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.

 

 

 

 

 

Fixing Jesus

It now appears that an interpretation of Jesus’ being cured of racism in his response to the Syro-phoenician woman in Mark 7 has some real staying power among a slice of United Methodists.  You can read the story at Mark 7:24-30.  In this post I’ll concentrate on the core claim, that, to put it pejoratively, the passage reveals Jesus’ viewpoint needs to be fixed, that he needs to be liberated from racism.  Traditional Christians react strongly against this view.  Let’s take it seriously and examine the logic.

(Just in case you think that examining logic is an unnecessary distraction, you’ll have to face the fact that that opinion is itself a result of (somebody’s) logic.  Logic is unavoidable.  Doing it badly has serious practical ramifications.)

If you read the passage, verse 25 gets to the question.  Jesus responds to the request for healing with these words: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  The reading in question concludes that Jesus’s use of a common stereotype represent his actual opinion about Gentiles.  He needs to be freed from it.  The woman’s comeback, also taken at face value, is beautiful: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  At this point, Jesus’ eyes are opened and he sees the woman differently.  The woman, full of faith and willing to take the initiative, becomes the healer of Jesus’ racism.

For people with a traditional view of Jesus, this conclusion is completely unacceptable.  In fact, it’s heretical.  It simply does not fit within the church’s examined, tested, accepted, historic teachings about Jesus.  How is it, then, that Christians can actually hold such a view?

There’s a long and complex history in the background of this discussion, part involving the nature and work of Jesus Christ (Christology) and the other more generally ideas about scripture that became dominant in the late nineteenth century.  Behind both of these histories is yet another set of developments related to what we think of as true knowledge based in science.  As they say it’s complicated. The point I want to make here is that there is already a lot(!) going on behind the scenes in figuring out how best to understand this passage in Mark.

Back to examining the logic: To conclude that Jesus needed to be liberated from racist views is based on a prior view (a priori) of who Jesus is, of the nature of Jesus.  That prior view serves as the assumption, the premise, the starting point, and sets in motion a chain of logic leading to the aforementioned conclusion.  This premise itself rests on prior conclusions embedded in that complex history I mentioned a moment ago and most likely involves some version of an adoptionist Christology.  An adoptionist Christology argues in various ways that it makes the most sense to understand Jesus as ontologically (in his being) a regular human like the rest of us, exceptionally different in degree, but not in kind.  He had vastly more awareness of God than normal people.  He had amazing insight into God’s will and courageously committed himself singularly to fulfilling God’s will.  He is, in degree, an exceptional human being, but nonetheless nothing more than a human being.  Something like this view must be the premise for the curing-Jesus-of-racism conclusion.

Premises guide and limit subsequent thinking.  Once you have a starting point established, you follow the logic where it seems to lead.  This is the unavoidable chain of logic that we all use in some way or another.  If your premise about Jesus as of only (one) human nature stands firm, then your conclusion about his encounter with the woman in Mark 7 must fit within what we know of human nature, with all its glories and its horrors.  It is reasonable, if you hold this view of Jesus, to conclude that he shared all the prejudices that first-century Jews had about non-Jews.  And if you have been schooled in a long line of scholarship that has scrubbed the supernatural (theological) to get at the true (historical) core of Jesus’ identity, then you are also convinced that the idea of Jesus’ divinity is a needless and misleading human construct, unless held loosely as a symbol only.  If it seems to you that scholarship is on your side, the view grows stronger.  The conclusion that Jesus needed to be freed from racism becomes not only thinkable but, especially now that we know more about social structures and systemic oppression than first-century people did, it seems even more compelling, especially if you’re inclined to think that traditional theological beliefs about Jesus likewise are guilty of unwarranted exclusiveness.

Is there a way to hold to the traditional, orthodox, view of Jesus as fully divine as well as fully human and keep to this view about his being healed from racism?  Again, we would need to run the chain of logic, which, doing so, would make this post too long.  But I will say this much: if we believe that Jesus is also fully divine, then our problem with the story in Mark moves from how we think about Jesus to how we think about God and we are met with the implication that somehow God needs to have his [sic] views corrected.  And that we’re somehow in the position to do it.

