In my years of ministry (mostly in East Texas), I’ve come to see two big mistakes the church has made. One mistake is characteristic of my own Methodist tradition, the other characteristic of the dominant Protestant tradition of my region, the Baptists.
I’m not a Baptist, but I’ve observed over the years that they think it’s really important that people get “saved.” Obviously this desire – whether using the same terminology or not – is common to many Christian traditions. I can look at my own Methodist tradition, particularly as instantiated in John Wesley himself, and see a powerful passion to see people come into a personal relationship with Jesus. So this in itself is not a mistake. The mistake I’ve seen is that many operate as if this is all that matters. The point of ministry/preaching/teaching is to get people saved. Once a person is saved, they’re taken care of and we can safely move on to the next unsaved person.
The modern Methodist mistake is, in a way, the opposite of the Baptist mistake. While they often assume that no one is saved (“let’s sing Just as I Am just one more time”), we usually assume everyone is. Whether our universalism is explicit or implicit from a kind of unthinking spiritual introversion, we have negelected helping people cross the line of faith. Oh, we’ll take in new members, but clarity about coming to faith in Jesus? That’s too baptistic for us.
Both mistakes have proved deadly. The mistake of assuming all we need to do is get people saved, to make a decision for Christ, has led us to believe that life with God (aka the Christian life) just happens naturally after one’s “salvation experience.” We inculcate a sense that salvation doesn’t come from works – from doing things – so we leave out the doing things that constitute actually living out life with God. We believe – and think that’s enough. Believing is certainly a good and necessary thing, but it’s mighty thin gruel, especially the face of the acids of modernity.
The Methodist mistake desn’t do us any better. With our emphasis on doing good – and the good we do is, for the most part, very much worth doing – accompanies a de-theologization of our tradition. It becomes easy for our people, as they mature, to come to think the religious verbiage is just an easily discarded husk, leaving the purity of true and universal spirituality and morality. We become comfortable living on the “necessary truths of reason” side of Lessing’s ugly ditch, missing out on the ongoing activity of God in history, the very activity in which a life with God seeks to include us.
No one is saved. Everyone is saved. Either strategy seems to set up too many of our people into the position of seeing Jesus as only a get out of hell free card, or a nice, but mostly irrelevant (because foreign and outdated) moral teacher. We both need to get back to the place of preaching the whole Jesus.