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.
Good point. For a community of folks who are “the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood,” it is remarkable how little Christianity looks like Jesus in the gospels.
Somewhere the mainline Protestant tradition and the conservative Evangelical tradition accidentally colluded to obfuscate the picture the gospels present, namely one in which, on the one hand creedal orthodoxy and the biblical narrative are the most compelling possible foundation for the work of justice (contra movements in mainline Protestantism that abandoned some of those tenants in order to get to justice, so they thought), and on the other hand creedal orthodoxy and biblical narrative do not support an escapist salvation or eschatology and instead proclaim the rule and reign of God coming down to earth establishing his kingdom, inaugurated by Jesus and carried forth (already but not yet perfected) by the people of God, the Church (contra so much conservative Evangelicalism which seems to have acted not entirely unlike Thomas Jefferson who edited the gospels to suit his prior assumptions).
My mom, who grew up Baptist and “converted” to my dad’s Methodism when I was 3, used to say “You have to be a Baptist to get saved and you have to be a Methodist to grow.” She “reverted” back to the Baptist church when they moved back to East Texas and the town’s Methodist church was virtually dead. Now she occasionally complains that all their pastor knows to preach is “salvation, salvation, salvation.” Sounds like you and she are singing the same song.
Having “converted” to the Nazarene church about 4 years ago, I have found a happy home that incorporates both of these dominant ideas.
The good news:
1. In my years of pastoring I’ve come to know an increasing number of UM pastors who believe in and preach the necessity of conversion to Christ. Comparing church camp now to church camp when I was a youth I see a tremendous difference.
2. Many Southern Baptists recognize the need for discipleship – and not just conversion. I don’t follow them very closely (having enough to do in my own ballpark), but I know Ed Stetzer is one of the people taking the lead.
I had an interesting discussion on a similar topic yesterday with another of your commentors, and I thought I would forward a vision I had during the discussion as it relates here.
Looking at salvation vs. growth, you can look at it as two sides of a mountain range. Ideally we as a church should be centered on top of the peak, looking equally at each side. However, if you stray too far from the peak, it is easy to lose site of the other side entirely, allowing us to forget that the other even exists.
Just an interesting way to visualize the struggle to stay centered!
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As from a Methodist background from a strong evanglical group of Churches I have found there was a lot of salvation preaching but there wasn’t in the old days anything different to that. It has been in the past 5 or so years a change and preaching now covers a range of subjects and in these past few months we have been seen revival preaching and building up of the body.
I feel that now a days we need to make the preaching & teaching which is needed for those we are reaching. So this means we might have to run different styles and times, but not forgetting our members who have been there for years and their needs.