The progressive devolution of love #UMC

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Princess Bride.  Among many memorable scenes in that movie is the following one which states what everyone else is thinking after multiple inappropriate uses of the word “inconceivable”

Inigo Montoya, the character who calls his partner on the carpet, would, I think, say the same thing to many of our fellow clergy in the United Methodist Church with regards to the word “love.”

My friend James-Michael Smith pointed me to a sermon by formerly defrocked pastor Frank Schaefer which, in my opinion, is an even greater offense than the offense for which he was originally defrocked.   In his message he talks about how we shouldn’t judge anyone at all, how everyone is a child of God no matter what they believe, and that our only responsibility is to love everyone.  One must wonder if there would ever have been a Christian martyr if everyone would have just been as tolerant and as nice as Schaefer and progressives like him claim we ought to be.  We are all OK, after all, preaches Mr. Schaefer, and therefore we should all just love each other.

Mr. Schaefer, you keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.

At least not in the way Scripture uses the word “love,” nor our Wesleyan heritage has understood the word “love.”   Love is not sentimentality (read: A Return to Gospel Love over Sentiment).  There is purpose and content to love, and that content is filled out for us remarkably well in the life of Jesus.

One of the ways in which Jesus loved people was by telling them the truth.   He came in “grace and truth,” (John 1:7), and we must be careful that we do not emphasize one side of that equation at the expense of the other (falling into “cheap grace” on one side and legalistic rigidity on the other).   One of the ways I see how Jesus loved people is in the story we read in Mark 10 of the rich man who came seeking eternal life.  Before Jesus demanded everything of him  – go and sell all your possessions – the gospel writer makes it clear that Jesus looked at the man and “loved him.”   Jesus did not say “you are OK as you are and everything will be alright.”  Love is costly and demanding.  It’s anything but the cheap sentimentality Mr. Schaefer and progressives like him are peddling in our churches.

I’ll never forget the time my parents showed me the greatest love.    When I was deep in addiction to self and to sex I was in desperate need of $300 in order to keep my utilities on in my apartment (I had been kicked out of the house due to multiple affairs).  I was sure my parents, who had the money, would help me in my time of need to prevent me from going homeless.   They took a day to talk it over amongst themselves and to pray.  I was shocked when the next day they denied my simple request.  For months I was enraged with them, blaming them for my subsequent homelessness and pitiful plight.  And yet, it was that desperation which ultimately led to my rebirth and reconciliation with my family.  I later learned that they had prayed hard about what to do and heard the Lord restrict them from helping me, their son.  It was the hardest love they ever had to show me but it proved to be the greatest and most healing love I have ever known.

This devolution of love is a natural consequence of the progressive belief that all are children of God no matter what they believe or how they live (as Scheafer states unequivocally in his sermon).   It’s a beautiful sentiment – if only it were biblical!   None other than Jesus himself makes it clear that not everyone is a child of God.  The better part of John 8 is reserved for Jesus’ harsh judgment upon the people who could rightly claim to be God’s children because of their father Abraham and their adherence to Moses’ Law.   These are not children of God, Jesus says, but children of the devil.   Only those who believe in Jesus are given the right to be called sons and daughters of God (see John 3).   To say that all are children of God by virtue of birth nullifies Jesus’ insistence that a person must be born again in order to see the Kingdom of God.  New birth is the cornerstone and promise of the New Testament as well as a foundational doctrine for Wesley and Methodists ever since.  John Wesley has this to say about the new birth:

It is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is “created anew in Christ Jesus;” when it is “renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness;” when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all mankind. In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the “mind which was in Christ Jesus.” This is the nature of the new birth: “So is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

Paul says in Rom. 8:14 that only those who are led by the Spirit are children of God.  And Jesus said that those who obey his commands will remain in his love (John 15:10).  Those are some sobering qualifications!  It ought to cause everyone of us to pause and examine whether or not we are in the faith (as Scripture tells us to do).   And yet, progressives love to talk about love, and love to tell those who will listen that all is well.   Lord, in your mercy, keep them from hearing!

Every time I get up to preach I have an expectation that someone will be saved today.   I expect and believe that people’s lives will be forever changed, both here and in eternity, because the Holy Spirit is at work and is going to do some heart surgery.  New birth will, and must, happen.   The day I stop believing that is going to happen is the day I’ll defrock myself.   It’s my opinion that the problem facing our denomination at large today is not a fight over sexual ethics alone but a devolution of what it means to love God and our neighbor.  We have watered down both to such an extent that we do not offer meaningful life to sinners, nor a meaningful vocation to our pastors.

Whatever future lies ahead for the United Methodist Church I pray that it is one that embraces love in all it’s gospel fullness.  I pray it is one that speaks and lives both grace and truth.  The sort of rigorous love the gospel calls it’s disciples to embrace is one that is worth dying for, and requires one to lay their life down in order to comprehend.  No real disciples will ever be made when our greatest vision for the church is to be a place of tolerance where people of many faiths can sing songs together, enjoy a potluck and do some good deeds.   John Wesley charged his preachers with the task of saving souls.   This requires a love that looks a person in the eye and tells them the truth about their condition and the remedy found alone in the blood of Jesus the Christ.