These chains of logic have very serious implications about how we understand and practice our faith.  The work is too important to skip.  If you want to be a dedicated follower of Jesus, you are implicated in this work.

 

 

Guest Blog: The Purpose of Youth Ministry

(The following essay comes from the Rev. Wendy Mohler Seib, a PhD candidate in practical theology and Director of Faith Formation for Youth and Young Adults at the Institute for Discipleship at Southwestern College.  The American church needs to re-think its approach to ministry with youth, college students, and other emerging adults.  Wendy is a leader in helping us to do this work.  Her post is a review of an important book by Andrew Root.)

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According to Andrew Root, “Youth ministry exists for joy.” His latest book, The End of Youth Ministry? Why Parents Don’t Really Care about Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do about It follows Root’s quest to finish the sentence, “Youth ministry exists for ­­­____.” Root addresses the prioritization of youth ministry in competition with extracurricular activities consuming middle class youth and identifies the gulf between the priorities of parents and youth workers.

In his book, Root thoroughly dissects the history and cultural influences shaping the parental pursuit of happiness for their children. Using interviews, philosophy,[1] and sociology,[2] Root explains shifts in youth ministry from the 1980’s to the present. He demonstrates the effects of these cultural shifts on parental perceptions of the role of youth ministry. Root’s work gently and poignantly exposes “our misguided conception of a good life – namely, the need for recognized identity and the goal of happiness.”[3] Root contends parents push children to find a passion or “thing” (i.e. hockey, soccer, piano, theatre, etc.) as a means of identity formation without critically reflecting on criteria to establish what is “good.”

Root invites the reader to eavesdrop on his conversations and experiences with J and Lorena, a youth pastor and youth. By chronicling J and Lorena’s story, Root awakens the reader’s imagination to a ministry rooted in joy. When Lorena’s life was on the line, the hospital waiting room became the fertile ground for J’s local youth ministry to move from fun and games to a ministry of joy and friendship. Through a philosophical lens, Root analyzes the qualities of the good life and challenges modern notions of “good,” drawing the reader to historical moments when holiness and virtue constituted a good life. His thorough descriptions are an invitation to evaluate life choices that substitute happiness for joy. Intergenerational story-telling transformed J’s youth ministry, and Root explains how this communal practice gives youth the ability to discern between happiness based on goods and joy found in the highest good.

Root is convincing! He points to the Triune God as the greatest good and beseeches youth ministries to embody life together in community where joy is birthed when friends share in the suffering and glory of Christ. Root debunks the notion of numbers, programs, emotional responses, or sin management as fruitful youth ministry by prophetically calling youth workers to focus on the cross. He describes the changing context of youth ministry and offers a refreshing aim for youth workers – joy, Christian joy, rooted in the person of Jesus Christ and discovered in authentic community.

In 2011, I sat by Andy in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, where we attended the Association of Youth Ministry Educators gathering and went to eat with mutual seminary friends. Prior to AYME, I read his book, The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church. While star struck in Andy’s presence, one critique of his book lingered. I wanted an answer, “What about joy?” Andy was humble and kind as he listened to me make my case for joy. I don’t remember Andy’s exact words, I remember the sentiment of the conversation being something like, “Yeah…about joy…” (voice trailing off as we returned to discussing despair and suffering). He invited me to press in during times of suffering. He reminded me not to run too quickly to the resurrection without walking through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. He caught my attention. He urged me to encounter aspects of God’s character less known to me. And yet, I left unsatisfied. His response failed to address my uncertainties about joy amid suffering.

This book answered my questions about joy without compromising the invitation, and even necessity, to enter suffering. Root reminds us, as Paul reminds the Philippians, joy is birthed in suffering, which means the joy is not happiness based on subjective or circumstantial criteria. Joy is not recognition, passion for a “thing.” Joy cannot be acquired through the consumption of products or by avoiding negativity. A youth ministry established in joy invites young people into the complete gospel story whereby the living God invites Christ followers into friendship with the Triune God and one another. It is here where joy, not happiness, abounds.

