Thomas J. Bickerton offers a way to move beyond all the discord to a hope-filled future by exploring how we can come together around what matters most so that the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes a vibrant part of our lives and witness. He says that fights, feuds, and uncertainties can distract us, leaving us ineffective and mired in mediocrity and decline; but focusing on what matters most causes our ministries to flourish and the church to become a relevant and vital presence in the community and world. With a warm and practical approach, he leads us on a journey of discernment, inviting us to explore:
- the spiritual problem at the heart of the issues we’re facing,
- three foundational reminders,
- guidelines for determining the essentials necessary to make disciples,
- a motto for working together in the midst of disagreement,
- and thoughts about the ultimate essential, love.
Each chapter includes practical stories of real people and churches who are attempting to stay centered on what matters most as they live out the calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Whether you read the book alone or as part of a group study, you will find the courage to say yes to the things that are worth fighting for and no to the fighting that so easily distracts us.
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What Are We Fighting For?
Coming Together Around What Matters Most
By Thomas J. Bickerton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2016 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
You don't have to be a United Methodist for very long before hearing the term annual conference, which refers to a regional body, an organizational unit, and a yearly meeting at which clergy and laity gather for worship, fellowship, and the business of the conference. Several years ago in a session of my home annual conference we were debating the issue of morale among our clergy and within our churches. The debate regarding the source of the problem and the potential solutions was quite animated. After listening closely to the various comments, our bishop, William Boyd Grove, made a simple statement to this effect: "Friends, what we have is not a morale problem. What we have is a spiritual problem." What happened in the hallways and at the water coolers after that session adjourned was quite amazing. One would have thought that he had suggested we start a church on Mars! He was accused of being out of touch, irrelevant, and uncaring. How dare he ignore the genuine issues raised and dismiss the prescriptions offered by simply saying that we had a "spiritual problem."
Why were the bishop's words so objectionable? Perhaps it had to do with the fact that, despite the simplicity of his statement, spiritual problems are not solved easily or quickly. Spiritual problems require intensive doses of prayer, study, reflection, and conversation in order to find the renewal that is needed and desired. Spiritual problems require confession and a willingness to be wrong. Similar to the bishop's assessment several years ago, I believe that at the heart of all of the issues we're debating as a church is a spiritual problem.
Why Do We Have a Spiritual Problem?
Though it is tempting to seek instant answers to complex problems, it is important for us to begin at the heart of the matter and work our way to discover carefully discerned answers to complex issues. Information in the twenty-first century may be just a Google search away, but the renewal and revival of the church will require much more intentionality if we are to determine what we are fighting for while avoiding the temptation to fight for things that are peripheral or nonessential to our core purpose or mission. I'd like to suggest five I's that can help us get to the heart of the matter and understand the causes of our spiritual problem. Some are things we need more of, while others are things we need to eliminate.
Today the world is right at our fingertips. With the click of a remote control, computer mouse, or smartphone we are instantly exposed to the sad and frightening realities of life in this world. Tension and anxiety can assault us, causing us to post a reactionary comment on social media that reveals our deep-seeded prejudices, biases, and fears. A downward spiral can begin and spin out of control right in front of us. One thing leads to another and, before we know it, we've created a groundswell of unwise and unwarranted tension and fear.
The same thing can happen in the church. Decisions made at a meeting are texted to others before the meeting ends, creating doubts about the focus of the church. More attention is given to a report indicating a decline in worship attendance, professions of faith, and baptisms than to what God is doing in and through faithful disciples. Meetings and other gatherings begin to look more like the local civic club than a spirit-led movement of the church. Small groups spend more time discussing politics than equipping participants to share their faith with others. Far more concerns are shared during prayer time than joys. Planning sessions focus on details surrounding the fellowship supper or church supplies rather than strategies for reaching and ministering to the community. People of all ages check their phones during the sermon rather than listening intently for a message of hope, inspiration, and instruction. Before long negativity, skepticism, apathy, and a lack of vision dominate the landscape, and we run the risk of saying and doing things that cause more harm than good. In a world where distractions and bad news are right at our fingertips, we must create and maintain a church that makes inspiration and spirituality a priority so that we may come together around what matters most.
In Walt Disney's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, an upbeat Pooh Bear greets his friend with a hearty, "Good morning, Christopher Robin!" An equally joyful reply is shared, "Oh, Good morning, Winnie the Pooh!" But Eeyore the pessimistic donkey quickly chimes in, "If it is a good morning, which I doubt." Spoken with a downtrodden drawl, Eeyore's negative comments temper the innocent joy and inspiration that flows so freely from the carefree Pooh Bear. Sadly, there are a number of Eeyores in the church today. They say things such as, "Oh dear, do we have to go to church again?" "Oh dear, I don't like the pastor." "Oh dear, the church is going down the tubes." Those downtrodden voices can so easily drown out the optimism, hope, or inspiration the church so desperately needs.
