Church Divided Part II

The following is an excerpt from an article by Bishop William B. Lewis (UMC retired). I found it just after posting my previous article about division in the UMC. It is an excellent historical overview of how the United Methodist denomination got to the brink of division. I highly recommend this article entitled “If the Church I Love Divides.” It can be found at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8099/if-the-church-i-love-divides?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=socialnetwork.

“Another important demographic factor that went almost unnoticed by people focused on the numbers was the effect that birth control and family planning was having on the membership of all denominations. Since the post-WWII decade, when growth came easy, the size of American families has diminished markedly. Fewer children mean smaller confirmation classes, mean fewer members who remain loyal as adults.

Walter Fenton and other Good News propagandists would have us believe the membership decline is largely about theological issues and ethical conflicts. Preferring to blame it on “liberals” and “progressives,” they appear to be totally unaware of recent studies showing that the “Nones” are the fastest growing segment of the population. A major driving force behind this turning away from the American Church is disenchantment with “Evangelicals.”

Fenton predicts the collapse of our ‘apportionment-based connectional’ denomination. Like the Mark Twain story about the mistaken appearance of his obituary in the N.Y. Times, the [“Good News”] news of the death of The United Methodist Church may be premature.

There is an episode in Wesley’s Journal where he describes a conflicted congregation at Gateshead near Newcastle. It’s a lesson in eighteenth century conflict management. Wesley pays a visit to examine the classes and appraise the situation. Half the membership is lost in the struggle. As he travels back to London, he reflects that “the half is more than the whole.”

Wesley believed what was left was a healthier community of grace without the discord and dissension that dominated the Society at Gateshead. It is not my choice for it to be so, but if we must divide, I want to be with the People Called Methodists who believe in free grace and embody it with open minds, open hearts, and open doors. We may be a better church after the some have had their “or else” way.

A lesson I learned from demographics and from reflections on “Gateshead” have led me to the conclusion in these later years of my ministry that the future of United Methodism is in service and self-giving instead of “church growth” and self-seeking. Works of healing, charity, and kindness are far more important in the Community of Grace than institutional success. Like Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s “While I’m on my feet” appeal, I live to say more for a church whose mission it is to “lay down its life” for others.”

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The Dark Side of the Prosperity Gospel

“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7).

It’s been a busy week since Monday night’s presidential debate. I don’t have time to say much but feel compelled to address something that struck me Monday night while it is still relatively fresh in our memories. There has been much debate about who “won” the debate and how you vote on that is pretty subjective. I think most of us heard what we expected to hear filtered through our own political lenses and that of the media analysis we choose to rely on for “expert” opinions.

What struck me most were two things. When Donald Trump said that not paying taxes makes him smart and that taking advantage of the foreclosures during the recession was “good business,” he showed again why he is the poster boy for the dark side of the prosperity Gospel and even of Capitalism itself. The prosperity Gospel is the misguided interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes material blessings and rewards for those who proclaim their faith in Christ. It is responsible for the growth and success of many mega churches and television evangelists, but it is totally contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

There are too many examples to cite them all here but these quickly come to my mind. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13). The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), and numerous times where Jesus says, “leave what you have and follow me.”

Mr. Trump said earlier in the campaign that his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye.” When one’s only concern for how to measure one’s worth is material wealth and power, that’s a great motto to live by, but I pray that some of Mr. Trump’s Christian followers will prevail upon him to someday learn what Jesus said about that desire for revenge by reading the Gospels or even just the Sermon on the Mount.

The Gospel of Christ has been twisted into the prosperity Gospel because it sells. Promising people they will have to take up a cross to follow Jesus, or to share what they have with the least of those as judged by the world’s standards, or to love their enemies and turn the other cheek – those just are not good marketing techniques. Promising potential church members they need to sell all they have and give it to the poor doesn’t entice many recruits to sign up. Maybe that’s why Jesus only had 11 faithful ones?

The spread of the prosperity Gospel also explains the conundrum many political commentators have wrestled with this year, namely how to make sense of Trump’s popularity among some Christians. Galatians 6:7 says it so well, “we reap what we sow.” Creating a flock of materialistic, wealth-worshipping “Christians” over the last few decades has produced this strange phenomenon of those who call themselves evangelicals enthusiastically giving their support to a man who is the antithesis of the values and lifestyle Jesus Christ calls us to live.

It also explains how those who claim the name of the Prince of Peace can be devout supporters of the NRA and gun rights. Fear of losing one’s prosperity leads to taking very drastic and unChrist-like measures to protect and defend those “things that thieves can steal and rust and moth can consume.” The rest of that advice from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says, don’t put your faith in those perishable things, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21).

