Christian Social Innovation: Renewing Wesleyan Witness

Christian Social Innovation: Renewing Wesleyan Witness

by L Gregory Jones


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501825774
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 03/07/2016
Pages: 130
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

The Reverend Dr. L. Gregory Jones is the Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry and Dean at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. He previously served as Executive Vice President and Provost at Baylor University. Prior to that he was senior strategist for leadership education at Duke Divinity School where he served as senior strategist for the Fuqua-Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. A noted scholar, teacher, and church leader, he is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the acclaimed Embodying Forgiveness.

Read an Excerpt

Christian Social Innovation

Renewing Wesleyan Witness

By L. Gregory Jones

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2016 L. Gregory Jones
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5018-2578-1



Living with a Clear Sense of Purpose

Framing the Perspective

Many people know what they do, and even how they do it. Perhaps even more feel confident in who (and whose) they are. Christian social innovation depends on a clear and driving sense of purpose — the why.

Simon Sinek delivered a TED talk in 2009 that has been viewed more than twenty-five million times. It is called "Start with Why." He contends that most people and most organizations start with a rational explanation of what they do and how they do it. People are typically very clear about what they do, and often somewhat clear about how they do it. But they tend to be fuzziest about why they do what they do. The best leaders and organizations, Sinek argues, reverse that order: they are clearest about their purpose, their why, and that leads them to explain how they accomplish their purpose and what they do to further those accomplishments. The most innovative breakthroughs come from people and organizations that start with why.

Christian social innovation offers a distinctive vision of social innovation because, at our best, Christians have a very clear sense of purpose: to bear witness to the reign of God that was announced and embodied in Jesus Christ and is present now through the work of the Holy Spirit who is making all things new. Can you imagine a better rationale or a more comprehensive sense of purpose?

We actually should expect to see extraordinary Christian social innovation in the world, and should be surprised when we see unimaginative Christians. Sinek himself points to Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech on the mall in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963: 250,000 people showed up, less to hear a famous black preacher speak, and more because King was giving voice to a vision that expressed their own longings. They wanted to see a more hopeful, a more just, a more forgiving world come into being. And, as Sinek notes, King gave voice to that by saying "I have a dream" — not "I have a plan."

King was bearing witness to the Christian dream of a transformed creation, to an extraordinary imagination for God's reign and a plea that it would come in its fullness: a vision of when, as Revelation 21:1-5a illumines, "a new heaven and a new earth" appears where God will "wipe away every tear" from our eyes, a time when "death will be no more ... no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." King drew on the prophetic imagination of Amos 5, and traditions of black preachers evoking a time when young black children and young white children would walk hand in hand together. It wasn't so much that King had a dream that he developed on his own; he was recalling for millions of Americans a dream they had already glimpsed in stories about God and God's love. King articulated that dream in ways deeply resonant with people's longings.

King's dream of a transformed future recalls a beautiful prayer in Ephesians 3:18-21. The writer prays that we may "have the power to grasp love's width and length, height and depth, together with all believers" so that we will "be filled entirely with the fullness of God." The prayer concludes with these powerful words: "Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us; glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen."

If we are oriented toward the goal of comprehending, with our whole life — thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and actions — the fullness of God's work in Christ by the power of the Spirit, we are set on fire to dream extraordinary dreams for the world, ourselves, and our communities and institutions. God's power at work within us is able to accomplish "abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Eph 3:20-21 NRSV). I don't know about you, but I'd settle for God being able to accomplish all I could ask or imagine. But the End of God's reign goes well beyond that: Ephesians wants to stretch our imaginations to envision as much as possible of what God is doing — far beyond all I could ask or imagine — and to live into that vision improvisationally.

In so doing, we discover a beginning for social innovation rooted in a profound sense of hope. To be sure, we discover a new beginning, because we discover our need for forgiveness that can heal the brokenness of the past for the sake of transformed life in the future. That new beginning helps us also live into new forms of friendship with God and with others, where we discover that, as King put it, the content of our character matters far more than does the color of our skin or, we might add, any of the other markers that divide us from each other and lead us to violence, despair, or sometimes, just a cold indifference. We discover the power of the Holy Spirit who is making all things new.

Rediscovering Wesleyan Witness and Scriptural Imagination

* * *

The Wesleyan movement developed its momentum in eighteenth-century England by discovering the End as its new beginning. The early "Methodists," as followers of John and Charles Wesley came to be called, were people who anticipated God's reign. They were focused on the power of the Holy Spirit to nurture new life in people, churches, and other institutions.

