A New Way Forward or: Why Our Mission Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

It’s a sentence that every UMC pastor, and most lay people, should be able to quote from memory. Found in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, the mission of the church is defined by making disciples and transforming the world.

Which, ostensibly, makes sense because disciple making is one of the last charges Jesus leaves with the disciples (Matthew 28). But making disciples, and more importantly world transformation, have hindered the United Methodist Church from its primary mission; namely, being itself – the body of Christ.

Today, disciple making gets confused with the metrics of worship attendance, professions of faith, and even financial giving. It has resulted in the nearly universal push to get more people sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings while neglecting to interact and connect with the people already in the pews on Sunday mornings. This profound focus is part of our obsessions with a 1950’s General Electric model of denominationalism that cares far more about numbers than it does about faith.

And then we get this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission or Jesus’ mission? Does the church exist to change the people and the community around us? Are we supposed to be making the world a better place?

The church is (supposed to be) defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world. 

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Today we are deeply steeped in a world filled with the allure of large institutions and we believe that so long as we structure the church like other organizations of growth that we will necessarily grow and grow. We look to the mighty and the powerful so that we can learn how to change the world around us. But what makes the church the church? Jesus. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through a baby born in a manger, through tax collectors and fishermen, through a poor rabbi murdered by the powerful!

The church is already the better place God has made in the world.

But it’s hard for us to believe that.

It’s hard for us to believe that the church is already the better place because many of us worship other institutions or ideas or even ethical and moral claims the way we once worshipped the Lord. The many ways in which people reacted to the votes at the recent Special General Conference of the UMC (and in particular that some of the highest priority items to be discussed were pensions and disaffiliation plans) goes to show how we have traded in the Lordship of Christ for the institution of the church. Similarly, we follow this never-ending reactive news-cycle of what’s happening to the church to such a degree that we are are more concerned with reading articles about LGBTQIA people instead of meeting them where they are and learning about their faith. 

And worst, we read and repost articles about what can save the church as if those things/organizations are going to bring us the salvation we claim, through the Creed, that Jesus has already brought!

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We have been playing this game of world transformation since the time of Constantine and we are now at a point where we can almost no longer differentiate between the institution and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, then it’s not worth our time and attention.

In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.

In the last few weeks there’s been a fair amount of anxiety among the pastors I serve with and within the church I serve. Many are unsure about what the future holds for the UMC. There’s rumor of schism, though many are afraid of what that will do to our pension system and our international mission work. 

I appreciate those concerns. I am currently contributing to my own pension and have been on mission trips all over the world. But for all of the talk of world transformation, we neglect the second sentence of our mission: “Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.” 

It’s right there for anyone to read in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, and yet what about the state of the UMC today would lead anyone to believe we believe the local church is the primary expression of Methodism? 

Ask people outside the UMC what the UMC is or looks like, and if you hear anything at all you’ll likely hear something about the recent Special General Conference, or a Cross and Flames, or itinerancy. But if those are the primary expressions of our faith, then what kind of faith is that?

One of the problems with our current mission statement is that it’s transactional – it presumes a sort of Constantinian desire to change the world with a measurable system of growth that leaves little room for the gospel. I don’t want the church I serve to be responsible for fixing all of the problems in the world, not just because I know that it can’t but also because it’s not our responsibility. There are a great number of organizations out there that can make the world better, whatever that means, but the church isn’t here to fix the world. 

It is already the better place God has made in the world.

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 – 

Rewrite the mission statement of the United Methodist Church, or better yet, get rid of it altogether. 

Such a revision, or omission, would retain the kind of Spirit-driven and incarnational faith that it’s part of our Wesleyan Heritage, but it will also remove the exhausting expectation that “it’s all up to us.”

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper behavior, and world-transformation, and lots of ethical and moral claims in something like a denominational institution, are the keys to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do – instead it is about what God did for us precisely because we could not do it for ourselves.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that is either ABG (always be growing) or ABT (always be transforming) or both. 