God is not mocked. We have planted seeds of greed and selfishness, and now we are reaping what we have sown.

Pentecost and Beyond: Christian Theology in Acts 2

We were out of town for Memorial Day weekend, and I was reminded again why Pentecost should not fall on the same weekend as a secular holiday. The empowering of God’s spirit is absolutely critical for faithful living; so for many Christians to be absent from church on Pentecost while traveling or doing other holiday activities is regrettable. Fortunately, Pentecost season in the church is like Eastertide, it is not a 24-hour event but a way of life.

To that end I am going to post here a series of reflections on Acts 2 which is one of the most important and complete summaries of Christian theology in the entire Bible. That one chapter covers a remarkable summary of the story of repentance, salvation, the power of God’s spirit to create both personal and social holiness, individual evangelism and conversion, and the resulting transformation of servant disciples into a model faith community.

Over the next few weeks I will reflect on different parts of Acts 2, and the outline for this 5-part series, at least at the outset, is as follows:

Verses 1-4: Obedient waiting for the Holy Spirit. If you are expecting a nice gentle dove be forewarned that the power of God’s spirit is not for sissies.

Verses 5-13: The communication barriers created at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) are miraculously removed and spirit-drunk apostles emboldened to preach the word.

Verses 14-36: Through the Holy Spirit all people of any age, race, and gender are capable of being God’s prophetic witnesses. As proof of that the former Christ-denying Peter’s first sermon summarizes salvation history culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Verses 37-42: The overwhelming response to authentic preaching – 3000 people from all over the world repent, believe and accept the gift of God’s grace.

Verses 43-47: The proof in the pudding. True conversion and salvation are not one and done personal events, but result in an authentic community of social justice, compassion and holiness.

Spiritual Euthanasia

Recent debates about the Affordable Care Act and Physician-assisted suicide have prompted important ethical discussion about rationed care, death panels and euthanasia. These are unavoidable issues as long as we treat health care as a commodity to be traded in the market place instead of as a basic human service deserved by all regardless of economic status. A related but different concept is that of triage, a necessary strategy for dealing with emergency or critical situations where difficult decisions must be made quickly about which victims of a disaster or epidemic should be treated immediately with the limited available resources, who can wait for care, and who unfortunately is beyond saving.

Making such choices is necessary because of the limits of what modern medicine, as amazing as it is, can do and because of the unavoidable truth of human mortality. I have become painfully aware recently of a similar phenomenon in the church that is as unnecessary as it is misguided, an oxymoronic philosophy of church growth I have labeled “spiritual euthanasia.” I imagine this deadly virus is contagious across denominational boundaries but I can only address my own United Methodist Church from personal experience.

In our United Methodist conference the latest church growth cure all for what ails the church is called the Missional Church Consultation Initiative, and I was serving on a church staff where this program was adopted 2 years ago. The foundation document for this initiative is a book by John Edmund Kaiser, Winning on Purpose: How to Organize Congregations to Succeed in Their Mission. Kaiser is an Evangelical Baptist, a telling and strange choice for the far more open and theologically diverse non-doctrinal United Methodist Church.

Kaiser’s basic model for church structure and governance is one of a lead pastor who has total control over the membership and operation of the church board and staff. As one reviewer of the book says, “no one leads that way anymore.” Apparently that is not true for desperate church leaders more concerned with saving their institution than with sound theology.

If it were not so fundamentally wrong I would admire the clever strategy this initiative uses to stage a coup that overthrows the long-established democratic system of church governance in the Methodist Church. Instead of respecting the basic Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers, Kaiser’s structure of the church is intentionally designed to eliminate all dialogue, disagreement, criticism and collaboration. Staff members are told their function is to carry out the mission of the Sr. Pastor and are required to sign a covenant pledging obedience and loyalty to the directives of the Sr. Minister. Such a hierarchical structure may work well in the military or with a staff of unquestioning people; but it will never produce the kind of creative and dynamic thinking that a diversity of opinions and open communication requires for dealing with the ambiguities and mysteries of theological inquiry and spiritual growth. Having spent 18 years teaching and promoting collaboration at Ohio State University, it is very clear to me that Kaiser’s leadership model violates every basic tenet of collaborative organization and leadership.