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When Holy Conversations on homosexuality tell only half the story

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything on the topic which threatens to split our denomination apart.  I do so today only as a response to a clergy gathering conversation that occurred yesterday at our pastor’s convocation in Holston Conference.

The conversation itself was great.   We split into groups of four or five and spent an hour responding, each in turn, to four questions pertaining to homosexuality.  It was refreshing to share openly with colleagues about our own experiences, traditions, interactions with scripture and reason regarding this pivotal issue facing our global church. It was a fine example of how people of differing opinions on a crucial matter can dialog responsibly and charitably.

The conversation itself was not a problem.  What concerned me was how only half the story was told when introducing the conversation.

Prior to our splitting into groups, a video was shown telling the story of a young man who took his own life because he was gay and couldn’t reconcile that with a pastor who told him he was going to hell while shutting him out of the life of the church.   As tragic as this story is, and needs to be told, it is only one side of the story.

It would have been nice if this story was followed by one of many other stories that exist, such as that of Christopher Yuan, a gay man who struggled for many years with suicidal thoughts and rejecting God who was prayed over daily by a Christian mother and loved without reserve until the day Jesus moved into his life in such a radical way his life was forever changed.  Today he travels the world sharing his testimony. He has not been led to seek a change of desire so that he might one day love and  marry a woman, but loved into a community of people who enable him to find greatest joy in Jesus.   His fulfillment is not found in his sexuality or in another person but in his submission to God’s will for his life.

Why isn’t that story being told prior to our holy conversations?   Why aren’t stories of the many people who have found lasting joy and fulfillment in submitting their fleshly desires to the desires and designs of God?

For many of us, our current position on homosexuality has been largely influenced by the people we know.   But when only one side of the story is being told – the one that suggests you must be either fully affirming OR you are homophobic,telling people they are going to hell – we are not being fair to both the people tasked with making decisions about the future of our church OR to the many men and women with stories just like Christopher Yuan’s.

By all means, let us continue having holy conversations.   But let us also tell the whole story.

Confessions of an Insider Trader inside the Church

Before becoming a pastor I sold insurance and securities.   In order to get my license I had to learn about compliance, which amounted to a whole lot of “don’t ever do this, this, that, and certainly not this.”   One of the thou shall not’s was insider trading.   Insider trading is defined as The illegal buying or selling of securities on the basis of information that is unavailable to the public.  Insider trading creates an unfair advantage for those who already know the complexities and nuances of the financial market when our primary duty as agents is to be a fiduciary – one who acts in good faith with regards to the interests of others.  To put it one way, financial representatives such as myself were forbidden to engage in water-cooler-like business because our primary responsibility was to the public who knew nothing of our water-cooler business.

You can imagine my great delight, then, when I entered into professional ministry and discovered there were no such restrictions placed on me!    On the contrary, I quickly learned that insider trading was not only allowed among Christians, it was encouraged!  It was practically a sport.    It fast became my favorite hobby.

For many years I was absorbed by the water-cooler talk among my fellow Christians and colleagues in ministry.   With the age of the internet it was extremely easy to carry out our insider trading enterprise, and, since it wasn’t illegal, we could publish it in the open for all the world to see.    Blogging was my favorite way of conducting insider trading.   It gave me a platform where saved people could talk to other saved people about how other saved people are making life miserable for other saved people.    The titles of my blogs were not meant to deter compliance officers but to ensure they clicked my post and, with any luck, either said AMEN to it or hated it (but shared it anyways).   Titles like, “Why I’m no longer an Evangelical Christian,” or “Why I’m no longer a Progressive Christian,” or, “How to spot a fundamentalist,” or “Mark Driscoll is wrong/right/evil/angelic/pick-anything-cause-just-his-name-will-generate-blog-hits,” and many other such articles which make for great water-cooler chit chat.

Saved people telling other saved people how much better their version of being saved is better than the one they left.

I confess I was an avid member of this insider trading scheme until it dawned on me that no one was getting saved because of it.   No one was being introduced to the life-transforming, saving power of Jesus Christ because of a single thing I had done or written.   Sure, many felt either further justified in beliefs they already held or infuriated because they didn’t agree.  But every one of them was already part of the club.   They were already, at least by their own confession, saved.   I was not their pastor and therefore had little right to tell them how they should live out their walk (and even if I was, there are far better ways to do that than through a blog post, and with far more grace than I  ever mustered as an insider trader).

But no one was being saved.  The unsuspecting, unknowing, unsaved public, for which I have a responsibility as a Christian, care nothing about Mark Driscoll or about why you left evangelicalism.   They don’t care about my disillusionment with authority or established religion, they don’t care about what one group of saved people say to another group of saved people about sex and who should be having it with who, they don’t care about the reasons why you still think Jesus is pretty cool despite all the ways the church has dragged his name through the mud.

The unsaved aren’t asking the questions our insider trading religion has become obsessed with answering…and answering…and answering.    And sadly, we’ve spent so much time around the water cooler we don’t even know anymore how to talk to someone who doesn’t know Jesus and has never once stepped foot into a church (and has never read your blog, or this one).

