Mission, Theology, Church, Grace

I like to connect the dots – doesn’t matter the subject, that’s how my mind works. I had a bit of a revelation a few weeks ago about how the mission, vision, and overall work of our church life fit together with our Methodist convictions about grace and theology. This is my attempt to put into words the connections that I see quite clearly. To be sure, nothing is intended to be as linear as it necessarily appears on paper – but doing justice to the interconnected workings of the God, church, and individuals is not my intent. What seems worth trying to articulate is the sense of a discernible structure that I see for the what and the why of church life and disciple making.

The UMC defines our mission as “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It’s a great step to clarify why we exist as a denomination and individual churches, but the obvious next question is ‘what is a disciple and how do we make one?’ To both embody our quest to fulfill that mission and answer this most obvious question, FUMC Texas City has discerned a systematic and operational definition of that mission that correlates to our theology of grace. That wasn’t exactly our intent, but the result came into sharp focus for me. Our mission is to do what disciples do and make more in the process – Encounter Love. Grow Together. Inspire Change. Putting theology, discipleship, and church life into relationship with one another looks something like the following:

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Put more into sentences – the grace of God goes before us, making God’s love present in our lives long before we know to turn and look for it. When we encounter the love that has been there all along, our immersion into God’s immersion into us sets all things right and draws us back to fellowship and relationship.  That fellowship invites us to grow in our relationships with our neighbors, near and far. As we begin to move forward from the moment of encounter that sets us right and makes growth possible, we receive sustenance at the table as God’s grace continues the work of making us more holy and more like Christ. The more we become like Christ, the more we embrace God’s invitation to join in God’s mission to change the world and experience the kind of life God makes possible. We change the world by creating the spaces in which our neighbors encounter the love that is made present by the prevenient grace of God.

Given this framework for understanding God’s nature and action in relationship to our response and lives, we have explored the following question – Where does God’s work to change the world intersect with our heart for doing ministry? That process of discernment yielded a clear focal point for our ministry in the coming season.

Our vision for ministry in our next season of life is to ensure that a) every child in our neighborhood will find in us a place of love and acceptance, and b) every parent knows they have a partner in us for the difficult journey of raising a child. In directly missional terms, we hope to create spaces in which our neighbors will Encounter Love in a deeply meaningful and lasting way. If we can be that kind of presence for our neighbors, we can change the world.

Membership Classes as Radical Hospitality #4 – Hospitality Meals

I don’t think it’s accidental that one of our two most central acts of worship in the UMC involves the sharing of a meal. The meal of communion may not provide enough nutrition to get you through a whole day, but it is a concrete, physical reminder of our God’s presence in our midst. The grace of God is what sustains our very lives and the fact that we celebrate God’s grace through bread and juice is a reminder God’s grace is not just a spiritual force apart from the realities of nutrition and eating. God permeates everything that we do and all that we are.

It should come as no surprise that I am a big fan of the potluck (or any other food occasion for that matter). I’ll admit I do like to eat, but more than that every meal, by its very nature, in some way points us back to the sacrament of Holy Communion. There is both something uniting and at the same time disturbing that should happen at every meal. On the one hand everybody’s gotta eat. Meals have a way of taking pressure off of social interaction because you don’t have to fill every second with something interesting or unique to do. The act of eating alone is enough to unite a room full of strangers in a common endeavor. Every meal, like communion, should enable us to experience some small part of our lives as part of God’s united family.

On the other hand, not everybody gets to eat. There are some who cannot afford food, some who cannot find it, some who are not invited or for whatever reason are not present to share at the table with others. Being consciously aware that we all need to eat is not sufficient to teach us the practices and priorities it would take to ensure that no child of God ever goes hungry and that no child of God ever feels alone. Every meal, like communion, should at some level be a disturbing reminder that our fellowship around God’s table is not yet perfected and we must always seek to be more faithful to what God is doing in our lives and throughout all creation.

What is one thing we can do as a church to better exhibit hospitality in the sharing of meals?

[Also see #1 – Excommunication, #2 – Hospitality Required, and #3 – Hospitality In-vitation]

Membership Classes as Radical Hospitality #3 -Hospitality In-vitation

For the last two weeks I’ve tried to make the case that our Christian faith compels us to go out of our way to show signs of God’s love for others and that creating the space where we can know and be known by people is a requirement we should place upon ourselves. This week, I want to press a little further on one particular practice for making both of these things happen. That practice is the invitation to act.