We have expectations set in place about church growth that persuade churches to abandon the gospel in order to attract as many people as possible.

We have over-programed our churches because we feel ultimately responsible for making the world a better place which has led to burnout among faithful lay people and clergy. 

Here on the other side of GC2019, our mission statement is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To have one at all is to admit how drunk we are with power and a vision of the church that looks more like Sears than it does the community of faith. 

Best Day Ever

John 14.1-7

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.

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Dear Teagan Leigh…

We are the stories we tell. Stories make up the very fabric of our existence here on earth. As you grow older your parents and grandparents and teachers will tell you tales and fables in order to teach you lessons about the world around you. When you mature enough you will be told stories about the past in order to avoid the mistakes of those who came before you. And when you get old like me, you’ll start telling stories in order to comprehend the events of life and in attempts to derive meaning out of the mundane.

We are taught by stories, we are convicted by stories, and we are entertained by stories.

Teagan, when your parents got married, I stood in front of them and their friends and their families and I told them about the importance of stories. After listening to them describe their love and commitment to and for one another in the months leading up to that moment, I knew that their stories were coming together in that holy space as I pronounced them husband and wife.

I told the story of how when your Dad, Tucker, was 4 years old he went shopping with your great grandmother. The whole trip was planned around your Dad finding something for his mom for Mother’s Day. He was given complete and total freedom to pick out whatever he wanted from the store, and sure enough he found the perfect Mother’s Day gift. They went home and wrapped it and then you’re grandmother, Lisa, opened her gift to discover that your 4 year old father, out of all the items he could’ve pick in that store, chose for her a broom and a dust pan… Your grandmother mustered up all the strength she could to accept her gift with pride, though she couldn’t help herself from asking, “Tucker, why the broom and the dust pan?” To which your father replied, “Momma, they’re green, just like your eyes!”

Teagan, I also told a story about your mother, Jess. When your Mom was about 5 years old, she started playing tee ball. She practiced and practiced and then the first real game finally arrived. When your mother got up to the plate for that first at-bat, she swung as hard as she could and she started running. By the time she rounded second base she was beaming with pride thinking about how she was about to score her very first run, and when she was closing in on third base, her coach yelled, “Home Jess! Go home!” but instead of rounding third, your mother ran straight into the dugout and, if her friends and parents hadn’t been there, she would have literally kept running all the way back to her house.

I told those stories at your parents’ wedding because we are the stories we tell. You’re mother is a remarkably loving friend who takes people at their word. Her trust for others is such that she would go to great lengths for the people in her life, even if it meant running all the way home. And your Dad is easily one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met in my life; he will tell you exactly how he feels rather than waste anyone’s time and he knows how to make the best out of any situation, even if he bought your grandmother a broom.

At your parents wedding, I stood before them, their friends, and the rest of your amazing family and told stories. I told those stories to show how your mother and father were about to have their stories join together and you, sweet precious Teagan Leigh, are one of the wonderful results of that union.

And frankly, I would like to take a little credit for your existence. Had I not been there to marry your parents together, had I not joined them in holy matrimony, you wouldn’t be here this morning for your baptism. So, you’re welcome.

I’m just kidding, but there is someone else we need to talk about, someone else whose story makes possible your story. And you might think that I’m going to start talking about Jesus… nope (or at least not yet). We need to talk about your grandfather Marshall.

At your parents’ wedding, your grandfather stood up at the reception and gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. To be honest, I was a little disappointed when I was listening to it because I realized that no one would remember what I said during the ceremony, but everyone would remember what your grandfather said. And, if I may be so bold, I can condense his 45-minute speech into one phrase: Best Day Ever.

Your grandfather Marshall went on and on about all the memories he had of your Dad and your Mom and how every day was the best day ever, all the way up to the wedding day, and that throughout their marriage they would continue to experience the best day ever.