This past Sunday a first time guest at my church hugged me and thanked me for “allowing her to come” and asked if it was OK for her to come again next week.  This woman didn’t know much about the church but she knew enough, it seems, that a lot of insider trading goes on and wanted to know if she were welcome into the “club.”   Such is the impression we have given to the unsaved – an ever increasing population – in our communities.

I don’t want to be an insider trader anymore.   I want to invest my time and energy into reaching out to the people like this visitor who knows nothing about Jesus or his church.  I want to find ways to answer the questions she is asking, which include things like, “Does God love me?  Will you love me?   Can Jesus forgive me?   How can Jesus change my life?   How can I get sober?  How can I get free?  Can Jesus heal my marriage?  My relationships?  Can Jesus take care of my fears, my guilt, my shame?”

I confess I was once an insider trader but with God’s help, I want to focus less on arguing with the already saved and more on winning the yet-to-be-saved.   As a Christian, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the public around me who do not know Jesus and whose eternities could potentially be changed by my – and your – attention to their concerns and questions rather than our water-cooler discussions.

Why I Preach In Jeans (and you might want to, too)

For a long time the hardest decision I had to make on Sunday morning was choosing what to wear.   In seminary, as a student pastor, my choice of wear was easily solved with an alb.  With my robe on I didn’t have to worry about what was underneath for four years.   I liked that, but as I look back, my decision to wear a clerical robe had everything to do with connecting with people already saved, whether they be parishioners in my church or colleagues in my classroom.   The robe was professional attire which helped to solidify my role as pastor.   Not necessarily a bad thing, but today I have a hard time reconciling the mission Jesus gave us as Christians with the wearing of professional attire.   Lisa proved that.

Lisa (not her real name) is a young woman who got out of jail last week and attended our recovery ministry at our church last night.  She has been through a lot and desires nothing more than to find freedom from the things that have kept her in bondage for too many years.  While talking with Lisa she expressed an interest in attending church but didn’t know where she might be welcome.   A friend piped up and said she thought she should come here, meaning the church I pastor.   Lisa’s first question to me was, “I don’t have anything nice to wear.  These jeans are about the best I got.”   Just then, a member of my church jumped in, “That’s OK, our pastor preaches in jeans.”

The relief on Lisa’s face was obvious.   My resolve to dress so that I can connect with people who need Jesus was strengthened.

Lisa is one of many people who have wandered into our church because they heard the pastor doesn’t dress up.  As much as I don’t want to make clothing a thing it obviously is a thing for many, and I’m happy to meet them where they are.

Paul said that he was willing to become all things to all people in order that he might save some (1 Cor. 9:22).   In light of Paul’s words and Lisa’s relief, I think it’s important to ask ourselves certain questions about our dress code.

1. Who am I trying to reach? This question changed everything for me.   Jesus tells me that I am to go into the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey him.  Jesus sought out the least of these around him, connecting with those who were left out of religious circles. He didn’t invest much time with those who dressed to the nines and liked everyone to know their professional status.   It’s hard for me to imagine Jesus in an academic gown, plush with religious regalia.   If I’m going to be like Jesus, I need to reach the people Jesus tried to reach, which may require I dress differently in order to connect with the Lisa’s out there.

2. Who am I trying to please? The unsaved in our communities care nothing about our professional clothing.   But the saved seem to.   The folks already in our pews like to have a pastor who looks respectable, or at least many of them do.   For a long time I thought my job was to please them.  Freedom for me came when I realized it was my job to please God.   I think I please God more when I dress in order to connect with the lost whom Jesus is trying to connect with rather than dress to please the people already connected.  Some of our people will have a difficult time getting used to not seeing their pastor in a suit and tie or in a robe, but the more stories you can tell like Lisa’s the more they will come along.   And if they don’t, that’s OK.   One Lisa is worth 99 who are already saved.

3.  What does the harvest around me wear? If I live on Wall Street I might not wear jeans because the majority of the harvest around me is in suits.  But if I live in Dayton, TN, where the majority of people are working class, jeans work.  Ask yourself whether or not the people who most need to hear the gospel in your community are going to connect to your message or be intimidated or confused by your wardrobe.

If you are a layperson reading this, you can be a great help by telling your pastor you don’t care what he or she wears so long as it’s clothes and so long as the gospel is being proclaimed.   You could release your pastor from much anxiety about what to wear by telling him or her that you care more about seeing the lost saved than seeing your pastor dressed “properly.”   And besides, shouldn’t that be our primary concern anyway?

Let Us Mind Our Own Affairs

aspire to live quietly, and mind your own affairs (1 Thess. 4:11)

In the margins of my bible, beside this pastoral advice, I have written:  “Facebook makes this command virtually impossible.”

Isn’t that the truth?  The internet, particularly social media like Facebook, Twitter and blogging, has forced the affairs of the entire world onto our screens.  The temptation to not get involved is too great to bear, or so it seems, and besides, minding the affairs of others is fun.  It feeds something within us that seems very hungry.  That this hungry monster is never quite satisfied doesn’t seem to trouble us as it ought.

Until, that is, a pastor like Paul reminds me to live quietly and mind my own affairs.  Or until I overhear Jesus telling one of his own disciples that the life span of someone else is none of his business.  You, Jesus says, keep your eyes on me (John 21:22).

