Change is good! New is good! Growth is good! It’s so nice to deal with abstractions.
In my last post I mentioned some forms of growth that aren’t very desirable. Cancer. The bloat of decomposition. In this post I’m going to go farther, and try to edge out of abstraction. As long as the United Methodist Church stays in the realm of abstraction, even abstractions with positive connotations, we will never recover our life.
Willimon know this. In his book he says,
Any leader who is guardian of an organization’s guiding purposes must be a big talked, relentlessly reiterating our core values. While the church is a frail, thoroughly human organization, it is not exclusively human. A bishop [and a pastor] must reiterate our theological identity as the Body of Christ. The Trinity not only determines the purposes of the church but also provides our agency to fulfill those purposes…. Of all the things needed in my churches, hardly a church has any problems that couldn’t be solved by having more people worshiping the Trinity.
Back in in the olden days, families used to do things like a Sunday afternoon drive. They’d pile into the car and just go. The whole point was being together and enjoying the scenery. With the high price of gas, our hyper-busy schedules, and our practices of being absent from each other even when physically together, we don’t do that any more.
The success of a Sunday afternoon drive was not measured in terms of a destination. We started at home and ended at home. We could go anywhere.
When we consider successful change in the church, we need to be thinking of something more than mere activity. We need to have two things in mind:
1. How is our action mapping onto what God is up to – through time and in our current world?
2. Is our manner of traveling in accord with the ways of Jesus?
I used to live in Houston. One of the highways that defines Houston is I-10. It’s a long highway. LA on one end, Jacksonville, Florida on the other. If you hop on I-10 in Houston, you can drive for days in either direction. You can pile up the miles. But however long you drive on I-10, you’ll never get to Dallas. I-10 doesn’t go to Dallas. If you want to go from Houston to Dallas, I-45 is a likely way to go. The experience of driving on I-45 and on I-10 is essentially the same. The scenery will be different, but the road surface will be easily recognizable. As a church, we need to not only do the equivalent of driving, but also do so on the road that takes us to the right destination.
The manner of our travel also matters. This is not just because it’s a bother to ride so far with fussy kids. As the driver, it’s not just my job to get to Dallas, but to get the whole family to Dallas. When we look at the church in the Book of Acts we see the story of growth. More and more people and more and more types of people come to faith in Jesus. They are added to the church. In the midst of the growth story (the “let’s go to Dallas” story), there’s also the “all people will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another.” As long as the “one another” are limited to the folks we choose (and we’re free to kick them out when the going gets tough), that might not be too hard. But when churches have healthy growth, that growth includes adding people who are obvious sinners, not just people who are moral, upstanding, and successful like us. Some of those added will rub us the wrong way. Some will be culturally and behaviorally distant from in of our visions of holiness. And here we are on the bus, on our way to Dallas, and Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you.”
As an individual follower of Christ, God has a vision for what I become. I know some of the details of that vision. I can make progress toward that goal; I can also wander aimlessly. I can seek buddy-ship with Jesus and try to take him where I want to go (like the Israelites took the Ark of the Covenant into battle, thinking their God-fetish would guarantee victory). I can change all day, every day, but if my change is not in accord with the particular change desired by Jesus, I’m missing out.
But if I’m a genuine follower of Christ, I’m not just an individual follower of Christ. I’m stuck with some other people. I know some of them. Some are more mature than I, others less so. God has a vision for what we become, where we go, together. We can change our institution(s) all day every day, but if our change is not in accord with the particular change desired by Jesus, we’re missing out.
In a stuck system, mere change for the sake of change can be a lifesaver. But we need to keep our eyes and hearts set on the particular changes that Jesus desires.