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A Future with Hope for The United Methodist Church
By Andrew C. Thompson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
DISCIPLESHIP : CHRISTIAN LIFE AND THE MEANS OF GRACE
Andrew C. Thompson
Most Christians don't have to be convinced that following Jesus should be at the center of the Christian faith. We can all agree with the basic idea. But what does "following Jesus" actually look like? Is it a matter of the head or of the heart? Or does it also have something to do with the day-to-day habits of our lives? Jesus said to his disciples, "Believe in God, believe also in me" (John 14:1). But when he called them, he also said, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people" (Mark 1:17). Jesus wanted a faith from his disciples that included their belief in him. But he also wanted a faith that involved their willingness to learn from him how to live a certain way.
The current generation of Jesus' followers in the church are restless, wanting to find a fuller way to unite their professed belief with their active discipleship. That's a good thing. All of us who would call ourselves followers of Jesus today must wrestle with what it means to both believe and follow. Discipleship requires nothing less. It's a real challenge, to be sure, particularly in our present culture. But it is a challenge that we can meet with confidence and hope.
The word disciple means "student" or "learner." Disciples are not born. They're made. And while Scripture affirms that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8), his disciples have lived in times and places radically different from one another over the past two thousand years. Learning is hard work, but it is worthwhile work when it's directed at some good end. The end of all our learning and training as Christians is life with God—the best end there could ever be! Because real, deep learning requires much, we need to be aware of the challenges we face in our world if we want authentic discipleship to take root in us. And so I want to suggest three things that are necessary for us to learn to follow Jesus in the present:
First, following Jesus is something other than living the easy consumer lifestyle to which most of us have become accustomed in this culture. It is a life made possible by grace, but it is also a life that requires a response of disciplined practice on our part. Second, following Jesus cannot be done individually but instead must be done together. When God calls us to faith in Jesus Christ, it is a calling that is always into the life of a Christian community. We call that community the church. Its purpose is not as an end in itself but is instead oriented at glorifying God, enabling our life with God to proceed by learning the skills necessary to follow Jesus, and witnessing to the redemptive work of God in the world.
And third, both the doctrine and practices of any particular church really do count. It is through these means that salvation can be known. In other words, the way a church teaches and acts makes a difference in whether it is forming its people into the way of faithful discipleship.
These three points allow us to begin imagining what following Jesus looks like for us. I won't argue that the United Methodist Church is more faithful than other Christian bodies. I think we need reformation and renewal of our church (and our own lives) as much as anyone. But I do want to show that we Methodists have the resources in our own tradition to provide a way for committed disciples of Jesus to live deeply committed lives in this day and age. Recent work on recovering the Wesleyan impetus to ministry and discipleship in the United Methodist Church has described early Methodist practice as a whole "way of life." Rather than accepting the thin version of church "participation" seen in many congregations today, our forebears understood that their faith was the overriding force in determining all their day-today habits and practices. So they committed to shaping their lives "in responding to Christ's call to discipleship, in cultivating their graciously-empowered growth as disciples, in supporting one another on this journey, and in serving as ambassadors of Christ inviting others into the journey." When we aren't distracted by the über-busyness of our lives, absorbed by conspicuous levels of consumption, and gripped by the techno gadgets that surround us, we can look at that statement with a great deal of longing.
We may know just enough of the Christian life to recognize that the first calling on the people called Methodists was a calling to something more true and more beautiful than anything we've seen in our own lives. Do we have it within us to hear a similar call? Do we have the resources such a life would require? To make that kind of life our kind of life?
I think we do. Let me explain.
CHURCH PLANTING IN SATELLITE CITY
As a pastor, I've been fortunate over the past few years to form a relationship with the Methodist Church of Peru. Ten years ago I was asked to help lead a group of college students on a trip to the Peruvian coastal city of Chincha Alta, and I keep finding myself drawn back there time and time again. A pastor there named Rev. Pedro Uchuya, who serves as district superintendent of the area, has become a close friend. On a recent trip with pastors and church members from congregations in North Carolina, my friend Pedro wanted to show our team a couple of new church starts near Chincha Alta that were helping to revitalize the energy for mission and evangelism in his district. Since church planting is a much-discussed topic among Methodists in the United States as well, I was eager to see what our Peruvian brothers and sisters were doing in that area.
