Churches are Not McDonalds Any More

In the world before denominations began to disintegrate (and they are, but that’s not the real point of this post), people largely chose their churches based on the label. I am United Methodist (or Presbyterian, or Primitive Baptist), so that’s the label I’m looking for. To a much greater degree, we could count on a church with a given label to look like all the other churches with that label. Sort of like McDonalds, which (at least in the U.S.) serves the same hamburger, no matter which state you buy it in.

That was then. This is now.

In this post-denominational culture, two churches with the same label can be radically different in style and theology. With the promotion of the One Church plan within the UMC, this becomes more likely still. While we may grieve the decline of a more predictable world, this might actually be a good thing.

What if the trend in this post-denominational world actually frees us up to think theologically again?

Chances are, when all the shakin’ going on in the denominational world settles down, Christians will gather more intentionally around theology. We won’t be able to trust the labels any more, so we will find ourselves engaging more intentionally, evaluating not just style but what is taught and lived. This could well lead to a revival among those who think, believe and live with a Wesleyan mindset.

Dr. Joe Dongell, one of my all-time favorite professors at Asbury Theological Seminary, has assembled what he calls twelve essential features of a Wesleyan mind. After making this list, Dongell concluded that he’d still missed what Wesley himself might call the defining mark of a Methodist: love of God and people (both neighbor and enemy).

Acknowledging that love is the prize, I offer his list here for those who want to better understand what it means to live with an emphasis on holiness of heart and life:

  1. Wesley was a man of one book. He called himself at one point a Bible bigot (someone focused upon and devoted to the Bible). For Wesley, the Bible was the touchstone of all truth. In contemporary circles, the Bible has been devalued to the point of being called “a valued resource.”
  2. Wesley did value reason, tradition and experience, but scripture has final authority.
  3. Wesley was Arminian, which means he was convinced we were created with a measure of free will.
  4. Wesley viewed the process of salvation optimistically. God can do amazing things, and can do them in you and me. God’s grace is so vibrant, so rich, that we can be changed in very real ways.
  5. Wesley viewed the human being as perfectible in certain ways.
  6. Wesley was convinced that all progress in the spiritual life comes through the means of grace. God has revealed pathways in which we walk, so we confidently embrace these paths. And possibly at the pinnacle of these means is the Lord’s Supper.
  7. Wesley believed all progress in the Christian life comes within the company of believers. We progress within the crucible of accountability and community.
  8. Wesley was convinced that every human being is desired by God to be saved, and God is constantly at work pursuing every human being. God is at work reconciling the world to himself.
  9. Wesley insisted that poor and marginalized people be cared for and that their suffering be relieved in both body and soul.
  10. Wesley was convinced that God desired to ensure our trust in our salvation. We can know we belong to him, not only through rational confirmation but also through the Spirit bearing witness to our spirit.
  11. Wesley knew that the transforming grace of God works at the deepest level of my being — beneath intellect and choice to the place of our affections (the deepest set of inclinations we have). God has the power to affect us and reorient us at a deeper level than our will, at the level of our core. Can I come to love holiness and be sickened by unholiness? Can I discover a delight in the deeper things of God?
  12. Wesley believed we must always embrace a catholic spirit. “If your heart is with me, give me your hand.” We must find ways to cooperate meaningfully even with those with whom we disagree.

Of course, I’m unashamedly biased about all these things. I happen to think highly of this way of looking at God and the world. When it was preached in its purest form, this worldview spread like wildfire across the early American landscape. Judging by the number of twenty-somethings at Seedbed’s annual New Room Conference, I am greatly encouraged to see that this way is still just as engaging today.

If you’re looking for a place to worship and call home, I can’t do better than to offer the above thoughts as a litmus test as you discern.

Because these days, the label doesn’t count like it used to.

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What grace feels like (or, what I learned from a roomful of missionaries)

I spent seven days in Costa Rica with about 95 missionaries and assorted others who support them through The Mission Society. I had the great pleasure of teaching daily on themes from the book of Ephesians. Anyone could have done what I did so I recognize and deeply appreciate the grace that placed me in that room with such a Spirit-filled community. I’ve rarely felt so undeservedly blessed.

The missionaries came mostly from countries in the southern hemisphere but there were also missionaries from Tanzania, Kenya, China, India, the Philippines and a few other places. This was a global snapshot of God’s work in the world.

Here are a few things I learned from my time with these folks:

costa-rica-4The Kingdom of God comes through obedience. What I found most refreshing about this group was their quiet yet firm obedience to God’s call on their lives. These aren’t rock stars; they are ordinary men and women with a rare sense of what it means to obey God. Some of the folks I met have moved thousands of miles away from children and grandchildren, sometimes over their families’ strenuous objections. Others have taken small children into dangerous areas to live and serve. They do so not because they are naive or foolish but because they have sensed the strong call of God into this work. Their children, I might add, are some of the most remarkably flexible, faithful and fun of any kids I’ve been around.

Humility is cultivated through challenge. The most striking difference in my opinion between acosta-rica-3 roomful of missionaries and a roomful of preachers is ego. I don’t want to throw my own tribe under the bus, but the fact is that a roomful of American preachers will spend a lot of time measuring and posturing. A roomful of missionaries — that roomful, anyway — will spend time in more transparent conversation. My sense is that there is something uniquely humbling about being in another culture, mostly alone, having to figure out language, strategy and friendships on the fly.

costa-rica-1Missionaries know how to have fun. In the week I was with them, I laughed more than I have in a long time. We played simple games, watched silly skits, danced with silly cartoon figures, and told great stories. We also shared deeply, worshipped richly, and learned attentively. These guys were just plain easy to be with. I appreciated the spirit cultivated by our hosts, the staff team of The Mission Society. It was most definitely a spirit of joy, simplicity and rest.

The body of Christ is a beautiful thing. I loved the structure of this gathering. There were Bible teachers, counselors, strategic thinkers, musicians, creative minds, organizers, story-tellers, culture watchers, innovation managers and prayer warriors all gathered together and all encouraged to share their gifts. Each was able to contribute or receive as they were led. The result was a gloriously restful time of sharing, learning and growing.

I spent the first half of my life exploring different organizations and offering my support where I was able. In this season, I’ve chosen to focus my attention on three: Asbury Theological Seminary (and its publishing house, Seedbed), The Mission Society and Mosaic Church. Seeing the heart and soul of The Mission Society as I met and mingled with its missionaries, I am left with a deeper commitment to this fine organization. Since many of those missionaries spent time at Asbury, I’m all the more impressed with the kind of servant heart incubated at that school. And the trip itself was possible only because the gracious community of Mosaic has so generously embraced my speaking ministry as part of their contribution to the Body of Christ.

I am blessed indeed to be associated with such greatness. This must be what grace feels like.

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