It was perfect.

What made it perfect was how faithful it was. Because marriage, the joining together of two people is based on an assurance of commitment, what we like to call a covenant. Your parents covenanted to love and cherish and remain with one another recognizing that life will change, that circumstances would move them into strange and unknown places, and yet they believed in the power of God to hold them together in spite of the great mystery we call marriage.

Which brings me to Jesus…

Teagan, your parents are crazy. In their marriage they looked into the abyss of the unknown and jumped right in, and they’re doing it again today in your baptism. Bringing you forth to be baptized is one of the craziest and most faithful things that you parents will ever do, because in doing so they are recognizing that you don’t belong to them.

            You belong to God.

Teagan, there is this profoundly awesome moment in the gospel of John when Jesus was talking to his disciples about what it would mean to follow him. Jesus went on and on in attempts to strengthen his friends and provide for them a glimpse of the kingdom of God on earth and Thomas responded by saying, “Lord how will we know the way?”

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Thomas’ question is all of our questions. Throughout your life Teagan you will encounter this question in its many forms: Who should I sit next to at lunch? What should I get my mom for Mother’s Day? What school should I attend? Who should I marry? What kind of family should I raise? What kind of job should I pursue? What kind of church should I attend? How will I know when it’s the right time to retire? All of these questions are predicated on the assumption that we do not know where we’re going and we need all the help we can get.

Thomas wanted to know how to get where Jesus was going, he wanted an answer to his question, he wanted to know the way. And Jesus responded like this, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Teagan, there are many ways that you can live your life, you can find a great number of answers to your many questions. But Jesus is THE way, and THE truth, and THE life. And unlike many of the means by which the world will try to entice you with a great number of choices, attempts at making you the author of your own story, Jesus is the one who acts upon your behalf.

There might come a day when you’ll look back and regret the choice that your parents made for you. You might wonder if you would’ve made the same choice for yourself had they waited until you were old enough to make it. Your experience of the baptized life might be such that you’ll even be mad at me for being the one who doused you in water. But this thing we call baptism doesn’t really have anything to do with you, or your parents, or even me. Instead it has everything to do with God revealing THE way through THE Son.

In your baptism, something you won’t remember outside of stories and photographs, God is the one acting on your behalf. It is the Spirit that moves through the water and calls you forth into a new life, it is God who has worked in and through the waters of so many who have been grafted into the church, it is Jesus who makes possible the kind of radical transformation that takes place in the water.

When your parents got married, they stood before the altar of the Lord and asked for God’s help to navigate the difficult and challenging covenant of marriage. And in your baptism they will do much the same, and we will all join them in their covenant. The people of God’s church, and not just the people of St. John’s but all Christians everywhere, are making the promise to raise you in the faith, to support you when you falter, to congratulate you when you succeed, and to call you out when you wander from THE way.

In a sense, we are making the public proclamation that you are a gift to us from God.

For many of us Teagan, this is the best day ever. When we look up to see you at the font surrounded by such love it will give those of us who have followed THE way a great deal of hope. In the water that will cover your head we will be reminded of THE truth of what Jesus came to do for the world through THE life of God offered on the cross and resurrected from the grave. And Teagan, I hope that one day you will look back at this day, the day of your baptism, as the best day ever.

But even that would be a disservice to the living God who breathed the breath of life into you, the living God who called your mother and father to live in holy matrimony all of their days, and the living God who revealed THE way and THE truth and THE life in his Son. For to follow Jesus on THE way as THE way is to know that every day is the best day ever. Because every day is another opportunity to encounter the incredible grace of God in the laughter of a friend, in the tear of a spous e, in the smile of a stranger. Every day offers us a chance to live into THE truth that God is the author of our stories. Every day presents an occasion to give thanks for THE life that reorients all of our lives.

