Which Quest?

Since our annual conference reduced the number of districts several years ago, district superintendents have made “cluster” charge conferences more regular. I heard recently of one such conference where many small churches came together in one location. Evidently the DS had heard something about some of these churches being dissatisfied with the UMC, so he used his sermon to tell them they all ought to stay in the denomination. The third hand report I got was that not all were impressed by the strategy. Gaining loyalty among disaffected audiences not easily accomplished by the equivalent of “sit down, shut up, and do what you’re told.” We need to win people, not coerce them against their wills.

I recently read a piece from Leadership Journal, an interview with Andy Stanley and Tim Keller. Though neither is from my tradition, I appreciate them both and have learned much from them. Something Andy Stanley said grabbed me. The line in bold is the interviewer’s question, the italicized part is Stanley’s response:

“People are not on truth quests,” you write. “They’re on happiness quests.” What’s that mean?

If people were on truth quests, they’d all be on diets. We would have extraordinary physical discipline, because we all know what makes life healthy. But we’re not on truth quests. That’s why we eat dessert. Once I realize this, I say to myself, “Okay, when I show up on the weekend, I’m standing in front of people who, at the end of the day, just want to be happy.” Well if that is the driving factor, and if I want to influence them, then I need to factor that into everything I do and say. Of course I don’t have to take this into consideration. I can decide just to shoot truth at them. You know, unload with both barrels, go home and say, “Well, God, I told them the truth!” But if you want to impact people’s lives, you have to start where they are, not where you’d like them to already be.

Stanley is responding here to the common evangelical assumption that people are on truth quests. Since they are searching for truth, the best thing we can do in our preaching and teaching is offer them the truth. We need to be rational and offer compelling arguments.

But what if, as Stanley observes, they are not on truth quests? What is they’re looking for happiness? Maybe truth is a nice addition, if it comes on the side. Truth has become a fuzzy concept in our age, transformed by our endemic relativism into “true for me” rather than a plain a simple “true.” “True for me” can exist in perfect service – and submission – to the happiness quest.

I know enough about Stanley’s ministry to know that he is not unconcerned with truth. From everything I’ve seen he’s not out to pander to everyone’s happiness quest, willing to do or say anything to make them happy. But his point of communication is not truth, but happiness. He uses happiness as the window into their lives, and then broaches the issue of truth.

If Stanley is right, is it wise or possible to be upfront about our strategy? Can we come out and say, “We know you’re looking for happiness, and we have just the thing?” From what I see our culture tends to have as much misunderstanding about the nature of happiness as it does of truth. For that reason our audience will be likely to misunderstand us if we begin by offering happiness.

But given the truth, however essential we reckon it, is not the starting point in our rhetoric of ministry, is happiness the best place to begin? Doubtless, people want happiness. Maybe a better way to begin, even a way more in line with the Gospel, is to see them as being on a love quest. I admit that love is no more likely to be understood Christianly by our audiences than either truth or happiness. If we were to order the three, however, what would we discover? Of the three, which in the Christian tradition would be the ultimate end? I think love comes out on top. Love finds its primary instantiation in the incarnation, in Jesus taking on flesh, dying and rising for us. As Paul puts it, “God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The love of God for us is the starting point. We can frame this as a truth issue if we like, but love is at the root.

What about happiness? How does happiness fit with truth and love? Happiness – taken as a subjective feeling – is a by-product of experiencing God’s love and joining in that love. God made us so that we find our greatest happiness in loving God and neighbor.

How might the DS mentioned in the beginning of the post better handled the situation? It might be that the DS’s experience is that people respond best to threats and institutional pressure (though that has not been my experience with churches), and that previous experience resulted in the chosen strategy. I’d think, however, that a more effective strategy would be to draw a picture of the story of God’s (loving) action in Christ and how we are called to join in that same story as it continues today. The mission is a life or death matter, the stakes huge, going well beyond the mere survival of our particular mission outposts (congregations). The mission is so large, in fact, that we need each other if we’re going to accomplish it.

 

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