Church-Like Schools?

As a companion to the previous installment, in this post I want to advocate for a thesis that long ago fell into disfavor. I’ll put it in its simplest and most straightforward form and then explain. Church-related colleges and universities need to become more churchlike. In their institutional cultures, they should warmly embrace and judiciously employ the Christian theological foundations that prompted their formation in the beginning. Most people working in church-related higher education see this call as illegitimate. It’s time to re-consider.

First, I need to be clear about the kind of school I have in mind. It’s the kind I worked in for twenty-five years, colleges and universities associated with the Christian tradition, and, more specifically, a Protestant denomination, but not claiming to be Christian schools. This is a distinction that most people outside the industry don’t recognize. Decidedly Christian schools (sometimes called “confessional) openly identify themselves as Christian. Take a look at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities website and see their member organizations. Pick one and read how they describe themselves. I am interested, for this exercise, in schools who often call themselves “church-related” and may use “non-sectarian” as a way of distinguishing themselves from openly Christian schools. However they communicate their religious affiliation, they approach it with ambivalence, with nervousness about communicating the wrong thing and alienating people. They tend to avoid referring to themselves as Christian schools, for fear of creating the wrong impression with prospective students and faculty.  This concern complicates the school’s relationship to its Christian heritage as well as to its identity and mission. I am convinced that church-related schools, in order for the church relationship to have any meaning, need to think carefully about how they can be appropriately church-like and offer a truly distinctive and excellent educational experience. I will use the term “church-related” with tiresome repetitiveness to keep the kind of school I’m talking about in front of us.

To be clear, as I inch my way into the argument, I love church-related higher education. I could have worked in explicitly Christian schools. I chose the path I’ve trodden. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work in the two schools where I did. One is a small, regional college still in the liberal arts tradition, but often called “comprehensive.” The other is a major national research university. They are both affiliated with The United Methodist Church, even if (now especially) in different and evolving ways. It’s’ interesting, though something I won’t explore in this post, how similar they are in certain features of institutional culture while also very different from one another in all the expected ways.

One important qualifier as we get started: To be sure, a church-related college or university is not a church, even if, as I will argue, it should be church-like. The mission is different. A school has no creed to which everyone is expected to adhere. It includes people of all faiths and no particular faith. Furthermore, the principle of academic freedom demands that scholars, teachers, and researchers have the prerogative of pursuing truth wherever it leads, without the church imposing dogmatic restrictions on that pursuit. Finally, most of what a school is concerned about is not directly linked to the faith of its founding, anyway, so my use of “church-like” comes with an important set of limits. Once we establish the proper limits, however, then “church-like” becomes an essential characteristic for church-related schools.

Once we lay down some of these qualifications, though, we still find plenty of conceptual space to think of church-related colleges and universities as needing to be more churchlike than most of them have become. Every school, for example, has a prevailing set of values, an ethos. This feature is inevitable. The question quickly arises, “What sources are deemed legitimate for shaping those values?” At a macro-level, higher education is controlled by a dominant set of values. How do they comport with the Christian faith? Church-related schools should think about this question, otherwise they lose what makes them truly distinct and valuable.

The dominant values in higher education, affecting every college or university in the country, stand on what amounts to a working anthropology – a view of human nature. A school’s ethos is also shaped by some overarching understanding of human goods and ends. When schools talk about justice, for instance, they are talking about human goods and ends. A dominant view of human nature and ends pervades higher education. This is ground covered by Christian theology, too.

Higher education’s working anthropology is that students are autonomous individuals. (So are faculty.) Proper human development demands freedom to follow one’s own path. (Notice the teleology.) It is very important to protect individual freedom as much as possible. Expressive individualism” as a number of thinkers, such as the sociologist Christian Smith, have put it, is basic to the way we understand what humans are like and what they need.

To illustrate this point, I’ll talk in terms of world view, even though it implies something bigger and more basic than my example addresses. On the campus from which I recently retired, you can find a robust human rights program. You also find a world-renowned business school, with the finance major as one of its most prestigious career paths. In terms of world views, most finance majors and most humans rights majors stand worlds apart. That they co-exist peacefully on the same campus is considered a good. Educational leaders assume that the normal interactions of college life give these students the opportunity to rub shoulders – and opinions – and learn from each other. Most schools assume that such interactions help students gain respect for people who differ from themselves and the  “soft skills” necessary for working in a world filled with diverse peoples. It is through these kinds, of experiences, so the belief goes, that students can develop a healthy sense of self and become responsible citizens.