I am reading some of Eugene Peterson’s work these days and I am confronted over and over again by how oriented his focus was to place.  Peterson’s memoir describes a pastor driven to be spent within a small radius of geography, dedicated to praying for and living with the handful of people who make up his congregation – his place on this earth to serve.   Pastor Peterson is minding his own affairs, and I’m certain the people of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church are the better for his presence.

peterson

As I was thinking about pastors like Peterson – pastors whom I admire a great deal and feel they have done a great deal of good for the kingdom of God – it occurred to me that none of them have an online presence in the same way as many pastors I know, including myself.   I’ve never seen, nor can I imagine, the likes of Pastor Peterson arguing on Facebook about what some pastor in Seattle said last week.  I can’t see or imagine him pontificating about the fate of reality television stars, or arguing online about whether gay couples should marry, or posting 5 reasons why he is no longer a this or a that, or 7 reasons why everyone else is wrong and he is not.

I can imagine, however, Pastor Peterson having those discussions in his office with a troubled member of his local parish.  I can imagine him talking these things out over coffee with a recent visitor to his church.    I can see him at a round table with young and old alike, answering questions and being deeply concerned about what these people – these flesh and blood people he is charged to care for – think.

It occurs to me that the people I admire the most are too busy minding their own affairs, living quietly in the place God placed them, and if I aspire to be like them, perhaps I should model their behavior, on and offline.

Admittedly, part of me wants to argue that John Wesley famously said “The whole world is my parish.”   He saw it as his duty to proclaim the good tidings of salvation in whatever place his horse or feet carried him.  And didn’t Paul also ask for prayer that he would be given the courage to “speak boldly” (Eph. 6:20)?   I don’t know how Paul or Wesley would make use of Facebook, but I imagine if they used it at all they would remember to always “speak the truth in love,”  that their conversations would “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).    I’m sure that wisdom would dictate their course of action, that their words would be for the purpose of glorifying God and not self,  and the fruit of their efforts would be obvious to all.

Paul’s pastoral advice to live quietly and mind my own affairs is a helpful antidote to the pride so easily lurking in my heart which whispers that the church will crumble if I do not engage in this conversation among relative strangers, and I’m all too eager at times to oblige.   Recovery friends remind me that the world does not need to know every thought that comes through my head.  We are all the better off when I heed them, and Saint Paul’s, advice.

I want to read things which make me a better follower of Jesus, a better friend, a better parent.  I want to write things that help people to that end, too.  Don’t you?  Aren’t you tired of all the writing demonizing everyone else, serving only to hear “amens”  from people who already agree with you?

May we all read (and write) less blogs about everyone in Christendom whom we disagree with and more about Jesus and the joy and struggle we’ve discovered in following him.  May we gripe less on Facebook about the tribe we once were part of but can no longer stand and instead pray more for those who don’t yet know Jesus.   May we find less tweets attacking the way pastors are doing their jobs and more encouraging one another to finish well the race before us.

May the days ahead bring you and me a renewed passion for the place God has placed us, and may we mind our own affairs well.

This post was originally published one year ago.   Republished here with some minor editions.   

Mental Illness and the Church: They Don’t Want Me When I’m Messy

My wife recently wrote the following on her Facebook page…

While in treatment I’ve had a few people speak with me about the church because they know I’m married to a pastor. It’s been so saddening and has even made me angry to hear how people dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses have been treated in church.

One man said, “They don’t want me when I’m messy. They don’t really want to hear how I am when my answer is not ok.”

Another said, “I don’t have it together enough to go to church. They avoid me”

Last one, “I texted my associate pastor about how I was feeling and he told me I shouldn’t talk like that.”

Over the course of the three-week group therapy my wife received for her depression and anxiety she heard many more reports, each one more tragic and heart-breaking than the last.   Real people with real problems voicing their very real trouble with the body of Jesus – the church.   For far too many people the church is the last place on earth they would consider going for help.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, this should not be!

Since hearing my wife’s report my heart has been broken over my own ignorance and prejudice to the need around me, even in my own home.  I confess that over these past few months while my wife has been suffering my response has been less than holy.  On far too many occasions I wanted the problem to just go away.  Too many times I put my own needs before hers.  Too many times I resented what she was experiencing because it ran against my expectations of what I wanted our marriage to be.

When Amy tearfully pleaded with me that she felt very lost and alone and desperately needed me to be to her “Jesus with skin on” I shamefully told her I’m not Jesus and can’t bear that burden.

But that was just a cop-out.  While the part about me not being Jesus is true, it’s also false.   I am, for better or worse, the body of Christ.  And if you are a Christian, so are you.   When my wife and millions of others suffering from mental illness are looking for Jesus they are, for better or worse, seeing him in us.

I am heart-broken by the image they too often receive.

I believe with all my heart that the church is still the best hope for the world.  I know she has her flaws but, when she is at her best, she is a hospital for the broken, openly confessing that she does not always have it all together but faithfully points towards the One who does.   I will not defend the Church’s actions to the group members who confided in my wife their distrust apart from saying this:  Hurting people hurt people.   Perhaps our failure is our pride, not admitting our own weaknesses and powerlessness and, because we have deep-rooted hurts and fears ourselves we are unable (or unwilling) to look at yours.