If we look through the gospels, we’ll find that invitations take several different forms. Jesus invites the disciples to follow him  in the form of a command, “Come follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” The invitation became the occasion for the disciples to take on a whole new way of life. Jesus is invited to dinner by a Pharisee, which turns into an occasion for questioning some of the laws at the very heart of Jewish practice and belief. The parable of invitation to the wedding banquet is used as an occasion to express the radically different type of community into which God calls us in response to the work God has done in us.

These are some of the deep, rich, and transformative ways that people experience invitation in the gospels – a new way to live, a new way to think, a new people to love. I think we too often get bogged down in the details of invitation as information sharing or merely getting the word out. It’s true that you do have to get the word out, even Jesus was invited to something in particular, but when that’s the focus of what we’re doing it’s far too easy to notice all the frustrations and problems that come alongside trying to get your information heard in a culture that is infinitely saturated with invitations to do or buy something. Take a minute to reflect on what form of invitation has had the most effect on you; not just what gets the information across, but what are those things in your life that have actually challenged and changed who you are.

What is the most effective way you’ve experienced invitation in your life?

[Also see #1 – Excommunication and #2 – Hospitality Required]

Membership Classes as Radical Hospitality #2 -Hospitality Required

What images pop into your head when you read the words ‘required membership class?’

I think the prevailing sentiment is probably a negative one. Restrictive, uninviting, narrow, etc. But I want to propose that when the church is doing what it is called to do, a required membership class would speak not to a burden placed on the one seeking to join but to the nature of the church as a radically hospitable people. I won’t pretend like having something called a new member’s class is going to do anything for anyone just because it exists, but I would argue that one of the biggest things missing in most churches is an intentionality about offering all people a way to move from acquaintance to sibling in Christ.

I don’t think it matters as much that a church should require something from people considering joining, but I do think it speaks to the heart of what it means to be the church that we should require ourselves to develop a way to know and be known; to make love and community more than a catchphrase or an ideal.   

There are obviously 100 things every church thinks it does to make people feel invited and welcome. There are 100 other reasons why it would be nearly impossible for everyone who seeks it to find a perfect fit and everyday best friend group in one particular church. But if we are blessed to be a blessing to the whole world, then we, as congregations, have to require of ourselves that we offer the chance to know and be known.

If a required new member class is the space to know and be known, what would it look like?

[Also see #1 – Excommunication]

Membership Classes as Radical Hospitality #1 – Excommunication

I am a big fan of excommunication. I know it has its problems and I don’t think we could realistically ever reclaim it as something positive in the church; but I do actually think we’ve lost something by being so dismissive and afraid to even think about the practice anymore. Matthew’s gospel outlines the most clear guidelines in scripture for removing someone who has sinned against another. Church members are to confront the person, take another witness, and finally – “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.”

It sounds like a harsh practice and the lived reality was probably even worse in the ways the church has treated the practice throughout the years, but the gospel itself has a very different understanding of why this practice matters. Jesus is the one in the gospel who ate with the tax collectors. Jesus is the one who would defy all common sense and leave the ninety nine behind just to find the one lost sheep. The point of naming someone lost or broken or a sinner or a socially unacceptable person in the gospel is not a reason to shun them; it is a reason to take ridiculous measures to love them.

I think one of the reasons we don’t take hospitality seriously enough is that doing so would require us to confront rather than ignore the things that have gone wrong in our lives. If everything in our world and everything with our people is basically alright, then there really isn’t any reason to worry about whether or not someone is or isn’t being faithful. But if we take seriously the struggles and the problems and the brokenness that everyone faces, then it makes all the difference in the world for us to pay attention. It makes all the difference in the world whether we are in fact OK, or if we are really in need of a new experience of the extravagant measures to which God has gone to love us all.

What is one thing we can do to create the space for admitting faults and embracing struggles?

Embracing Purpose

Perhaps the deepest problem the church currently faces is that the church was recently the most important organization in a person’s life. For much of American history, it was the institution from which a person most consciously and thoroughly derived their identity. The business model of ‘church’ grew accordingly – the church did a little bit of everything so that it could reach everyone a little bit and provide a little bit for everyone to do. The difficulty of connecting with people across distance led to the inherent regional monopolies of one or a few churches over the inhabitants of a particular place. The lack of technology made it not only possible but virtually required to have a majority of people find their identity within some form of church community.

With the advent of the internet and societal shifts, people no longer require any particular organization from which to derive their primary sense of identity. A new community or distraction is just a click away. The core ministries of the church seem to be shifting to try and compete directly with every feed and activity that take up the time and attention of its members in the hopes of winning back enough attention to sustain the church’s presence in the world. The church, thus, becomes one of the many points of data on the stream of never-ending information and entertainment that vies for people’s attention online and in person.