In truth, that vision is not happening for the vast majority of students populating our church-related schools. For all the diversity found on virtually any of these campuses, most students hang out with people they like and agree with, the people who are like them. Professors, administrators and staff do the same. Outside of brief and limited interactions through some sort of curricular, extra-curricular, or co-curricular program designed to foster honest interaction among differing peoples, homogeneity persists.

Why? Because we prize individual freedom above all else.  It is precisely what a college degree says that someone is getting. Both finance majors and human rights majors assume that individual autonomy is their right and their goal (human nature and ends). A college education equips them to have the kind of life they choose. Some may choose Wall Street. Others may choose Occupy Wall Street. Students in these two groups may vociferously, even violently, disagree with each other about all manner of topics, but they both assume autonomy of choice is their goal. The mission of the college they attend is to grant each student her or his freedom to become who they want to be.

Christian theology has something very important to say about individuality, quite distinct from the expressive individualism of popular culture. If you look carefully at how this vision of individual autonomy plays out in the academy, you can begin to discern a kind of anti-theology, since specific religious claims are deemed inappropriate for shaping the campus community. This prejudice stands in contrast and, in its stronger forms, in open opposition, to a Christian anthropology, with troubling ramifications. The reigning view of human autonomy promises a kind of freedom that it cannot deliver. A commitment to human freedom that has no limits except whatever society justly or unjustly puts on it is no freedom at all.

A church-related school that does not recognize this challenge winds up promoting a view that stands in marked opposition to that of the faith that prompted the start of the school in the first place.  Church-related colleges and universities, in order to keep good faith with their identity and mission, need avenues to think about how the theological grounding of the faith that brought them into existence offers good to all its community members, whether they share the Christian faith or not. This is not about requiring anything religious in the curriculum or student life experiences. It is about an institutional culture that understands how Christian theology helpfully construes true individuality (and its limits) and finds ways of communicating that view through its ethos. Paradoxically, orienting a school’s mission theologically in this way opens up the very sort of liberative educational experience we say we want students to have.

It is in this sense that church-related schools should become more churchlike. They need to recognize that some view of human nature, goods, and ends, will come to dominate institutional culture. There is no neutral ground in which absolute objectivity makes sure everything is perfectly fair to everyone. Church-related schools should have a critical mass of leaders who recognize the life-enhancing value of Christian theology, specifically with regard to human nature and ends, which includes, we should keep in mind, a view of justice.  A Christian view properly embedded in a school’s culture invites and promotes dialogue with people of all faiths and no particular faith. Rather than restricting such conversations, it encourages them. The irony between what the dominant secularist or pluralist bias insists will happen and what is actually taking place with students is palpable.

There is much more to say about these matters, but I’ll save it for another medium. Right now, I am trying to advance a basic, starting point idea.  In helping churches to become more school-like, and challenging church-related colleges to become – in the sense laid out in this post – more church-like, we can develop fertile ground in which people grow and thrive. All of them.

 

 

We Need School-like Churches.

As a kid, I was bookish.  I loved sports.  I took piano lessons.  I participated in 4H.  I liked to hang out with my friends.  But I also loved to read.  Sometimes I got so absorbed in what I was reading that my mom or dad had to almost shout to get my attention.

Reading helps to develop imagination, which worked in me, I think, in one specific way.   It illumined ideas and relationships, that, in the normal course of life, pat answers and careless thinking overlook. I remember many times in Sunday School classes when I had the impression that we weren’t really talking about what the Bible passage was talking about.  Yes, we were dutifully following the curriculum, but on fairly regular occasion something still seemed off to me.  As a kid I didn’t have words for this sense.  Today I might say that those Bible passages were a pre-text for a pre-digested, moralistic lesson, rather than an encounter with God through the text.  But then, I just had a feeling that something was missing.

I think there are many kids in our churches who feel similarly, especially these days.  They see incongruity and feel the strains between church life and the rest of life.  They have questions and thoughts that go unvoiced.  And not only kids.  Grownups do, too.

