titled "Hallmarks of a distinctly Methodist congregation

1 comment:

Kyle Bridgman said...

I am from another denomination that is re-discovering this balance from the other end. We are reminding ourselves that we cannot only focus on the spiritual aspect of the lost, without becoming a part of their lives, coming along side them in their need. We do a "lot" of "missions", but have often forgotten the ultimate mission of "loving our neighbor" one on one. Glad to see your congregation and leadership continually casting a vision for the community.