Who wants to attend a church filled with grumbling people and administrative discord when what's desired is a refuge from the storm, a message of hope, and meaningful fellowship among people who love and embrace others, warts and all? Who wants to associate with a denomination whose public witness at times suggests that we are more divided around certain issues than united in a passion to "reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land?" Who wants to be part of a church that often seems to have little good news to share and whose internal debates can potentially do more to tear down than to build up?
Our spiritual problem has something to do with a lack of inspiration. In a world filled with stories of terrorism, disease, fear, and violence, we need a refuge from the storm, a place where there is a word of hope, a feeling of joy, and a word of encouragement. Deep within my heart I believe we're all looking for a place where someone has the bold conviction to proclaim the hope that is greater than what we hear on the nightly news, a place where our precious energy and resources can be channeled into making the world a better place than it is today. Deep within my heart I long for such a place myself. We need to be inspired!
The younger generation has more to say about the subject of integration than some of us want to hear. Their fuss with today's church is that they sense a lack of connection between what we say and do on Sunday and how we live our lives Monday through Saturday. They remind us repeatedly that they do not want to associate with us if we cannot integrate the faith we proclaim into the manner in which we live.
One morning some years ago I was on my way to a nearby medical center to visit one of my church members who was having surgery. In order to get there I had to fight the early morning rush hour traffic on the interstate. As I drove along, I employed my self-imposed limit of not driving more than five miles over the speed limit. Not far down the road I encountered a semi-truck going slower than I was. I merged into the passing lane to make my way around the truck when, all of a sudden, I noticed in my rearview mirror a man who was obviously running late for work. With flashing lights and animated motions, the man attempted to get me to speed up so that he could get to his destination. Stubbornly, I maintained my speed and slowly passed the tractor-trailer. At that point, the impatient driver sped past me, giving me "the finger" in an obvious gesture of his unhappiness with my driving. To his great surprise, he realized in that moment that he had just given the finger to his pastor! The next Sunday morning, no one knew why he came to the altar to pray at the end of the service. But I knew why. And he knew why too.
This story is not just about the inevitabilities of life in the "fast lane." It has everything to do with integration. The man at the altar asked for forgiveness that day. On the days that followed, he began talking about something that was missing in his life. What he was hearing on Sunday wasn't how he was living on Monday. His rant on the interstate was being replicated in the way he was treating his colleagues, his family, and his friends. There was a lack of integration.
He knew there needed to be a change, an integration of faith with life. He started attending Bible study classes and asking more questions about how to live a Christ-like life. He eventually became a Bible study teacher, small group leader, and little league coach. He says, "My life changed the day I gave my pastor the finger!" It changed because he discovered and addressed the spiritual problem caused by a lack of integration.
When we in the church discover that there is a lack of integration between what we say we believe and how we practice our beliefs, and when we address that void with purpose and creativity, our public witness will once again have credibility.
Life has changed dramatically in the years since World War II. With each passing decade there have been countless discoveries and advancements. Yet in the midst of this progress, there also is a sense of loss among many — a nostalgic longing for life "the way it used to be." Much has been written about the unraveling of our public life and the fracturing of our communities since the advent of interstate highways, cable television, and the World Wide Web. Some of us recall a day when front porches were a place of social gathering and you knew your neighbor's name. We might say that progress is a two-sided coin. While we celebrate advancements, some of these same developments have introduced substantial challenges to the building of community and the fostering of meaningful relationships.
Today we are more connected than ever technologically, but we are more isolated from one another relationally. Many parents, who often are accused of being out of touch, wonder about the ill effects that smartphones and video games are having on their children's ability to build meaningful and lasting relationships. As I drive through housing developments in my town, I see beautiful houses but encounter few people. Occasionally I will see a runner or walker, but as I get closer their ear buds reveal that they are isolated in their own world.
Isolation limits the development of sustaining relationships and mentors, which is essential in the navigation of a complex world filled with diverse options and opinions. It breeds the idea that all that matters is what I believe and need. Isolation also limits compassion for the basic needs of my neighbor and the dire needs of the world. In addition to lessening appreciation for diversity, isolation is a contributing factor to many of the social ills we face today. When community is lacking, we often respond by conveniently interacting only with people who share our opinion.
The same thing is true within the church. Without the development of relationships, a presence of compassion, and a deep appreciation for one another, the church, like society, will unravel and fracture. At the heart of our spiritual problem is the issue of isolation. So, what can we do?