This sense that there is more, this hunger to go deeper than we typically go, needs encouragement.  We need school-like churches.

A school-like church has a culture of study, which is not (necessarily) the same as a church having a bunch of study groups.  (How many Bible studies have you been in that didn’t actually study the Bible?)  A culture of study means that the congregation as a whole takes serious and sustained study as a normal part of their communal life.  In a culture of study nobody is surprised or intimidated when a Sunday School class member makes reference to what Augustine or Wesley or some present-day scholar/leader said.  Hearing the names of well-known Christian thinkers, on whose shoulders we stand, is taken as par for the course in the Christian life.

A culture of study allows people to recognize various degrees of growth and maturity without awkward feelings.  In the Christian life, we start at different places and we grow at different paces.  We don’t compare ourselves with each other.  We compare ourselves to Christ and give thanks for his gracious Spirit who enables us to grow.  A culture of study helps people assess where they stand in growth to maturity, encourages commitment to grow, and provides guidance and support in that aim.

I’ve been pondering the idea of school-like churches for a while now.  Some of what follows is part of a working paper that I’ve written in support of a proposal for helping churches who want to become more school-like.

The church, as a community of disciples, is a community of learners.  Disciples of Jesus are students of Jesus.  A church is certainly more than a school, but it is a school.  The church must include the seriousness and rigor in its culture that we conventionally associate with “school.”

In seeing this need, it helps to understand  the historical context in which the church began.  The New Testament mentions Stoics and Epicureans, for example, philosophical schools that, along with others, served as early precursors to the modern university.  Pierre Hadot  (Philosophy as a Way of Life) has narrated how these schools, rather than dealing only with the critical analysis of ideas (our modern view of philosophy), thought of their work as spiritual exercises.  To enter into one of these schools was to take up a comprehensive way of life.  Each school had a view of reality that called for living in a way that reflected its teachings.  The Christian faith does the same.  Wayne Meeks (The First Urban Christians) observed that pagan neighbors often regarded churches as philosophical schools rivaling the ones just mentioned.  What would it do for us today to think of our congregation as something like an ancient philosophical school?

Another model for the early church is the synagogue, especially since the first followers of Jesus were Jews convinced that he is Messiah and Lord who fulfills the scriptures (Old Testament).  According to Lee Levine (The Ancient Synagogue), the synagogue served a number of purpose, one of which was as a place of study.  People gathered to study the scriptures and other works and sought to walk faithfully in their light.  The earliest Christians, Jewish believers in Messiah Jesus, naturally followed synagogue practices.  Imagine Acts 2:42 from that angle, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” in this light.

We need to regain this vision.  In our modern obsession with what we think is “practical,” we have lost a sense of the value of the type of study falsely regarded as only what academics and professionals do.

Congregations need to develop a culture of study.  It needs a group (or groups) of people engaging in serious, sustained, probing, prayerful, responsive study of the scriptures and other resources.  More people need to move from reading the Bible only for devotional purposes and add study.  By all means, keep having your devotions, but spend time studying, too.

For congregational leaders who recognize the need to move in this direction, what do they need?  I have a few basic ideas.

  1. The purpose of all study in the church is to grow in the knowledge and love of God.  Let’s be careful not to equate being well-informed or knowledgeable in content with spiritual maturity.  Being a knowledgeable, well-informed church member is a by-product of serious commitment to studying with Jesus.
  2. Start with the openly, knowingly hungry (you only need a handful, even two or three) and agree to a habit of study.  Ratify the commitment with a covenant.  Participants agree to modify their routines, if necessary, rather than constantly shifting  the group’s practices to accommodate busy schedules.  This is a crucial shift.  Participants need several hours per week for study.
  3. Pastors convene this group, not as teacher, per se (we are trained to take the role of expert in these situations), but as a convener and co-student.  Pastors lead first by example.  Teachers are learners.  Lay people, not formally trained, have insights and teaching gifts of their own.
  4. On the other hand, pastors do have training and knowledge to share and group members should (and will) ask questions.  Striking the balance between sharing from one’s store of knowledge and taking over  the class as teacher is a very important goal.
  5. Current discipleship groupings in the congregation (Sunday schools, various study groups) need practice in thinking about the reason they exist and the purpose they serve.  Encourage seeking God for guidance about how they contribute to a congregational culture of study and how they probably need to adjust in light of the vision.
  6. Accept from the start that this process involves hard work and risk.  Sometimes confusion and consternation will happen.  Sometimes rabbit trails and dead ends will frustrate the study.  Sometimes discouragement sets in.  Group members accept this challenge and persist in prayerful study.
  7. Remember: the goal is to hear God speak and to respond faithfully.  All other aims and hopes serve this priority.