Pastor Pedro carried us in three tiny taxis one afternoon from the Plaza de Armas in the center of Chincha Alta out of town and toward the foothills of the Andes Mountains. A half-hour ride took us off of the paved streets of Chincha and down an uneven, dusty road to an outlying area called Ciudad Satélite. The name literally means "Satellite City." It is a suburb of sorts—a satellite to the main town of Cincha Alta—but not a planned one. Satellite City started forming a few years ago when poor people from the mountains started migrating down to the coast in search of work. They camped on the outskirts of town, near factories that make clothing and other products for markets in countries like the United States. And a community began to emerge from the arid desert, using only the materials the people there were able to collect.
Satellite City is the kind of place that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. It existed for years with no electricity, clean water, or sewer system of any sort. Most of its houses are made out of a combination of cardboard, scrap metal, and discarded wood.
Even though it already numbered in the thousands, Satellite City got a big population bump after this region of Peru suffered a devastating earthquake in August of 2007. The 8.0 magnitude quake killed well over five hundred people and injured more than thirteen hundred. Most of the deaths were in the nearby city of Pisco, but the Chincha area itself saw more than sixteen thousand homes destroyed. A lot of the poorer residents of Chincha Alta left the unsafe concrete structures of the city in favor of more ramshackle (but safer) homes in Satellite City.
Satellite City is a tough place. Many people would see it as a disaster. Pastor Pedro sees it as a ministry field.
Our destination was a house church hosted in the residence of a young couple named Arturo and Kira. After brief introductions, we all went inside to meet the congregation. What we found inside was nothing short of remarkable. The church consisted of a couple of dozen children, several young women, and a handful of young men. Two of Pedro's protégés—men in their twenties named Obed and Carlos—travel regularly from other towns to teach and lead worship for the budding congregation. They led us that day in an hour or so of worship and fellowship that included prayer, singing, and Bible teaching. We then shared in a snack time filled with laughter and fellowship. The Methodist Church of the district is working to incorporate the house church into its ministerio de alimentación—a nutrition ministry to supplement the diet of local children with healthy, fresh food. As it teaches the young children about Jesus, it is forming a community where both bodies and souls are fed. In the midst of a place that is marked by the lack of many basic necessities, the little Methodist house church has become an outpost of the kingdom of God, an oasis in a desert where the poor in both body and spirit are being filled with God's abundance. Seeing it gave me the sense I was seeing the church as it should be.
Our experience in Satellite City was repeated the next morning at a second church plant in another area near Chincha, this time with even more children present. In a neighborhood called Keiko, a local pastor named Laura cares for a little flock with the help of young pastors-in-training like Obed and Carlos. This visit gave us another experience of laughter, singing, prayer, and fellowship. And as at Satellite City, the church in Keiko showed all the signs of a mission that is alive and growing. Pastor Laura's church exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to glorify God and bear faithful witness to Christ by gathering in a whole flock of little sheep, that they might be formed into mature disciples of Jesus through the practices of faith they are learning each day.
After visiting the churches in Satellite City and Keiko, I found myself asking the question, What could possibly account for such a thing? In a place where life can be hard, why is it that people like Pedro, Carlos, Obed, and Laura give their own lives to the work of gathering sheep into new flocks? Why do they go into the dusty suburbs where the forgotten people live?
How is it that these Methodist people in another land show such enormous faith in every aspect of their lives when those of us living comfortable lives in wealthier nations struggle so much to put faith into practice?
WHY ARE THERE METHODISTS AT ALL?
Answering that question requires that we look at what it means to see the Wesleyan way of discipleship as the guiding force in our lives and the church as the community where that discipleship happens.
When theologian Albert C. Outler was trying to make sense of the Methodist doctrine of the church in the early 1960s, he despaired at how disconnected American Methodism had become from its Wesleyan roots. Outler pointed to a "radical metamorphosis" undergone in Methodism in the twentieth century. He saw this shift as rejecting the evangelical mission of spreading scriptural holiness in favor of adopting a "big institution" model of church. Outler reflected at the time, "In America at least, Methodism is an 'established church' (in the sociological sense) in which the maintenance and expansion of the establishment has become an undeclinable prime duty for almost everyone associated with it." From his perspective in the years leading up to the 1968 union that formed the United Methodist Church, Outler saw an institution whose purpose for existing had become maintaining the institution.