The only requirement for joining one of the Wesleyan gatherings in eighteenth-century England was "a desire to flee the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins." This language still exists as a part of United Methodist doctrine, indeed constitutionally protected doctrine, in The Discipline under "The General Rules." The Wesleys did not create a list of requirements to become a part of the movement; they invited anyone who desired salvation with a focus on God's reign. Their invitation came as a form of blessing to people looking for signs of new life, even while knowing that the reality of sin and evil persisted.

The Wesleys were aware, though, of the importance of unlearning old habits of sin and brokenness and learning a new way of life. In this, they were people of hope. The Wesleys focused their teaching on the positive potential of human beings having been redeemed by Christ: the significance of "Christian perfection" as the goal of Christian life. But they were also acutely aware of the power of sin in human life, and expected people to gather in "class meetings" and "bands" every week to unlearn sin and learn holiness of heart and life. Forgiveness and friendship were crucial in shaping faithful Christian life and imagination (see more in chapter 3).

The Wesleys' focus on the End also led them to be imaginative and improvisational in renewing Christian community and developing new Christian institutions. Their "societies" were an innovation on the early Christian catechumenate and its focus on forming Christians.

Further, the Wesleys developed and encouraged experiments in such areas as education (especially the Kingswood School), publishing, health care, economic development, and prison reform. They recognized that new institutions were important in bearing witness to the good news of God's love in Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and to combating forces of sin and evil in the world.

A historian of the Methodist experience in America writing in the middle decades of the twentieth century entitled his study Organizing to Beat the Devil. At our best, Wesleyan Christians have been inspired to create and renovate institutions because of our passionate commitment to the End. Something crucial has been at stake. Inspired by a confidence in the triumph of God's reign, and a persistent awareness of the reality of sin and evil, American Methodists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries practiced Christian social innovation in quite remarkable ways.

Yet, in recent decades American Methodists, at least in those forms that reflect a primarily Anglo and established character, have lost much of our commitment to social innovation. A large part of our predicament is that we have lost our sense of the End. We have become preoccupied with the "what" and the "how" and have lost the power of "why": we have lost sight of the End.

Why have we lost our vision of the End? In part, we have done so because we inhabit the modern Western world, where in the latter part of the twentieth century and the early decades of the twenty-first we have assumed that we live in what philosopher Charles Taylor called "a secular age." Unlike the Wesleys (and most of our Christian forebears), current dominant Western assumptions take for granted that anything and everything can be explained without recourse to God. Ironically, Taylor suggests, even Christians tend to assume this.

This influential cultural trend has been intensified for establishment United Methodists. Over the last century, we increasingly identified ourselves with established cultural norms and thus didn't feel like we still had to ask ourselves about the "why" of our mission and purpose; we took it for granted. We were the denomination of established America.

We became preoccupied with questions of what and how without any awareness of the why. A contemporary commentator on our current plight might suggest that United Methodists are no longer organizing to beat the devil but rather organizing for the sake of organizing — a great definition of bureaucracy!

We now think and act as if we can restructure and reorganize ourselves into renewal. We complain about our lack of growth, we long for better leaders, and we develop nostalgia for the good old days. We cling to oldstyle methods of social advocacy and social service rather than having an identity and mission that would lead us to a new beginning: Christian social innovation shaped by the End.

While contemporary United Methodism needs to rediscover Wesleyan renewal, we also need to recognize that losing sight of the End is a recurring temptation for all of us in a fallen world. The challenge of discovering that the End is our beginning is one that not only United Methodism faces, nor only that Westerners face in a secular age: it is a recurring temptation that we all face in a world that continues to be marred by sin and brokenness.

The ancient Israelites faced this temptation to lose sight of the End and become preoccupied with survival in ways that divided people from each other when they were in the wilderness after the Exodus. The story is told in the book of Numbers.

At some point for the Israelites in the wilderness, it all became unhinged. There, in the wilderness, pain and suffering tore away the communal bonds that made endurance possible. The cumulative effect of the general conditions bears some blame, too, for the deterioration. Traveling miles on sand and rock, especially in the sweltering heat, can break even the strongest wills. These and the other devices of land and weather slowly carved themselves into the people, as if nature were some evil sculptor bent on a masterpiece. It chipped away a little, and then more, until a slight crevice ran down Israel's spine. A single doubt about what had caused their predicament turned into a single complaint; and complaining soon became Israel's norm.