There is much more to be said and thought about with school-like churches, but this is surely a start.  As I shared earlier, as we think about our present cultural difficulties, it’s time for the church to lead.  Let’s start with doing our homework.

 

May We See the Unseen

man holding box

 

A blessed Christmastide to you and Happy New Year.  This time of year always brings on a taking stock frame of mind.  Recently mine has revolved around pondering the dual aspect of reality – seen and unseen.  How does the seen give a glimpse of the unseen?

In Isaiah 6 we encounter the well-known vision of the prophet, who sees “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”  And seraphs sing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

“The whole earth is full of his glory,” a glory unseen, at that moment, except by the heavenly court and Isaiah.  The first five chapters of Isaiah show the other side of reality – the seen, the usual, the normal.  As we read, we get the impression of life very much like what we in our time have come to expect.  People are busy, working hard, gaining, losing, grasping, chasing the dream and terrified of being left out.  They work hard and they play hard.  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  And, oh, yes, there is the 2020 version of the plague.  And too many of God’s people carry on as if God isn’t present or concerned about the way things are going.  We’re fixated on the seen and forget that the unseen is real and present.

And then comes Isaiah’s vision and precisely here the seen Unseen gets interesting.  I can read it as just that, Isaiah’s vision.  We can describe it by how certain psychological factors may have produced this vision (assuming it to be an actual experience and not merely a literary construction).  We might read a neurological study.  We might dip into anthropological theories.  We could go on and on imagining and analyzing, using the best scholarly tools available to understand Isaiah’s experience.  We might, then, better understand human experience in general and be able better to make sense of ours.

Isaiah says, however, that he saw the Lord.  The Lord is the Holy One of Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.  Isaiah shows repeatedly that the Lord spoke to him and through him to the Lord’s people, about real-life circumstances and the attitudes and actions of real-life people.  While we’re focusing on Isaiah’s mystical experience, Isaiah is focused on the one true God.  The Unseen appears, if only for a moment.  And Isaiah tells us about it.  He shows us.  Do we have eyes to see?

Our temptation is to be satisfied with understanding Isaiah 6 through familiar, but strictly human categories.  In Charles Taylor’s masterful study, A Secular Age, he names this tendency the “immanent frame.”  We have been schooled, literally, to think only in empiricist terms and that schooling has become so deeply embedded that we don’t  recognize it as a problem.  We have so habituated ourselves to the seen, to what we call “the real world,” that modern society now has a massive, self-imposed blind spot.

My general psychology class in college was typical for the time: a large, austere lecture hall with hundreds of students.  We read B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two and I don’t remember what else.  Fortunately, the professor was a very engaging lecturer, with just enough quirkiness to keep us interested.  For example, for two weeks, if I recall correctly, he wore a device that sat on his head, like eyeglasses, with two tiny slivers of metal, like pendants, hanging down in front of his eyes.  The contraption somehow responded to his eye movements so that those little metal slivers stayed in the center of his vision, no matter which way he looked.  When he went outside, he put a box over his head, with the smallest of slits just big enough so that he could see to walk.  The box protected the adjustment of the device from the near constant Kansas wind.  I can still see him in my mind’s eye walking across campus.  He was a sight.

The point of his experiment was to try to create a partial blind spot in his vision by interfering with how light went through the pupil to the retina.  And it worked.  He reported to us that, right in the middle of his vision, he could not see.  Not totally blind, just a blind spot.  And thank goodness, only temporary.

I’m sure I don’t remember the experiment accurately, but I swear, as Dave Barry says, I am not making this up.  And I find it an apt metaphor for our condition.  We have a kind of self-imposed blindness.  We’ve come tacitly to “know” that the immanent frame is all there is.  Yes, people have what they may regard as transcendent experiences of beauty and mystery, but we can understand these things to our satisfaction with tools that we have created.  In terms of how we experience life, the transcendent has collapsed into the immanent.  In the final analysis, Isaiah’s experience is Isaiah’s experience.  That’s all.

