Discipleship Teeth

From Gil Rendle’s newest book, Journey in the Wilderness:

Part of the current challenge for leaders in our mainline churches is the dual task of not only knowing what to do but also knowing what not to do, what to let go of…. Rarer is the radical, rooted shift in a global culture that prompts and requires a whole people to question their practices and enter a prolonged wilderness in search of their future way of life. Ours has been such an exodus, an escape (or perhaps an expulsion) from a constraining past in search of a promised, and findable, future.

If slavery in Egypt is that “constraining past” in the Exodus story, what is the constraining past in the United Methodist story? In what way does our current wilderness exemplify a real deliverance from it?

If I were to make this claim, I might point to our Constantinian assumptions as the “constraining past.” For most of our history American Methodism has been able to bask in and profit from our status as America’s denomination. We had cultural dominance, or so we thought. I think it would be better to say that we mirrored the culture so well, were so captive to it, that we were deceived into thinking we were dominant.

Now we know we’re not dominant. No longer does our society or culture think it needs our church – or any church – to sanction it or to serve as chaplain. Keeping Rendle’s use of the Exodus metaphor, though we’ve lost this apparent dominance, I don’t think we’ve given up on getting it back. I’m not saying we United Methodists are like the dominionists or others who seek to make this a Christian nation (again). We look down our noses at those folks. We still aim to mirror the culture – but the culture has changed. Now we seek to mirror the culture’s revulsion toward older Christian teachings vis-à-vis sexuality and economics. Some United Methodists, usually those labeled “liberal” think the sexual revolution largely got things right. Other United Methodists, usually those labeled “conservative,” think the libertarian revolution is going the right direction, that government needs to get off our backs and let us do as we choose with our own resources. In neither case are we interested in following Jesus in a counter-cultural way.

Rendle is right that we need to learn not only what to do but also what not to do. I see that in the congregations with which I am familiar. We have our mission statements, whether adopted on our own or taken from the denomination (“Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” sounds fine to me). But we give these statements no teeth. They provide an explanation of why we do what we do, but we don’t allow them to pare what we do. They are not given the bite necessary if we are going to stop doing some things. Surely not everything every church is currently doing actually is an expression of making disciples of Jesus, is it?

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