But the local congregation will never win in this kind of quest for the same reason walmart will never ruin the business of high end, niche product manufacturers – mass production and low prices only get you so far. The geographic limitations of driving to a store are increasingly less important than what you can have shipped on the internet. And competing based on price means there is no loyalty to leverage into a defense against any future competitors. Walmart might remain a sustainable business in the field of cheap consumer goods. But if the church is asking people to give a deep part of themselves to the organization, it better have something more compelling to offer than location and cheap prices.

If the church is going to survive it must reevaluate the ways in which it provides an alternative narrative to the scattered, global, and stream focused attention of modern life. Instead of doing everything a little bit, each congregation must work to define its particular piece of God’s mission to transform the world and invite people to take part in that particular part of the mission. Embracing a definable and specific purpose for why each congregation exists may increasingly become the necessary precondition for anyone to consider participation in the life of a congregation.

What embracing purpose looks like is not at all clear and settled in my head, but it will likely involve at least the following: 1) a push toward specialization; 2) a steadfastness to its core mission matched only by its willingness to change the particular form of fulfilling that mission over time; 3) the freedom for participants to come and go for a season; 4) a meaningful process or pathway that participants can travel as they become more committed; 5) the desire to meet at least one (and maybe only one) concrete, felt need in the surrounding community; and 6) an explicit connection to the traditions and stories in which every Christian takes part.

Replacing Membership

It may be time to replace church membership (I am Christian) with church covenant (I commit to go deeper).

The very notion that you can be a member of the church is at best meaningless and at worst a direct contradiction to the heart of the gospel message. To the former possibility, church members are often no more likely to do or be anything different than the rest of the world. Church’s rarely ask for any specific commitment of their members, and the only way off the membership logs tends to be through death or years of hard work by the church to purge old records. Membership often means nothing in particular about a person, their actions, or their relationships. To the latter, membership sounds reminiscent of and practically plays out like an exclusive club. Members receive special benefits or discounts whereas obedience to Christ often means sacrificing privilege for the sake of the outsider. Membership implies that we now have what we needed, whereas following Christ entails receiving daily bread along the journey.

The membership wall becomes a sometimes subtle, but all too real wall that we build up between insider and outsider. The gospel is focused throughout on tearing down the walls we build and finding God at work throughout all creation, especially in unhindered relationship with the least, last, and lost. Membership mentality goes so far as to imply ‘I am a Christian,’ which places the emphasis on me and what I’ve done. The gospel always starts with God and what God has done. Our lives are a response to what God has done and our hope is to say that we are following after Christ. To be is something static that can happen with or without God or neighbor. To follow is to realize we are always behind someone else’s lead, we are always changed along the way, and we are always surrounded by neighbors who are on the same journey.

The church does not exist to serve its members – it exists to fulfill the mission of God.

A better representation of what it means to ‘join’ a church is to become a covenant partner. Joining does not bring about a change in status or worth or depth of relationship with God, but it does enter us into a particular kind of covenant relationship in which our commitment provides a pathway to growth in relationship and discipleship with God and neighbor. Our commitment signals our intention to share in the mission of God as discerned and specified within a local congregation. It is a signal that I have chosen to follow in a particular way for a particular time.

A covenant partnership might be accomplished within the Methodist system by requiring a commitment to be made once a year by everyone wishing to be a partner. At stewardship time, cards would be passed out and set up a minimum expectation for each partner. Expectations should be kept at a minimum, but with enough shape to ensure that all partners are committed to the full mission of the church. Steps for deeper commitment could be given to allow for where people are on their journey.

If anyone does not sign up, their name can be read at that year’s charge conference. If they still haven’t signed the commitment by the next year, their name would be read a second time and removed from the ‘membership’ roll. To be taken off the roll is to have the burden of responsibility lifted from your shoulders and to instead be named as the one for whom the mission of the church exists. If membership is about privilege, it makes sense why someone would be upset to be taken off. If membership is about covenant responsibility, the easier path is be taken off the roll and simply get the free grace of God without the covenantal obligations to actually do anything. The open table is one simple UM practice that makes this distinction concrete – it is not membership that gets you an invite to the table, only the grace of God. To serve at the table may require training and commitment, but to receive at the table requires only the grace of God.

Could it actually happen? Would it actually matter in the life of a church? I have no idea. But the cultural meaning and emphasis on church membership has already shifted dramatically. This seems like a pretty good time to try something new.