Then the resources went. There was a little less to go around at mealtimes. The water sources diminished and became more brackish. The cattle thinned and so did the children's faces. It wasn't the first time they had had to go without, but it followed a long line of agonies — some great, some small — and all forming a gradual dissatisfaction with both the circumstances and with those who led them there.

At the edge of their destination, the complaints increased, the divisions intensified; the cracks in their collective identity and purpose grew deeper and more pronounced. They reached that internal limit where ultimate hope and purpose are overrun by the demands of daily survival. Such demands create a bitterness that requires the kind of satisfaction only a scapegoat can provide: "Why have you brought us into the desert to die, Moses?"

In the Hebrew biblical tradition, this book of the Bible is known as "In the Wilderness." Greek translators, noting the two censuses taken of the people of Israel (the first in chapter 1 and the second in chapter 26), called it "Arithmoi"' and the Latinists, "Numeri," until translation sucked the last bit of ancient whimsy from the name, leaving English-speakers with the rather uninspiring designation we have today: Numbers.

The name "Numbers" was not intended to stoke the fires of the imagination. No doubt few of us (if any) have wandered in the desert southeast of Palestine, either. But all of us know something about being "in the wilderness," of feeling lost or overwhelmed by the necessities of survival to the extent that we can't even lift our eyes to heaven, or recall the hope and purpose that anchors our identity. "In the Wilderness" communicates so much more than "Numbers." Being in the wilderness — an ancient or modern one — is a time of chaos, instability, uncertainty. We lose our way in the wilderness. We don't know where we're going or why we're going there. We lose sight of who we are and whose we are. That's Israel's situation in the story, and it's our situation today.

At God's calling, the Israelites follow Moses out of Egypt, through an inhospitable wilderness and toward the promise of an unseen land. When we meet them at the beginning of Numbers, they're tired and desperate, confused and annoyed. They're beginning to wonder why they left Egypt. Stuck in the wilderness, Israel faces a crisis of vision and leadership that forces them to come to terms with their identity and purpose as a people called by God.

In the midst of crisis Israel does what any modern-day career counselor tells a person who loses a job: get a routine. In the first ten chapters, there's the opening census when they take stock of themselves and try to get organized. They arrange how the tribes should relate to each other and what roles each tribe should have within Israel's collective life. They receive instructions for and attend to the construction of the Meeting Tent and its priestly functions. Among the debilitating chaos of the wilderness, Israel attempts to provide an order to its collective life.

In modern terms, we would call this "institution building." But Israel shows us that institution building is more than simple organizational management for the sake of bureaucratic efficiency. The census, the Meeting Tent instructions, the different roles of Israel's tribes and the rules they follow — together they are the structural embodiment of what it means to be Israel, to be a people made holy, to be a blessing to the world and a witness to Yahweh's reign. Institution building isn't a necessary evil; it is integral to their identity as a people; it is the structural pattern of who they are, and a sign of blessing. To be Israel means to be organized in just this way. Institution building is identity building.

Organized as they are, they face a crisis, and one that has a narrative pattern. David Stubbs, in his insightful commentary on Numbers, notices an X-like structure to the story (what biblical scholars call a chiastic structure) that begins in chapter 11, extends through chapter 21, and centers on the story of Moses sending out the twelve spies to scope out the land promised to Israel by Yahweh.

The narrative structure looks like this: In both 11:1-3 (A) and 21:4-9 (Aprime) Israel suffers misfortunes that lead to whining of a general sort. Preoccupied with themselves in destructive ways, the complaining intensifies in 11:4-34 (B) and 20:2-13 (B-prime) from general complaints to grumbling about necessities like food and water. In effect, Israel is saying, "We're stuck in the wilderness and we don't have the means to sustain ourselves."


Excerpted from Christian Social Innovation by L. Gregory Jones. Copyright © 2016 L. Gregory Jones. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


"INTRODUCTORY OVERVIEW" Rediscovering Christian Social Innovation,
"CHAPTER 1" The End Is Our Beginning: Living with a Clear Sense of Purpose,
"CHAPTER 2" Love Made Me an Inventor: Practicing Traditioned Innovation,
"CHAPTER 3" Cultivating Practical Wisdom: Forming Christians for Innovation,

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