The answer in all of this, I believe, is massive repentance on both a global and individual scale.    We must be able to hear the cries of those hurting around us, desperate to see Jesus with skin on, and repent for our inability or unwillingness to be with the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.  We must admit we ourselves need healing and a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit in order to carry out the work first begun by our Lord, who came not to be served but to serve.  Jesus said it’s not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick.  Jesus was drawn to the hurting and his compassion drew them to himself.   It’s difficult to imagine anyone suffering from mental illness saying of Jesus, “He doesn’t want me when I’m messy.”

Luke, a doctor and follower of Jesus, wrote that if we will repent, and turn again, our sins will be wiped out and times of refreshing will come from the Lord (Acts 3:19-20).   To be offered the opportunity to begin again is a gracious gift, and one we as a church must seize both for our own salvation and that of those looking to us for help.  We can trust that the Spirit of God will refresh us, enabling us to bear the brokenness of the world as Christ’s body must, so that it might be transformed into something new for the Father’s glory.

This repentance begins for me, and perhaps for you, with a desire to listen and learn.   I’m writing this post not because I have answers but because I’m seeking some.   I want to know how to better posture myself as a pastor, and my church, so that when people suffering from mental illness look at us they see Jesus with skin on.  Here are just a few ways I am presently striving to bear fruit in keeping with repentance and I invite you to improve upon these and offer more of your own.

  1. Talking about depression and mental illness from the pulpit. I recently concluded a sermon series titled, “When Life Hurts.”  Here is a small taste from the first of that series:

If you are struggling with depression or other mental illness today I want you to know that you are not alone.  I want you to know that you don’t have to carry the weight of shame or guilt. I want you to know that you are worthy of love and that there isn’t a dark place on earth or in your mind that you can go that Jesus isn’t there with you.  I want you to know that there is no judgment or condemnation here. I want you to know that I find it to be spiritual malpractice when the church can safely ask for prayer for a loved one who has diabetes and needs to be on insulin in order to live but we feel ashamed to say I am struggling with depression and need some medicine to help me survive.    Where and when that happens to you, here me please – I’m sorry.    I’m sorry that has happened to you.  I’m sorry that you have been judged when what you most needed was love.   I’m sorry.

I’ve read that very few pastors talk about mental illness from the pulpit.  This must change.   In your church and mine are many who are suffering from mental illness – alone and silently – and they wonder each week, Does God have a word for me?  Will these people still love me if they knew my secret?    Assure them, routinely, that the answer to both questions is a resounding YES.

  1. Repeatedly affirming that the church is a hospital for the broken and not a morgue for saints. We say this a lot in our church and over the last several months it has begun to take root.  We lift up the values of humility and vulnerability and I strive, by God’s grace, to model these from the pulpit.   We began praying last year that God would make us the kind of people who want the sort of people nobody else wants or sees.  That certainly includes the people in my wife’s therapy group.   I’m growing increasingly confident that anyone can walk through the doors of our church and feel at home, like it’s a place where they can find hope and healing alongside others who are seeking the same (whether they are seasoned Christians or presently agnostic).
  1. Launching a recovery ministry. We have just launched a recovery ministry where every Thursday we offer a free meal, a worship service with a recovery related message followed by open share groups for things such as chemical addiction, sexual integrity and grief, pain and loss.   These are safe groups where people dealing with life’s hang-ups, including depression, can come and share their struggle with people who are on the same journey.   Here we get real, acknowledging that it’s our secrets that make and keep us sick.

These are just some of the ways we are trying to put skin on Jesus in our small neck of the woods.  My hope is that this post will generate discussion about how we can do better at addressing the needs of those suffering silently with mental illness all around us, both in our pews and out.   If you battle mental illness please consider sharing in the comments, anonymously if you like, how we can better serve you.   How can the church better serve your needs?

May our massive repentance lead to massive change in hearts so that we may never again hear it said of the body of Christ, “They don’t want me when I’m messy.”

Rethinking Online Communion

When I first heard about a church offering online communion, perhaps a year ago, I thought how ridiculous!  How we have lost our way!  I was concerned that this would only enable others to stay away from church while simultaneously watering down the meaning and importance of holy communion.

Upon further reflection, I think those initial thoughts were wrong.   Two things led me to rethink my position.  One is an online support group I lead for men seeking sexual integrity.  The community formed there is real, precious, and life-changing.  Second is the recovery ministry being launched out of my church which is introducing me to many people who are not ready to step foot inside a traditional church service.  Many of them are today’s lepers, feeling estranged from God and society, yet desperate to know if someone cares and if there is hope for them.   Each of these instances got me thinking.

My Wesleyan Heritage

In November of 1739, John Wesley visited a Moravian Society meeting at Fetter Lane.  There he was introduced to a woman whom he had known to be strong in faith but now was filled with doubt.  Wesley records something in his journal which disturbed him about this woman and the teaching she had received.  He writes, “one whom I had left strong in faith and zealous of good works… now told me, Mr. Molther had fully convinced her she never had any faith at all; and had advised her, till she received faith, to be still, ceasing from outward works; which she had accordingly done and did not doubt but in a short time she should find advantage of it.” (John Wesley, entries for November 1-7, 1739, in The Works of John Wesley, vol.19, ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashille: Abingdon, 1990)119-20.)

