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.