And that brings me to Spiritual Euthanasia as one very important result of uncritical thinking. Spiritual euthanasia occurs as a form of collateral damage when pastors and congregational leaders accept what the church growth experts and consultants say as gospel just because they say so, namely that all resources must be focused on reaching new young families at the expense of providing ministries and care for existing members of the church. One consultant told our staff that we shouldn’t worry about devoting resources to the older people in the congregation because “they won’t be around in 20 years.”

I understand the emphasis on reaching and discipling new people, but making disciples is not a one-and-done strategy and must include continual spiritual growth and nurturing, prophetic and pastoral preaching and teaching and opportunities for mission work for those already in the church family. Any strategy that emphasizes one aspect of a holistic and healthy Christian life is out of balance and a formula for losing existing members out the back door as fast as we bring new ones in the front.

Our consultants told us that the 55 and over segment of the population is one of the two largest and growing groups in the demographic data they shared about area, but that same older population is being taken for granted or overlooked by the same consultants’ recommendations for the congregation’s ministries. I understand the obvious importance and emphasis on reaching younger people for building for the future, but to fail to also appreciate and utilize the wisdom and life experience of the elders in the congregation and minister to the needs of seniors in the church and community is not only theologically unacceptable but foolish. From a purely pragmatic perspective, to alienate a large segment of any organization that has the most resources and time to support the work of the organization and the most institutional memory and loyalty is simply not a sound strategy for survival. Nor does a narrow focus on young families address the critical need in our society to help all ages learn about intergenerational relationships, caregiving, and end of life issues. Given the realities of increased longevity and the weakening of extended family support systems, the church can ill afford to ignore this opportunity for important ministry.

One church board member, when asked about the strategy to put all of our eggs in the outreach-to-young-families basket responded by repeating the spiritual euthanasia company line, “it has to be one or the other – we can’t do both.” Why is ministry to the young and old an either/or question? Even the state of Ohio has more faith than that according to our state motto which quotes Matthew 19:26, “With God all things are possible.”

Two years into this initiative the results of Spiritual Euthanasia in the situation I know best are predictably painful. Yes, the church has attracted some new members and is providing more ministry and programs for young families, but at what cost? Long-established mission programs are suffering, the church has lost many faithful long-time members, a very successful youth ministry has lost two dedicated leaders with decades of loyal service to the church, half of the former staff has resigned, and reduction in financial support has forced drastic cuts to the church budget and depletion of financial reserves.

The Spiritual Euthanasia strategy reminds me of the quote from an unnamed American Major in the Viet Nam war who explained a particular military operation by saying, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” That is not to judge those Viet Nam vets who were doing what they believed was the right thing in a bad situation. Nor is it to judge pastors and denominational leaders and congregational leaders who are under tremendous pressure to stem the tide of frightening declines in church membership and giving in mainline denominations. These are desperate times when our world and nation need the Christian Gospel of peace and justice more than ever. But desperate times must not lead us into desperate actions that do more harm than good.

My dear departed mother used to quote a familiar adage that “the church is only one generation from extinction.” The urgency of that warning is well-intended and always worth noting, but it is not totally true. The church may be one generation from extinction, but the truth of the Gospel is eternal. As we look forward to another Holy Week, let’s remember how Jesus was ordered by authority figures on his way into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to silence his crowd of cheering fans. But Jesus took his marching orders from a higher authority, and he replied, “If they keep quiet the stones will cry out,” (Luke 19:40). The Romans and Jewish authorities didn’t believe him of course. They tried their evil best to silence him, and guess what? It didn’t work then, and it won’t ever work. As our friends in the United Church of Christ like to remind us, “God is still Speaking,” and no matter what we do, God will keep speaking. The question is who’s listening?

As we enter the Lenten season of repentance again this year, I am grateful I am no longer on the front lines of this struggle, and I have great respect and offer prayerful support for those who are. My prayer is that all of us, especially pastors, congregational and denominational leaders will use this Lenten season to prayerfully consider the dangers of Spiritual Euthanasia. May these 40 days of Lent be a time of healing and discernment of a balanced, compassionate Gospel that values and serves the needs of all of God’s children in a church that is called not to be successful by worldly standards, but faithful to the one who is the “way and truth and life.”

Let Justice and Righteousness Flow

Many advocates of church growth argue that politics and controversial social justice issues should be kept out of church pulpits and classrooms because they will produce conflict and drive prospective church members away. The resulting prosperity gospel/cheap grace messages may indeed increase attendance in the short run. Praise services that resemble rock concerts more than worship services entertain attendees and may produce a feeling of spiritual euphoria, but do they also challenge participants to examine their lives, confess their sins, individual and corporate, and deepen their faith in ways that address human need in relevant and effective ways? That seems to me a question the Jesus I know would want us to ask ourselves regularly.