I mention Outler's insight for one very important reason: people today simply aren't willing to support an institution whose sole reason for existence is the maintenance of the institution.
The frustration Outler felt more than forty years ago at the way Methodism had evolved has become a life-or-death issue for the United Methodist Church of the present. People today—and particularly the Generation Xers with whom I most identify—take a dim view of institutions that exist for their own sake. Now don't get me wrong: only a hardcore anarchist is anti-institution entirely. What people in the early twenty-first century are against is institutionalism. They want to see evidence that an institution exists for a larger purpose. And they certainly don't want to spend their time, energy, and resources supporting an institution whose mission is its own maintenance.
Recent calls throughout the UMC to move "from maintenance to mission" and "to make Methodism a movement again" are testament that such an anti-institutionalist attitude has become widespread in our church. I think that's completely understandable, and it might just give us the spark we need to imagine a more faithful way to be the church. It should at least cause us to recognize that institutionalism is about as far from the original Wesleyan understanding of Methodism's purpose as anyone could imagine.
John Wesley's belief in why God had raised up a people called Methodists was that they were called to save souls, to reform the larger church, and to spread scriptural holiness across the land. Those particular phrases call for a closer look into what Wesley and the early Methodists understood them to mean. But instead of just relating the history, I want to put them in terms of how we might lay claim to them in our own day. To be saved means to be inwardly and outwardly renewed by grace, coming over time to a full knowledge of God in Jesus Christ and the good news he has brought to the world. Salvation is not just a matter of belief, but also a matter of one's whole life. To reform the church means to follow the Holy Spirit's lead in making the church a place where such a salvation can be known and experienced. It assumes that the church needs to be reformed, of course. Finally, to spread scriptural holiness means, in the words of Scripture itself, to become holy as God is holy (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16). Holiness is a characteristic of life in Jesus Christ, and the spread of it is a gift we can offer to the world as his disciples. It's not sentimental, and it is certainly not just an inner reality. Wesley always spoke of holiness of heart and life because he believed that anyone who was truly being saved by grace would exhibit it both in the inward affections of the heart and the outward pattern of life. Holiness is the life defined by love of God and neighbor.
If you think very long about the all-encompassing nature of that Methodist raison d'être, you'll realize that it orients us in a certain direction. It is not the direction of maintaining an institution for its own sake. It is instead a direction that points to the astounding nature of God's love and the incredible gift of being chosen by such a God to receive that love and to be charged with sharing it with others. It's also a direction that points to activity, specifically the activity of responding to the grace of Jesus Christ in the practices of our collective lives.
The early Methodists accepted their mission, and it led them to preach and practice a robust gospel. They experienced the power of grace as they committed their lives to loving God and their neighbor through worship and ministry. They relished the opportunity to join together to walk the path of holiness, but they also compulsively sought out lost sheep to bring into the community of faith. They understood that their salvation was not something that waited on the other side of death but was instead a thing to be received in the present. So they agreed with Wesley himself, as he said, "By salvation I mean, not barely ... deliverance from hell, or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth." Perhaps most importantly, they understood that the offer of such a gift called for a response of their entire lives. Knowing that their sanctification was a process that happened over time as they were progressively renewed by grace, they practiced their faith.
Disciples are not born. They're made. The effective ingredient in making a disciple is grace, which means that it's really the Holy Spirit that makes disciples of Jesus. But the character of grace is such that the Spirit does not force us to follow Jesus against our will. God's love is not coercive. It is cooperative, and that means that learning to be a disciple takes practice. So if we believe the original calling still has purchase, we must decide if we are going to respond as well. We must decide if the Methodists of today are going to let their church keep maintaining itself (which is equivalent to letting it die—slowly) or if they are going to allow their lives to be given over to a greater purpose—God's own purpose—by practicing their faith as a whole way of life. If we'll say yes, then we'll find that God has given us the means by which we can do that practice. We call them the means of grace.
Excerpted from Generation Rising by Andrew C. Thompson. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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