In my estimation, Root’s book comes in the providential timing of God. This spring, my Adolescent Spirituality class read about identity formation from various authors. Over spring break, our lives were completely and utterly disrupted by COVID-19. When we reconvened online, we read Twenge’s book about iGen as people around the globe suffered and died. We discussed our pain, questions, disappointments, and losses. We wrestled through Christian ethics, and predicted ways COVID-19 may shift the attitudes and behaviors of iGen. We raised our laments through Lent and proclaimed Resurrection in the face of a pandemic.

Young people know suffering and loss. They knew it before COVID-19, but the pandemic has seriously altered their lives. They’ve lost loved ones, their parents have lost jobs, some have gone hungry, they’ve missed major life milestones. Beyond the mental health crisis already facing this generation,[4] the isolation, fear, anxiety, depression, and grief have been compounded. The future is uncertain. Young people yearn for peace, hope, and joy. Now is the time to read Root’s book, reflect on the good life, examine our ministry practices and priorities, and enter the “waiting room.” In the face of widespread suffering, may “joy in friendship and rejoicing in the [aim, focus, or highest good] be what youth ministry is for.”[5]

 

 

[1] Throughout the book, Root draws heavily on the philosophy of Charles Taylor.

[2] See Jean Twenge’s book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy-and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (New York: Atria Books, 2017).

[3] Andrew Root. Why Parents Don’t Really Care about Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do about It (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), Kindle edition, xiii.

[4] Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy-and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (New York: Atria Books, 2017), Kindle edition, 74.

[5] Andrew Root, The End of Youth Ministry?, Kindle edition, 225.

The Church Needs a Gestalt Shift

“Gestalt” – a word some of us academic types use on occasion.  Gestalt has to do with perception, of seeing the whole, all at once, rather than parts.   Many more have surely seen the image of the woman/women that illustrates this concept.  What do you see?

From one perspective you see an older woman with a large nose and a protruding chin looking obliquely your direction.  From another, you see the profile of a young woman looking away from you.   The old woman’s chin becomes the young woman’s neck, which now has some kind of adornment around it.  The old woman’s big nose is the young woman’s chin and jaw.  The old woman’s left eye is the young woman’s left ear. And explaining it takes all the fun out it.

Once you’ve seen one image, it’s hard to see the other. But once it pops into view, once you experience the gestalt shift, you have that slightly exhilarating “I see it!” moment.

Honestly, I don’t know much about gestalt theory.  Some expert reading this  no doubt could modify my view and I would receive the correction gladly.  But I think the metaphor works for what the church needs.  So, let me press it a bit further.

Our perceptions and our perspectives must be trained.  In order for us to see certain things, someone who can see and who is good at explaining and teaching, helps us to see.  This is a major aspect of education.  Even sometimes with physical objects, we need training to see clearly.  And when what we’re supposed to see pops into view, is it not exciting?

After a while, after we have practiced seeing things a certain way, that way of seeing goes underground, so to speak.  It becomes tacit, so much a part of the way we see things that we no longer have to think about how we see things. It’s like second nature to see things as we do. We just see. And we see this way until something happens to unsettle us, to make us aware of something wrong with our seeing.

Well, we are certainly now living in an unsettling time. It’s a good time for a gestalt shift. Who/what will help us see clearly?

The American church needs a gestalt shift. We need to see the whole picture of our world and the church’s place in it. We’ve been trained to see the world’s through the world’s eyes, which clouds our vision and makes us blind to God’s work and God’s call. We’ve taken nominally Christian views and behaviors as Gospel and have traded the real thing for an idolatrous knock-off.

Try this very unscientific experiment.  Take a look at your Twitter feeds, at what Facebook thinks you’re interested in seeing, at Instagram stories.  How do Christians seem there? What is their main focus? What do they seem to care about? What has their attention? Maybe you and your friends and feeds are among the exceptions.  If so, God bless you. But don’t miss the big picture.

Why do most American teenagers (Christians included) place being rich and famous as a high priority? Our young people are a mirror of us. They learned from us. What have they learned? For a while many of us were throwing around the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which aptly describes this counterfeit faith. We used it without understanding it. Our gestalt remained fixed and the phrase vanished almost as fast as it came, as popular Christianity moved on to the next hot and trendy controversy.  But it still speaks (stay tuned for a guest post on this topic).