Those who argue that political and social issues don’t belong in church simply have not taken seriously the Hebrew prophets, the liberation history of God’s people from slavery and political oppression, nor Jesus’ own confrontation of the powers and principalities of Rome and the established religious authorities of his day.
A clergy colleague of mine told me recently about his experience at a 50th high school reunion in a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Asked to offer a prayer before the reunion dinner, he took the opportunity to reflect briefly on how much the world had changed since he and his classmates had graduated. Among other things he pointed out that the total population of the world has doubled in the last half century. So far so good, but then as they say he stopped preaching and went to meddling. He said, “That means there are a lot more poor people in the world that we who have been blessed with a good life and good education need to be concerned about.” While some of his classmates appreciated that observation, many others were upset and expressed anger that he had spoiled their celebration by asking them to think about unpleasant things.

I don’t know what my friend said in reply, but here’s what the Hebrew prophet Amos says God would say to them: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24).

The Hebrew word for justice is “mishpat,” a much more inclusive term than what we often mean by our English use of the word “justice.” We have departments of justice, and we talk about justice being served or people getting their just desserts, all of which are about retributive justice or retribution, i.e. getting even for a wrong that has been committed against a person or society. The Judeo-Christian concept of justice, however, is also about distributive justice, meaning a fair and equitable distribution of life’s necessities to all of God’s children. Those necessities include not just material items required for survival, but basic human rights. It is both kinds of justice that human nature at its best strives for in memorable words to live by like “liberty and justice for all” in our U.S. pledge of allegiance and in Jesus’ Golden Rule encouraging us to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” (Matthew 7:12).

Like all important matters, concern for justice requires balance. Many years ago I heard Bishop Peter Storey from South Africa preach a sermon on the need for a balanced approach to theology and how we do church. His advice is even more relevant 30 years later. The image he used that has stuck with me all these years was of a bird with one wing. He said that a church that emphasizes either evangelism or the social gospel to the exclusion of the other is like a bird with one wing that simply goes around in circles.

As main line churches decline in membership at a frightening rate there is understandable concern for the survival of the church. But concern must not be allowed to grow into panic that clouds judgment. Desperate people do desperate things, and far too many desperate churches and church leaders water down the gospel to the point of irrelevance in an ill-advised attempt to survive and “grow.” My mother used to say that the church is only one generation from extinction, and while there is some wisdom to that observation, Amos reminds us that God is more concerned about the quality of our faithfulness to God’s will than the quantity of church members or the size of our church buildings or budgets.

Church growth advocates will argue correctly that the Gospel needs to be proclaimed to the vast numbers of people in our nation and world who have not heard or have not responded to it, but it is the whole Gospel that is needed, not the one-winged bird of either extreme in the theological debate between liberal and conservatives within the church. All of us, regardless of our theological or political convictions need a personal relationship with God that casts out our fears in whatever form they take. That’s the assurance of personal salvation for all eternity offered in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is also the first meaning of the cross and the foundation of Christian faith upon which the rest of the household of faith must be built. But the foundation of a house is not a whole house, just a necessary first step in a much larger process.

Assurance of eternal life is such a powerful promise that the temptation to embrace that gift and stop there on our faith journey is very strong. The desire for heavenly peace alone is the false hope and danger that Amos points out for those who are eagerly awaiting “the day of the Lord.” In a classic “be careful what you wish for” warning, Amos offers these ominous words: “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.” (5:18-19).

Why such harsh condemnation? Read the earlier chapters of Amos to understand why Amos believes God has lost all patience with Israel and other nations for their disobedience to God’s will and especially their unjust treatment of the poor. Is Amos exaggerating to get Israel’s attention? Is he like an exasperated parent who loves a wayward child so much and fears for his/her well-being so deeply that emotions overflow?

Context is always critical in Scriptural interpretation. The Hebrew understanding of the nature of God in the 8th century BCE was far more legalistic and judgmental than the God of grace Jesus proclaims 800 years later. But let us not be lulled into a cheap grace sense of complacency by an overreliance on God’s mercy. I am as grateful as anyone that the God revealed in the New Testament grades on a curve, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Gospel makes very serious demands on anyone who wants to follow Jesus.