But of course, that isn’t all.  Much more is needed to help us make sense of that feeling of and hunger for transcendence, that doesn’t and won’t go away, and, in our quiet moments, we know it.  To our great blessing and, indeed, our salvation, the Unseen has become seen.  “No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart [literally, in the Father’s bosom], who has made him known.”  The Unseen is seen, known.  Not just a category of human experience that we call religious or spiritual, but God.  The real, one, true, God.

We need healing, not just a vaccination.  We need our sight to be restored, so that we can see more of the Unseen.  God is not coy, playing hard to get.  On the contrary, we have trained ourselves right into blindness.  As we turn the corner on a miserable 2020 and look forward to a fresh calendar, my prayer is that, through scriptural therapy, we gain sight.  We see the Unseen.  May the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ enlighten us.  And may that light shine through us to others.

The (Local) Church, More Important Than Ever

We are hearing from a number of quarters that American society is in trouble like we haven’t seen in a long time.  I share this worry.  We feel it locally, among our neighborhoods and acquaintances.  The blight of hatred spreads through our social media feeds.  Our divisions have become so sharp and so personal that talk of civil war seems not so far-fetched.  We do need to remember, after all, that it has happened before.

For these reasons, the church, embattled and battered though she be, is more important than ever.  To see the church’s value in the present age, we need to refocus.  This is a form of repentance, the kind John Wesley expounded in “The Repentance of Believers.”  Christians always need to demonstrate willingness to course-correct as we get knocked around and off track in the rough-and-tumble of daily life.  Right now is a good time for us to course-correct.

It calls to mind Nehemiah’s example.  He is in a foreign country enjoying a prestigious career, far away from his shattered homeland.  It has been long-enough after the exile (which began in 586 BCE/BC) that Nehemiah could be forgiven for thinking that that sad bit of history had nothing to do with him.  We find Nehemiah in the city of Susa, in the king’s court, almost a full century (ca. 440s BCE/BC) after the exiles began trickling back into Jerusalem.  By our standards, he is far removed from the problem, and, as I mentioned, he enjoys a really good job.

And yet, when Nehemiah’s brother, Hanani, shows up with news of the “trouble and shame” of the returned exiles, of Jerusalem’s broken down walls and burned gates, Nehemiah responds, “I sat sat down and wept.”  He mourns and fasts and prays, and in the prayer he confesses, “I and my family have sinned.”  Feel Nehemiah’s heart.  He is not directly culpable for any of the mess, yet he so identifies with his people that he shares their plight.  He takes responsibility for conditions with which he had had nothing to do.  May this same penitent, responsive, heart emerge and grow across the church.

Many church leaders already know this.  The question is, how?  What forms would our penitence take?

First, we need to know our communities.  This means more time getting to know our neighbors, which means we need to release people from so much church programming so that they have time to know their communities.

But second, we need to see our communities through our convictions about God’s nature and work, rather than through secular categories of interpretation.  Our core beliefs about reality, about God’s world-saving mission in Christ, are not optional accessories.  What we learn from secular sources, from the natural and social sciences and from culture criticism can be and often are a big help, but they must not replace thoroughly Christian perspectives.

Yes, I know, this is scary talk.  Isn’t “Christian” thinking precisely the problem?  Who doesn’t know about “the white evangelical vote?”  Notice the paradigm of political identity, not scriptural identity.  The problem is that Christians have forgotten who we are (if we ever knew) and how to think and see and function in the public square as real Christians.   We need to admit that we have let various forms of secular identity tell us and the world who we are and what we value.  The church’s true identity comes from the faith once delivered to the saints.  It does not trouble us that others disagree and have other faith commitments (the world’s peoples have always disagreed about ultimate reality.)  We serve others – of any faith and no particular faith – precisely because the one true God, who made heaven and earth, who in the Incarnate Son shares our nature, shows us how to love and serve our neighbors.