Subsequent journal entries from Wesley reveal that nearly everyone in the Fetter Lane Society was experiencing a crisis of faith, doubting whether they had any.   Mr. Molther’s instructions to those filled with doubt was to refrain from anything which could be construed as a form of works righteousness, which especially included participation in the Lord’s Supper, but to instead be still and wait upon the Lord to deliver the assurance of faith they desired.

This doctrine, called “stillness,” did not sit well at all with John Wesley.  For many months Wesley went to great lengths arguing against this doctrine of stillness.   Contrary to Mr. Molther’s insistence that God’s only command to us is to believe and until such time as we believe we cannot partake of any means of grace, Wesley argued that God only commands us are to love Him and others, and the means of grace (of which holy communion is a primary one) are the means through which God nourishes our faith.   Whether you are a believer or an unbeliever, Wesley contends, God commands us to obey Him, and one form of obedience is taking part in the Lord’s Supper, often.

In June of 1740 Wesley preached a sermon on Holy Communion.  In it said this:

I preached on, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the ancient Church, every one who was baptized communicated daily. So in the Acts we read, they “all continued daily in the breaking of bread, and in prayer.”

But in latter times, many have affirmed, that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting, but a confirming ordinance. And among us it has been diligently taught, that none but those who are converted, who have received the Holy Ghost, who are believers in the full sense, ought to communicate.

But experience shows the gross falsehood of that assertion, that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting ordinance. Ye are the witnesses. For many now present know, the very beginning of your conversion to God (perhaps, in some, the first deep conviction) was wrought at the Lord’s Supper. Now, one single instance of this kind overthrows the whole assertion.

Converting Ordinance

Wesley believed that communion should not be limited to the converted, to those who already believed and had their lives properly sorted, including their doctrine.   He believed all were welcome to partake, whether you had faith or none.   The day after delivering the sermon quoted above, Wesley writes in his journal,

Saturday, June 27, 1740

I showed at large,

  1. That the Lord’s Supper was ordained by God, to be a means of conveying to men either preventing, or justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their several necessities.

  2. That the persons for who it was ordained, are all those who know and feel that they want the grace of God, either to restrain them from sin, or to show their sins forgiven, or to renew their souls in the image of God.

  3. That inasmusch as we come to his table, not to give him anything, but to receive whatsoever he sees best for us, there is no previous preparation indispensably necessary, but a desire to receive whatsover he pleases to give. And,

  4. That no fitness is required at the time of communicating, but a sense of our state, of our utter sinfulness and helplessness; every one who knows he is fit for hell, being just fit to come to Christ, in this as well as all other ways of his appointment.

For Wesley, and Methodists ever since, communion is a gift from God to us, a means to nourish each of us on our journey, reminding us of God’s great love towards us and abiding presence.  It meets each of us where we are – sinner or saint, believer or doubter, mustard seed or mountains of faith – for the purpose of taking us where we need to go.   It’s a holy mystery how this happens.  Can this mystery not also extend to those participating online?

Communion as Evangelism

My initial thoughts about online communion strike me as similar to Mr. Molther’s doctrine of “stillness.”   The Fetter Lane Society prevented those who were lacking in faith to participate in the Lord’s Supper.  I wanted to prevent those who lacked the inclination or desire to come to church from participating in the same.   As I reflect on my feelings then and now I fear I was more concerned with being a liturgical policeman than I was with being an evangelist who, like God, indiscriminately scatters seed throughout the world irrespective of whether it lands on good soil or not.   How would God scatter seed today?   I believe He would use all the tools at His disposal, including the growing online communities forming every day.

I run into people all the time, as I’m sure you do, who tell me they cannot see themselves stepping foot into a church lest the roof cave in on us all.   Misguided as that notion of God may be, it’s the notion they have.  How wonderful it is to be able to present them with an option of participating in a worship service online, where they can taste and see that the Lord is good!  And how wonderful it is to not be shackled by a closed table understanding of this holy mystery but instead be able to offer them, via an online connection, the means to participate in the means of grace.   Who am I to say God cannot be working in their heart as we share in the Lord’s Supper separated by space yet connected by Spirit?  If even one of these begins to understand that God loves even them and they then develop a hunger for even more, thus one day working up the courage to step foot inside your church, wouldn’t it be worth it?   I am convinced it would.   Let us not consign those who cannot or will not enter our church buildings to the doctrine of “stillness” but instead offer any means necessary to stir up in them faith. 

What about Baptism?

An objection to offering online communion is to suggest it opens a slippery slope.  What about baptism?  Will we offer that online, too?   No.   We do not believe that baptism, like communion, is a converting ordinance.  Nor is it something to be done often, but only once.   We do not believe one must be baptized in order to participate in communion.    So because of what we believe is and is not happening in the sacrament of baptism we can safely, and justifiably, put a stop to that slope from slipping.

Consider how many unbaptized our online campuses could potentially reach.  Consider how our meeting them where they are – through online worship and communion – rather than demand they meet us where we are, could move someone from no faith at all to a place where they decide to be obedient to Christ and come to you, their pastor, to inquire about baptism.   How awesome will that be!?