We overcome isolation when we create opportunities for relationship and community. We are blessed when we take the time necessary to interact with people of diverse opinions and cultures. Community is enhanced when we find ways to have civil conversation and discover the goodness within people who think and act differently than we do. When we do these things, we realize that diverse people with diverse opinions can indeed serve the same God with joy and meaning. To find spiritual wholeness, we must address the issue of isolation.
In 1986 I made my first trip to Africa, visiting Liberia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. When I was first approached about the opportunity to evaluate the mission projects our annual conference was supporting there, I was reluctant. My children were still in diapers, my church was just beginning to grow, and my perception was that global mission was the work of certain organizations, not me. Still, the opportunity continued to present itself and the funding was secured, so I accepted the invitation. What I did not realize was that this trip would change my life forever.
Over the next month we stopped at orphanages, schools, hospitals, clinics, leper colonies, and churches. At each stop, it was easy to see the poverty, hunger, and disease that the people were experiencing. In one school, the children gave up their only meal of the day so that we could eat. In a hospital, a sick patient offered a prayer for our safety. In a church, an elderly woman would not settle for anything less than offering her seat to a stranger who had come from a faraway country to visit her.
Everywhere we went we witnessed people who were poor on the surface but rich deep within. They had joy! In the hospitals, sick patients testified that they had little hope for their physical bodies but a deep belief that their spiritual bodies would reunite with God. People walked for miles to worship for hours with laughter, dancing, and singing. They had nothing to count on in their lives except a deep-seated faith in a God who would see them through. And as a result, they had joy!
With each stop I became increasingly aware of the contrast of our two cultures. I sat in the midst of people who had nothing materially but everything spiritually. I came from a place that had everything materially but struggled spiritually. We were rich in things but poor in spirit. They were poor in body, but their souls soared with joy! That simple revelation changed my life, including my whole approach to living as a Christian. It also opened my eyes to the spiritual problem of independence.
The spiritual problem of independence might be described as our desire to be in charge of our own destiny. We have been groomed by a culture that, in effect, says, "Get all you can, can all you get, and then sit on your can." We are groomed to acquire, preserve, and protect. We are taught to be financially independent. We're told that if we don't think for ourselves about ourselves, no one else will; that our securities are in the things we acquire and our self-worth is dependent upon the magnitude of those acquisitions.
I have been a part of the church since I was three days old. It is all that I have ever known. But what I encountered in Africa was a depth of spirituality that I had never before witnessed. It helped me understand more completely that dependence trumps independence any day. We need relationships with one another. More than that, we need a relationship with God. It is the only way to make it through the morass we call life.
In his teachings in Capernaum, Jesus said that if you want to be great, you have to be small. If you want to have it all, you have to give it all away. And if you want to be the best person God made you to be, you have to be a servant of all. That sacrificial mind-set creates a dependence on God to see us through the inevitable challenges that life produces. Our drive for independence tempts us to think otherwise and must be overcome if we are to come together around what matters most.
If we're honest, we must admit that sometimes we come to church to get our batteries charged. We can get a "charge" from all sorts of things: an inspiring sermon that helps us to think about how the Bible applies to our life; a heartfelt testimony from someone whose life was transformed by the presence of God; a friendly smile or encouraging word from someone at just the right time; the loving way that a mother or father cares for a child during worship; a children's sermon that resonates more powerfully than anything else during the service. In the moment, those inspirations calm our anxieties, energize our faith, and bless us with humbling reminders of what matters most.
But what happens next? What will we do with what we have been given? What will we do with that charged battery? The answer to that question has everything to do with invitation.
By faith we are called to dis-charge our full batteries in witness and invitation. When I was serving a church, I had no greater thrill than when parishioners would say to me, "Pastor, I'd like to introduce you to my new neighbors. They just moved in last week, and I invited them to join me today." They had dis-charged their battery by inviting others to join them on the faith journey. Our churches grow when we invite neighbors, coworkers, workout partners, and others to experience what we are experiencing in church. We make disciples when we see invitation as a necessary part of the ministry each of us is called to do.
Carla was a vital member of her church. She rarely missed worship and was a faithful participant in her women's circle. She raised meaningful questions during Bible study that helped everyone understand. Her friendly spirit and magnetic smile made everyone feel at home. But the best work she ever did for her church happened in the parking lot at the local superstore where she met Teresa.
Excerpted from What Are We Fighting For? by Thomas J. Bickerton. Copyright © 2016 Abingdon Press. 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
Introduction: What Matters Most 7
1 Getting to the Heart of the Matter 13
2 Three Reminders for the Journey 27
3 Discerning What Matters Most 47
4 Filling in the Blank with the Essentials 65
5 Paddling in the Same Canoe 89
6 Finishing with Love 117