Amos warning that a just and righteous life is expected of us is not discounted by Jesus in the least. Jesus invites any disciple to “take up a cross and follow me” (Luke 14:27). The cross of the resurrection is also the cross of sacrifice and service on behalf of God’s kingdom and God’s children here and now. (The examples of what this looks like in Jesus’ teachings are too numerous to mention here, but would certainly include the difficult standards of loving one’s enemies (Mt. 5:43, Lk. 6:27), turning the other cheek (Mt. 5:39), forgiving 70 x7 (Mt. 18:22), “what you do to the least of these you do unto me. (Mt. 25:45), and if someone demands your coat, give him your cloak as well (Mt. 5:40).

Righteousness is the other quality demanded by God in Amos 5:24. Righteousness means being in a right relationship with God and all creation. That’s raising the bar very high. In fact none of us gets there. Even Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God” (Mk. 10:18 & Romans 3:10). So if Jesus can’t even meet that standard, what hope is there for the likes of you and me? Are we asked to do the impossible? That would be an unjust request, and we do not serve an unjust God. It’s also why we all stand in the need of grace. But what it absolutely does not mean is that we throw up our hands and give up. Our own human limitations are not an excuse for ignoring the hard parts of the Gospel but a reminder that we can and must do better than we are doing when justice and righteousness are but a trickle instead of an everflowing stream.

We Americans live in the richest nation in the history of the world and in one where 10% of the people control 75% of wealth. No one but the 10% could possibly consider that just. President Kennedy once said, “When we make peaceful revolution impossible we make violent revolution inevitable.” We are seeing rumblings of such revolution today in the streets of Hong Kong. Students of history know about labor riots inspired by injustice in our own country in the 1890s (Google the Haymarket riot or the Pullman strike, or Coxey’s Army). Our economic history is like a roller coaster of bust and boom cycles because we fail repeatedly to learn the lessons Amos was warning us about 3000 years ago.

Someone smarter than I will have to figure out the economic and political details, but what I do know is that as long as the driving values of our lives are comfort and prosperity and not justice and righteousness, we’d better not be longing for the day of the Lord/judgment day/the second coming.

Ends and Means?

A few weeks ago I had one of those “did he really say that?” conversations with a clergy colleague. We were discussing a news story about Baptist churches in Kentucky and New York that were advertising they would be giving away door prizes to entice new people to attend their church.

Apparently forgiveness and salvation aren’t reward enough to get some people through the church doors since many churches have tried similar gimmicks. There was a church in Columbus, Ohio a few years ago giving away a car on Easter. Sure beats the coffee mug, cheap pen and refrigerator magnets our church offers as welcome gifts.
What got my attention about the Baptist churches’ promotion was that they were promising to give an AR-15 and other guns to the lucky winners of their door prizes. The church in Troy, NY even went so far as to quote John 14:27 (“…my peace I give to you”) over a picture of a semi-automatic rifle! To make matters worse, the churches in Kentucky were in Paducah – where three students were killed during a school shooting in 1997. Really, you can’t make stuff like this up!

Foolishly assuming that most followers of the Prince of Peace and certainly most pastors would agree that this was a really bad idea, I made a comment to my colleague about how absurd, if not blasphemous, this was. His response blew me away. He said, “Well, we wouldn’t do that in my church, but if that’s what it takes to appeal to the target (Freudian slip?) audience in that community, then it might be OK.” I was too dumbfounded to respond.

When I relayed the conversation to another friend, his immediate reply was, “No it’s not OK. A stripper would attract some people to church too, but that wouldn’t make it right.” Churches that start acting like businesses are in danger of selling their souls along with their “products.” Marketing strategies are fraught with ethical dilemmas in any business, but certainly the church must hold itself to a higher standard than Wall Street or Main Street when it comes to promoting the Gospel. When churches or any institution fall prey to the temptations of growth and institutional preservation as the primary motivation for what we do and say, we are on the slippery slope of believing that any means are justified if they achieve an honorable end.

It is no secret that mainline churches are in trouble. Membership and attendance figures have been in a steep decline for decades, and that reality can convince otherwise good people to compromise their ethical standards and fall into a panic mode of self-preservation. It is an inherent danger to institutional religion. Institutions almost always have a primary value of preserving and maintaining themselves. Institutional leaders have a vested interest in looking successful and maintaining their livelihood that can cloud objectivity. And the more dire the statistics become the greater the danger. Desperate people do desperate things, like giving deadly weapons to people instead of “beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

Yes, these are scary times, and I understand why individuals want to protect themselves and why churches want to keep themselves alive. And I know all motives for what we do are mixed. I’m sure those Baptist churches have a genuine desire to share the gospel along with the guns. Self-preservation is a very basic human motivation, but Christians are called to measure the means we use to achieve our means by the higher standards of the one who said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).