So, we American Christians need a mindset shift, which is to say, we need to repent.  We need to grasp once again that metanoia, biblical Greek for “repentance,” involves a change of direction, which also entails a change of mind, a change of perspective, a change in understanding.  In repentance, we see things differently.  That bit about seeing our neighbors – Republican, Democrat, Independent, Socialist, whatever – as God’s image bearers, which is exactly how God sees them, that bit is non-negotiable.  We will stand before the Great Assize and the Judge will evaluate how we treated our neighbors.

Recently I read an instructive piece in Hedgehog Review (a journal I highly recommend), called “Dissent and Solidarity.”  It’s written by James Davison Hunter, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.  Looking at the failure of secularized ethical humanism to accomplish human dignity and liberation it envisioned, Hunter finds the realization of that vision in African-American clergy, most notably of course, Martin Luther King, Junior.  They, and he, had a vision for social changed rooted in a Source that transcends human power.  It made his leadership effective precisely because of its theological vision.  Because King believed that all people are created in God’s image – the oppressed and the oppressor – then both dissent and solidarity needed to occur.

In our current climate, we have lots and lots of dissent.  Solidarity is alarmingly absent.  This is what prompted Hunter to go looking for insight into our present difficulties and to note the importance of having a vision of human dignity and freedom grounded in something beside ourselves.

I think Hunter’s insights serve as a prod for Christian leadership in local communities.  The concerns there are broader than Hunter’s focus, but inclusive of it.  Christian leadership in the name, power, and character of Christ, made visible in local communities, is now more needed than ever.  Because it is done by servants of Christ in his name, it cannot be the power-grabbing kind of “leadership” we see on display most of the time.

Some of you are already doing this.  Thank you.  Lots more of us need to join you.  Now more than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

The Transformation of Congregational Culture

In Hosea 2, we find a beautiful promise of restoration immediately after God’s judgment against Israel’s infamous infidelity. The language in the promise is that of the New Creation. “On that day” God will reclaim the adulteress Israel.  The Lord will make a covenant and she, in response, will call him “my husband” again.  The covenant includes the earth’s animals, the abolishment of war, and the establishment of justice so that God’s people live in safety.  All the effects of Israel’s “not my people” waywardness will be transformed.

It’s a beautiful and bracing vision.  More importantly, it is true.  God has been faithful.  God is faithful.  The Bridegroom has come and will come again and we will enjoy the wedding supper of the Lamb, provided that we resist Babylon’s oppressive allurements and stay faithful to our Husband.  Israel needed widespread cultural change.  So do we.  We need it in our nation, but first, we need it in the church.

I grew up among the people called Methodist.  Thirty-five years ago, I became a clergy member among this people.  Like many Methodists, I have grieved our losing our way.  We are torn asunder, yet the Bible teaches on virtually every page that Almighty God, full of mercy, patience, and love, makes all things new.  Therefore, we have hope, not about denominational survival, but about the destiny of the people.

The Lord’s discipline is severe, but it produces good fruit if we yield to it humbly and bear fruits worthy of repentance.  It means taking up the call to re-order congregational culture.  As I move into a new season of ministry, I hear the call to help in this work and have returned for guidance to volume 9 of Wesley’s Works, “The Methodist Societies: History, Nature, and Design.”  I’ve been reading and re-reading the General Rules, The Character of a Methodist, Advice to the People Called Methodists, and other reflections from Mr. Wesley.  If you risk reading this material, you will quickly see what I mean about the need to re-order congregational culture.

What do I mean by culture?  Borrowing generally from scholars Clifford Geertz and Robert Wuthnow, I mean that collection of beliefs, values, practices and behaviors,  material resources and artifacts, folkways and formal structures, that reveal to us and others who we think we are and what we care about as a people.   A congregation is a microcosm of the people of God and a culture.  If we take this definition, what would we say about our congregation’s culture?  If we need to change our culture – and we do – what should we ponder?

First, we don’t rush prematurely past the facts of our problem.  Israel had exchanged their loyalty to the one true God for economic and military security in that-which-is-not-God.  We have done likewise, seeking our security in the American dream, in American prosperity, in American dominance, in American politics, and, most of all, in trying to stay current with popular culture.  There is nothing cringier than watching a peculiar people trying to look cool.  We have been on  a long fool’s errand and we are seeing the consequence.