What about individualism?

Are we not promoting isolation and individualism when we offer online communion?  I do not think that online communion should be seen as an equal counterpart to real, flesh and blood encounters within a worshiping community.  I think it would be wise to routinely offer the invitation to come and get plugged into a local church.  At the same time I don’t want to discount the community – as different as it may be – people experience online.

Think of your own interactions.  Are not a great deal of them done online?   Do you foresee this changing in the near future?   If not, why not make these interactions more meaningful rather than less?   The irony of the debates against online communion is they are all happening online!  I’ve talked more today about communion online with friends from around the country than I ever have in a church setting face to face.  I value those interactions, even if I may disagree with those I’m interacting with.

The “real presence” that communion points to is not my presence as the pastor with the communicant, but God’s presence with each of us wherever we are, both spiritually and physically.   Those who are not coming into your church today are not going to show up tomorrow because you tell them they need to grow up and stop being individualistic and come experience communion in a brick and mortar church.   They just won’t, and our insistence that they do, even with great theological and liturgical zeal, will not convince them.   But experiencing it for themselves, where they presently are, might awake them to possibilities they had not considered before.   Paul said he became all things to all people that he might win someone to Christ.   I believe online communion could be a means of grace to many who otherwise would never know it.

Can we stop making excuses for small churches?

I’m tired of being lulled by the matrix that is religion into an acceptance of the status quo in the Church, whatever the denomination.  We are reminded again and again that the vast majority of churches in America are classified as “small churches” (less than 100 people in attendance) as if being told this fact enough times will help shield me, the pastor, from feelings of ineffectiveness.   I can easily become content that I’m “average” or “normal” just like the majority of churches in America.

And so long as I’m comparing myself to the church down the corner or in the next city, that will work.   But it doesn’t work when I compare myself to God’s standard for his church.

When I read my bible I read about a God whose heart breaks for the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.   I read about a God who desires that none be lost but that all will be saved.  I read about a God who wants his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.  I read about a God who says fantastic things to me and you like,

‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’ (Luke 14:23).

The God we find in scripture is not content with a small church.  And for most of our history since Pentecost God has not had a small church.  Just open the book of Acts and watch as God adds thousands each day to the messy, uneducated, Spirit-filled band of disciples who called themselves the ekklesia,or church, meaning those who are called out.

Church, by God’s definition then, is always a group of people growing in both faith and number as they are continually going out into the world to make disciples of Jesus, compelling the world to come in so that God’s house will be full.

It’s really difficult to imagine that Jesus died on a cross so that we could have a place to gather on Sunday mornings without the purpose and intention of seeing people who do not know Jesus join us next Sunday.  And then some more yet again the next Sunday.  And the next.  And…well, you get the idea.

If we as Christians – whether clergy or lay – are doing our job as the church we should never remain a small church because we are always going out as those called out by the God who calls all to Himself.

So perhaps here it would do well to define what a “small church” is, at least as I see it.  A “small church” is a church that has not seen any growth in the past year. It could be a church of any numerical size but yet not a single conversion.  Not a single baptism.  Not a single life changed.

Such a gathering is not a church and we need to stop making excuses for such places.  We need to stop encouraging nostalgic sympathies among long-time Christians and instead encourage them to grow up and get out into the world to take part in the mission to which God has called them.  The only reason a church should remain “small” is because everyone within a 30 mile radius of your building is already saved.   But so long as there are people around us dying and going to hell we need to stop pandering to our own desires of what a church should or shouldn’t be and instead compare ourselves with the moving, holy, unpredictable, messy, flourishing, vital, magnetized Church of Jesus Christ that we read about in the New Testament.

Anything less than this is, in my humble opinion, an offense to the Lord of the Church, the one who died to birth it.  So rather than making excuses let us instead spur one another on to good works. Let us encourage one another to get out into the harvest and get to work bringing it in, for our Lord says it’s plentiful!  Let us pray for revival in our communities, that God would raise up leaders and workers who can help us reach the lost and disciple the found.   Let us pray that this take root in each of our own hearts.

Praying with and for you, and all our Sunday places of worship, that we may truly be the church, and therefore, anything but small.

Just do your job: Make Disciples #UMC

That’s our job.  Jesus handed it to us when he ascended to heaven.  It’s the mission God entrusted to us, the church, while we await his return.   One day I will have to answer for how well or how poorly I sought out and made disciples of Jesus Christ.

Several months ago I was convinced that it was really hard to make disciples when my denomination couldn’t seem to agree on what a disciple looks like.   And it’s true, we seem to be at odds, at least from a global perspective, when it comes to defining sin and marriage and what a life of holiness should look like.  Perhaps it’s a sign of my own weakness, but when I spend time gazing at the state of the church from a global point of view I get dizzy.   I lose air.  I find it very difficult up in the stratosphere to see how any of this can or will work out.   This is only one of the many reasons I would make a pitiful God (despite my constant striving to be that) – I can’t shoulder all the mess and brokenness that is the Church.

But God – the one true God – can.