The church needs a gestalt shift. We need eyes to see and ears to hear. We need to recognize again that Jesus is not only our Savior, he is also our Pattern. We worship him. We also follow him, learn from him and, by his gracious Spirit’s power, emulate him. He is Lord of everything. We march under his banner. We see and engage all aspects of life from this comprehensive perspective.

What if we took some substantial time to focus on those parts of scripture that deal not with our comfort (which we rightly love) but with our calling? Our sharing in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the Gospel, our denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily and following him? What if we zeroed in on what Romans teaches us about dying to sin and the obedience of faith?  What does it mean, after all, to be crucified with Christ?

In Revelation 19, in that great song of the wedding supper of the Lamb, we see that “his bride has made herself ready.” She is beautiful, “clothed with fine linen, bright and pure–for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:8). There it is. There is the picture of the church. and here is the needed gestalt shift. Let this vision captivate us and chasten us and inspire us to sanctify ourselves, with yielded hearts and eyes wide open and ears attuned to the Master’s command.  We shift our focus. We stop worrying so much about our comfort and protection and we accept that serving God faithfully in all things is vastly more important than our comfort.

It’s time for a gestalt shift.

 

 

 

 

Looking at Leviticus

Recently, I have been reading and listening carefully to the book of Leviticus. For most of us, this book does not rank high on our favorite Bible book list.  It is also the subject of unnecessarily heated debates about biblical authority. I’m not one whit interested in the debates.  I simply want to share some fairly surface-level observations from my recent experience.

In a powerful way, Leviticus applies Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”  Yahweh is the Lord’s name.  There is no other god and Israel will have no other gods.

The Lord’s people, obviously, belong to the Lord.  Whatever else we might conclude about specific statutes on particular situations or conditions or relations, Leviticus makes clear that one of the central purposes of those regulations is to remind Israel of who is the Lord and that they belong to him.  Some harsh language is reserved for the ones who prostitute themselves with other deities, like goat demons.  The same vision applies to us.  However we work out how to understand the Law in relation to the New Covenant, Leviticus reminds us, “Remember to whom you belong and don’t slip into looking like all the surrounding nations.  If you’re going to enter into covenant with the one true God, then stay focused on God’s mission and don’t fall prey to aping the nations.”  This exhortation seems especially apt for us Christians in this season.

Being God’s people means absolute loyalty to God because being God’s people means serving God’s mission.  Idolatry is not simply a breaking of some arbitrary rule.  It is a repudiation of our identity.  It quite literally points to the impossibility of saying that we are God’s people then acting like we’re just like all the other nations.  If there is no discernible difference between God’s people and those who are, as Paul says, “earthly minded,” then we fail God’s mission and deny our identity.  One gets the sense, as one reads Leviticus, that so much about purity and impurity, clean and unclean, have to do with loyalty to the covenant.  There is always the danger of aping the practices of pagan nations.  God’s people need to be set apart to serve God’s purposes and the more we look like everyone else the more serving the mission becomes impossible to maintain.

Justice is proportional.  We find the famous lex talionis in Leviticus – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and so on.  If you read that verse in context, you get a very clear picture that this law limits justice and seeks to eliminate revenge.

The Lord is a forgiving God.  This is a major feature of the book and it is easy to overlook in all the trying to figure out the meaning and significance of all the instructions about sacrifice.  Various kinds of offerings are enjoined precisely so that the people experience forgiveness.  God seems determined to stay in relationship with a people who are known to be stiff-necked wanderers, just like us.  We may find the specific instructions strange or hard to understand, but that forgiveness is the goal is unmistakeable.

I recommend careful, prayerful reading (and listening) to Leviticus.  Of course, I would say that about every book of the Bible, but it seems like an extraordinarily good time for Christians to re-visit the Torah and to meditate on these statutes.  In so many respects American Christianity has lost its way.  We are not “a peculiar people,” as we are supposed to be or, maybe it’s better said, some of our peculiarity is downright sinful.  Being God’s set apart people in the right way is of utmost importance.  If we give it time and space in our hearts, Leviticus helps to light the way.