Teagan Leigh, you are a gift. You are a gift to your mother and father and to your family. You are a gift to the church. You are a reminder of what God’s grace actually looks like. So today we give thanks to God for you, for making this the best day ever, and for THE truth that even greater days are yet to come. Amen.

Crucified Faith – Lenten Homily on John 14.1-7

John 14.1- 7

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

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Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life.

I know a lot of people who want the greatest amount of reward for the least amount of effort. They have a faulty perception about how much they deserve based on how much they work.

Its like the guy who lets his grass grow and grow until you can barely see his porch because he only wants to have to mow it once. Or like the woman I recently saw at Food Lion who was using every single finger and both elbows to carry all of her bags to the car instead of making multiple trips. Or like the foolish pastor (cough *Me* cough) who believes that so long as he picks a scripture and prays about it, that God will give him a sermon to preach that will having people jumping and shouting “Amen!”

Sadly, I have come across a number of people (even myself at times) who want God without Jesus. We believe on some level that so long as we show up to church, and live a decent life, that we are doing all that the Lord would have us to do. We want salvation without suffering. We want love without expectations. We want resurrection without crucifixion.

Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through him.

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The disciples are confused. Jesus tells them that he will go and prepare a place for them because there are many rooms in his Father’s house and they know where he is going. Then Thomas asks the question that all the other disciples are thinking: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responds with hopeful and frightening words: I am the way.

The destiny in store for Jesus is likewise laid up for his friends, and for us. Those who want to save their life will lose it. If we want to experience the presence of God here and now, we can only do so by following the way, by following Jesus.

Sam Wells, the former dean of Duke Chapel, was appointed to a new church, and wanted to experience every single aspect of its mission. For the first few months he spent a couple of days each week going through the ins and outs of the church as if he was not the pastor; He toured the preschool like a prospective parent with a three-year old; He went to weekly prayer services and sat in the back like a stranger might if they randomly walked in off the street; He stood in line at the food pantry and patiently waited for his turn to receive some food.

One of the last things he needed to experience was the homeless shelter. He had heard that it was frequently attended because they gave out the best food and had the nicest provisions and he wanted to see it with his own eyes and taste it with his own tongue. So, for a few days before the experience, he stopped showering and shaving, he found some of his oldest and rattiest clothes, and prepared to spend a night with others in the basement of the building.

He began by waiting outside in line with everyone else. He tried to keep a low profile, but most of the people spotted his costume immediately. For whatever reason they welcomed him into their little group anyway and spent most of the night talking and learning about one another. He asked about their pasts and what had led them to where they were, most of them had normal lives until some unforeseen circumstance sent them out to the streets.

However, before the night ended one of the men shared an important perspective with the pastor. “We don’t come here for the food or for the warmth,” he said, “we come here because this is the only place where we can be with other people like us. Sure the food and shelter is nice, but the community is what we really need.

I don’t think Sam would necessarily put it this way, but I believe he encountered the living God in those homeless men and women precisely because he was acting like Jesus. I don’t think Sam actively went out with the hope that he could walk around like Jesus, but in meeting the people where they were he followed the way that Christ set up for us.

Sometimes the hardest part of being a Christian is recognizing that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion. More often than not we need to crucify a part of our lives before we can meet and encounter the living God.

Maybe we need to crucify our false assumptions about the poor and how they wind up living on the streets. Perhaps we need to crucify our ridiculous prejudices toward people who are of a different sexual orientation. Maybe we need to crucify our faulty self-perceptions. Perhaps we need to crucify our selfish desires to crave our passions. Maybe we need to crucify a program in our church that is no longer giving life to anyone involved. Perhaps we need to crucify our willingness to hold on to a grudge from the distant past. Maybe we need to crucify our love and obsession with money.

Jesus is the way and we have been given the precious opportunity to follow him, even to the cross. If we want to encounter the living God, we can only do so by crucifying our brokenness and seeking out ways to be resurrected here and now. Amen.