He shouldered it on the cross.  He shoulders it today, as Jesus is living and always interceding on behalf of his Bride.  Because Jesus is the Savior of the church I don’t have to be it.   A few months ago I came to that realization and I have to say, it’s been such a relief!   I do not have to save the church.   Say that with me:

I do not have to save the church.

God has done it and is doing it and will do it.  When I understand this and live into this I come down out of the dizzy-headed stratosphere and I find myself in a local congregation situated in a community where God placed me and has graciously gifted me in certain ways to do the work of seeking the lost and making disciples of Jesus Christ.   That’s my job.  That’s your job.  Wherever you are.

When I am busy having breakfast and lunch appointments with dreamers from my local church, or meeting with addicts on Thursday night who hunger and thirst for freedom, or hold the hand of an elderly woman in a nursing home, or pray with the sick in the hospital, or study for this Sunday’s sermon, or gear up for a community wide Trunk or Treat this weekend, or visit a neighbor and offer them some food I find that my heart is full to bursting and my joy is complete.   When I get my head out of the clouds and focus on making disciples – interacting with people who are flesh and blood and right in front of me – I find the cares I had when I tried to save the church melt away.

God’s got that.  He’s given me this.

I have this hunch that grows increasingly stronger that if each and every one of us would put our hand to the plow and get to work in our communities where real people are dying and going to hell (sidebar:  If a vein just bulged on your  forehead and you yelled at the screen, “Yeah, but so many of my colleagues don’t even believe in hell!” then take a deep breath and say this aloud again:  I don’t have to save the church) then we would see the Holy Spirit move in ways we cannot begin to imagine.    We would see revival break out in our streets if we would just offer Christ to the people around us rather that bicker and complain and grumble about what people we don’t even personally know are doing.

I am preaching to myself as much as to anyone else here, but stop blaming everyone else for the state of the church and look instead in the mirror, repent for the sloth that is so easily dressed up as righteous-indignation-over-the-internet, and get to work.   The harvest is plentiful, says our Lord, and he called you and I to bring it in.  Just do it.

Make disciples.

keep-calm-and-make-disciples-59

What I Learned By Not Blogging or Reading #UMC

It’s been over 3 months since I’ve written anything about the United Methodist Church and it’s contentiousness over human sexuality (to the applause of my 3 or 4 readers, I’m sure).  I don’t intend to ruin that streak here, but wished to share a little of what I have learned during my hiatus from blogging in hopes that it might be beneficial to one or two of you.

One of our blogging superintendents, Sky McCracken, has said time and time again that we need to get back to the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Three months ago I am sure I asked him something to the effect of, “That’s fine, but how do we do that when we can’t even agree on what makes a disciple?”   Over the past 12 weeks I believe I answered my own question, perhaps discovering what Sky and others have been trying to say all along:

As a pastor called by God to shepherd God’s people, that’s my job.

What this means is, who cares how a pastor in another state, or even across town, is making disciples?   I have enough on my own plate praying with and for, teaching, preaching, counseling, visiting, visioning, leading and training the hundred or so people I have right here in front of me.   If I would focus on making disciples right here and right now to the best of my God-given ability then I will be far too busy to care what my colleagues are doing with their flocks and, Lord willing, do a far more faithful and better job of it.   In fact, this is precisely what has happened these past 12 weeks when I stopped focusing on what others were doing and determined to focus on Jesus Christ and the people who need him right here in my own little neck of the woods.

And praise be to God we have seen the fruit of such labor!   In the past 12 weeks we have baptized 13, brought in 29 new members (with more coming this Sunday), reshaped the vision and focus of our Sunday worship from a traditional, gospel feel to a more modern/contemporary feel, and increased community awareness about the recovery ministry we are gearing up to launch in November which promises to transform hundreds if not thousands of lives in our county starving for such a holistic, Christ-centered ministry.   I don’t share any of this to boast but to simply yet loudly announce this to my colleagues living in cyber space on both sides of this issue:   Get off the computer and get to work!   

I say this in love, and i hope you receive it as such.   Yes, I know, there are problems in our denomination.  Yes, I know, there are people doing things they should not do.   And yes, I know, we need leadership which will address these issues and lead us faithfully into a new, bolder future.   But until you or I (God helps us) become a district superintendent or a bishop, I believe our task is to serve the people in our local parishes and make disciples for Jesus Christ.  If we would each do this faithfully, while praying for those in leadership over us, I believe God will take care of the rest.

I am still committed to the same truth I was blogging about every week or so in the spring of this year and before.    But I am even more committed to, and even more enlivened and excited about, the work of making the church at which I am appointed the best we can be to the glory of God.  I want to make Jesus famous here, not an issue or cause.   And you know what?  I think most people who know me would say I’m a happier, more joy-filled, hope-filled pastor (not to mention a more present husband and father) because of it.

make-disciples

So a challenge:  Stop blogging for 3 months about any issues.  Stop reading blogs about issues.   Read stuff and write stuff that instead feeds your soul and those of others.  Read and write stuff that points people to a Savior who loves them and died for them and wants to be in a relationship with them today.   

Put an end to the cycle of talking heads and see for yourself what God will do right in your own backyard when you take your eyes off the backyards (and bedrooms) of everyone else.   To God be the glory. Amen.

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22).

Now….back to the mission field!   Happy disciple making!