Lest you get the wrong impression that I’m suggesting that we stop worrying about understanding our context and how best to communicate in popular culture, I assure you, I am not.  Christians need to continue to think carefully and to study our context so that we understand and minister effectively.  I am not talking about some kind of blissful ignorance.  I am talking about our obsequious craving for and chasing respectability from popular culture and our bending the Gospel completely out of shape to try to make people like us.  God gives us discernment to know the difference.

We need repentance in order for congregational culture to change, but repentance cannot be manufactured or hurried.  People need time to mull things over, to think, to talk with one another, even to argue things out.  True cultural change cannot be forced.  As I have read through the Book of Acts recently, I’ve noticed how often it records Paul arguing with people in the synagogues, on Mars Hill, everywhere he went.  To argue does not mean to yell and fight.  It means to engage the issues, to give and take, to speak and listen.  This process takes time and cannot be forced.

When people’s minds change at the foundations, their actions start to follow suit.  This is the true beginning of culture change.  Culture change begins with repentance (a change of mind and direction), a characteristic that comes through clearly in reading those early Methodist documents.  There was only one condition to join Methodist society – the desire to flee the wrath to come.  Not a desire to shake off the feelings of guilt.  That is too subjective and surface-level a response.  Once the feeling is gone, the changed behavior goes also.  Real culture change happens when people begin (1) to understand that their accountability to God is objectively real and, (2) by their actions they demonstrate the desire to get right with God.  If you join the Methodists, you live like the Methodists live.  This is true with a sharp, doubled-edged quality.

You don’t need a majority vote or a decision by the church council to get this movement going.  Leaders lead.  They lead first by their lives, by showing that they are penitent, hungry, and obedient.  Revival happens when a core group reveals that they want nothing more than God.  They desire above all to have the mind of Christ and to walk as Christ walked and that, by God’s grace, they will do nothing less.  Not only is this slow, steady work, with glorious and dramatic moments mixed in, it is the rest-of-our-lives work.

Although we don’t need a majority to get congregational change going, we do need to raise the bar of church membership.  This means that pastors need to reclaim the teaching office.  Teaching is a function of pastoral care and of ordering the life of the congregation.  Teaching, too, calls for gentleness and patience.  It, too, needs time.  There are no shortcuts.  Teaching simply cannot be hurried because learning cannot be hurried.  Let’s give church members time to think about the true nature of church membership and to struggle with the cognitive dissonance between their (likely) current understanding and what they are now hearing from their teachers.  Let’s give them time and, while we take time, let’s not cave to the pressure to water down the vision of vital church membership from impatience or cowardice.  How many good efforts have been thwarted by these vices?

The heart of our teaching should include helping people understand sin and salvation.  No matter what theological label we like for ourselves, we have drifted ever closer to Pelagianism and works righteousness.  About “sin” we bought the well-meaning malarkey that “insider talk” no longer communicates to people outside the church and so we need to change our language.  It has brought partial and inadequate understanding of sin into all levels of the church and the related result is misunderstanding of justification.  By not teaching scripturally about sin and salvation, we are repeating the very mistake Mr. Wesley believed the Methodists were called into existence to reform.  The church is full of good people meeting basic cultural expectations for church membership and thinking that’s all there is.  We have left them bereft of living faith in a living Christ because we have not taught clearly and persistently about sin and salvation.  People intuitively know they are sinners.   They need the grammar to understand their condition.  Goodness knows that the world gives us a thousand other misleading words that hides our true condition while promising enlightenment.

Precisely here the contribution of the Wesleyan tradition re-emerges.  I hasten to say that I think this matters, not because it’s Wesleyan, but because it is biblical.  We are not only saved from judgment and damnation, which is where most evangelical teaching today stops. We are saved from sin and we are saved to holy living.  Holiness does not mean “dour, rigid, and condemning.”  Let us not go weak in the knees because of the word.  To be holy is to be happy.  Let’s show people how holiness and happiness connect.  Christian perfection is a positive good for others as well as for oneself.  It is loving God and neighbor.

Many of the Methodists reading this post recognize all that I’ve said.  I know that what I’ve included here is but a start, but starting is necessary and persisting is, too.  To reorder congregational culture, these points anchor us and give us a place to start.  May we persevere in this good work.

And if you’re reading this post and you’re not Methodist, it all applies to you, too.  It is, after all, scriptural Christianity.